City councils consider setting lap dance limits

Thursday, June 26, 2003 at 1:00am

To hear the women who testified this week before the Los Angeles City Council, it's a simple matter of bread and butter. They're just trying to support their families, or work their way through school, or build a better life.

It's the way they do it that's causing controversy.

"We cuddle," one 23-year-old woman testified. "You should be able to reach out to somebody when they're needy," she said, describing her relationship with one widower in his 80s.

The relationship takes place in the VIP room of a local club. The woman is a stripper. The man tells her his problems while she rubs her body against his. The neighbors are complaining.

At issue is the legality of lap dancing. From Scotland to southern California, local councils are considering new regulations to restrict what strippers and their customers can do together. In Los Angeles, a new proposed ordinance that would ban lap dancing and entertaining in VIP rooms, prohibit customers from touching strippers or directly giving them tips, and impose a "6 feet" rule as the minimum distance between dancers and customers is bringing a subject that usually exists in the dark out into the open.

The women argue that they need the money to pay their rent, support their children, and also pay for their breast implants. No one will tip if they can't touch. Six feet away is too far. Who will measure?

The club owners, virtually all of them men, argue that there is more prostitution on the street corners downtown than in the VIP rooms of their clubs; that opponents are trying to regulate morality, violate constitutional freedoms, and destroy their businesses.

The neighbors argue that there are too many clubs; that zoning laws that limit their location don't work; and that only by limiting the activities of the dancers will the "secondary effects" of these businesses, such as drugs and prostitution, be addressed.

This week, after a second day of hearings, the Los Angeles City Council voted to send the proposal back to committee for further study. The move was applauded by the dancers and denounced by the homeowners.

Meanwhile, half a world away, the Glasgow council is taking the lead in opposing an application for a new lap-dancing club and letting it be known that it will seek to revoke the licenses of existing clubs when they come up for renewal. The first lap-dancing club in Scotland opened four years ago; there are now five such clubs in Edinburgh, four in Glasgow, and three in Aberdeen.

In topless clubs in Los Angeles, dancers generally pay club owners for the right to "perform." In some clubs, dancers even give a percentage of their tips to the owners. Even so, the women make more money "cuddling" than they could waitressing, typing, or even teaching school. Women make more pretending to want sex with men they don't care a bit about than taking care of or teaching children.

The debate over lap dancing is, of course, similar to the debate over legalizing prostitution. Of course, in that case, there are serious health risks, as well. But advocates claim that legalization would reduce those risks.

What is striking in both cases is that while most of the money is still made by the men who own the clubs and the brothels, the reality is that there is no other way for a woman to make as much money as by selling her sexuality. Does taking that right away protect women or punish them?

Many of the women are single mothers. "I don't think you understand what kind of effect this will have on these women and their families," one club manager told the council. "This is the only way they put food on their table."

Lap dancing at night pays for the kids' cereal in the morning. Whose fault is that?

Susan Estrich is a syndicated columnist.

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