It’s always interesting to see what public servants will do when they’re on their way out.
On October 3, District Court Judge Michael Peden, who retires from the bench at the end of the year, signed two injunctions aimed directly at how strip clubs conduct business. The judge’s injunction sought to ensure the clubs were “specifically restrained from allowing individuals to appear in a state of total nudity.”
Lawyer Jim Deegear, representing all-nude clubs XTC and Paradise, told the San Antonio Express-News at the time that he doesn’t expect the injunction to hold up in appeals court, but that, for now, “The cautious thing to do is to follow the order.”
It was the latest volley in seven years of “display ordinances” levied by the city against San Antonio’s prosperous naked club scene. It started in April 2003 with an order forbidding exotic dancers from being fully nude while performing and from coming into physical contact with patrons. Additionally, the ’03 ordinance levied annual fees on dancers, managers, and club owners. Each was required to pay $50, $100, and $375, respectively, and all needed to register with the San Antonio Police Department. The fines and regulations were meant to curb what the San Antonio City Council deemed “negative secondary effects” of the strip club industry. In the seven years since its passage, the Human Display Ordinance has undergone sometimes broadly redundant, sometimes more meticulous revisions. The “no touch” rule eventually became a “three feet” rule. ID badges for dancers became required gear.
Deegear, currently representing eight other strip clubs in court, called the negative secondary effects and the data associated with them bogus. According to the city, there are four major problems propagated by the existence of strip clubs: an increase in drug use, a decrease in property values, an increase in prostitution, and an increase in certain health problems. Over a burger at Fatso’s Sports garden, Deegear elaborated.
“`They’re` relying on old, generalized data that applies to a variety of sexual businesses (not just strip clubs) and using it against them,” he said, sounding not unlike Gregory Peck from the 1962 film To Kill A
For example, in order to prove that strip clubs are a place where the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease is higher than anywhere else, the city consulted anecdotal evidence from police officers regarding what they’ve heard about the contraction of STDs in strip clubs, he said. They have yet to consult a formal study and, furthermore, the action that would allow STD contraction in a club (sex via prostitution) is already prevented by law, Deegear said. No further legislation is required, he said.
Drug use/exchange and prostitution occur no more frequently than at regular music venues in San Antonio, Deegear added. All a patron needs is money and a general disregard for the law. “`Meanwhile` modern `strip` clubs are a large financial investment for those who make them,” he added. “The evidence will actually show that surrounding property values will go up.”
So if the secondary effects are non-issues, what is the inferred purpose of the city’s actions?
“It’s to drive the clubs out of the city because certain people have morality problems with clubs,” Deegear said. “No one is going to … say, ‘I love strip clubs and the people in them should have a lot of rights.’ It’s much easier for a city councilman to cave to `club opponents` because there’s no constituency that supports strip clubs.”
Former club DJ Frank Paul (not his real name) began work in 1996. He worked Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m.-7 p.m. and earned $65,000 annually for about seven years. He worked all day, partied all night, and sometimes partied all day at work. He told his extended family that he was a telemarketer on commission. Friends were sometimes skeptical when he produced $200 bottles of tequila as Christmas gifts, but he just told them that he was good at what he did for a living. Which wasn’t a lie. “At that age, I had no car payment, no wife, no kids,” he waxed nostalgically, sitting with me at The Venue off Lexington and Euclid (now Woody’s).
In dandy fashion, he played dumb when some dancers came to chat with us. “This is my first time in a place like this,” he said.
Paul considered the strip club an honest living. A DJ could make a small salary from some clubs, but the bulk of the money came from dancer tip out, which is entirely based on goodwill and mutual respect. Paul would talk up his dancers on the PA system while cueing their favorite music, hoping to create an environment where the girls felt like they weren’t working and visitors felt like they were on vacation. A DJ earning his keep could expect to make $10-$25 from each dancer per night. On the busiest nights, Paul worked with as many as 20 girls.
But the strip club life wasn’t without its problems, he said. The mainstream rise of R&B and hip-hop drove out the older white men (the biggest spenders) as the roaring 90’s wound down. Plus, the dancers were prone to domestic problems — drugs, drama, abusive spouses — or just the self-importance associated with being entertainers. When the decade was ready to wake up to its millennial hangover, the city’s market was already becoming oversaturated. In 2000, shadier clubs started catering to dancers who were fired by the stricter businesses and offering discounted table and lap dances. They were selling a diluted product, said Paul, but those problems were nothing compared to the 2003 ordinance.
Paul called the scene that followed the Human Display Ordinance “a ghost town” thanks to the elimination of nude lap dances. Business picked up again, however, after clubs found ways around it. Dancers started covering their breasts with transparent latex film (so they still looked and felt nude) and wearing string bikini bottoms or thongs. Since 2003, many clubs have been in and out of court battling individual citations and updates to the original law. Combined with some bad business dealings and a struggling economy, it became much harder to make money, Paul said. In 2004, he became a personal trainer.
On Monday night, I met with Stephen Wing, a DJ at Sugar’s off 410 near Vance Jackson. He confessed to making “much less” than what Paul says he made in the 1990’s, but maintained that it’s still “enough for my car, house, and kids.”
When asked about a decline in business over the last decade, he maintained that, actually, business — even with the recession, perhaps because of it — was great. He credited Sugar’s high-quality yet affordable experience. “San Antonio loves their deals,” Wing said. Looking around, it appeared obvious. You’d think 8 p.m. on Monday at a strip club would be dead, but 10 dancers were working and having no trouble getting patron attention.
Which raised the question: if the clubs aren’t going to comply with the ordinance, the city isn’t going to produce more compelling evidence of negative “secondary effects,” and citizens are going to continue visiting clubs, why the need for a revolving door of laws that clubs find ways around? You might also wonder who cares about sex workers going broke after making respectable money for so long?
People who think it’s about the money are missing the point, Deegear said.
“You’re never going to completely regulate a topless club because, at some point, you’ll be running into federal law,” he said. “`Also` the freedoms that you and I take for granted … those cases are made usually at the fringe of society. In the case of the clubs, dance expression is one of the things protected, however marginally, by the Constitution. We fought wars over this.”
Deegear said he has filed a request for a new trial over Peden’s decision, and that if that is rejected he is prepared to appeal. •