City Hall

An Incomplete But Epic History of Dallas Freaking Out Over Sex

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, you may have heard, is “deeply concerned” about eXXXotica, the three-day porn expo that arrives in Dallas on Friday. Alas, he wrote in a letter to the Dallas Women's Foundation, which had objected to the event taking place in the city-owned Convention Center, there was nothing he could do. He asked city staff if the event could be shut down but was told by city attorneys that doing so would violate the First Amendment. The government, you see, can't silence speech just because it doesn't like the content.

It would have been nice if Rawlings had been less reluctant to acquiesce to the Constitution, but politicians gotta politic, we suppose. Besides, even such a reluctant embrace of free speech is damn near radical given Dallas' long and uncomfortable relationship with human sexuality.

A full exploration of that relationship is probably best left to someone trained in Freudian psychoanalysis; we'll offer instead a highlight reel of Dallas' attempts to stamp out smut, from 1950 to the present.

Tropic of Cancer
When Henry Miller's account of a struggling writer's bohemian life in interwar Paris was published in French in 1934, rattled American censors  promptly blocked it from being legally imported into the U.S. When it was published in America in 1961, Dallas joined cities across the country and took swift action to shield its citizens from its perceived indecency. That August, shortly after the book hit shelves, Police Chief Jesse Curry ordered bookstores to stop selling it or face prosecution under Texas' new anti-obscenity law. “It is in my opinion a filthy thing ... crude, vile, indecent language,” Curry told The Dallas Morning News. Nor was he alone. A few days later Mayor Earle Cabell spoke to a group called Dallas Citizens for Decent Literature and offered his “unqualified support” for their crusade to purify the city's newsstands and bookshelves. District Attorney Henry Wade was more cautious, announcing that he was carefully “studying” 15 to 20 magazines, some nude pictures and Tropic of Cancer to determine if they were obscene, soon he was on board. The City Council added its collective voice when members passed a resolution praising efforts to “rid the city of obscene and pornographic reading material.” It's unclear from the DMN's archives whether anyone was prosecuted for selling the book (though there were plenty of prosecutions in previous decade for possessing or distributing adult movies or nude photos) but it became a moot point in 1964 when the U.S. Supreme Court, in a decision that helped liberalize censorship rules, ruled that the book was not, in fact, obscene.
Dallas Motion Picture Classification Board
In 1965, three years before the Motion Picture Association of America introduced its G-to-R movie-rating system, the Dallas City Council established a permanent city commission dedicated to determining if films are “not suitable for young persons” under 16 years old. An unacceptable film was defined as one that contained either “brutality, criminal violence, or depravity” or “sexual promiscuity or extra-marital or abnormal sexual relations” and which created a “substantial probability that it will create the impression on young persons that such conduct is profitable, desirable, acceptable, respectable, praiseworthy or commonly accepted.” A theater owner who showed such a film to kids could be charged with a misdemeanor.

Shortly after its formation the board declared a film called Viva Maria! unsuitable for kids on the grounds that it promoted sexual promiscuity. (Brigitte Bardot, a member of a South American carnival troupe, apparently keeps score of her romantic conquests by writing a different man's name on the wall of her sleeping quarters each morning.)Local theater owners sued the city. The local federal judge who heard the case concluded that there were “two or three features in the picture that look to me would be unsuitable to young people” and issued an injunction preventing the film from being shown without a label identifying it as adults only. After three years of legal wrangling, his decision was overruled by the Supreme Court, which held that the ordinance creating the film board was unconstitutionally vague, particularly the part about “sexual promiscuity,” which the city had never clearly defined.

