Critics say lap dance changes let clubs off hook


Even Sin City has rules.

That's the message Las Vegas police want to broadcast to strip club operators, erotic dancers and patrons.

Police propose that lap dancers be held liable if they act more lewdly than Clark County codes allow, rather than placing all the blame on strip club owners.

Such a rule would enable police to charge offending dancers with a misdemeanor and fine them several hundred dollars.

In lap dances, nude, topless or scantily clad women stand near seated patrons, undulating, shimmying and lightly brushing them during a song.

Physical contact with the dancers' or customers' private parts is forbidden.

The proposed code change has sparked an intense debate in an entertainment mecca that has built a worldwide reputation for edgy fun.

There are an estimated 20 strip clubs in the unincorporated areas of Clark County and several thousand dancers licensed to work at the clubs.

Proponents say it's difficult to prove that the owners are complicit in their dancers' misconduct. Critics accuse authorities of trying to divert responsibility from owners who should police their own clubs.

"This is absolutely ridiculous," said Andrea Hackett, a former dancer who rallied opposition to stricter county lap dance rules in 2002. "Club owners don't want to be held responsible, and police want to hang out in the clubs and get paid for lap dances."

Ticketing errant dancers instead of the owner is like fining construction workers who don't wear hard hats rather than busting the contractor, Hackett said.

Las Vegas becomes tougher to bill as Sin City when moral crusades such as this one threaten to make it more prudish than Salt Lake City, Hackett said.

A crackdown on dancers also is ill-timed, given that the hospitality industry is desperate to lure visitors here any way it can during the recession, she said.

But Metropolitan Police Department Vice Sgt. Donald Hoier argued that dancers should take responsibility for how they act.

By discouraging dancers from going too far, the new code ultimately would protect the women, too, Hoier said.

If a dancer crosses the line and pushes her breasts into a drunken man's face, the man might become sexually aggressive, he said. If she resists his advances, he could turn violent.

"It could be very explosive," Hoier said. "Why even get to that point?"

Hoier said it's not the job of police to promote or ignore unlawful conduct to help tourism.

"Even in Sin City, and even in bad economic times, we still have the rule of law," he said.

Police have yet to put the proposed code change in writing, and don't know when they'll present a formal written proposal to the County Commission.

Commissioner Susan Brager brought the idea to the board to discuss on Oct. 6.

The proposed regulation comes at a time when the county is getting tough with nightclubs such as Privé for not clamping down on patrons' unruly behavior.

Brager called that coincidental, insisting one had nothing to do with the other.

Brager said she still has a lot of questions.

She wants to know whether managers and the supervisors who monitor lap dances, known as floor walkers, could be ticketed.

She also wants a clearer idea of how much time undercover police officers will spend in strip clubs busting lap dancers rather than going after more dangerous criminals.

Still, she has no problem with keeping strip clubs in line at every level.

"The law is the law," Brager said.

Hoier said police have no intention of beefing up undercover stings at strip clubs.

The main goal is to have codes for the county's strip clubs closely match those in the city of Las Vegas, where dancers can be cited for illicit behavior, Hoier said.

Consistent rules will make life simpler for everyone involved, he said.

The new rule also would likely hold the managers and floor walkers more responsible for what goes on under their watch, rather than putting all liability on the dancers, Hoier said.

Jimmy Alex, Sapphire Club manager, said he opposes the rule change because it would give police another reason to cite employees.

"A lot of times they set you up," Alex said. "If they want to bust you, they will."

For instance, some undercover officers will urge dancers to do more even after the women have refused, he said.

Alex said he makes every effort to run a clean operation. He tells newly hired dancers to keep at least a few inches from customers, but some will disobey him and rub against the men, partly from old habits learned at other clubs.

Given all the unsolved murders, rapes and other violent crimes in the valley, Hackett said, police shouldn't squander one dime of taxpayers' money hassling dancers.

"This is one of the most dangerous cities in America," Hackett said.

"There is no more ridiculous a place that we need a cop than a strip club."

Hackett, a transgender woman, told of how she organized the Las Vegas Dancers Alliance seven years ago to fight an effort by then-County Commissioner Yvonne Atkinson Gates to limit lap dancing.

During the height of the battle, Hackett drew the attention of national media. The exposure embarrassed the commission and the police, Hackett said.

"I am prepared to do the same thing again."

Back when she was dancing, club managers would tell her to do whatever the customers wanted but don't get caught, she recalled.

The code change could encourage a club owner to pressure dancers even more, because they would take all the blame, she said.

If the owners really wanted to run a clean club, they'd instruct the floor bosses to fire a dancer who repeatedly broke the rules, Hackett said.

Vice police have said some lap dancers will grind against and fondle customers to solicit prostitution.

But an author who researched the brothel industry said lap dancers who double as prostitutes are a relative minority. In any case, it's up to the owners to keep prostitution out of their clubs, said Barb Brents, a sociology professor at the University of Las Vegas, Nevada.

This latest effort to punish lap dancers for being too licentious shows how conflicted local officials can be about marketing Las Vegas as a place free of normal boundaries, said Brents, whose book "State of Sex" will be released next year.

"They're setting up a law that is unenforceable and a law that unfairly comes down on the women," Brents said. "Women with the least political power."

Contact reporter Scott Wyland at swyland@reviewjournal.com or 702-455-4519.

 

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