Moral Sex

In the classic film It's a Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart's character is given the opportunity to see what would have happened to his community if he had never been born. Without him, the quiet tree-lined downtown of family-oriented Bedford Falls becomes the garish, loud and decadent main street of Pottersville, lined with "adult" establishment and vice. The film's message is about the power each one of us has to affect the people around us, and in a broader sense, the community we live in. We can decide whether we want our neighborhoods to look like Bedford Falls or Pottersville, whether we want safe and wholesome business areas or the "combat zones" of porn shops and "adult entertainment."

--former U.S. attorney general Edwin Meese III, board member,

National Family Legal Foundation, 1996
he clock is about to strike midnight, and the dildo stands alone. Inside a west Phoenix swingers' club, the dance floor is dead, except for the plastic phallus at its center. Thick and riven with fake veins, it stands motionless amid the swirl of disco lights on the chessboard tile.

"Welcome to Saturday night at Discretions!" the deejay howls. "Everyone out there in the mood to get laaaaaid?"

If they are, they're awfully quiet about it.
Most of the men and women scattered among tables and booths in the club's main room sit impassively. A few appear mildly amused.

Members of the Phoenix City Council looked just as bored on December 9 when they voted to ban places like Discretions as part of a crackdown on sex businesses.

Short of a successful legal challenge, Discretions and the city's five other swingers' clubs--no-alcohol nightspots where adults dance, watch pornography and, sometimes, engage in consensual sex--must shut down by January 8.

The reason, according to the new law: ". . . The operation of a sex club is inimical to the health, safety, general welfare and morals of the inhabitants of the city of Phoenix."

But only a handful of Phoenicians has even heard of Discretions. Located in a secluded industrial zone near 27th and Grand avenues, it bills itself as a "private social club"--single men pay $30 to get in, couples pay $10 each, and solo women get in free. Newcomers must present identification and sign a contract that, in part, swears they aren't with law enforcement or the media.

No more than 30 people are in the club on this Saturday night. About half in attendance are middle-aged heterosexual couples. Four or five unaccompanied women float about. The rest are nondescript men.

The walls are adorned with 12 Day-Glo paintings under black lights, depicting men and women interlocked in various sexual positions. Each painting corresponds inexplicably to a sign of the Zodiac. A young woman serving juice and sodas at a bar shows off her painted nails, which match the X-rated paintings.

Off the main room, there's a smaller one where cheap pornography is playing on a big-screen TV. It also has a gynecological exam table, stirrups and all, though no one's strapped in. A bearded man in an easy chair absent-mindedly tugs on his exposed penis. An obese blonde suckles occasionally on another man's flaccid member as he reclines on a couch. One breast sways out of her black evening dress.

Across the club, behind a latticed wood screen, is a hot tub. A portly, hairy man with a scraggly mustache sits alone in the tub, arms outstretched. He hauls himself out, ties a white towel around his gut, and trudges around the club. Furtive eye contact is his prime mode of interaction.

The big guy cruises the buffet line, where a frosted blonde in her late 40s is stacking Ritz crackers and processed-cheese squares onto a plate. He makes his way to a dimly lighted hallway in the back of the club, and peers into a room marked "Four or more only."

Inside, two queen beds are pushed together. They are empty.
The deejay raves on: "All right, ladies, it's blow the deejay hour! Get wild! Not too wild, though, or you might have sex with someone, right here at Discretions. Woo-hoo! Yeah!"

Hot tub man sashays over to the dance floor, where two women--one slight, one heavy--are spinning circles around the dildo. He tries a few awkward dance moves. The women shimmy away from him. He crosses the club once more, strips off his towel, and reimmerses himself in the chlorinated froth.

The deejay returns to his microphone.
"Hey, everybody, don't know if you heard yet about the new Nazi law or not. But in honor of its passage, it's Fuck the Phoenix City Council Night here at Discretions! Yeah, baby! Whoo!"

The gathering remains unmoved. The dildo has vanished.