The ruling didn't stop the film board, which continued long after the MPAA's own rating system made it even more archaic and obsolete. In 1971, it narrowly averted another legal disaster after the city attorney persuaded them to drop a lawsuit they'd filed against a movie distributor to enforce their classification of another movie, Who is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying All of Those Terrible Things About Me. The City Council finally decided to ax the board — the last of its kind in America — in 1993 to the deep chagrin of its chairman, dentist Fred Aurbach, who mourned the vote as a signal “to the world that Dallas no longer cares and is a partner with Hollywood in the war on America.”
The "War On Smut"
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s Dallas law enforcement, often with the support of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, went hard after purveyors of adult books, pictures and movies. Sometimes just to be in possession of pornography was enough, as a man learned in 1961 after he was sentenced to six months in jail after police found nude photos in his car during a traffic stop. This was in keeping with the tenor of the times. A DMN editorial from 1960 advocated for limiting the First Amendment to the “freedom of speech and print to express cleanly … The Bill of Rights is being used to create a big bill for wrongs." High-ranking police officials were perhaps even more vigilant. “One of the causes of increased perversion is this illustrated stuff kids are looking at," a DPD lieutenant remarked once. Another later delivered a lecture to a community group entitled “Pornographic Literature and Homosexuality in Children.”

Those were mere skirmishes. In 1970, wary of the proliferation of adult movie theaters and book stores, the city declared a “war against smut” led by City Attorney Alex Bickley. “It is my opinion that the existence of hard-core pornography in our city far exceeds that at any time that I have known.” That June, officials cited seven people connected with a couple of adult theaters. The owner and an employee of one of the theaters were later jailed for contempt after refusing to turn over a film, Christmas in April, that a vice cop testified could “only appeal to someone who is perverted.” Criminal charges against employees and owners of other theaters followed. If the cases went to trial, jurors would often be shown the allegedly pornographic film so they could make their own judgment, typically en route to convictions. Police Chief Frank Dyson stepped up the rhetoric still further by warning that “members of the pornography industry” were resorting to “mob tactics” to achieve their ends and had been linked to 13 bombings and fires in Texas. By 1972, however, it was becoming clear even to the DMN that the crackdown had yielded no noticeable decrease in pornography in Dallas.
Deep Throat
Upon its initial release in Dallas in 1972, Deep Throat, the deeply-shocking-at-the-time-but-actually-kinda-tame-by-today’s-standards porn flick had a quiet two-week run at the Guild Art Theater, one of the city’s dozen-plus adult movie houses. When it returned to Dallas the following year, now the center of a full-fledged national freak-out, officials responded fast and hard. Shortly after the start of its second run, an undercover Dallas vice cop attended one of the showings and filed an affidavit in court attesting that Deep Throat depicted “acts of sexual intercourse and sodomy.” Under headlines like “Police Throttle 'Deep Throat' in Second Run,” the DMN described a series of police raids. Invariably, reels of the film were seized and theater owners and employees were charged with exhibiting obscene material, a misdemeanor. Many theaters, convinced that they were protected by the First Amendment, didn’t take the hint, which led officials to attempt, unsuccessfully, to have them declared a “general nuisance” and shut down. Nor did they stop there. After the fourth raid in three days at Greenville Avenue’s Arcadia Theater — this one interrupting a showing to a standing-room crowd of 1,000 people — the owner and four employees were charged with conspiring to exhibit obscene material, a felony. All five were convicted and given the maximum penalty of five years in prison. Their convictions were subsequently overturned by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, not on First Amendment grounds but because prosecutors hammered the jury with tales about how pornography fuels sex crime, a theory the appellate court deemed “tenuous at best,” particularly given the “egregious” lack of supporting evidence offered by prosecutors. The prosecutorial furor died down within a couple of years, but the crackdown certainly had a chilling effect on Dallas’ porn marketplace. Within a month of the initial crackdown, a DPD lieutenant bragged to the DMN that several adult theaters had shut down while others had switched to showing soft-core pornography. Not that that was acceptable either. “We will try later to make cases on the soft-core theaters,” he vowed.
The Dallas Association for Decency
Unlike the Dallas Motion Picture Classification Board, the Dallas Association for Decency was not an official city agency. It was, however, a perfect embodiment of the municipal zeitgeist during the Reagan era and an influential force behind the city’s pioneering sexually oriented business regulations. In 1986, in parallel to DAD’s ultimately successful protest to persuade 7-Eleven to stop selling Playboy and Penthouse, the Dallas City Council was dreaming up ways to make it harder to operate strip clubs — and adult movie theaters, escort agencies and hourly motels — in Dallas. The final ordinances charged sexually oriented businesses a $1,000 fee and prohibited business from clustering within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, churches, homes, or one another, among other provisions.

