Bible Belt, Wild West Spar Over Topless Texans

Strip clubs decry government interference, puritanical laws

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When Laura Weston moved to Bachman Lake, Texas, 12 years ago, it was a sleepy neighborhood troubled only by the roar of jets landing at Love Field.

Since then, she's begun to see prostitutes and drug dealers roaming the streets as she drives her children to school. She's heard gunshots in the night. She's watched bulldozers level buildings that once housed dry cleaners and family restaurants.

The culprits, Ms. Weston says, are the growing number of topless bars that have opened nearby. For years, she's been complaining to lawmakers that these establishments wink at the criminal activity they attract. For years, the problem has been getting worse.

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As sex-based businesses continue to multiply throughout the nation, the question of how to best limit their effect on the surrounding community is one that many cities and states will soon be facing. But here in Texas, a backlash is already brewing. Houston's city council passed tough new regulations in January, and the Dallas City Council approved similar measures Wednesday.

Dangerous precedent?

While neighbors like Weston applaud these efforts, club owners have banded together to fight them in court. Not only are the new laws puritanical and overbroad, they say, but they set a dangerous precedent for government meddling in the entertainment business.

For a state that has always kept one boot in the "Bible belt" and another in the Wild West, it's a defining moment.

"This is part of a longtime conflict in Texas," says William Hawes, a University of Houston professor who has studied the issue.

"The state's cowboy image goes along with the honky-tonk idea, but there's also a conservative, family-values bent that tempers it."

The Dallas ordinance, which would force sexually oriented businesses to maintain a 1,000-foot distance from homes, schools, parks, churches, and each other could force as many as 29 topless clubs to close or relocate.

Mandatory minimums

Houston's ordinance, which takes effect next month barring defeat in federal court, will double the mandatory minimum distance between clubs and residential areas, churches, and schools to 1,500 feet.

It will require clubs to maintain a certain level of lighting in all areas and impose a three-foot no-touch zone between customers and entertainers. All dancers must register with the city, undergo a background check, and pay $29.

So far, 1,100 topless dancers in Houston have applied for permits, and many clubs have already brightened their premises. But the new law, by some estimates, will force as many as 103 of the city's 119 sex-based businesses to relocate.

The primary objection to the spread of these clubs is their propensity to attract crime. An analysis prepared for the Monitor by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission shows that sex-based businesses receive five times as many citations as other restaurants and bars.

These citations include everything from drug abuse and prostitution on the premises to the sale of alcohol to minors. Police studies in Houston have shown that crime rates tend to increase in areas where topless clubs are concentrated.

In the past, many such businesses have avoided existing laws by registering as retail outlets or private residences. "Some of these clubs hold themselves out as legitimate businesses, but they're all pretty much on the edge," says Houston Police Capt. R.B. Chandler. "They're not policing themselves properly."

City attraction

Yet some observers say the new regulations go too far. According to Professor Hawes, some of the more upscale "gentlemen's clubs" in Houston have not slowed the growth of commercial districts and have helped the city attract conventions.

If this ordinance stands, he adds, it could give the city the power to monitor other types of live performances, including plays or even ice shows, that contain nudity or sexual themes.

"There are no children in these places, and nobody's being forced to go inside," he says. "I don't think most adults need a handful of other adults making judgments for them."

Bob Furey, president of the Colorado Bar and Grill in Houston, characterizes the ordinance as a publicity stunt in advance of the coming mayoral election. The worst part it, he says, is the effect it will have on dancers - many of whom rely on the income to support families.

Some women have decided not to register, because they do not want their real names on the public record. Not only are they concerned about stalkers, he says, but some worry that the information could prevent them from obtaining future employment. It's ridiculous, he says, that some dancers could be jailed for accidentally coming within three feet of a customer.

"There's so much real crime going on in Houston," he says. "I don't think that's where the city's funds need to be spent."

To Texans like Weston, however, such arguments do not overcome the images of squalor they associate with these establishments. "Ever since [these clubs] opened, my neighborhood has begun to look like Beirut," she says. "I don't think my children need to be exposed to this."

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