Our dear heavenly Father, as we come upon this time of this council meeting, I pray your guidance and your blessings upon this time. . . . I pray for these leaders who have been chosen out to serve. That you would give them wisdom as they hear the debates, more that you give them understanding. I pray also that you would guide their decisions, realizing that the highest authority still stands within the heavens. So Lord, we pray that we would have your will and purpose in this meeting today. We ask in Jesus' name. Amen.

--invocation to December 9 Phoenix City Council meeting, delivered by Pastor Phil McKeown of the North Village Baptist Church

One of the longest, best-attended and stormiest Phoenix City Council meetings of 1998 concluded December 9 after nearly four hours.

Not on the agenda were domestic violence, gangs, slumlords, crystal meth, the homeless or any other pressing woes. Instead of the usual talk about budgets, appointments and proclamations, the council on this day considered breasts, butts and nipples.

The topic at hand was sex--"sexually oriented businesses," to be exact.
The council addressed Phoenix's 11 topless bars (liquor-licensed establishments where dancers must wear G-strings and cover their nipples with transparent latex) and seven "adult cabarets" (where dancers get completely naked, and liquor isn't allowed).

But the most fiery moments concerned swingers' clubs--the smallest sector of Phoenix's sex industry in terms of participation, profit and political power.

City officials painted a horrifying picture of the clubs, calling them places where prostitution and sexually transmitted diseases flourish.

Assistant Phoenix police chief Ernie Bakin warned of "a veil that these private [swingers'] clubs provide, to commit acts of prostitution in private rooms. We're very concerned that people have to buy their way into private clubs."

That statement outraged Elizabeth Butler.
"I was quite upset that you councilmembers have considered the place that I attend a whorehouse, and therefore, consider me a whore," she said. "I find that repulsive, and I expect a public apology from everyone. [We] do not pay to have sex with anyone, nor do we condone people paying for sex with anyone. We do what we want with other people, with their consent. . . ."

Butler didn't get her apology.
After more than two hours of public testimony on the issue, the council banished swingers' clubs from the city by a 9-0 vote. Three laws that tighten the rules on strip clubs also passed unanimously.

There was no debate among councilmembers. It was a slam dunk, powered by Mayor Skip Rimsza and Councilman John Nelson, who chairs the committee that drafted the new laws.

Though the outcome of the council's vote seemed scripted, the result of an expected court fight over the legality of the new sex laws is not.

Cities can't outlaw or even restrict sex businesses just because city leaders don't like them. It's unconstitutional, unless the government can show that such businesses lead to other crimes or threaten the community's health and safety--so-called "secondary effects."

To survive appellate court scrutiny, the Phoenix laws will have to traverse a legal minefield of First Amendment issues. But the evidence presented by city officials to justify the need for the new laws was tepid.

For example, the City Attorney's Office referred to swingers' clubs as "bawdy houses"--a common-law term for houses of prostitution. But the city offered no evidence that acts of prostitution do occur at swingers' clubs, which bill themselves as places where consenting adults may engage in free sex.

The city also accused the swingers' clubs of being hotbeds for sexually transmitted diseases, but submitted not a shred of proof. (People who have unprotected sex at swingers' clubs certainly have at least as good a chance of contracting an STD as, say, someone who meets a stranger at a mainstream bar.)

In banning the swingers' clubs, and passing the new regulations on strip joints, the city council marked Phoenix as a new battleground in the nationwide legal war over sex businesses.

It's a war zone in which forces on both sides speak in righteous absolutes, but realities are elusive. The rhetoric is intensely passionate, often overstated, sometimes fallacious.

Some who spoke against the new laws insisted that illegal acts are rare at sex businesses. That's ridiculous, especially in all-nude cabarets that feature "private-room dances." Other opponents accused the council of using a smoke screen of public health and safety concerns to cloak its true intent: to legislate sexual morality.

Those advocating the sweeping crackdown included Christian conservatives, self-proclaimed neighborhood activists and police. Religious types raised the specter of "Sodom and Gomorrah," bemoaned lost innocence and vowed to protect children.

