The Big Coverup


Unless the courts intercede, the state of Missouri will make it illegal to show appreciation for topless dancers in time-honored fashion: with a tuck of a dollar bill into a G-string.

New state regulations, scheduled to go into effect August 28, will force other drastic changes in the way strip clubs operate.

Full nudity? Gone.

Lap dances? PG versions only.

Under age 21? Not allowed to enter as customer or employee.

Seminude dancing will be allowed in this prim world, but pastied performers will have to keep a 10-foot distance from the clientele. Tipping under these conditions, one imagines, will be more chaste than the exchange of valentines on a playground. (A word of advice: Crisp dollar bills make better paper airplanes.)

Strip-club owners say they’ll be driven under by the weight of the new regulations. They fear that restrictions on distance, costume and touching will wreck opportunities for dancers to collect tips, which are to strip clubs what moisture is to clouds.

“If there’s no tipping, then the dancers aren’t generating any income and then there won’t be any entertainers,” says Ann Michael, executive director of the Missouri Association of Club Executives, a trade group of adult bookstores and cabarets.

The regulations were steered through the General Assembly by state Sen. Matt Bartle, a Lee’s Summit Republican. Bartle has made a fetish of regulating forms of sexually oriented commerce. Last year, he sponsored a bill that put restrictions on billboards advertising adult businesses.

Bartle believes that “smut shops,” as he likes to call them, are a scourge. He has described their “dramatic expansion” across the state. He has cited alleged evidence of the harmful effects (falling property values, rising crime) these businesses have on their communities.

Bartle’s claims have gone mostly unchallenged. The Pitch asked him for proof of adult businesses’ negative “secondary effects.” Bartle’s office responded by providing a link to a Web site run by a resource of the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative Christian advocacy group.

Oddly, the resource calls attention to research that refutes Bartle’s claim.

The only published, peer-reviewed study of secondary effects examined the presence of adult dance clubs in Charlotte, North Carolina. The study found that areas surrounding adult business actually reported less crime than areas in a control group.

One of the authors of the study, Dan Linz, a communications professor at the University of California in Santa Barbara, was not surprised to learn that the insights learned from Charlotte were being ignored by conservative politicians. “The local legislators never read this stuff,” he tells the Pitch.

Gov. Matt Blunt signed the legislation in July. “I believe this will stifle the operation of those businesses, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing,” Blunt told KMBC Channel 9 at the time.

Lawyers working for the adult entertainment industry have filed a lawsuit in Cole County that attacks the new rules from several directions. Lawmakers, the suit argues, violated the Missouri Constitution by attaching the restrictions to a bill targeting drunken drivers. The state constitution forbids amending a bill’s original purpose.

The suit also makes a First Amendment claim. Unnamed dancers who are a party to the suit assert that full nudity (“showing pink,” in stripper parlance) and simulating sex acts are “essential” parts of their free expression.

If a judge grants an injunction, the adult entertainment business in Missouri will have won a rare legal victory. Earlier this month, a federal judge upheld the restrictions on billboard advertising. Bartle, a lawyer, constructs his legislation with future court challenges in mind.

The new regulations arrive at a delicate moment. The unemployment rate in Missouri hit a ten-year high in January. State and local budgets continue to groan.

Club owners say the new rules will sap jobs and tax dollars. And if the red lights dim, conventioneers will yawn at a time when Kansas City is trying to reinvent itself as a destination city. Dick Snow, owner of Bazooka’s Showgirls on Main Street, says adult cabarets offer a form of entertainment. “You may not consider it high culture, like the ballet, but it’s part of the culture,” he says.

Snow questions the unintended consequences of the law. He imagines a scenario in which pirate operators rent shabby storefronts and dress their dancers in just enough costume to operate outside any restrictions. (In Kansas City, nude performers are licensed, like taxi drivers.) “This is not a regulating bill — it’s a deregulating bill,” Snow says.

Snow and other cabaret owners have not been helped by a purported friend of small business, the Missouri Chamber of Commerce. In July, Daniel Mehan, the president and CEO of the Missouri Chamber, said small employers “are the state’s greatest job generator.” In the same press release, Mehan applauded the Republican-led state government for “reducing regulatory burdens.”

But regulatory burdens on strip clubs apparently are OK; the chamber did not take a position on the issue.

In anticipation of the law going into effect, the Pitch decided to get up close and personal with the people whose livelihoods are threatened by the new restrictions.

On a recent Friday evening, a reporter and a photographer visited Bazooka’s. Brief interviews with 16 dancers were conducted. We asked about their backgrounds, their aspirations and their objections to the state choreographing their routines.

In her book Strip City, dancer-turned-journalist Lily Burana writes that “anonymity equals courtesy in strip culture.” In keeping with that spirit, the dancers gave their stage names, and the photographer aimed his camera at their torsos.

The photographs also represent a celebration of what is soon to be forbidden. On August 28, getting this close to a naked breast in a public space will be a crime.

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