The Federal Government Is Reluctantly Teaming Up With Strip Clubs To Fight Sex Trafficking


Photo: Shot4Shot via flickr

Two years ago, it came to Michael Ocello’s attention that a lot of people thought strip clubs were really “feeder” businesses for adult human trafficking.”It was this hot topic and strip clubs were always associated with it,” he told us. “You hear it once and it becomes a story, then it becomes the truth. From our perspective, that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

So Ocello, an active duty police officer, established a donation-based organisation called The Association of Club Executives, or ACE National, and they approached the government to figure out how to put an end to the stigma.

But the Department of Homeland Security wasn’t too excited about a collaboration with a bunch of strip club owners so ACE decided to form their own human trafficking awareness program instead of joining the Fed’s Blue Campaign, which teaches law enforcement officers how to recognise human trafficking activities.

The result was a program called COAST, or club operators against sex trafficking. The government eventually gave in.

“They came to us” says Angelina Spencer, executive director of ACE National. “Basically they said, ‘This comes down to saving a victim. We’re not saying we’re a friend of yours, but we want to save lives.‘”

Charles Bass, a strip club owner, agrees: “It’s the mentality — adult nightclubs are considered at high risk. I mean, we pay the highest percentage in credit card transaction charges. We’re a multi-million dollar industry, but we can’t get vendors to deal with us.”

In February 2011, the first COAST class was taught by ICE agents and NGOs. Currently, they’ve trained more 1,100 people and offer training programs across the nation. The clubs are picking up the costs.

The program focuses on training members on how to recognise human trafficking indicators, such as signs of abuse, coercion or ID fraud.

Denver, a stripper from New Jersey, remembers when the situation was bad. She told us vans used to come pick up the girls from the club at the end of the night. In the dressing rooms, girls would inform one another that they had to hand over anywhere between $60 to $200 every night — most likely to pay off smuggling fees. Most of them tended to be Russian.

“We want to be a part of the solution instead of the problem. There’s a lot of people out there who don’t understand our clubs,” Ocello says. “There are approximately 3,200 strip clubs across the U.S. and there’s only half a dozen cases that’s touched our nightclubs.”

Spencer agrees: “Human trafficking isn’t a strip club issue, it’s a U.S. problem. In this industry, it’s like we’re damned if we do and we’re damned if we don’t. I don’t really care if a victim works in a nail salon or a club, they’re still victims.”

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