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The Lap Dance Revolution: the stripping down of logic and the taming of the wild west

Old 04-22-2003, 03:58 PM
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Angry The Lap Dance Revolution: the stripping down of logic and the taming of the wild west

What I saw at the Lap Dance Revolution

An arrogant commission, the stripping down of logic and the taming of the wild west

By Richard Abowitz

On July 31, as I arrived at the now infamous Clark County Liquor and Gaming Commission hearing on a new lap-dancing ordinance, my entire image of the board came from a single scene in "Casino": Robert De Niro getting railroaded by the commission because he pisses off a local cowboy. (It turns out that I knew even less than I thought since it was the Nevada Gaming Commission in the movie, but I guess that's what happens when you get your political understanding from Hollywood.) I never in my life thought that I would address the Clark County Commission about lap dances. In fact, due to my fear of public speaking and lack of strong convictions on almost every political subject, I never thought I'd testify to anyone about anything at all.

I went to the hearing for a good laugh and to enjoy watching prudishness getting stomped by Nevada's libertarian tradition. But that wasn't what happened. By the time I got there, Metro had already presented the videotaped results of its 18-month investigation of adult clubs and bars. On an audiotape of what I missed, there is much hand-wringing among the commissioners about the public and themselves being exposed to the filth revealed on the tape. But for the good of all, the commissioners decide to take one for the team and watch the undercover videos of the lewd acts. The commissioners watched the tape on special monitors while an officer narrated the offenses."Now we will see an entertainer who is very aggressive with her grinding motion," the officer says in a flat voice. "If you please, refer to the monitor."

The Las Vegas Sun's Adrienne Packer recorded the commissioners' reactions as they watched the tape: "Commissioner Myrna Williams shielded her eyes. Chip Maxfield gazed upward. Yvonne Atkinson Gates shook her head disgustedly. Bruce Woodbury peered at the screen disapprovingly. Dario Herrera left the chambers." Instead of the tribute to the West's love of freedom I expected, it seemed that the future of strip clubs were in the hands of a group closer in spirit to Ronald Reagan's lamentable Meese Commission.

When I sat down in the hearing room, it quickly became clear to me from the commissioners' questions, attitudes and statements that the ordinance was going to pass by a landslide. Commissioner Atkinson Gates, the main force behind the ordinance, seemed particularly patronizing, petulant and hectoring as citizens were given an opportunity to voice opposition to the proposals. She yelled at one man to shut up and threatened to have other people escorted out of the hearing by law enforcement. One minute, she interrupted a speaker; the next, she decried the rudeness of people who interrupt. She often gave long speeches that ended with her asking some bootlicking bureaucrat employed by the commission to agree with her. They always did. In short, she played the classic role of small-town despot to the hilt.

How can I ever forget my first Las Vegas lap dance? I thought it was just dancing, too, and when the dancer's kneecap brushed against Little Richard, I was so surprised I ended the dance at once by falling over the side of my chair.

Yet, as naughty as it is, the Vegas lap dance still isn't even raunchy enough for Hollywood. In the disastrous 1995 film "Showgirls," the NC-17 scenes featuring grinding, groping fully nude lap dances in a Las Vegas bar have a "no way" factor equal to a James Bond film.

Yes, of course, a lap dance as performed these days in Las Vegas is a full contact and erotically charged adult experience. But a lap dance isn't sex. It is meant as an adult thrill and not as prostitution. Dancers and customers both know the difference. So it is no surprise that the undercover investigation revealed so few instances of actual prostitution. After all, 63 arrests over 18 months means they found less than four prostitutes a month. This must make strip clubs the single worst place to find a hooker in Las Vegas. Who doubts that had the cops just used the Yellow Pages instead of going to clubs they could have found lots of hookers every night?

It also may be the approach Vice takes. Pandora, a dancer at Talk of the Town, said this of undercover vice operations: "I always know a cop when they come in. They will only get one dance or two and they are stupid about it. You can always tell it's them, because they ask lots of questions and keep their hands to their side the entire time. They go, ‘Can I touch you?' and ask all these other questions, like, ‘Do you have marijuana?' and about what they can do, but they always keep their hands at their sides. I mean, if I was wanting to touch a girl, I'd be trying to."

