City Hall

With Dallas Sexually Oriented Businesses' Hours on Chopping Block, Employees Worried for Future

Sexually oriented businesses have increasingly been targeted with new restrictions in recent months.
Sexually oriented businesses have increasingly been targeted with new restrictions in recent months. Eric Nopanen/ Unsplash
​​Seated in her recliner in November, Avi Colunga had just finished feeding her infant when she saw the “horrify[ing]” news. Since 2018, Colunga, 25, has worked at XTC Cabaret in Dallas as an entertainer. Before that, she had bartended. But scrolling through Instagram with her daughter Xeppelin in her lap, Colunga came across an article about a proposed Dallas ordinance that could upend her life.

Some on City Council were pushing for sexually oriented businesses (SOBs) to close from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m., peak hours for an industry fueled by night owls. Soon, Colunga reposted the piece and sent it to a couple dancer friends, who seemed in disbelief that the city was considering the measure.

Many Dallas dancers are also young mothers, she explained, and some attend school during the day. Others work nights to make a living as they attempt to get their own businesses off the ground.

On Monday, Colunga said she might have to go back to bartending. She’s also spent some time working for Amazon, but those hours are long, draining and hard to keep up. Aside from having more freedom, Colunga also makes more dancing than she does in an hourly job. She can work three nights and spend the remainder of the week caring for her daughter, who’s around 8 months old.

But on Wednesday, Dallas City Council will meet to vote on the ordinance, and if it passes, Colunga’s work hours will be slashed. “I feel like we have a right to work at night; it shouldn’t be taken away from us,” Colunga said.

“We are just working,” she added later. “That’s all we’re trying to do, is make a living and work.”

Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia and some City Council members have argued that the proposed ordinance would work to combat crime, but Colunga doesn't buy that argument. When revelers come to XTC or the other SOBs, they can get “wild and crazy” in a fairly controlled environment, she said. Shuttering clubs for those hours won’t necessarily cure late-night disturbances. Rather, she suspects, it’ll just push them further out into adjacent areas, such as quiet neighborhoods.

Most of XTC’s clientele arrive after they’ve already spent a night out at other places, Colunga said. Sure, there might be an occasional fight between club-goers — a couple punches thrown or a shouting match outside — but after that, everyone just goes home. Still, SOBs earn a bad name for the rare bad incidents that happen there. “You don’t hear headlines about how fun it was or whatever,” she said. “It’s usually publicized for the very few things that happened in the parking lot; they don’t even happen inside.”

Colunga lives in Dallas with her boyfriend Hunter, who’s the father of her child. He used to be homeless, but thanks to her job, Colunga could afford to take him and his family off the street; before long, his sister and mom were able to move out on their own. On prior occasions, Colunga said, she helped two dancers who were escaping abuse by offering them shelter.

“I didn’t have to rely on anybody else,” she explained, “so I was able to bring home whoever I wanted to help and have them stay for as long as I wanted them there or they needed.”

"I feel like we have a right to work at night." - Avi Colunga, adult entertainer

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Many people have misconceptions about what it’s actually like to work at a club as a dancer, Colunga added. Some might picture a catty “mean girls” environment, but it’s more like being in a sorority with sisters who joke around with one another. Meanwhile, the bouncers often act like protective big brothers, assisting the dancers whenever they’re caught in the occasional skeevy scenario.

Of course, nightclub families aren’t just composed of entertainers and security; managers, bartenders, waitresses, cooks and valets are often on the payroll, too. If passed, the ordinance would push Colunga and many others back into lower-paying gigs with more restrictive hours.

“A lot of girls would go to the clubs that close at 2, of course, and then you’re going to have this excess of workers who don’t have any jobs,” she said. “There’s going to be a waiting list to get into every club that’s going to be closing before 2, and it’s going to be very difficult because there are a lot of women.

“There’s like 100-plus dancers that’ll be dancing on a Friday or a Saturday night,” she continued. “That’s a lot of women out of work, especially at XTC.”