The city summarized its case in the prologue to each of the new sex laws:
". . . Such businesses generate secondary effects which are detrimental to the public health, safety and welfare. Such businesses are frequently used for unlawful sexual activities, including public sexual indecency and prostitution, and sexual encounters of a casual nature."

The net effect of the laws includes:
* Swingers' clubs will be shut down January 8.
* Private-room dances at all-nude clubs will be illegal.

* Patrons of topless bars no longer will be able to tip strippers by sliding money into a G-string. Only hand-to-hand tipping with "incidental contact" is now allowed.

* Topless dancers are barred from simulating sex acts, or making "sexual contact" with customers during table dances.

* Strippers will be licensed and required to undergo criminal background checks. Those convicted of a prostitution-related charge in the previous two years won't be allowed to work at Phoenix strip clubs.

Laws governing sex businesses must satisfy constitutional freedom-of-expression safeguards, and prove that a city has good reason to combat "secondary effects" of those businesses.

Conservative Christian activist Len Munsil described those supposed effects in his 1996 tome Protecting Communities From Sexually Oriented Businesses, written when he was executive director of the Scottsdale-based National Family Legal Foundation:

"We know very clearly that where sexually oriented businesses move into a neighborhood, the crime rates go up and the property values go down. . . ."

It's not clear to everyone.
In March, state lawmakers questioned the secondary-effects arguments during debate over a bill to restrict the hours of Arizona sex businesses on Sundays.

Said Christine Weason, a Phoenix Democrat: "Speaking with the police in my district, I find that there is a lot of crime on convenience stores during late hours, outside bars during late hours, in alleys during late hours, but there were not significant instances of crime around these adult-oriented businesses."

Phoenix officials provided scant evidence of secondary effects before the council voted on the new sex laws. The City Attorney's Office did submit a series of thick "Factual Reports," which primarily consist of police records of undercover operations.

But the Factual Reports prove mostly that police have busted many strippers inside sex businesses--by enforcing laws already on the books.

Phoenix vice cops, for instance, have arrested numerous performers at nude cabarets, where customers long have hired dancers to perform in private rooms. Many dancers agreed to perform acts of prostitution in those rooms, according to vice detectives.

The Factual Report on topless clubs details multiple busts where detectives observed dancers breaking the law, for example, by not covering their nipples with liquid latex. They also saw dancers simulate sex acts and grind up against customers during "table dances," one-on-one performances.

That said, the city's Factual Reports don't detail any overriding harm to the "community" at large.

Which isn't to say crime doesn't exist right outside some sex businesses. Open drug dealing and prostitution, for example, were blatant one evening in December in the parking lot of an all-nude cabaret on East Van Buren.

(Curiously, the city reports focus solely on heterosexual, male customer/female performer interactions. There are no details on what goes on at Phoenix's gay sex clubs. And there's no information about whom, if anyone, has been busted during male stripper revues, where tongue-kissing and even crotch-grabbing of performers by female patrons is commonplace.)

In 1994, Phoenix's Planning Department completed a report titled Adult Business Study--Impacts in the Early Evening/Late Morning Hours. It failed to definitively link sex businesses to an increase in crime and blight.

Assistant Phoenix planning director Joy Mee rejected the study--which had been prepared under her direction--in an affidavit filed November 18 in federal court.

"The draft document," Mee said of her own study, "was never adopted because the methodology used to produce the document was flawed and the results were not . . . valid, reliable or meaningful."

The affidavit is part of a case in which Phoenix adult-bookstore owners have challenged a new state law that would limit their hours of operation. In September, U.S. District Judge Earl Carroll issued a temporary restraining order that has prevented the city from enforcing the law.

"[The sex businesses] raise several challenges to the statute's constitutionality that are worthy of litigation," Carroll wrote. "At the outset, the court notes that the statute is . . . aimed primarily at the suppression of First Amendment rights. Therefore, any justification for the statute must be based on the alleviation of adverse secondary effects of the speech-related activities."

Phoenix's new sex laws also seem destined for such dissection.
"We will be availing ourselves of our legal rights," says Christopher Kaup, an attorney for four of the city's six swingers' clubs. "In my opinion, what the city has done is to say where, how and when and with whom citizens inside Phoenix can have sex. It's illegal and wrong."

