Feel Coppers

Dallas City Attorney Madeleine Johnson is proposing new laws to make Dallas the most straitlaced, sexually restrictive town this side of Wichita Falls.
Peter Calvin

Yuck. There's stuff I just don't want to know about people.

When I served on the editorial board of a no-longer-extant major metropolitan daily newspaper in Dallas, I learned that certain people like to confess very personal things about themselves. On occasion a visitor who had come to talk to us about some very prosaic issue like setback requirements for low-rise residential developments would open by saying, "First there is something about my personal life that I think you need to know."

My boss at the time, Lee Cullum, had her own way of dealing with it. Before a visitor could blurt anything really embarrassing, she would raise one hand sternly and say, "I know this is an important issue for you personally, but we must insist on our right not to know."

I'm having a major case of the not-to-knows right now. Barely two months ago the Dallas city attorney announced a settlement with the naked bars around Bachman Lake to protect neighborhoods and bring an end to decades of expensive legal wrangling. Now the city is gearing up to launch a fresh intifada on the sex industry.

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The city has persuaded the naked bars to vacate the residential areas near Bachman--a major victory. But now the city attorney is proposing new laws by which the city would go into the sex clubs, even at fully legal locations, and get involved in the specific kinds of sex acts that may or may not occur there.

The city attorney's proposal would even require a kind of official peeping post at the center of every bar, dance club, video store, tanning salon and sex-toy shop in Dallas from which a police officer would be able to monitor all activities.

"There is no question that right now there is an attempt along a broad front to further restrict sexually oriented businesses," says Michael Jung, an attorney who has represented a variety of clients against sex club locations. Jung readily agrees that the city attorney's proposal and recent state legislation are aimed inside the sex clubs, focusing not on location but on "lewd behavior" the proponents want to see stopped under penalty of law.

Web page activist and former city council candidate Sharon Boyd says that specific kinds of behavior inside the sex clubs--especially "lap dancing" and forms of tipping in which men are able to touch seminaked dancers--must be outlawed in a way that makes it possible for police to enforce the law. The city attorney's proposal attempts to achieve that by requiring 6- and 12-foot distances between performers and the audience--bordered by lights or glowing tape--and outlawing personal tipping. The new law would also require lookout posts for cops inside the clubs.

"These are whorehouses," Boyd says of the city's various kinds of sex shops. "For somebody to say he has a right to a lap dance, well, no, he doesn't. If it's something he wants, then he needs to get his wife or girlfriend to do it, but not in a public place."

Freshman council member Gary Griffith of Lakewood and Lake Highlands thinks Dallas needs to enforce the most restrictive standards possible on the sex industry. "We need to have among the most rigorous community standards in the country for operation," he says.

City Attorney Madeleine Johnson has been out of the country and unavailable for comment on her proposed sex ordinance. Executive Assistant City Attorney Thomas P. Perkins Jr. says the changes only echo rules that have been upheld by courts elsewhere. He does not deny that these rules would amount to a more aggressive foray into the regulation of consenting adult behavior. But he argues that prohibiting some forms of bad behavior may ward off even worse "potential" behavior.

"If you have public lewdness conduct and violations, if you have potential prostitution cases generated from the touching between customers and scantily clad women, the city does have an interest. Those are criminal activities," Perkins says.

Bachman activist Tim Dickey sees the ultimate goal in all of this as a return to the 1950s, when, we are told, there was no touching allowed at all between dancers and audience. "Candy Barr [a 1950s stripper] wasn't doing lap dances," Dickey says. "When did it slip? What do you allow? What's legal? Under the law we have all agreed on and have on the table, now it's visual only."

I had a number of conversations last week with people in the naked-bar industry, ranging from a very pleasant lunch in the office of Dawn Rizos, proprietor of The Lodge, to a series of heavily mediated telephone exchanges with other operators afraid of being quoted. Rizos said--and the rest of them agreed--that times have changed since the 1950s. (News bulletin?)  

