G-strings, juicebars and justice

In Iowa, it's easier to ogle dancing girls drunk than sober.

By Julia Barton

Published August 18, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

DES MOINES, IOWA -- michelle Flagstad remembers the rainy afternoon in May when her job became illegal. She had her curlers in her hair, getting ready for the commute from her home in Des Moines to her workplace in Ames, when her boss called. "We're closed indefinitely," the boss said. Why? "Go out and buy a newspaper."

From the headline story, Flagstad learned that Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad had just signed a bill making nude dancing in non-alcoholic bars a crime -- and that's exactly what the 21-year-old English major at Drake University had been doing two nights a week to put herself through college. Years ago, the state had invoked its liquor-licensing authority to require at least G-strings and pastie coverage at premises serving alcohol. But four establishments -- including Blondie's, the bar where Flagstad worked -- got around the restriction by selling no booze at all. And that was the way that Flagstad wanted it.

"I can handle a sober proposition [from a patron] better than a drunken one that goes on and on," she says. But these nude "juice bars" infuriated conservative lawmakers, who wrote legislation outlawing any glimpse of "the genitals or female breast nipple" of entertainers at all places with a sales tax permit -- unless that person, in the judgment of the state, qualifies as a theatrical performer.

But Flagstad has not lost her job yet. The Iowa Civil Liberties Union won an injunction against the new law until Tuesday, when a constitutional challenge to the law will be heard in federal district court. "Nude dancing almost always occurs in a private forum where only consenting adults see it," says Randall Wilson, legal director of the ICLU, which has filed the challenge on behalf of three juice bar owners and a dancer. "The government's interest in stopping it is non-existent."

But other state and local authorities don't see it that way. Battles like Iowa's are going on across the country, and they're not limited to the provinces. Employees, patrons and owners of more than 100 sexually oriented businesses in New York City, backed by the New York Civil Liberties Union, are suing to overturn a new zoning ordinance that would confine their activities to a few industrial areas and wetlands. The zoning ordinance affects the human body as well: It forbids both men and women from exposing their genitalia (especially if the men are in a "discernibly turgid state"); and in a move that would make New York more prudish than Iowa, it bans the sight of a female dancer's breasts at any point "below the top of the areola."

Proponents of nudity restrictions argue they're not out to crush freedom of expression among consenting adults, only to protect neighborhoods, women and children. "Special places for nude dancing create specific harmful effects," says Scott Bergthold, director of legal affairs for the National Family Legal Foundation, a Phoenix agency that helped craft Iowa's anti-juice bar dancing law. "Those include prostitution of female dancers and an increase of indecent exposure, rape and assaults on police officers in the area."

Civil libertarians say the evidence supporting such claims is flimsy and inconclusive. They also point out that the courts have demanded higher standards when it comes to censoring forms of expression. "If I make a contentious speech in a public park, the state can't just ban it because they don't want people to riot," Wilson says.

Both the Iowa and New York cases may end up converging at the U.S. Supreme Court, and it won't be the first time the Court has considered the First Amendment rights of nipples and pudenda. In the 1991 case Barnes vs. Glen Theater, the court ruled that while nude dancing deserves a measure of constitutional protection, states could require G-strings and pasties in the interest of "societal order and morality." But the 5-4 decision (with three concurring opinions and a solid dissent) was so confused, says Marjorie Heins, director of the ACLU's Arts Censorship Project, that civil libertarians can still challenge state restrictions on nudity in court.

Meanwhile, juice bar dancers and owners in Iowa are bracing for the worst. One club in the appropriately named town of Mount Joy attempted to sidestep the impending law in May by changing its name from the Southern Comfort Lounge to the Southern Comfort Free Theatre for the Performing Arts. Local law enforcement raided the place as soon as the ink from the governor's pen had dried. "The dancer was female," wrote the arresting officer, "and she did not have any clothes on." If the courts uphold the law, Southern Comfort's manager could face a year in jail and a $1,500 fine.

Michelle Flagstad can't figure out how a G-string over her nether regions would preserve the safety and morality of Iowans. She says it would do nothing to protect her if Blondie's becomes the sort of place the state does allow, where near-naked dancers prance before drunken men.

But as one who's had plenty of time to observe the prurient interests of Iowans, Flagstad can understand why everyone from the governor to her patrons seems obsessed with what is really a small patch of her overall physique. The sight of it may not be a big deal to her, or to most women, she says, "but to men -- it's all the difference in the world."

Julia Barton

Julia Barton is a writer who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her website is juliabarton.com.

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