In Texas, Exotic Dancer Under 21 Sues Ken Paxton to Get Her Job Back

Senate Bill 315 doesn't just target exotic dancers under 21 years old. It applies to all job positions at "sexually oriented business."
Senate Bill 315 doesn't just target exotic dancers under 21 years old. It applies to all job positions at "sexually oriented business." Jacob Vaughn
Not long after Amada Man turned 18 last August, she started working as an exotic dancer at a club in Dallas. Without friends or family to help her get by, she had to find a way to support herself. She enjoyed the work and appreciated the flexible schedule and earning potential. She made enough to cover all her bills and save up to pay her way through beauty school.

But a few months ago, she started hearing rumors about a law that would make it illegal for her to work as a dancer in Texas because she’s under 21. She later found out this wasn’t a rumor. What she was hearing about was Senate Bill 315.

Gov. Greg Abbott signed the bill in May, which raised the age restriction for employees at sexually oriented businesses in Texas from 18 to 21. Some were let go in the middle of their shifts as Abbott signed the bill into law.

Now, Man is out of a job and forced to deplete her savings to stay afloat. She’s considered working in other states that haven’t criminalized her work because of her age. In the meantime, though, she and several others are suing Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and Ed Serna, the executive director of the Texas Workforce Commission. In their lawsuit, Man and the others argue SB 315 is unconstitutional.

Neither Paxton’s or Serna’s offices responded to requests for comment.

Wallace & Allen LLP, a Houston-based law firm, is representing the plaintiffs: Dallas County residents Man, Felix Valadez and Abigail Reyes; Ector County resident Luis Carrizoza; and the nonprofit Texas Entertainment Association Inc. The nonprofit represents scores of adult cabarets in the state that feature various forms of entertainment, including exotic dancing and music.

“Our position is that the First Amendment protects expression, including expression that’s delivered in the course of one’s work,” said William King, a Wallace & Allen attorney. “Obviously, if one cannot work in an expressive capacity, the First Amendment right has been infringed.”

On top of that, King said, this law infringes upon the due process clause in the 14th Amendment. “The Supreme Court for, I think, about the past 120 years, has recognized that Americans have something called an occupational liberty interest,” King explained. “That is the right to choose one’s lawful occupation and the right to earn a living. The government cannot arbitrarily infringe on that right.”

This isn’t to say the government can’t impose certain restrictions, like requiring certificates or licenses for certain jobs. “But that’s not this case,” King said.

When you turn 18 in Texas, you’re free to buy lottery tickets. You can get married, sell alcohol, enter into contracts, cast a ballot and fight and die for the country. If you commit a capital crime, you can be sentenced to death.

“With SB 315, the state is saying, ‘OK, you’re an adult for virtually every other purpose that’s out there except when it comes to your choice of work,’” King said. “When it comes to your choice of work, the state is going to basically retroactively infantilize you and treat you like a child.”

SB 315 was authored by state Sen. Joan Huffman. Three other bills had the same goal. State Rep. Shawn Thierry is the main author of House Bill 1655, a companion to SB 315. The idea was for the bill to act as another tool to “fight the scourge of human trafficking,” Thierry said.

“When it comes to your choice of work, the state is going to basically retroactively infantilize you and treat you like a child.” William King, Wallace & Allen, LLP

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Others who advocated for the new age restriction include Nissi Hamilton and Jessica Wesley, two former dancers. Hamilton, who is also a sex trafficking survivor, and Wesley testified to state lawmakers 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.

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.

The lawsuit dismisses that line of argument, though. “No one coerced, forced, or pressured Ms. Man to work as an exotic dancer,” the complaint reads. “She does not believe that working as a dancer has made her any more susceptible to becoming a victim of the criminal element.”

While this bill was presented as a way to combat human trafficking and protect young adults from sexual exploitation, it doesn’t really address this issue, the lawsuit argues. “SB 315 bears no rational relationship to its purported objectives and flies in the face of common sense,” the attorneys argue in court filings.

If lawmakers wanted to do something about human and sex trafficking, King said, they could have required sexually oriented business employees to take courses on how to prevent and spot these crimes. Take, for example, how the Texas Alcoholic Beverage commission requires people to get certified before being allowed to serve alcohol.

Instead, this bill deprives regular people “of their occupational, associational and expressive liberties secured to them under the state and federal constitutions,” according to the lawsuit.

And the law doesn’t only apply to exotic dancers. It prohibits these businesses from hiring people under 21 for any position, including cashiers, valets, bartenders, waitresses, janitors, security guards, secretaries and DJs.

Felix Valadez and Abby Reyes were both born in 2002. After turning 18 last year, they both began working as clerks at an adult bookstore. They’d sell adult magazines, videos, erotica and “novelty” items. Their jobs primarily consisted of answering customer questions, helping them find certain items and restocking inventory.

Under SB 315, the store is considered a sexually oriented business. The two clerks now worry they’ll lose their jobs.

Carrizoza worked as a bouncer at a strip club in Odessa. He’d greet people at the door, sit them at their tables and make sure they didn’t get too rowdy throughout the night. He also got paid to help distribute promotional material around town.

After SB 315 was signed, he and the rest of the under 21 staff were let go. Luckily, Carrizoza was able to land a job with a security agency, which stationed him at the club where he used to work. Still, he's unsure if this will come with its own set of legal problems. In any case, he'd prefer to return to working directly for the club.

The Texas Entertainment Association had to terminate droves of young women and men under 21 after Abbott signed the bill.

King's unsure of the timeline on the lawsuit. The lawyers requested a preliminary injunction, which would have allowed those between 18 and 20 to continue working in sexually oriented businesses until the lawsuit is settled, but the request was denied. It’s a complicated lawsuit, he said, so they’re taking their time to determine the next move. He’s worried about his clients and others affected by SB 315 in the meantime.

“These women who have decided for themselves to become dancers, how are they going to pay their rent?” King asked. “A lot of women that are performance dancers, they’ve got kids. They’ve got older parents to take care of. They’re dependent on themselves. I think it’s just terrible that the way they chose to make a livelihood was taken away from them without any notice whatsoever.”
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Jacob Vaughn, a former Brookhaven College journalism student, has written for the Observer since 2018, first as clubs editor. More recently, he's been in the news section as a staff writer covering City Hall, the Dallas Police Department and whatever else editors throw his way.
Contact: Jacob Vaughn