No club owners wanted to get too specific about what the clubs have to do in order to attract paying clientele, but I think it's safe to generalize and say that men won't pay eight bucks for a shot of bar whiskey without some promise of touch. It is also the case that the dancers in the clubs perform entirely for tips; the tips are personal and are made in exchange for certain kinds of touch and display; and, without the tips, the performers won't perform.

In the middle of the day when I visited Rizos' place, it was pretty sedate--lots of late middle-aged businessmen sipping drinks quietly at tables, staring up admiringly at almost-naked girls onstage, kind of like assisted living for leches. I'm told it gets more lively at night when the men younger than myself show up.

I asked Rizos if she could stay in business under the proposed rules. "I don't see how," she said. She indicated that the concept of a cop on a stool in the middle of the club with binoculars and a camera might have a debilitating effect on some clients. I bet. A stiff breeze from the door could do the same.

Rizos represents the industry's most civilized and sophisticated face in Dallas. The tougher face is the Burch brothers, owners of Baby Dolls, the Bachman club that was the main focus of neighborhood ire until the recently announced deal. They wouldn't speak for attribution but said through a representative that they will sue the city to prevent implementation of the ordinance being considered.

The impact of the ordinance, should it be enacted, would be revolutionary, certainly making Dallas one of the most straitlaced American cities this side of Wichita Falls. This new offensive says that we as a community want to see and control everything that happens inside the city's sex shops and that we want to put people in jail if they touch scantily clad women.

The ultimate irony is that none of this is probably coming originally from moral motivation. A lot of it is straight business, propelled from behind the scenes by major industrial property owners worried about the churn effect of the recent deal at Bachman. In the Stemmons Industrial corridor, landholders have been dreaming in recent years of chic redevelopment along the Trinity River. Now the sex clubs are on the move and looking for legal locations, and Stemmons owners have noticed that the clubs could locate legally in the area between the Stemmons Freeway and the Trinity River northwest of downtown. Two are already there, including Silver City, where former Dallas Cowboy Dwayne Goodrich did his drinking last January before killing two Good Samaritans in a hit-and-run freeway accident.

Gregg Hamill, a director of the Stemmons Corridor Business Association, doesn't deny that long-term owners in the corridor would like to prevent more clubs from moving their way. He cites the city's own real estate consultant who he says proved that, "Wherever a sexually oriented business is located, crime goes up, property values deteriorate, legitimate businesses move out. From a business standpoint, in terms of business impact...it's all negative."

And please allow me to declare a few personal biases and bona fides here. I have always written to defend the rights of neighborhoods to fight back against noxious sex clubs in their midst. Many of the Bachman warriors are heroes of mine. Along with a lot of people in Dallas, I rejoiced two months ago when it looked as if they had finally rid themselves of the bulk of their problem, and I thought the city attorney deserved serious kudos for pulling off a deal when the courts had given the city so little comfort over the years.

And this: If homeowners have a right to push back against sex club operators, then so should any other landowners, including people holding big industrial parcels that they may hope to redevelop.

That said, it's important not to get confused about what's unfolding here. In the months ahead, we will see a ferocious debate at City Hall about whether a man smoking cigars and drinking whiskey behind closed doors, far away from homes, schools and hospitals, should be allowed to touch the flesh of a near-naked woman. If the city council agrees he should not, then that means you and I, through the mechanism of our hired agents, the police, must go sit on the peeper perch in all of the city's sex clubs and make sure nobody cops a feel. And then you and I will be asked to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars again, millions eventually, to defend the peeper perch in court.

I admit I harbor suspicions of people who seem to me too avid to know the details of other people's sex lives. I suspect, unfairly or not, that as soon as the rest of us are out of view, they strip off their clothes, doff their scanty Peter Pan costumes and run around the room shrieking, "We can fly! We can fly!"  

But that's OK by me, too. Above all else, I cherish my right not to know. So right now I'm really worried.

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