Certainly, the city's Factual Report on the swingers' clubs is by far the least compelling.

As the report's key evidence, city officials submitted a police report about a pair of underage brothers who watched porno movies after using fake ID cards to gain entry to a club called Impressions. They also included a recent police memo in which a vice cop describes couples in the clubs having unprotected sex.

Officials also presented an unsigned pamphlet of unknown origin addressed to Councilman John Nelson. Titled Citizen Alert, it hurled allegations at the sex businesses, including:

"Many times, topless dancers illegally contract with clientele to meet at these [swingers'] establishments. Prohibiting these clubs limits the spread of disease (to unwitting spouses, future partners) and will increase the property values of those who live by this blight."

The anonymous author listed no sources, and Nelson--chairman of the council's subcommittee on Ethics and Public Safety--required none. He did not respond to more than a dozen requests from New Times for an interview.

Rimsza, who likes to portray himself as a politician willing to speak with all comers, also declined to explain his rationale.

The mayor, according to a spokesman, "has already said all he has to say about the subject."

At the December 9 public hearing, all the mayor had to say about the sex laws was "yes," when it was his turn to vote.

For venerable Phoenix lawyer Dick Hertzberg, the current climate on the city's sex industry is as predictable as the summer heat.

"Here's how it is," says Hertzberg, an expert in First Amendment law. "Every five years or so, some elected official gets revved up, and off they go. Sex businesses make an easy target for politicians. The police are gonna do what they're gonna do--enforce the law. Vice cops are basically honest, and it's not that hard to find violations of some sort. But cracking down on sex is always political first."

My local officials have stated that there is absolutely no correlation between the activities of these businesses and any of the sex crimes. I agree that we think a lot of gross, awful, nasty things occur at these businesses. But I don't think it translates into people committing rape, murder and mayhem.

--Representative Roberta Voss, a Glendale Republican, speaking at the Legislature last March

"Yo, man, you need a rock?"
The cocaine dealer outside the Blue Moon Restaurant and Lounge has the eyes of a panicked horse as he approaches two men leaving the all-nude cabaret on East Van Buren at 29th Street.

The pair wave off the drug dealer, who shuffles toward the sidewalk, muttering. The men cross a gravel parking lot to their car. Three young hookers swarm the vehicle.

"Where you going?" asks one.
"Just cruising around," the driver replies, hastily keying the lock. A second prostitute approaches the car's passenger side.

"Can I talk to you for a second?"
"What's up?" asks the passenger, as he takes his seat in the car.
She kneels between his open car door and its interior.

"Did you like watching those ladies in there shaking their asses? Did it get you hard?"

She grabs the passenger's crotch.
"Oooh, I guess not. I can get you hard."
"Thanks," he sputters, reaching to close his door. "Have a good evening."
The hooker's warm smile turns to ice, and she walks away.

Drug dealers and whores have haunted East Van Buren for longer than the Blue Moon. Still, the scene outside the club at 2 a.m. was a sex-business foe's wet dream--a living example of "secondary effects."

But there also were no police in sight. A patrol car would have scattered the "secondary effects," at least temporarily, to other locations.

Inside the Blue Moon, a gaunt man collects a cover charge of $10. The small, round tables and booths along the walls are filled.

Most of the 70 or so men packing the cabaret are Latinos in urban cowboy garb--dressy jeans, boots, colorful Western shirts, hats. A dozen strippers are on duty, and they're having a lousy night.

A dancer with big auburn hair and a trail-worn smile says the Blue Moon halted its private-room dances after the council passed the new laws. That's where the money was, she complains, and her earnings have been cut in half.

"Hey, you," a short, shrill dancer exclaims in Spanish at a man in a white hat. "Stop playing with yourself! Come back here with me!"

The man rises sheepishly and ambles after her. The stripper leads him toward a dark section of the club designated for table dances. There, a beefy, stern-faced man--an employee of Blue Moon--watches three dancers writhe naked for customers who sit stonily in their chairs.

