The women wear blue jeans, walking shoes and nondescript sweaters, and even without Mardi Gras beads around their necks they easily blend in among their fellow Bourbon Street tourists.
Overhead are century-old, wrought-iron balconies juxtaposed with 21st-century neon signs marketing strip clubs.
Bourbon Street is what it is – known internationally as ground zero in New Orleans for more than a dozen strip clubs, euphemistically labeled as “adult live entertainment venues.”
What draws Debbie Shinskie, the respect life coordinator of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, and three other women from the archdiocese to Bourbon Street once a month is their pro-life mission to see what is hiding in plain sight and to offer prayers and support to the women who have become the street’s victims.
“When they say, ‘Evil hidden in plain sight,’ when you open your eyes and look for it, you’re astounded,” said Jennifer Drouant, assistant principal of St. Mary’s Dominican High School and a parishioner of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Destrehan. “You can’t go two steps without seeing somebody you suspect or could very clearly see is in trouble.”
Taking it to the streets
In December, Shinskie, Drouant and Susan de Boisblanc, a theology teacher at Jesuit High School and a parishioner of St. Dominic Parish in New Orleans, walked Bourbon Street to fulfill their personal ministry of presence.
The four-person street outreach – Sister of Mount Carmel Mary Ellen Wheelahan, the archdiocese’s safe environment coordinator, is a fourth member of the team – started in November as a response to a 2015 presentation on “predatory relationships, sexual and human trafficking and forced abortion” by Cindy Collins at the National Right to Life Convention in New Orleans.
In her presentation, which Shinskie attended, Collins spoke chillingly about her own ministry to the women in Bourbon Street clubs who shed their clothes and dance for the paying customers. It gets worse, of course. In October 2015, a sting investigation by state officials discovered nine out of the 14 Bourbon Street strip clubs were dealing in prostitution or illegal drugs.
Lap dances that sell for $40 in open areas of the clubs were being sold for $350 in the private and closed-off “VIP” rooms, said Jim Kelly, executive director of Covenant House New Orleans, who led the charge to have the City Council raise the minimum age of Bourbon Street dancers from 18 to 21.
“If a lap dance is $40, what are you paying $350 for?” Kelly said. “Over 50 percent of the NOPD’s vice arrests are in the first five blocks of Bourbon Street. Polaris (a nonprofit agency that combats modern-day slavery and human trafficking) considers New Orleans a major hub for human sex trafficking. The Asian massage parlors are very dangerous, and women are absolutely being exploited.
Exploitation of women
“Let’s be very clear,” Kelly added. “This is all about money and greed, whether it’s the strip clubs or the massage parlors. This is all at the expense of women.”
Back in 1986, Collins started a ministry to women who had been sexually abused, who were in crisis pregnancies or who had been pressured into abortion. In 2009, she made three trips to India and saw girls as young 5 or 6 years old who had been sold into sexual slavery or abandoned by their families.
“My journey was one of obedience to the Lord, because he was calling me through prayer to serve the ones who were crying out to him and who needed to know there was a way out and that they were not forgotten,” Collins said.
Shortly after she returned from India – and only a few years after Katrina – Collins witnessed a large number of battered women coming to her pro-life pregnancy center in Slidell.
“They came in bruised – black and blue – and they were asking for their pregnancy tests,” Collins said. “Some of these women worked down on Bourbon Street, and I knew that was where the Lord wanted me to go.”
Working in tandem with the New Orleans Dream Center, Collins began walking Bourbon Street and slowly building relationships with club staffers, even going inside the clubs to offer dancers small gift bags, toiletries and information on medical resources.
“It would depend on each particular club,” Collins said. “We would be able to go on most occasions while the club was open and the girls were working, as long as we showed respect. Bourbon Street is a hard place to work. Sometimes a woman doesn’t know that she is under duress because of the trauma or the abuse she’s gone through. There have been young women down here who have made a lot of money and they feel this is something they can control – they can go in and get out – but from my experience, for many young women, it is hard to get away from that lifestyle.”