**

Discussions about imposing hours of operation on the businesses were sparked during a Quality of Life, Arts and Culture Committee meeting in November. The City Council committee was discussing Texas' Senate Bill 315, which went into effect immediately when Gov. Gregg Abbott signed it in May. The bill raised the age requirement in Texas for employees at SOBs from 18 to 21, leaving some to be laid off in the middle of their shifts.

The city wanted to update its code to reflect the new age requirement. That’s when Adam Bazaldua, chair of the Quality of Life, Arts and Culture Committee, suggested imposing hours of operations on the SOBs, citing similar restrictions in other cities. Plano, for example, requires the businesses to close between 2 a.m. and 10 a.m. Fort Worth has similar restrictions, but makes exceptions on the weekends and for SOBs with a “food establishment permit.”

Dallas doesn’t have any such restrictions.

Kristie Smith, who lives in Bazaldua’s district, said the Tiger Cabaret is located near her home. She said it’s open until 5 a.m. and lets patrons bring their own alcohol. She said crime seems to be a problem in the club’s parking lot, so she can understand wanting to impose more restrictions.

Bazaldua and others who back these regulations in Dallas say it’s about stomping out crime, not sex work.

“This is to address being able to better regulate hours of operation for businesses that we have seen have criminal activity and where it’s been most prominent and there’s data to support that with the presentation,” Bazaldua said in November.

But throughout these discussions, City Council member Omar Narvaez has said he wants to make sure they’re not victimizing the businesses and the people they employ. Narvaez’s district is home to a majority of the city’s SOBs.

"We cannot be targeting a business simply for our moral issues or what we think is an easy win when it comes to doing something as a city,” Narvaez said. “I just want to make sure that’s clear and make sure the sex workers out there know that you have an advocate. I know it’s probably not the most popular side to be on, but these folks should be treated with dignity, respect and not shamed in any way, shape or form.”

The committee later held a public hearing on the change and voted to bring it back for consideration.

At the public hearing, people like Vikkie Martin, executive director of the Ferguson Road Initiative, turned out in support of the restrictions, calling SOBs “crime magnets and detriments to vulnerable neighborhoods.”

But people in the industry also turned out to argue that the proposed restrictions are unnecessary and will get the city sued. Michael Ocello with the Dallas Association of Club Executives, spoke about efforts they take to combat sex trafficking.

A company called BioVerify collects fingerprints and conducts background checks on employees at adult night clubs in Dallas. Brendan Berrells, the general manager, explained that employees must have a valid identification card and that their fingerprints are submitted to the Texas Department of Public Safety, which provides the applicant's arrest, prosecution and conviction history.

Berrells said, “If someone is under 21 years of age, they cannot work. If this report has a recent prostitution [charge], they cannot work. And if anyone has a conviction for any kind of sex crime involving children, they cannot work.”

In 2003, Roger Albright helped create the Dallas Association of Club Executives. Albright said the city’s SOBs ordinance hasn’t worked since it was introduced 35 years ago.

“For the first 17 years, the city did nothing but lose. Nobody moved. Everybody stayed where they were. All the SOBs remained,” he said during the public hearing.

Citing similar measures in other cities, Dallas began regulating SOBs in 1986. The city enacted a chapter in its code “to promote the health, safety, morals, and general welfare of the citizens of the city, and to establish reasonable and uniform regulations to prevent the continued concentration of [sexually oriented businesses] within the city.”

"For the first 17 years, the city did nothing but lose. Nobody moved." - Roger Albright, Dallas Association of Club Executives

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This created zoning restrictions that required SOBs to be at least 1,000 feet away from each other and to be the same distance from churches, schools, residential areas and parks. Under the 1986 city code, SOBs were defined as “an adult arcade, adult bookstore or adult video store, adult cabaret, adult motel, adult motion picture theater, adult theater, escort agency, nude model studio, or sexual encounter center.”