"Hurry up!" the stripper orders her mark. She rolls her hands in feigned exasperation. "I'm so horny! I can't wait!"

The man steps up his gait as other customers roll with laughter.
Table dances at the Blue Moon cost a minimum of $10, plus tips, which are negotiated in advance. "The more you tip," a stripper promises, "the sexier the dance."

The dancers take turns on the cabaret's stage, which is a platform with a gold pole in front of a smudged, wall-length mirror. Each performs a three-song program--the first one in their floor costume, the second topless, and the third one nude.

A funky jukebox with a slim selection of Eighties power ballads and sugary Mexican pop songs serves as a sound system. Each song cuts off after four minutes, whether it's over or not. Between each dance, the strippers must descend a set of stairs, select their next song, and return to the stage.

A sturdy blonde with dark roots strides onto the stage in a black gown. Her first song, Bon Jovi's "I'll Be There for You," ends abruptly during the last chorus.

Twenty men line the platform's perimeter, the best seats in the house. But they're being stingy. No one has tipped her yet. Not a cent.

The dancer angrily clambers down the stairs and punches in the same Bon Jovi tune. She reascends the stage, and peels down her dress to expose her breasts.

Still no tips. The blonde removes her clothes after cranking up her third and final song. But she won't dance. Instead, she sits with her legs together, arms covering her breasts, and picks at her finger tips.

The men just stare at her. It's a standoff.
Three guys finally toss a crumpled dollar each onto the stage. One of them makes a parting-the-sea gesture with his hands.

"That costs more than a dollar," she says, refusing to spread her legs.
The man puts two more dollars at her feet. Squatting on her haunches now, the stripper widens her legs to expose her vagina. The man leans forward to get a better look, then settles back in his chair and nods.

The song cuts off. The blonde gives her audience a middle finger as she leaves the stage.

I'd like to move this along so we can all get on with our holiday shopping. Now, I would ask us all to be constructive as we move through these discussions. There's always differences of opinions on these things, and I would ask specifically that you don't applaud when you hear somebody say something that you like. And I won't let anybody boo. That way, we can move through this in a professional and constructive manner and really respect the process that we're really so proud of in America, which is the public process, which made this country so great.

--Mayor Skip Rimsza, at the start of the December 9 city council meeting

Phoenix attorney Dick Hertzberg has represented sex-business owners in court for 35 years. He's no zealot, just an advocate who says he wouldn't want a strip joint in his own neighborhood.

During the Eighties, he had almost more work than he could handle, thanks to a high-profile effort by then-Maricopa County attorney Tom Collins to crush Valley sex businesses--especially "mom and pop" video stores that rented porn.

Collins first won election in 1980, due in part to the financial backing of megadeveloper Charles Keating's powerful Citizens for Decency Through Law. Keating's organization lobbied politicians and contributed money to their campaigns, bought newspaper ads, and lent attorneys to prosecutors in preparation for obscenity trials.

Its influence waned after Keating's own illegal business practices led to his felony convictions and a prison term. Many conservative organizations have arisen from CDL's ashes, including the National Family Legal Foundation.

Formed in 1990 and funded privately, the nonprofit aims to provide "direct legal assistance and educational resources to those concerned about health and crime issues affecting children and their neighborhoods, particularly the sexual violence empirically proven to accompany sexual oriented businesses and illegal (including child) pornography."

NFLF executive director and general counsel Scott Bergthold says officials from more than 400 communities across the United States have contacted his foundation with "requests for assistance" since he assumed the helm last year.

From that list, Bergthold says, NFLF has worked directly with 238 municipalities, 43 of which have enacted laws similar to those recently passed in Phoenix. He adds that five of those jurisdictions currently are enmeshed in court battles, including Cumberland, Wisconsin, population 2,163.

"It's just the nicest little town, a true Norman Rockwell, Americana setting," Bergthold says. "At Christmastime, they have real greenery on the light poles, and Christmas lights on all the townspeople's beautiful Victorian homes. And then . . . there's this big sign that says, 'Nude Girls Here.' It's a clear and present threat to their way of life."

