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Church and State Conflict
When I saw the announcement for America's #1 Dancer Contest at the 2005 Exotic Dancer Expo in Las Vegas, I asked the sponsor, Jerry Reid of Pure Gold clubs, what criteria the judges would use. He said that in prior years he had sponsored bikini contests without specified standards. I shared the artistic criteria that evolved in 2002 when I was a judge at the Miss Exotic World Pageant, held at the Exotic World Burlesque Museum Hall of Fame in Helendale, California. In turn, he invited me to be a judge in Las Vegas.
My reason for being at Expo actually goes back to 1995 when a city/land use planner from Tampa, Florida, and an attorney from Seattle, Washington, asked me to be an expert court witness in a First Amendment case related to exotic dance. They wanted me to apply the same anthropological approach to studying adult entertainment dance that I used to study dance in African villages and cities and in US schools and concert theaters. Being a strong free speech advocate—and excited to apply my somewhat esoteric anthropological knowledge to a world I did not know—I agreed. This led to my becoming the world's only expert court witness on the dance itself—from ballet to stripping—as nonverbal communication. Other experts on exotic dance mainly testify on problems the clubs might cause or on zoning.
Under the authority of Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (1993), I have been accepted as an expert court witness forty-six times in city, county, state, and federal courts; Alcohol Beverage Control/Liquor Commission hearings; and depositions nationwide. The law requires that my testimony be a product of principles and methods generally accepted as reliable by the social science discipline of anthropology and the humanities discipline of dance. In addition, I must qualify on the basis of knowledge, skill, experience, training, and education, and I must swear to tell the truth. I engage in a practicing and public interest anthropology that is committed to social justice by conducting research relevant to the facts of each case and the issue before the court.
In the process of learning about exotic dance since 1995, I have worked with fifty-nine attorneys on 125 legal cases in twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia. I have observed no fewer than fifteen hundred dance performances and dancer-patron interactions. I have interviewed more than one thousand dancers, managers, owners, bartenders, disc jockeys, housemothers and house dads, and patrons in excess of 141 clubs. I have spoken with community members. My "classrooms" for learning about "Striptease 101," as a reporter called my court testimony, have been gentlemen’s clubs and their surrounding communities, courtrooms, judges' chambers, city and county council meetings, and state hearings. Did my presence affect dancers, club management, patrons, and adversaries and supporters of exotic dance? I don't think so. In the clubs, stakeholders are accustomed to seeing mature females as house moms, managers, or costume salespersons. Some stakeholders also see mature women in legislative and court settings concerned with exotic dance. I identified myself as a dance writer, a researcher. Strangers sent me their stories. To try to catch what I missed firsthand, I read the Washington Post, New York Times, other media, and the scholarly literature. I checked the US Department of Justice reports on crime (National Criminal Justice Reference Service and Bureau of Justice Statistics); Human Trafficking web resource; trade publications, such as Exotic Dancer; American Planning Association reports; and several list-servs, websites, and chat rooms dealing with the subjects of sexuality in society, adult entertainment, Christianity, and civil liberties. I interviewed criminologists at several universities and police in their jurisdictions. These experiences certainly opened my eyes and I’d like to share them with you.
I realized that exotic dance (also called strip club, erotic, striptease, stripper, topless, titty bar, barroom, nude, go-go, sports bar, table, lap, friction, couch, gentlemen's club dance, and even pornography) is a form of dance, art, and theater that communicates within its own aesthetic. Dancers perform in licensed establishments and their performances are not visible to those outside. The popular industry boasts about four thousand adult cabarets nationwide; it claims employees directly or indirectly (independent contractors and auxiliary service providers), numbering more than five hundred thousand people. A single gentlemen's club in a major metropolitan area may gross $10–20 million per year. Some chains are traded on NASDAQ (National Association of Securities Dealers Automated) and the American Stock Exchange and even own clubs abroad.
From Strip Club to Religion
I did not intend to explore the relationship of religion and the adult entertainment industry. But my first case in 1995 was the beginning of startling revelations. I had to break through "Washington Together Against Pornography!" demonstrators in Bellevue, Washington, to begin to discover what went on inside exotic dance clubs. Women and children picketing the club held screaming banners of denunciation. A Christian church was behind this opposition to the adult entertainment.
Since then, I have been involved in more than one hundred successive cases nationwide (Appendix 9 lists cases in which I provided sworn testimony) to prevent the enactment of laws or to challenge laws that infringe upon the First, Fifth, and/or Fourteenth Amendments to the US Constitution or to defend dancers against false charges of prostitution, lewdness, indecency, or obscenity. In nearly all those cases, a pastor or church group was spearheading efforts to wipe out the alleged "moral cancer" of "toxic" exotic dance. At first, it seemed to me that the religious groups that were attacking exotic dance were acting independently in the tradition of local control. Eventually I realized that many were part of a web of connection in a powerful Christian Right (CR) political alliance in which a segment politically and financially supports fighting the exotic dance industry.