Shinskie said because the archdiocesan outreach is so new, it thus far has been limited to the team members walking the street, praying and then being available to any woman who may want to talk. The group carries business cards with information on the Daughters of Charity Health Services, Covenant House, the Harry Tompson Center for the homeless and Rachel’s Vineyard post-abortion ministry.
“We do these walks to pray and not necessarily to interact,” Shinskie said. “We are there, and if God wants to use us, we’re OK with that. If there is any door opening for the Holy Spirit, we are there.”
“This is almost completely out of my comfort zone – I like to pray,” Drouant said, recalling her initial internal struggle about getting personally involved. “I was thinking, ‘I’ll pray for you guys at our little adoration chapel.’ But once I went out there, everything fell into place. This was definitely something I felt comfortable doing.”
Not just the strip clubs
The team doesn’t concentrate solely on the flashy clubs.
“We were chit-chatting to fit in and get our bearings, and all of a sudden we looked to our right,” Drouant said. “We saw this one girl who clearly, in a way, fit in, but in another way, did not fit in. She was just hanging out, in between two doors, going into the daiquiri shop. She was constantly checking her phone. Once you saw that, it clicked what she was doing. At the next set of doors, there was somebody else doing the same thing. There were men across the street, standing there, not to have a good time, who seemed to be monitoring the crowd.”
On one of their walks, a woman who said she had just started dancing in one of the clubs – she was new in town – asked where she might go for lodging.
“Somebody had taken her shoes and she had a bag of things in a puddle,” Drouant said. “It was rainy and nasty. She just kept us engaged and kept talking. She asked us to hang out with her, and as we were trying to give her information to go to the shelter, she started trying to target people around her and be provocative to men. She probably was not quite in her right state of mind. But she also showed us this book that she had all wrapped up with a ribbon around it. It was something really special to her. Never once did she ask us for anything.”
Shinskie said parents need to realize that human trafficking is not something restricted to developing countries.
“Eighty-three percent of trafficking victims in the United States are American citizens, and half the trafficking victims in the U.S. are minors,” she said. “A lot of people think it happens only in Third World countries or to very impoverished people. The reality is it knows no borders, and our children can be lured into this. The traffickers want a healthy, young person, for obvious reasons.”
Through their work in their respective Catholic high schools, Drouant and de Boisblanc understand how insidious the grooming and recruitment process can be for young victims, who often open up their lives on social media and can become easy targets to predators.
“You see some of the stories about how girls can get sucked in,” de Boisblanc said. “Once your picture is out there, you pretty much can be blackmailed into anything. You can be trapped into trafficking without even knowing it.”
Drouant said Dominican makes a concerted effort to discuss the reality and the dangers of human trafficking.
“It terrifies me because I have a 10-year-old daughter, and I know our girls at (Dominican) and my own daughter are their prime targets,” Drouant said. “There are predators online who know how to talk to young people and lure them away. Teenagers and young people think they can tell when someone is manipulating them, but they can’t.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
INTERNATIONAL DAY OF PRAYER AND AWARENESS FOR HUMAN TRAFFICKING ON FEB. 8;
WEBSITE WITH INFORMATION ON HOW TO SPOT HUMAN TRAFFICKING
➤ The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is sponsoring an International Day of Prayer and Awareness for Human Trafficking on Feb. 8.
➤ Also on Feb. 8, the archdiocesan Respect Life Office is sponsoring a Day of Social Media Silence to bring awareness to the crime of human trafficking locally, nationally and globally. Traffickers primarily use social media to entrap victims; therefore, all social media accounts of the Archdiocese of New Orleans will go silent from 12:01 a.m. to 11:59 p.m. on Feb. 8.
➤ The Respect Life Office is preparing a video on human trafficking that includes interviews with Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey, and Archbishop Gregory Aymond. The video will be released in connection with the day of awareness.
➤ Debbie Shinskie can be reached at email@example.com.
➤ Cindy Collins says anyone who suspects a person is a victim of human trafficking should call the National Human Trafficking Hotline – (888) 373-7888 – or text 233733 (“be free”). All information is anonymous. Collins can be contacted through her website, speakhope.net.
➤ Signs of trafficking: Go to polarisproject.org/recognize-signs.