The problem arose, Bergthold says, because Cumberland is near a state highway. Last year, an interloper opened an all-nude strip club on Cumberland's outskirts.

"The city council began to receive reports of women sticking pickles in their body parts," he says. "Then they called us."

NFLF helped Cumberland officials devise a law that declared the new club a public nuisance, and shut it down. Its proprietor appealed. Last November 5, a federal district court declared Cumberland's ordinance unconstitutional.

Bergthold returned recently from the northern Wisconsin town, where he convinced Cumberland officials to appeal the ruling to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, a step below the U.S. Supreme Court.

"I went out there to encourage them with the news that they will likely win on appeal," he says, adding that he's offered to personally represent the town on appeal, free of charge.

Of NFLF's involvement in Phoenix's new sex laws, Bergthold says the City Attorney's Office contacted him for assistance in researching and writing the ordinance that banned swingers' clubs.

Like Len Munsil, his predecessor at NFLF, Bergthold is articulate, well-schooled, and a self-avowed conservative Christian. Both say they've never been inside a sex business.

"I don't need to get shot to know that a bullet hurts, and I don't need to go in one of these places to know they're harmful to the community," says Munsil, who now is president of another advocacy group, the Center for Arizona Policy.

Although he's never set foot in a sexually oriented establishment, Munsil has advice for anyone who would venture into one: "Wear heavy clothes, and an old pair of shoes you're willing to discard, as soon as you leave."

Bergthold and Munsil express confidence that their legal strategies are sound. But law books are replete with examples of courts overturning sex-related ordinances such as Cumberland's--and Phoenix's.

The U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that sex businesses are subject to zoning laws, just like other businesses. But a city must take pains not to trample on the constitutional rights of sex businesses and their employees.

It's a delicate balancing act.
Elected officials often go too far when crafting sex-related ordinances. On October 21, for example, an appellate court overturned Erie, Pennsylvania's 1994 ordinance against nude dancing in that city.

The court said an "unmentioned purpose" of the Erie law had been designed to suppress free expression: "The . . . act of dancing nude, with its attendant erotic message, is an expressive act entitled to First Amendment protection."

In its decision, the Pennsylvania court referred to the pivotal U.S. Supreme Court case of Barnes v. Glen Theatre.

Though hopelessly fragmented, a 5-4 Supreme Court majority in 1991 upheld an Indiana law that banned totally nude dancing in bars and other adult establishments. All but one justice, however, agreed that stripping is "expressive conduct" that falls under the First Amendment.

Voting with the majority, Justice David Souter said governments have a legitimate interest in combatting secondary effects of adult entertainment. But the court in the recent Erie case relied on Justice Byron "Whizzer" White's minority opinion in Barnes:

"We find it highly circuitous to prevent rape, prostitution and other sex crimes by requiring dancers in a liquor establishment to wear pasties and a G-string before appearing on stage. We believe that imposing criminal and civil sanctions on those who commit sex crimes such as prostitution and rape would be a far narrower way of furthering that governmental interest."

Some cities have heeded White's thinking. Others have not.
An example of the latter is a City of Scottsdale law that defined a striptease performer as someone "who appears in various degrees of undress . . . and employs body motions, including but not limited to torso gyrations, bumps and grinds, or gesticulations."

City prosecutors in 1987 charged topless dancer Teresa Tina Western with breaking that law during a performance at a Scottsdale nightclub. Specifically, she was charged with violating a provision that stated: "Striptease performers shall not pass their hands over their bodies or the body of any other person . . . in such a manner that the hands touch the body at any point, or engage in any motions simulating a sex act. Bumps and grinds shall not be made adjacent to a curtain or any other object, thing or person, nor from a reclining or horizontal position."

Western was convicted of the misdemeanor, and appealed, claiming the laws were vague and overbroad. The Arizona Supreme Court agreed with her.

"Obviously, some body motions make one a striptease performer, but others do not. . . ." Justice Stanley Feldman wrote in 1991. "This defendant is easy game--a topless dancer in a bar. Would the police as easily enter the municipal auditorium (assuming, like many, it served either food or alcohol before performance or at intermission) and seize the soprano playing Salome, perhaps arresting the rest of the cast, the orchestra, and the producer as accomplices?"