Nudity and “the state of nudity” were also defined in the code as “appearance of a bare buttock, anus, male genitals, female genitals or female breast.”

These new regulations would have forced many SOBs to relocate, which they didn’t want to do. So, the businesses adapted, providing “simulated nudity” at their establishments. Instead of full nudity, dancers would wear bikini bottoms and flesh-colored pasties. The simulated nudity kept the businesses eligible for dance hall licenses, which kept them from having to relocate.

But then Dallas created a new class of dance hall, Class D, which provided definitions for semi-nudity and simulated nudity while including zoning restrictions that would have forced some of the businesses to move.

This back and forth between the city and the businesses never really ended. It’s even resulted in a few lawsuits.

In 1996, a district court sided with the SOBs, saying the new definitions for nudity, semi-nudity and simulated nudity violated the First Amendment. Later that year, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision.

The following year, though, Baby Dolls Topless Saloons Inc. was denied an SOB license because of its location. If it wanted the license, the club would have had to move elsewhere. But instead of moving, Baby Dolls and 11 other SOBs, later called the "Topless Twelve," took Dallas to court. The SOBs ultimately lost that battle in 2002 when the courts ruled that Dallas’ regulations were constitutional.

Over the years, Dallas has shifted its approach, stepping away from restrictions based on content and focusing more on restrictions based on the alleged secondary effects of the industry, such as crime. Still, more legal battles followed.

Albright said they offered a compromise with the city after forming the Dallas Association of Club Executives. “We offered to settle, and we did settle 23 pending pieces of litigation — state, federal and administrative — in exchange for peaceful coexistence,” he said. “That’s exactly what we did, and that has held solid for the last 17 years.”

Albright called the business the most regulated industry in Dallas and said if the city is trying to go after bad apples in the industry, there are already ways to do that. He's confident this is a fight that Dallas can’t win. “One of the basis that the Supreme Court has found to strike down these ordinances is that they’re content based,” he told the Quality of Life, Arts and Culture Committee. “I’m gonna tell you, you’re gonna lose.”

But the proposal was brought to the Public Safety Committee in December when the Dallas Police Department showed data it said supported requiring the businesses to close from 2 a.m. until 6 a.m.

Last March, the department created a “club” task force in its Northwest Patrol Division. Eight officers were tasked with tackling increased shootings and other violence crime that occurred after midnight. DPD claims many of these crimes happen at or near SOBs that operated between midnight and 6 a.m. These statistics also included the 500 feet surrounding the properties.

According to DPD, about two-thirds of violent crime recorded by the task force occurred between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. The department also cited studies suggesting all types of offenses occurred at higher rates in the immediate vicinity of SOBs.

DPD Chief Garcia said, “The type of business this is does not matter to us. This is based on data. We recognize that this is a legal business in the city of Dallas.” Garcia added that the existing legal remedies to crack down on bad apples in the industry take too long, which is why he says Dallas needs this change.

The proposal went to full council for discussion on Jan. 5. Two days later, Mayor Eric Johnson told council members he’d put the proposal on their Jan. 26 voting agenda. “We must continue to put public safety first in Dallas,” Johnson said. “Through a 'kitchen sink' approach to public safety in 2021, we achieved a reduction in violent crime that bucked national trends.” But to become the safest city in America, Johnson said, “We must take our efforts to the next level in 2022.”

To him and some others on the council, that means listening to Chief Garcia and his department on how to handle the SOBs. “Chief Garcia and his police command staff have presented a compelling, data-based case for restricting SOBs' operating hours, which will make our city safer and put Dallas in line with surrounding cities and other major Texas cities,” Johnson said.

He added, “The chief has done exactly what we have asked of him. We have requested clear plans to address violent crime where it occurs. We have asked police commanders to make data-driven decisions. We have called for solutions that would alleviate the burdens on our police department by eliminating the need for a police response. This plan accomplishes all of those objectives.”

