There is little to like about strip clubs. Whatever beauty exists in erotic dance is obscured by layers of exploitation and oppression. Dancers pay for stage time and lack many basic labor protections. Crime flourishes under the dim red lights, as clubs become hotbeds not merely for sin, but illegality. A First Amendment purist certainly could find expressive speech in a topless performer’s 2 a.m. lap dance, but we conjecture it would be easier to find illegal drugs, excessive alcohol and international sex trafficking. If you want artistic erotic dance, look instead to Houston’s award-winning burlesque troupes.
Despite the arguments for abolishing strip clubs, the law cannot condemn every bad behavior. Public policy should specifically target actual harm. Houston’s sexually oriented business ordinance may have banned explicit activities like topless dancing or lap dances, but it does little else.
Strip clubs aren’t bad because women are topless; strip clubs are bad because they exploit workers and serve as hubs of criminal networks. That is what our laws must address.
From that perspective, Mayor Annise Parker‘s proposed regulations for 16 strip clubs involved in a lawsuit with the city may be a deal with the devil, but it is a coldly rational deal that replaces moralizing rules with functional policy. It deserves broad support.
But debate has erupted around the planned $1 million annual payment from strip clubs to fund a human trafficking unit within the Vice Division of the Houston Police Department. Is the city extorting strip clubs? Are criminals bribing the police? The sexual nature of the business sends the imagination directly to sin.
If this were any other industry, this payment would be praised as a good-government, polluter-pays principle. Just as petroleum and chemical industries originally had to contribute to the Superfund for pollution cleanup, sexually oriented businesses will fund the police who fight the sex trade that flourishes in our crossroads of the Americas. Chevron and Treasures alike should have to pay for their own problems, instead of sending the bill to taxpayers.
HPD’s human trafficking unit is only part of the deal. New hiring regulations will work to eliminate the gray zone between a strip club’s legal business and the criminal enterprise that works behind the scenes. The rules draw a bright line to distinguish legal erotic dancing from illegal sex trade, with clubs no longer allowed to hire or contract with workers who have been convicted of prostitution within the prior 60 months. Clubs also will be prohibited from hiring dancers who are controlled by or paid through a representative – often a pimp or some other purveyor of modern-day slavery. That regulation will not only fight sexual exploitation but prevent illegal wage theft. Our laws should protect the rights of workers, no matter their vocation.
In addition to prohibiting the people who engage in sex trade, clubs also will eliminate the places where it occurs – in the infamous private “champagne rooms.”
Clubs also will be obligated to report incidents of prostitution, public lewdness, indecent exposure or drug offenses. And they must further educate employees about human trafficking awareness.
It is a long list of new rules, but the goal is clear: Put pressure on bad actors and fight sex trafficking. The city’s deal with strip clubs specifically targets the evils we seek to prevent and shines a cleansing light on the sins that we must tolerate in an imperfect world. These rules shouldn’t just be part of an out-of-court settlement but considered by City Council as a replacement for the constitutionally stifling and ineffective regulations we have today.