So, yes, I was opposed to the ordinance, which in its original version would ban most contact, and I'd even written a column expressing that a couple weeks earlier. But my main dispute with the rules was that it was a waste of time and resources to have police enforce them: Do we have so little crime here that we want officers launching Operation G-Sting to catch girls accepting dollars in their G-strings? Still, overall, my interest in the ordinance was slight when compared with, say, my interest in Dylan playing the Newport Folk Festival for the first time in 34 years. But as the hearing continued, my irritation with Atkinson Gates' behavior just kept mounting.

The final straw was when Atkinson Gates lit into one dancer from Jaguars who had just spoken movingly, in a shaky voice, about how her work supports both her and her father, a disabled veteran.

"Did you know in the current ordinance right now that it says no lap dancing is permitted?" Atkinson Gates asked. This is true, of course, though Atkinson Gates conveniently omitted the fact that court rulings make that law unenforceable. The new restrictions are the commission's attempt to get around the courts.

To Atkinson Gates, this means the dancers should be rejoicing since the ordinance legalizes lap dances for the first time. Never mind that it is common sense from the perspective of dancers and club owners that an unenforceable ban is preferable to enforced regulation. But rather than admit that the ordinance will mean numerous new restrictions for lap dances, Atkinson Gates launched into a tirade against the stripper, claiming the dancer must be ignorant for not agreeing with her false logic:

"Do you know what the changes are? Do you know? We are taking a law that has been broken for so long. Meaning when I say ‘broken,' that you are breaking the law by doing the lap dance. We're now saying you can do a lap dance, but you have parameters in which to work. It is just so amazing that I don't think people understand what is being done."
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Old 04-22-2003, 03:59 PM
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Finishing this speech (which, if you recall, was supposed to be a question for the dancer), Atkinson Gates sighed and came to an aggrieved silence. Commissioner Myrna Williams then spoke up, proving that while Atkinson Gates took most of the heat on this, she was not acting alone. Indeed, as the increasingly dispirited Jaguars dancer stood silently at the podium looking on, Williams and Atkinson Gates took a moment to engage in a little mutual back scratching:

Williams: "I agree with you, commissioner."

Atkinson Gates (with another sigh): "I don't get it."

Williams (disbelievingly): "We have young women up here who are against decriminalizing the criminal acts they've been performing."

Atkinson Gates, however, was still not satisfied. So, needing even more affirmation, before dismissing the Jaguars dancer, she went for a sure thing by calling on the lawyer for one of the clubs whose fate she was less than an hour from voting on.

Atkinson Gates: "You could still do lap dancing [with this ordinance]. I don't understand why people don't take the time to actually read the document before they get up and speak. Mr. Moran, am I not right?"

Moran: "That's the way I understand it."

A diplomatic answer, to be sure.

This was shameful, and I'd had enough. It was farce and I saw no reason not to have fun with the remains of the day. I've always wanted to be a make-believe Abbie Hoffman, and this was my chance. For the occasion I even thought I'd throw in a streak of Che Guevara and Lenny Bruce. In my head, I started to craft my own speech, which exposed this foolish waste of time, the ridiculousness of these rules and ended with a call for stripper rights!

This last item, in fact, is my pet peeve about strip clubs. In the three months I've been reviewing strip clubs for the Weekly, I've learned something about the behind-the-scenes financial arrangements, and I don't like it. As a music critic, though, it was all very familiar. The relationship between the dancers and the clubs was a low-rent version of the way record labels treat artists. My manifesto that I planned to present to the commission: I didn't want the clubs any longer to be allowed to make dancers pay house charges of up to $200 for the privilege of coming to work or to allow club owners to levy fines against the dancers without any due process. I also thought the clubs should either be required to stop taking a cut of the money customers pay for dances or be required to pay the dancers at least minimum wage.

Right now, even though they work a schedule and have shifts like other employees throughout the Valley, dancers are unique in that they are considered independent contractors and receive neither salary nor benefits from the clubs they work at. Make no mistake, stripping is hideous, grueling and physically damaging labor; it is blue-collar work without a guaranteed minimum wage, no benefits and without any union protection from management abuses. In an interview with Judith Reagan broadcast last week, adult film star Jenna Jameson noted that the only time in her career she felt ill-treated, exploited and demeaned was when she worked as a topless dancer in Las Vegas.