If approved, violators of the new hours of operation could have their licenses suspended for 30 days, be fined up to $4,000 and face up to a year in jail.

**

There's no denying crime has taken place around SOBs. Early last June, Dallas SWAT were at a standoff with a man named Julio Guerrero. After nearly nine hours, the 28-year-old suspect surrendered. Described by Garcia as a “very violent individual,” Guerrero was wanted for the May 2 shooting death of a man who was found in the alley behind the Dallas nightclub Tiger Cabaret. The victim, Francisco Villanueva Rodriguez, was 35 and had five kids, according to CBS-DFW. He’d been shot in the face.

But Guerrero allegedly would go on to commit more violence. According to WFAA, he opened fire on a vehicle at a Dallas gas station eight days later, an incident that also left a 3-year-old girl in critical condition.

Rocky Carlson, the general manager of Tiger Cabaret, said that incident, as well as a 2020 drive-by shooting outside the club, were random acts of violence. He insists that his establishment is committed to safety and its overall track record has been relatively clean, with no other issues since last year’s homicide.

“We haven’t had one call to 911; we haven’t had one arrest, anything,” he said. “I don’t see how we can be part of this huge crime wave that’s going on, but we don’t even have any problems. We have zero problems.”

At 54 years old, Carlson has heard it all before. The uninformed might call him a “loser” and the dancers “trash,” but Tiger’s entertainers are well-spoken and classy, he said. For Carlson’s part, he doesn’t drink, smoke or use drugs. As a manager for nearly 30 years, he’s always enjoyed working nights so that he could be there for his kids during the day, including to coach them in sports.

"Nobody ever stands up for an SOB." - Rocky Carlson, Tiger Cabaret

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Many SOBs are haunted by stigma, but Carlson points out that violence also occurs at regular nightclubs. Earlier this month for Carlson’s birthday, he and his friends went to Citizen in Deep Ellum and witnessed a man getting shot “literally 5 feet from [them].”

Carlson also says some of the crime that the city includes in its SOB total occurs at other businesses within a 500-foot “buffer zone.” For Tiger Cabaret, their zone includes two motels and a pawnshop, he said. Cops are regularly called to the Lamplighter Motel a couple doors down, and the nearby pawnshop also sees its fair share of crimes.

“The pawnshop has had at least three robberies in the last year. They go in there at gunpoint and hold these places up,” Carlson said. “How are we responsible for what happens at the pawnshop 150 feet from us? I mean, we’re not.”

Criminals will always find other places to go, Carlson said; they don’t look down at their watches and head home just because it’s 2 a.m. Instead, they’ll continue to drive around wreaking havoc or stopping by a house party. Regardless, Carlson insists that Tiger and the other SOBs aren’t responsible for the heightened crime wave hitting Dallas.

If this ordinance passes, Carlson believes it’ll effectively put thousands of people out of work. Tiger employs roughly 115 people, including 78 dancers, who rely on the money they earn at the club. He also believes that business will drop by around 80%; last Thursday night from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m., for instance, they only served 12 patrons. “We’re not going to be able to keep the doors open,” he said.

Carlson says he supports the chief of police, who he knows has a difficult job; in fact, he added, he “roots for less crime.” But Carlson believes that the proposed ordinance is little more than a political stunt. How can crime go down at these clubs when there isn’t any to begin with? “To me, we’re the easiest target because nobody ever stands up for our industry. Straight up,” he said. “Nobody ever stands up for an SOB.”
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Simone Carter, a staff news reporter at the Dallas Observer, graduated from the University of North Texas' Mayborn School of Journalism. Her favorite color is red, but she digs Miles Davis' Kind of Blue.
Contact: Simone Carter
Jacob Vaughn, a former Brookhaven College journalism student, has written for the Observer since 2018, first as clubs editor. More recently, he's been in the news section as a staff writer covering City Hall, the Dallas Police Department and whatever else editors throw his way.
Contact: Jacob Vaughn