Western's case now is before the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Though there are untold appellate cases about topless clubs, adult bookstores and other obscenity issues, New Times found nothing on point involving swingers' clubs.

"Once again, Arizona may be stepping into uncharted legal waters," says attorney Christopher Kaup. "We haven't found anything specifically on swingers' clubs, either. Maybe it's because most cities don't focus on them because they generally don't cause many problems."

John Nelson, chairman of the city council's Ethics and Public Safety, faced Willian "Billie" Marcus, co-owner of the west Phoenix swingers' club Guys and Dolls.

It was October 28. The four proposed new sex laws had been conceived in Nelson's subcommittee, and he now presided over the first of three hearings designed to take public comment before the full council voted.

Few were in attendance as Marcus scolded Nelson from the podium.
"We've repeatedly asked for documentation, any form of proof, that these type of clubs are detrimental to the community," Marcus said. "We have received none. Therefore, we must conclude that these proposed ordinances are based solely on moral prejudice, not reality."

Nelson grunted noncommittally. Marcus continued:
"Have you even done a comparative analysis between adult social clubs and nearby bars, in terms of police calls and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases? Do you have anything concrete to offer?"

The councilman responded briefly, "I think the Factual Reports on this issue are available in the city clerk's office."

Those reports definitively establish the following:
* Swingers' clubs run racy advertisements in sex-oriented magazines.
* Consenting adults do have sex inside swingers' clubs, and many of them practice unprotected sex.

Most of the report on swingers' clubs consists of salacious advertisements and puffy write-ups culled from Playtime magazine, a Valley monthly that covers the local sex scene.

A Playtime advertorial placed in the record is titled "Discretions: A Disneyland for Big Kids."

"Ten years ago, a place like this would be extremely rare," it reads. "Now it's extremely commonplace. Maybe in ten years they'll be ubiquitous, like Circle Ks. Because people like to fuck, that's what they do, and once you remove the guilt and religious dogma, the thang is wide open, baby."

Another cheesily seductive advertisement, this one for the west Phoenix swingers' club Encounters, shows a photo of three vixens cuddled in a hot tub below the words "LETS PARTY [sic]."

How the Playtime copy bolstered the city's case is debatable. After all, sex does sell, whether it's toothpaste or a swingers' club. But brushing with a new, improved brand of winterfresh gel doesn't ensure a moment of passion.

Neither, it turns out, does an evening inside a swingers' club, despite what city councilmembers may suspect.

Says District 4 councilman Phil Gordon, "I believe that the owners--not the patrons who are being victimized by the owners--who are charging people to engage in sex, how does this person differ from a pimp?"

That's easy, say swingers' club owners. They aren't guaranteeing their patrons sex.

"When it comes to what actually goes on inside a place like this," says Billie Marcus of Guys and Dolls, "those people on the city council are as ignorant as a box of rocks."

What actually is going on inside her club, a few days before the council's December 9 vote, is this:

The heavy-metal anthem "You Shook Me All Night Long" blares in the background. About 30 people are inside, but the only one doing any shaking for everyone to see is a Glendale woman in her 30s.

The self-described homemaker slides naked down a pole on a small stage, as her husband stands at the bar. Two men and a woman--all clothed--kneel below her on a carpeted step. As the song climaxes, the woman observer crawls onto the stage and presses her face between the housewife's thighs for a few seconds.

It is the only act of public sex during a 90-minute period at Guys and Dolls, but it probably hasn't been the only sex occurring. Four couples emerge separately from private sex rooms and leave the club.

"A lot of our members are what I call soccer mom swingers," Marcus says, "the ones you see here tonight, with two, three or four kids. They get dressed up all sexy, and they hire a sitter and come here to let loose, and then go home, rather than get a hotel room for the night."

Not everyone inside Guys and Dolls are spouses out to "let loose." As was the case at Discretions, a naked fat guy is sitting alone in a hot tub, and a lonely soul masturbates in a porn room.