Sure, at the huge clubs, some dancers make outrageous money. But many others work in small clubs where, on a slow day, it isn't uncommon to give only a couple dances, and it is even possible to lose money on an eight-hour shift after paying required house fees and tipping out the security, DJ and waitresses.

OK, I admit, this stuff had nothing to do with the hearing. But to me it is the real outrage in the strip club world. And with so many dancers in the audience, maybe my passion for their cause could get me a girl's attention and thus salvage the afternoon.

Of course, it didn't go well. Just as I got started, like Wile E. Coyote running off a cliff and noticing in a horrible instant before falling that his legs were now winging it, I broke into the nervous sweat I always get when I speak in public. Then I noticed that, without explanation, Atkinson Gates had walked out of the room, and without my Judge Julius Hoffman to perform for, I was left befogged and confused about what to say. I made some vague comments about having never been solicited or seen any prostitution in a strip club and then sat my ass down.

I got some applause for my speech from the audience, but not nearly as much as the guy who said the video reminded him of his old fraternity parties. As I sat down, I vowed to stick to writing from then on.

It didn't matter. The ordinance passed 5-1. Starting Sept. 1, dancers must be 21 to work in topless strip bars in the county, only hand-to-hand tipping will be allowed, and Metro will be charged with closely monitoring the minutiae of every bump and grind.

The original ordinance had been a lot worse, requiring that dances take place a few feet from customers. In the weeks prior to the hearing, the clubs and the county had reached a compromise, which modified the most extreme elements of the ordinance. Club lawyers said privately that they thought the new lap dancing regulations had been sufficiently watered down to be a distinction without a difference from current practice. In return, the commissioners seemed particularly pleased that they could work with the club owners. The commissioners claimed that all parties were satisfied with the compromise.

"I didn't see any club owners voting," says Raymond Pistol with a laugh. He owns Talk of the Town, which falls outside the jurisdiction of the commission. "Anytime you are taking a whipping, if you can ameliorate the beating a little bit, it is a kind of victory."

Allen Lichtenstein, an attorney for some of clubs in the county, put it this way: "I think [the new ordinance] is confusing and vague and doesn't really change very much. I think the owners of the clubs looked at it and decided that while they are not crazy about the bill, they can live with it."

In truth, the club owners were more relieved than pleased. They saw, on this day, the real lesson from that movie "Casino." The Clark County Commission had reminded them about the importance of paying homage to the local authorities. The commissioners may be more reluctant to push the resorts around like they did in the old days, but as with gambling in the '70s, they once again have landed an industry that can be *****-slapped with impunity: a business with lots of cash yet only a toe-hold on respectability. Jaguars may have cost $15 million to build, but the Clark County Commission proved it could be put out of business with a single vote. No matter how watered-down the final ordinance turns out to be, this is a lesson the county club owners are not going to forget.

By trumpeting the faux compromise at the end, the commissioners were also able to fudge addressing how any of their new regulations would impact on the three ostensible problems in strip clubs: disease, prostitution and narcotics. These are the problems that caused them to authorize the 18-month undercover investigation in the first place. But it is a bit of a stretch to even call the first item a problem. Allen Lichtenstein points out that there has yet to be even a single known instance of a sexually transmitted disease given via a lap dance. As for the second, the mayor in his press conference the next day noted that Metro told him the same thing I told the commission: There was no prostitution problem. That just leaves you to wonder how keeping girls from receiving money in their G-strings will fight narcotics?

There is one bright spot. The main and surprising beneficiary of all this turns out to be the city of Las Vegas. The Fremont Street Experience doesn't pull tourists from the Strip, nor has the Neonopolis Meditation Center. But when Goodman announced that the city would not be joining with the county in adopting the new regulations, tourists were finally given a real reason to go downtown. Now, those looking for an old-style Vegas lap dance have to go north of the Strip, where you can still legally stick a dollar in a girl's G-string. Remember that, for many, going to see strippers perform is an essential element of the Vegas vacation. It is the No. 1 activity that tourists leave resorts to do. If the mayor also sticks to earlier plans to allow the topless clubs in the city to expand in size, then all of this may result in a real economic impact for downtown revitalization. If that happens, let's be sure to thank the Clark County Commission.
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Old 04-22-2003, 04:19 PM
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Here in Philadelphia they are closing the gentleman's clubs slowly buy surely one at a time.
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