Editor’s note: The names of dancers and the strip clubs mentioned in this story were changed for the safety of our sources.
“The drive-thru strip club is f****** stupid. It’s an easy set-up for kidnapping,” said Myriah, a local stipper who has danced in Houston for seven years.
The parking lot of a Houston strip club has gained notoriety for being what has been dubbed the first “drive-thru strip club in Texas.” Some media outlets covered it for its ingenuity in the times of COVID-19, but dancers and experts view it as a sign of an industry desperate to survive.
Houston’s lesser-known underground economy is human trafficking, ranking #1 in the nation for cases related to the promotion of prostitution and trafficking of human persons, and the line between the strip club industry and the world of prostitution has blurred even more in the wake of the pandemic.
Reform Austin went inside a well-known strip club in Houston to find out what dancers think about the drive-thru fantasy at the feet of a deadly disease.
Palm trees along the side of a busy highway towered over a parking lot with the front lot full of customers’ cars. The cop at the door did not ask us for our temperature or to wear masks, and there was no hand sanitizer, like most businesses have.
Upon walking in, the person at the check-in counter was the only person wearing a mask while dancers and patrons were mask-free.
We met with a bartender who has worked there for two years, Aide, who fluttered between being interviewed and tending to customers’ requests.
“Honestly it’s been hella slow. We have our regulars that come in on a daily but it’s not as much as we were used to,” said Aide. “A lot of dancers haven’t been leaving with much, some actually leave home without making anything.”
Her eyes would look up at the door anytime someone walked in, and so did the rest of the club.
There were groups of four or more sitting at tables throwing money at a select few dancers while others waited attentively on chairs.
“For sure, for sure, Onlyfans has taken over,” said Aide. “We actually lost so many dancers since the pandemic started!”
She is referring to a content subscription service based in London that allows users to upload secure content only visible to their paying subscribers, or ‘fans.’
Kathryn Griffin-Griñan, a former prostitute who now works with Houston’s Precinct 1 Constable’s Office to rescue victims of human trafficking, echoed that online prostitution has come about because of the pandemic.
“They’re doing it through social media,” said Griffin. “You CashApp them — then bam! They perform for you from their homes.”
Griffin explained that many dancers have expressed that this online method is extremely favorable for them, because they do not have to be touched by customers and feel safer working.
Similarly, these are the same sentiments felt by other dancers who are working from the drive-thru strip club.
“The ones that were doing it were so happy that they didn’t have to be touched,” said Griffin. “They got their money and they literally got to go home without having intoxicated males or being offered illegal substances.”
However, Myriah said that this is a sign of desperation and is an easy way to get trafficked.
“They work with these pimps and sex traffickers,” said Myriah. “That’s why it’s so prominent here — why would they allow a drive-thru strip club? Because they’re making money off it, too. Everyone’s in on it.”
She said the strip club culture revolves heavily around the politics of pimping, too.
“If you have a pimp and you’re talking to another pimp’s girl it’s a disrespect with consequence,” said Myriah.
Adam Chaney from Elijah Rising, a recovery center for victims of human trafficking, nodded to Myriah’s comment indicating that the strip club culture is being openly supported.
“I think clearly when it comes to the media outlets, their willingness to run the story and to portray it the way that they did is an implicit statement of support and condoning it,” said Chaney.
Chaney explains that he sees the media trivializing an exploitative industry.
“It’s like they’re joking about it! The Chronicle here in Houston’s headline was ‘do you want glitter with that burger?’,” said Chaney. “Where’s that glitter coming from? A human body. Do you want a human body with your hamburger?”
In the strip club where we spoke to Aide, she handed a stack of one dollar bills to a customer when she said that she got kicked out of her parents house and working there was her way out.
“My sister-in-law helped me get a job at the club,” said Aide. “I started as a dancer but I hated it and felt safer behind the bar.”
One local dancer who did not want to be named said that this is a way out for many women, but it comes at a price.
“Whether it is to pay for college, support their kids, pay off debt, get out of a bad situation: we are all there for something,” said our source. “In my opinion, no girl necessarily ‘wants’ to be there or dreams of it. It gets physically and mentally exhausting and draining.”
Griffin weighed-in on how the pandemic has made stripping and prostitution a source of income for a younger crowd of girls.
“I’ve never seen it this busy,” said Griffin. “It’s not through coercion, it’s ‘I can’t stand this house anymore, I’m on social media, my friends telling me to come meet them up, we need some money.’”
With a focused demeanor Aide said, “I don’t want to be here forever. I eventually want to go back to school and get my real estate license.”
She spun around and counted money that she handed off to a dancer looking for change.
The club became busier as it got later, and Aide crossed her fingers for a busy night.