Lap Victory

How a DA's decision to drop prostitution charges against lap dancers will change the sexual culture of S.F. -- and, perhaps, the country

At 5 p.m. on Wednesday, May 5, three undercover vice squad officers walked into the nearly empty New Century lap-dancing theater and were, they say, all openly and unapologetically solicited for sex almost before their eyes had adjusted to the darkness. On May 18, the identical scenario unfolded at the Market Street Cinema. Nine dancers and three club managers were arrested during the two raids. The dancers were charged with prostitution, the managers with "keeping a house of ill repute."

It's not clear why, after years of turning a blind eye to long-standing sexual activity in the clubs, the vice squad decided to raid the theaters. The timing was especially odd given that Police Chief Heather Fong and Vice Squad Lt. Joe Dutto had recently met with District Attorney Kamala Harris and agreed to postpone police action at the clubs until issues related to "abuse of the dancers, police misconduct during [past] arrests, and selective enforcement" could be addressed, according to a press release from the DA¹s Office.

The Chronicle's Matier and Ross suggest the vice squad may have dumped the politically delicate prostitution issue into Harris¹ lap to get back at her for not seeking the death sentence for an alleged cop killer in a recent, widely publicized murder case. Vice inspector Rich McNaughton says police wanted to check the prosecutorial resolve of the Newsom-Harris administration around sex-work issues. "Not knowing what the new DA was going to do with these cases, we felt we had to test the waters," he says. Veteran sex-work activist Carol Leigh thinks the raids were prompted by an article, five months earlier, in the Bay Guardian that described sexual activity in the clubs, including allegations by some dancers that they were subject to "coercion and assault" in the clubs' private booths.

Whatever the police motivation, Harris set all political delicacy aside when she announced, a month after the raids, that she had no intention of prosecuting any of the people who had been arrested. "Prostitution and regulatory violations at the clubs raise complex issues involving worker safety, exploitation of women, equity, and fair notice," she said in a statement dismissing the arrests. Until she had time to examine these issues more carefully, she said, she was not about to invest her office's time or money on anything as inconsequential as lap dancing. She announced the formation of an "Adult Clubs Working Group," co-chaired by her office and the office of the city attorney, to examine issues related to the lap-dancing clubs and "develop enforcement options" for the future.

While Harris is not going so far as to publicly support decriminalization of prostitution in San Francisco, she has said for the record that 1) her primary concern about the lap-dancing theaters is the safety of the women who work there, not the sexual nature of their work, and 2) she intends to "prioritize murders, rapes, and narcotics crimes higher than whether people are paying for consensual sex in the theaters' private booths."

Twenty-five years after nude dancers first came down from the stage to sit with amazed customers at the O'Farrell Theatre, hundreds of lap-dancing clubs comprise a network of entertainment and commerce that is a significant part of the sexual culture of every major American city, and many minor ones as well. The tenor of lap-dancing clubs varies from elegant to sleazy; working conditions run the gamut from pleasant to abominable; income for dancers can be anything from extravagant to minimal. Lap-dance privacy within the clubs goes from nonexistent to near-complete, and the degree of sexual contact slides from none to playful wriggling to surreptitious touching to full sexuality -- depending on local laws, law enforcement priorities, club policies, individual dancer preferences, even time of day.

People in other parts of the country laugh at San Franciscans for thinking they're the most evolved sexual citizens on the planet, but San Francisco has a long history of leading the nation in matters of sex, sex work, and sexual openness. Kamala Harris' decision to refocus the concerns of law enforcement -- from moral indignation over lap dancing to the protection of lap dancers -- has all but decriminalized prostitution that happens in a private booth at a strip club, rather than on the street. The decision reflects a largely unpublicized consensus among politicians, neighborhood groups, strip club owners, dancers, and customers on the value of private sexual entertainment to San Francisco. The decision also has the potential to influence the policies of other cities as they craft their own responses to this latest addition to the American sex-entertainment palette.

Lap dancing came to San Francisco in 1980 when Jim and Artie Mitchell decided to have dancers at their O'Farrell Theatre sit, nude, on the laps of guys in the audience, for tips. The innovation put a whole new face on sexual entertainment in the city. Suddenly, for a $1 tip, guys in the audience could sit with, roll around with, and (to some ill-defined extent) touch the nude bodies of their revered fantasy objects. The "fourth wall" of theater -- the imaginary barrier through which an audience sees the action of a play -- had been torn down. Fantasy and reality were one.

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