Moral Sex

City Hall Puritans crack down on sex businesses. Expect the courts to decide if the new laws are constitutional.

--from an Arizona Department of Liquor Licenses and Control report of April 1998, concerning an incident at Amazon's Olympic Gardens

A tall blonde with rippling muscles drops into a front split on the stage. With one arm to either side of her open legs--she's wearing a G-string--the young woman bounces up and down to the pounding Rob Zombie riff.

Dressed in black slacks and a mesh muscle shirt, Amazon's Olympic Gardens general manager and part-owner Mike Taraska looks on in appreciation.

"Now that's what I'm talking about," he says. "Look at the body on that girl. She's barely 20 years old."

Three men in white shirts and ties leave their seats and approach the stage with outstretched dollar bills. They fixate on the dancer's breasts, as she rotates her head in feigned orgasmic frenzy.

"As far as I'm concerned, every single dance in a topless club is a simulated sex act," Taraska says. "Otherwise, the girls aren't doing their job. Guys don't come in here to watch them juggle bowling pins."

Taraska says he has no problem with the new Phoenix law that will require strippers to undergo background checks. "It could protect us from problem girls, who tend to move around a lot from club to club," he says.

In a separate interview, an Amazon's dancer named Heika says she, too, agrees with the new permitting process.

"If they clean up the trash, it makes for a better club," explains the 25-year-old German native. "You have girls who don't have enough life experience, and they end up getting into crystal [methamphetamine], or believing that the guy who has a big car and a big house really likes you. It's good that if those girls get into something bad, that they can't come around looking for work until a certain point has passed."

Before Heika returns to the stage for her next dance, she tosses in her two cents about the council's new laws.

"They don't know what to do with the drugs, the child abuse, the domestic violence, the gangs, the teenage pregnancies or any of the stuff that's really gotten all aspects of society down. So they go after us. Give me a break."

But the government won't be giving Heika or her peers a break. Phoenix's new law reiterates existing state liquor rules against topless dancers simulating sex acts, or allowing their breasts or buttocks to touch a customer.

Under state--and now city--law, strippers are not supposed to "perform an act which simulates sexual intercourse, masturbation, sodomy, bestiality, oral copulation, flagellation, or any sexual acts which are prohibited by law."

But dancers who break that law--even a little--earn more money in tips. For authorities, catching strippers who cross the line is like fishing with dynamite.

"We can't keep an eye on everything all the time," Mike Taraska says. "If some girl is rubbin' dick or whatever, she should be the one who pays, not the club."

The general manager of Tiffany's Cabaret--an east Phoenix topless emporium--says training new dancers how to stay legal is tricky.

"You tell them they can't simulate any sexual activity, and they just look at you and scratch their heads," says Bill Methvin, a veteran of the sex-business industry. "Basically, you tell them, 'Honey, definitely no in-and-out motions, don't caress your breasts, and don't put your fingers near any bodily orifice.'"

In November, the state liquor department forced Tiffany's and three other popular Phoenix topless bars--Amazon's, Centerfold's, and the Hi Liter--to shut down for anywhere from three to seven days each, after a spate of stripper violations over a period of several months.

Methvin won't say how much the five-day closure cost Tiffany's in lost profit, but allows wryly that it vastly exceeded the $7,500 fine also imposed by the state.

In November, the owners of Tiffany's and the Hi Liter filed a federal lawsuit against the State of Arizona, arguing--this should sound familiar--that the rules against sexual contact and simulated sex are vague and unconstitutional.

What precisely is simulated sexual intercourse, let alone simulated masturbation, the suit asks?

"It all depends on who's running the show this week," says Beth, a topless dancer at Amazon's. "Ten years ago, we had to wear Band-Aids on our nipples--ouch! That sucked. . . . Everything is so weird in this business."

Contact David Holthouse at his online address: dholthouse@newtimes.com

Contact Paul Rubin at his online address: prubin@newtimes.com

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