The day Ohio lawmakers were set to vote, two dozen shapely young women sporting tight pink t-shirts filed into the House chamber. The battle was already lost – they didn’t need a whip count to tell them that – but they weren’t about to go down without a fight. Or at least a well-executed publicity stunt.
The women sat together in the upper balcony, prompting more than a few nervous smiles from the representatives below, and waited quietly as legislative procedure progressed. When their bill finally came up, the women stood in unison, held up a handmade banner that read “Dancers for Democracy,” and began shouting. The speaker pounded his gavel, security guards escorted the demonstrators out of the building, and the Ohio legislature went on to approve one of the toughest crackdowns on the adult entertainment industry since the Puritans colonized Plymouth.
Since Ohio’s Citizens Defense Act passed in 2007, at least 20 U.S. cities and states have considered laws that target strip clubs, outlawing lap dances, reducing hours of operation and even mandating a dress code for pole dancers (in Memphis, strippers now have to wear opaque panties and keep their nipples covered).
The resulting clashes have stayed off the national stage so far – fought, instead, in small-town churches and feisty city council meetings – but the battle lines separate two familiar foes: social liberals and family values Christians.
A glimpse at the inner workings of these local debates reveals a restless religious right that could be getting ready to storm back into the national arena with their hearts set on culture war – just in time for the 2012 election.
Familiar war tactics
Like the culture war battles of years past, the local fights over strip club regulation are characterized by fierce (and often colorful) grassroots campaigning.
In the Buckeye State, the bubbly “Dancers for Democracy” weren’t the only ones who tried to make their case with headline-grabbing antics. Advocates of the crackdown dispatched so-called “prayer warriors” to follow local lawmakers in public and pray aloud for their vote.
Their prayers may have been answered, but the right’s most effective weapon in the Ohio campaign was probably the extensive contact list the Citizens for Community Values (CCV) had amassed during its 2004 push to ban same-sex marriage in the state.
In 2005, after the state legislature ignored the group’s calls for a crackdown on sex businesses, Phil Burress, president of the CCV, rallied his troops and quickly collected 220,000 signatures, forcing lawmakers to act on their proposed bill within four months. It passed with 75 percent of the vote in both houses.
“We have about 100,000 e-mail addresses for pro-family activists in Ohio,” Burress said. “It’s quite an organization.”
Indeed, the continued success of local groups like the CCV is persuasive evidence that the religious right may be a sleeping giant in national politics. Aligned with a powerful network of Christian ministries and think tanks – including Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council – the CCV has the resources and drive to catapult an issue to the forefront of public debate and alter election outcomes in the process.
In fact, some pundits credit Burress and his grassroots warriors, who turned gay marriage into a major wedge issue in Ohio in 2004, with the re-election of George W. Bush.
As for the adult entertainment industry, attempts at grassroots guerilla warfare have proven less fruitful.
In 2007, a group of Ohio club owners pooled their money to hire a professional signature-gatherer, hoping to force a voter referendum on the new crackdown. But they ended up suing him when allegations surfaced that the petition included thousands of names copied straight out of the phone book.
Last summer, in Missouri, the owner of Rumors Cabaret tried to rally the free love crowd – and make some extra cash – by advertising a “lap dance liquidation sale” before a new law took effect that mandated a six-foot buffer between strippers and patrons. The bump-and-grind campaign was a hit with the regulars, but it did nothing to prevent the impending crackdown. According to the Missouri alt-weekly Vox, the club is now calling itself a “bikini bar” in order to circumvent a law that prohibits strip clubs from serving alcohol. Lap dances are still offered there, but everyone keeps their clothes on.
Predictable battle cries
Buxom strippers and buttoned-down lawmakers alike have relied on predictable culture war rhetoric in these debates, with industry advocates accusing social conservatives of “legislating morality,” and groups like the CCV decrying the societal ills being perpetrated by social progressives.
Angelina Spencer, national director of the strip club trade group Association of Club Executives, has been one of the leading advocates for professional dirty dancers.
A former stripper herself, she takes special issue with the no-touching rule (“How are men supposed to tip?”), as well as the stripper/patron buffer that has been mandated in Ohio and Missouri.
“The idea that we would regulate based on personal space is ridiculous. What’s next? Religion? Journalism?” Spencer said. “Ninety-five percent of all this type of legislation has a fundamental religious bias to it.”
But Burress insists the crackdown is driven by more than religious dogma, pointing to the landmark Land Use Studies (presented as evidence to the Supreme Court in 1986) that showed the presence of porn shops and strip clubs in a given city lead to increased crime, decreased property values and urban blight.
“It takes five or ten years for a depressed community to rebound after the sex businesses are moved out,” Burress said. “People have a right to defend their communities against these things.”
Of course, not everyone in the family values crowd is using the pragmatism defense.
Missouri state Sen. Matt Bartle, who devoted the lion’s share of his career in the Missouri state Senate to crusading against the adult entertainment industry, says legislating morality is the point.
“Laws make moral determinations,” Bartle told an NPR affiliate in the Ozarks. “They set parameters up. Our society believes that one person shouldn’t be allowed to kill another person. Well, that’s a moral judgment. That’s our job – is to, kind of set the bar.”
When politicians are answering questions about Christian morals instead of moral hazard, it’s hard to argue that the recession put an end to the culture war. For now, it’s being fought at the grassroots level. The question is: how long will it stay there?