Bare Knuckles and Bare Breasts

Forget talk of a settlement. Bachman Lake homeowners vow to fight their war against bare nipples to the bitter end.

Swander argues that the difference between pasties and a bikini top "seems not related to secondary effects." In other words, how can pasties cause neighborhood decline and a bikini top not?

Good question, to which the activists say they have good answers. In the immaculate living room of her tidy 1970s brick ranch-home about one and a half miles northwest of Baby Dolls, Mary Lou Zijderveld produces what she says is the best answer, a detailed study commissioned by the city in 1994 to answer that very question: How can bare breasts cause neighborhood decline?

The report isn't exactly a secret. The city has used it several times to buttress its case against the clubs in court. But neither is it well-known, never once having been reported in The Dallas Morning News, for example.

Dan Panetti, executive director of the Dallas Association for Decency, sees the campaign against the clubs as a holy war--one he relishes.
Mark Graham
Dan Panetti, executive director of the Dallas Association for Decency, sees the campaign against the clubs as a holy war--one he relishes.

The report, by well-known Dallas real estate economist and planner Peter Malin, surveyed real estate conditions in the area around Bachman in 1994 and again in 1997. It also looked at studies done in other cities all over the country to examine the same question: What proven effect does a concentration of striptease establishments have on the community around it?

The Malin report concludes: "Sexually oriented businesses and dance halls operating as adult cabarets...have both a real and perceived negative impact on surrounding properties. In such areas, crime rates are higher and property values are lower, and/or the properties take longer to lease or sell. Our study has found that the higher the concentration of these businesses in one locale, the greater their impact on the neighborhood."

A top official of one of the city's larger topless operations was willing to speak to the Observer only on the condition that his name not be used in a story. The Observer agreed to the arrangement after weeks of negotiation, because it was the only way the club owners would provide any access at all. As it turned out, the official offered an argument that seemed to undercut his own lawyer's claim that mere bikini tops could not possibly be linked to secondary effects in the neighborhood.

If the women who dance at Baby Dolls have to switch to full bikinis, top and bottom, the club official said, Baby Dolls would be out of business. "If that happens, the women don't dance," he said. "They don't come to work."

The difference between pasties and bikini tops, in fact, lies at the very heart of the topless club business. The "dancing" that goes on inside the clubs today bears little relation to the old runway bump-and-grind shows of yesteryear, a descendant of burlesque and vaudeville. The dancing inside the clubs now is "lap dancing," in which almost naked women do their bumps and grinds on a man's lap in return for a steady stream of tips to keep them going. It's less a message than a sex act.

The club official said he thought typical day-to-day earnings for the average dancer were from $200 to $300 a night--far lower than estimates by other people familiar with the industry. But the club official agreed that amounts more like $1,000 a night are possible for the best performers.

Obviously, the runway dancer in a bikini with a message about "Barney goes to the beach" is not going to earn the same money as the lap dancer whose message is somewhere between "Come and get it" and "You got it." Therefore, the club official said, the good dancers will migrate to the you-got-it clubs rather than put on bikini tops, and the Barney clubs will close their doors.

Breasts are everything.

The existing laws prohibit customers from touching the naked breasts of dancers on or below the nipple. Given that the business revolves around women with essentially bare breasts grinding up and down on the laps of drunken men in dark corners of seedy bars, it would take extraordinary self-control on the part of everyone involved to make sure the law was upheld.

Forget about it. In the last year, Dallas police have stepped up public lewdness arrests inside Baby Dolls and other clubs. The Dallas County district attorney, in response to urgent requests from the Bachman community, has cut off the practice of offering dancers deferred adjudication and has pressed for jury trials. Within the last few months, that effort has produced enough lewdness convictions to threaten Baby Dolls, the Fare West and other clubs with permanent loss of their licenses.

In the meantime, Burch/Northwest Entertainment's latest suit against the city, challenging the city's license-review procedure, is about to come to trial. The brief for Burch argues that the review process is stacked against topless clubs; that city council members always appoint people to the license-review board who are hostile to the topless industry; and that the whole process is "political."

If the case is not settled and does go to trial, Burch will also argue, as it always has in past cases, that the neighborhood groups opposed to them are a false front. The charge is that the leaders of the opposition, people such as Staff, Dickey and Zijderveld, either don't live in the Bachman area at all or live too far from the clubs to claim any secondary effects. Their real motivation, according to the club owners, is moral zealotry.

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