The vibe at Guys and Dolls, though, is more familial than at Discretions. Most of the patrons seem to know each other and what to expect, and the place lacks Discretions' desperate, vaguely predatory atmosphere.

Then there's Impressions, a swingers' club in Sunnyslope that is the only one of the six Phoenix clubs located in a residential area.

The club's employees are lax in checking identification, and there's no membership application process.

The crowd at Impressions is at least 200 strong, and is younger, hipper and more stylish than those at the other two swingers' clubs. The deejay plays hip-hop and electronic dance music, not heavy metal.

Impressions appears to draw mainly from two demographics: young people of all sexual stripe who like to dance dirty (including strippers who apparently don't get enough dancing on the job) and older heterosexual couples, who watch, rapt, as the younger set freaks to the insistent beat of a drum machine.

A cluster of middle-aged men hovers near halls that lead to the club's "viewing rooms"--bed chambers with windows. Whenever a couple approaches a viewing room, the men troll after them. Their presence convinces each would-be exhibitionist to retreat to the safety of the dance floor.

In the city's Factual Report on swingers' clubs, officials included transcripts of zoning hearings held earlier this year, which described lurid undercover accounts of sexual shenanigans inside Impressions. (Police say they did their investigation at the Zoning Department's request.)

The hearings considered whether Impressions should be classified as an "erotic dance or performance studio," which Phoenix zoning laws define as "a business which emphasizes and seeks, through one or more dancers or other performers, to arouse or excite the patrons' sexual desires."

This was important because Phoenix zoning laws ban such establishments within 500 feet of a residence. Impressions is.

Previously, only topless and all-nude strip clubs have been classified as "erotic dance studios." For zoning purposes, swingers' clubs have been treated as private social clubs.

Zoning officials heard testimony from "Inspector Z," an investigator with the Neighborhood Services Department. The mysterious inspector--who attended the hearing in disguise--read from his report of sexual encounters inside the club:

"The two subjects, who I will refer to as Couple #1, proceeded to a stairwell north of my location and entered the southernmost glass-paneled room. I observed the male subject of Couple #1 laying on his back on the bed. The female assistant was removing the male's pants and then proceeded to mount him. After a few moments of this easily viewed sexual act, the female lifted her blouse and a white undergarment up, exposing her breasts. When this encounter was complete, Couple #1 swapped positions, with the female subject on all fours, and the male conducting sexual intercourse with her from behind. . . .

"Throughout the night/morning, the bartender, Monique, would take breaks and spend time at a table located northeast of the dance floor, occupied by several males and females. Monique spent most of her time rubbing, caressing, kissing, fondling, humping and cuddling a blonde female subject wearing a short black dress and knee-high boots. All these actions were reciprocated by the other female who, at one time, put her hand between Monique's legs, up her dress, appearing as though penetrating her. After withdrawing her hand, she rubbed it on Monique's face, allowing her to suck the blonde subject's fingers."

Inspector Z's summaries prove only that he may have a future as a pulp porn author. But Phoenix police lieutenant Larry Jacobs tells New Times it's laughable for anyone to suggest--as Impressions' owners have--that the club runs a clean ship.

"We have documented any number of illegal activities at that place," says Jacobs, who heads the department's vice squad. "It's not as if we're out to get Impressions or anyone, for that matter. What I personally think about sex clubs or whatever is irrelevant. Our job is to enforce laws, period, whatever they may be. Impressions has broken laws again and again."

Zoning officials ruled that, for its purposes, Impressions is an "erotic dance studio." The club's attorneys appealed to the City Attorney's Office, which agreed not to rule until after the council voted on the new sex laws. But since one of those laws shuts down Impressions, the exercise--short of a successful court fight--has been rendered moot.

Agent noticed another dancer who later gave us her name as 'Cat.' . . . Agent viewed this dancer sitting in the lap of the customer facing away from him. Dancer would move up and down on his genital area in a simulation of sexual intercourse. She stated, "Yee haw, ride 'em," as she gyrated up and down on his genital area.

--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

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >