Taxing strip clubs for rape

Politicians are holding adult entertainment venues responsible for funding sexual assault services

Published May 27, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)


It used to be that strip clubs were merely blamed for society's ills. Now they're actually being charged for it.

In recent years, measures have been introduced in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Texas, Illinois and, most recently, California to apply special taxes to strip clubs -- specifically to fund sexual assault services. Now, even if you aren't inclined to view erotic entertainment as the source of all evil, this might seem an appropriate aim -- who wants to argue against additional support for rape survivors? It would seem even more so when you consider politicians' and activists' repeated claims of solid scientific evidence showing a link between strip clubs -- specifically those that sell alcohol -- and sexual violence.

That is, until you look at the alleged proof.

The key study advocates point to is one commissioned by the Texas Legislature in 2009. But that very report states, "no study has authoritatively linked alcohol, sexually oriented business, and the perpetration of sexual violence." What's more, when I talked to Bruce Kellison, director of the Bureau of Business Research at the University of Texas at Austin, and one of the authors of the report, about the alleged link between strip clubs and sexual assault, he said, "That's not really what our study was trying to do."

What it was trying to do was review the research on whether clubs have a "negative secondary effect" (in other words, harmful side effects). "Most of the [research] has found that there is a moderate amount of increased criminal activity outside of clubs," he said. That's a point contested by some: Daniel Linz, a communications and law professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says studies used to support restrictive zoning or special taxes on strip clubs are methodologically flawed -- they fail to use appropriate controls and rely on inconsistent and unreliable data sources. Take, for example, that zoning laws often relegate strip clubs to shadier parts of town, where, of course, there is greater crime. Without an appropriate control, that crime can't be attributed to the club itself.

According to a study Linz conducted, "Those studies that are scientifically credible demonstrate either no negative secondary effects associated with adult businesses or a reversal of the presumed negative effect." He tells me, "We've done crime map after crime map after crime map of many cities and there just aren't clusters of crime around [strip clubs]. Most crime in most cities tends to occur around high schools." Tax the teens!

That's just to speak of crime in general. The important thing here, given the aim of these tax initiatives, is sex crime. The Texas report looked at the incidence of sexual violence in particular inside the clubs and found that there wasn't "additional sexual assault violence going on in the clubs," says Kellison, or even around the clubs.

Again, as with many things in this arena, that's contested by some. Richard McCleary, a criminology professor at the University of California, Irvine, whom Linz says he's had a "10-year scientific battle with," argues that there is a sexual violence impact, but not the kind that these initiatives imply. He cites a 1998 survey of "a small sample" of adult entertainers that found a high rate of reported sexual victimization inside or nearby the club. This contradicts the findings of the Texas report, however. It's also important to note that the proposed special taxes don't go directly toward victimized dancers; the intended target is much broader than that.

McCleary also backs up his assertion saying that street prostitutes "are attracted to the neighborhood because of the clientele and that tends to be an extremely violent trade." Even if we're to presume that street prostitutes are driven to strip club neighborhoods in droves, and that they in general experience a high level of violence in their work, it isn't a direct consequence of the venue itself. As Judith Hanna, an anthropologist and author of "Naked Truth: Strip Clubs, Democracy and a Christian Right," told me, decriminalizing prostitution would be a much more effective way to address the violence that street prostitutes face.

Hanna is particularly sympathetic to the cause. She's worked as a volunteer for over a decade with a program for victims of sexual assault, and yet she says, "I never, nor have others in the program, known of a sexual crime victim related to a strip club." She's quick to point out that "there is a plethora of evidence that clergy have committed sexual crimes against women, boys and girls." Where's their sexual violence tax?

Kellison cuts to the chase: "The reason that many advocates say the strip club industry is being tied directly to the effort to raise funds for rape crisis centers is not because there is increased sexual assault behavior going on inside the clubs or outside the clubs or as a result of a guy going to a strip club," he says. "That is a very difficult argument to make. What the advocates will say is that it's an industry that is primarily run with the use of women for, generally speaking, male purposes, male benefit. And that's why advocates have seen it reasonable to ask the industry to support a tax that would fund services that are primarily geared toward women."

Well, they rarely actually come out and say it so plainly without the cover of alleged evidence, but that is the fundamental moral judgment behind these initiatives.

Now, there is a strong link between alcohol consumption and sexual violence, but, as Linz says, "any location that is serving drinks, whether it's a strip club or a regular bar is going to have this societal effect." He adds, "Compared to other businesses that serve alcohol in the community, these places are no better and no worse." In other words, it's the booze, not the boobs.

McCleary, on the other hand, argues that there's evidence that those who have consumed both alcohol and adult entertainment are more violent than those who have consumed only one or the other. But this is based on laboratory research, which McCleary admits is a far cry from the real world. He also says "it's very difficult to establish a causal link."

Critics say these measures have advanced because of courts holding them to a low standard of proof. While some circuits require "reliable social science evidence" to establish negative secondary effects, says Linz, others essentially say, "The city can pick and choose among findings and come to whatever conclusion they want." Some argue that secondary effects -- which were originally used to justify zoning restrictions but have since been applied to even regulations on the content of dances and the degree of nudity -- have trumped First Amendments rights. David L. Hudson Jr., a research attorney at the First Amendment Center, calls exotic dancing "a First Amendment stepchild" and writes in a report on the topic, "Many free-speech advocates claim that the secondary-effects doctrine has allowed municipal officials an easy path to censorship."

Speaking of censorship, Hanna sees crusading religious moralism at work. "A segment of the politically active Christian right are not only opposed to these clubs but they are working like the Tea Party works," she says. "They have alliances, they have big money and they're fighting it. Sometimes it's indirect, they're electing their people to legislative bodies -- you only need one person to start making big noise."

These measures are a crystal clear reflection of extreme conservative views of sexuality and gender. As Hanna tells me, "The Christian right believes that if you see a nude woman you're gonna go out and rape the first woman you see." She also points to the stereotype of "men as a volcano of testosterone ready to be ignited." From that vantage point, the leap from strip clubs to rape makes intuitive sense -- but it doesn't make it fact.

There's also just plain financial desperation behind these initiatives. Several sponsors have admitted that the tax is a response to devastating budget cuts to sexual assault resources. Sin taxes -- those applied to alcohol, cigarettes and gambling -- are not new and have only increased as cities face severe budget cuts. What's unique about the strip club taxes is not only that boozy adult entertainment venues are being singled out -- as opposed to the broader category of liquor -- but also that the taxes are being directed toward a cause that is empirically unrelated.

When it comes to adult entertainment, though, critical thinking often falls by the wayside. Strip clubs are an easy target for religious moralizing and political pandering -- and one few are willing to defend.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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