Texas Is Banning Exotic Dancers Younger than 21. They Say It Will Crush Their Livelihoods.

Some employees under 21 were let go in the middle of their shift after Gov. Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 315.
Carlos Sosa
Some employees under 21 were let go in the middle of their shift after Gov. Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 315.
Bambiana moved to Texas and became an exotic dancer hoping to pay for college. The 20-year-old said learning the ropes has been tough. “As an exotic dancer you are in charge of yourself,” said Bambiana, who spoke to the Observer on the condition that she could use a pseudonym.

“You learn to network, invest in yourself, create discipline, etc.," she said. "Along the way, it's difficult some days to make yourself get up and go dance. After that, you become much more accustomed.”

Even though business was slow and some guys didn’t like the masks, she was still danced throughout the pandemic to make ends meet. But she was let go last month after Gov. Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 315, which raised the age restriction for employees at adult entertainment venues in Texas from 18 to 21.

“It's been a mess,” Bambiana said. “I woke up expecting to work Thursday through Sunday so that I could pay rent and the rest would go to savings for college and more.”

Now, she's scrambling to find ways to pay her bills. While she won’t turn to illegal methods to make cash, Bambiana worries that younger workers might do just that. She’s looking for employment, “but with the job market being flooded now with women desperate for work, it's going to be difficult,” she said.

She had some money saved, just not enough to cover all her bills. Still, she’s luckier than some. Her 21st birthday is in July. The plan now is to survive until her birthday and go right back to dancing, “which is most girls' current plans,” she said.

"You get a drink when you get to work. Nobody asks you how old you are." - Nissi Hamilton, former exotic dancer

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The people who advocated for the new age restriction include Nissi Hamilton and Jessica Wesley, two former dancers. Hamilton is also a human-trafficking survivor. They testified to state lawmakers in April that minors at these venues are given drugs and alcohol. “You get a drink when you get to work. Nobody asks you how old you are,” Hamilton said.

This hasn’t been Bambiana’s experience. “They make it out that the managers and dancers just let you leave the club wasted,” she said. “I've seen a younger dancer drunk before. I came into the dressing room, and while I was finishing getting into my work outfit, she stumbled in. A manager fired her for drinking underage, but before she left, they made sure she had a safe ride home.”

She added, “If an 18-year-old can get drinks in a club, she can get them outside of the club.”

SB 315 was authored by state Sen. Joan Huffman, who didn’t respond to requests for comment. Three other bills had the same goal in mind. State Rep. Shawn Thierry is the main author of House Bill 1655, a companion to SB 315.

She testified that the change is intended to “fight the scourge of human trafficking, and this is one more tool in the toolkit to protect our vulnerable youth. ... Our laws are a reflection of values and this should be our values.”

The attorney general’s office also testified in a House Committee that raising the age requirement would help law enforcement identify the trafficking of minors.

A local exotic dancer who only wished to be identified as Jane Doe said she's 23 now, but has been working in the industry since she was 18. "If this had happened when I was 18, I would not be in the financial position that I'm in right now," she said. "I wouldn't have been able to pay off my student loans, my medical loans, my car loans, move out on my own, take care of myself financially, take care of my family."

She said she knows plenty of people who just signed a lease or got on a payment plan for a car who are now "financially fucked over" because they were let go from their jobs. Some of them were let go in the middle of their shift. "They immediately had to get dressed back out and leave," she said. Some will turn to the pay website Only Fans, she said, but making money there isn't as easy as it seems.

Doe said if lawmakers were concerned about human trafficking, plenty of organizations work to inform people of the red flags in the industry. "They could have required a class on that before you're able to dance," she said.

If they were concerned about underage drinking, lawmakers could have required under-21 dancers to take a breath test for alcohol. "There were definitely informative ways to get around this if their concerns were sex trafficking and underage drinking," she said. "But banning is not going to stop any of the things they thought it would stop."