As it turned out, the law was a bit too pioneering. Multiple adult businesses sued, and City Attorney Analeslie Muncy — which somehow seems the perfect name for someone crusading against smut — traveled to Washington to argue before the Supreme Court that Dallas had a legitimate interest in targeting adult businesses because they were a magnet for crime and degraded property values. That argument held up for the hourly motels, as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor conceded that “it was reasonable to believe that shorter rental time periods indicate that the motels foster prostitution,” but much of the ordinance failed for the very basic constitutional infraction that it singles out a certain type of protected speech (i.e. sexually explicit media and nudity) and treats it differently from other forms of speech without any credible reason for doing so — a First Amendment no-no.

The court opinion did, however, leave room for sexually oriented business regulations that were a less direct attack on the First Amendment. In January of 1990, two weeks after the Supreme Court decision was handed down, the City Council adjusted the ordinance, removing some provisions singled out in O’Connor’s opinion, like the requirement for annual inspections of sexually oriented businesses, but kept the law mostly intact.

The legal tussle between Dallas and strip joints has never really ended. To get around some of the zoning requirements, enterprising strip clubs tweaked their dancers’ attire, leading the city to craft more targeted definitions of “nudity,” “semi-nudity” and “simulated nudity” that were subsequently struck down by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1996. The 5th Circuit sided with the city in a subsequent lawsuit by Baby Dolls and other strip clubs (aka the “Topless Twelve”) in a decision that included a detailed examination of whether lap dances are constitutionally protected speech. A cultural anthropologist hired by Baby Dolls as an expert witness testified that they were — touching between dancer and patron communicates “concern, affection, caring and … eliminat[ion of] the sense of distance and coldness[;] the message that the dancers really want to get across …is the man is king for the moment, as it were,” he said — but the justices didn’t buy it. “[P]atrons have no right to touch a nude dancer.”
2 Live Crew
Porn isn't the only thing that freaks Dallas out. It’s also rap music. On the eve of 2 Live Crew's scheduled stop in Dallas in July 1990 in the midst of a national uproar following the release of its gleefully explicit new album As Nasty as They Wanna Be, police warned the group to keep the performance clean or face obscenity charges. Hours later, apparently unwilling to take a chance, city officials shut down the Longhorn Ballroom, the scheduled venue, and declared it an “illegal club.” A fire department spokeswoman contended unconvincingly that the decision was a “public safety issue” and that it “wouldn’t matter if it were Willie Nelson or George Strait or Janet Jackson,” but a Dallas County judge disagreed, ruling that the show could go on. The only reason it didn’t was because of a payment dispute with the venue, which prompted front-man Luther Campbell to refuse to go on stage and set off a near-riot.

2 Live Crew’s departure didn’t ease Dallas’ concerns, however. Days later, the Dallas County District Attorney’s office filed criminal charges against two record stores, Sound Warehouse and Hasting’s Records and Tapes, for allegedly selling As Nasty as They Wanna Be to minors. Three days earlier, the office had dispatched a 13-year-old boy to a Sound Warehouse at Greenville Avenue and Lovers Lane to buy an As Nasty as They Wanna Be cassette tape; he’d had no problem making the purchase. A subsequent canvas of local music stores found the album on sale at eight Sound Warehouse locations and one Hasting’s. At a news conference, prosecutors declared the album obscene and ticked off the results of the DA’s office’s careful study of the album: 87 descriptions of sex acts, 117 explicit mentions of genitalia, and references to “such deviant behavior” as incest and sodomy. “They shouldn’t sell it to anyone,” DA John Vance declared. “I don’t think the law permits it.” The criminal charges were later dropped after Sound Warehouse agreed to pull the album from its Dallas stores. Prosecutors had earlier pushed for a deal that would remove it from the company’s shelves nationwide.

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Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson

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