Las Vegans have love-hate relationship with sexually oriented businesses

When I learned of the recent grand opening of the Erotic Heritage Museum, I had to smile — but not for the reason you’re thinking.

I grinned because so much of our actual erotic heritage, if you want to call it that, isn’t polished and on display at Harry Mohney’s museum. It remains cloaked in shadow and sleaze and exists in a regulatory netherworld somewhere between legal business and illicit activity.

Take the so-called health clubs inside the Commercial Center, for instance.

Web sites for the Green Door and Hawks Gym make it pretty clear they’re sex clubs masquerading as health clubs.

When yet another club operator, David Cooper, attempted to open a “restaurant” with plenty of heat but no kitchen, he was denied approval by the Clark County Business License office.

It’s the same office that licensed the Green Door and Hawks Gym as health clubs, despite their blatant marketing as sex clubs.

License officials aren’t blind to the reality, but thanks to hard-nosed lawyering by First Amendment specialists such as Allen Lichtenstein, the clubs have remained in business.

When Cooper complained about the apparent double standard, the county was compelled to investigate — not that it wants to admit what it’s up to.

“However, it is important to note that sex clubs are not legally permitted in Clark County,” county spokesman Erik Pappa said in a statement. “We take all accusations and allegations of illegal activity seriously and investigate them.”

By the time a county investigator prints out the photos of nude and semi-nude men from the Hawks Web site and makes the same effort on the Green Door site, the clubs’ owners might have some explaining to do.

More likely, their lawyers will have some hours to bill. And the question of the clubs’ legitimacy in a community that promotes sex above all else will be asked once more.

Along the way, someone at Metro will need to investigate the presence of the veteran police official’s brother in an apparent management role at a local nightclub that promotes an “anything goes” policy.

The county isn’t the only entity asking questions. Independent sources confirm FBI agents have interviewed employees of at least one of the Commercial Center clubs. The reason for the interest is unclear, but when the feds come calling it’s rarely good for business.

Proof of the county’s interest in regulating sex clubs is a lawsuit filed earlier this year by the district attorney’s office against Edward Hurt, owner of record of the Libertine.

The club’s operator says he caters to adults with “alternative lifestyles.” Admitting it’s an S&M and bondage emporium is harder to do in polite company.

It’s also illegal in Clark County.

The place leaves little to the imagination: Whether you’re an apprentice Little Bo Peep or a deeply devoted Darth Vader type, there’s a themed room for you.

There’s also a lawsuit on file in part because the Libertine is located near a children’s dance studio.

As if that weren’t enough, there’s the ever-expanding influence of the topless cabaret business at local casino resorts.

Topless bars on casino property aren’t legal, but it’s obvious to most observers that the industry is attempting to change that by degrees. The Rio, with its hookup with the Sapphire Gentlemen’s Club, is on the leading edge.

It’s no big deal — unless it leads to incidents of prostitution and drug use.

If any community in America ought to be comfortable with the business and marketing of sex, it’s Las Vegas.

And yet here we are, talking a good game with our “anything goes” casino advertising while simultaneously playing parlor games and creating plausible deniability inside local government.

Meanwhile, sexually oriented businesses proliferate and generate lusty income — as well as the malodorous criminal and social stigmas associated with the trade.

Frankly, I favor being more upfront about our community’s kinks and proclivities.

It won’t fix the problems associated with sexually oriented businesses, but it would at least eliminate the hypocrisy associated with licensing them.

Instead, we’ll cast ballots for another generation of double-talking elected officials who’ll howl about how we’re just like every other community.

Don’t kid yourself.

Unless we choose to change it, our community standard will remain a double standard.

This is our erotic heritage.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.

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