In my "classrooms"—case after case—I began to watch this segment of a politically active Christian Right (I refer to this group as "CR-Activists"), which is not supported by many in the diverse Christian Right. I saw CR-Activists belligerently oppose exotic dance through street, legislative, and judicial means. Many recent books provide a contextual framework for understanding the assaults against exotic dance as a battle within a broader "war" against the separation of church and state.
CR-Activists act overtly by picketing clubs and using other "street"-level tactics against clubs, dancers, and patrons. They are vocal at council meetings and hearings related to exotic dance. They lobby government through powerful organizations, covertly burrow into government, and get elected so they can legislate and adjudicate against exotic dance. In addition, they hire CR-Activist attorneys to help draft and defend restrictive laws. CR-Activists also unstintingly publicize the misconception that the clubs cause crime, property depreciation, and disease more than any other place of public assembly. In addition, CR-Activists stimulate independent churches across the country to fight exotic dance and support these churches in their opposition. Part of a clash between theocracy and democracy, the exotic dance conflict illuminates the intersection of religion, dance, and democracy as it affects our liberty and free enterprise and diverts resources from coping with issues related to health, education, crime, and homeland security, among others.
Aftershock of Secularism and Sexual Revolution
In 1973, a small group of evangelical men had a design for the nation. In a sense, the CR came out of mothballs. The early twentieth-century evangelical movement had split from Protestant churches that were embracing modernism and gradually adapting beliefs and traditions. A handful of fundamentalist organizations entered the political arena to mobilize against the teaching of evolution. After the John T. Scopes 1925 "monkey trial" in Dayton, Tennessee, the fundamentalist movement retreated from the national public scene. It went into exile from what it saw as a corrupt and hostile world. The trial had garnered nationwide publicity, capturing the attention of such luminaries as George Bernard Shaw and Albert Einstein. Part of the prosecution team, William Jennings Bryan, former secretary of state under President Woodrow Wilson and onetime Democratic presidential candidate, represented the fundamentalist Christians. He described the contest between evolution and Christianity as "a duel to the death." Scopes's attorney, Clarence Darrow, a well-known avowed agnostic, viewed the contest as civilization on trial. Although Scopes lost, the case brought to public awareness the vulnerability of free speech and individual freedom in a democracy. Ridicule of the fundamentalists left them skeptical about being able to accomplish much through politics, and their activism was replaced by a benign and apolitical evangelism, later exemplified by Billy Graham, that was primarily interested in saving souls. But the rise of the Cold War motivated religious conservatives to political action. Reverend Billy James Hargis led a strenuous anti–Communist movement, the Christian Crusade, during the 1950s.
Changes in American society—the growth of secularism, the 1960s sexual revolution that challenged repression of expression, globalization, and other dramatic, rapid social transformations—appear to have catalyzed the emergence of CR-Activists. The 1973 legalization of abortion convinced conservatives that the country had strayed from traditional cultural moorings. Consequently, in the 1970s, the CR became an association of conservative preachers and politicians, along with their grassroots followers, determined to influence public policy. Jerry Falwell turned dispensational Bible prophecy from a rationale for separation from the world into a rhetoric of urgent engagement with the world. By 1976, he was preaching, "This idea of 'religion and politics don't mix' was invented by the devil to keep Christians from running their own country." Epitomizing concern with the trampling of values held dear, Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979 to mobilize fundamentalists as voters and to enact cultural reform. A business elite and intellectuals in magazines, journals, and think tanks facilitated the success of CR politics. Widespread jeremiads (named for the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah) lamented the moral condition of the nation, foresaw cataclysmic consequences, and called for dramatic moral reform.
Rogers Smith says the CR movement owes it origins to Internal Revenue Service and court actions that seemed to threaten the tax-exempt status of Christian broadcasters and Christian private schools and universities. In the early 1970s, the IRS denied tax-exempt status to Christian schools perceived as engaging in racial discrimination. Because the CR feared losing tax-exempt status, the National Association of Evangelicals coalesced to preserve access to public airwaves and maintain policies that help them finance their schools and other CR institutions.
In Preston Shires's view, the CR was not just a reactionary movement fomented by enraged fundamentalists, but also an extension of the sixties counterculture. Youth participants who eventually joined the community brought their countercultural ideals. They rejected the modernist establishment, secular humanism, liberal theology, establishment trappings of conservative churches, and science-calibrated religion. Evangelism's activist fervor and rebellious spirit comes from the counterculture.
After the Moral Majority folded in the late 1980s, Dr. Pat Robertson, Phi Beta Kappa from Washington and Lee University and graduate of Yale Law School and New York Theological Seminary, founded the Christian Coalition. When it imploded with Dr. Ralph Reed's departure in 1997, Dr. James Dobson's Focus on the Family took the reins of political activism. Focus on the Family contained a group of thirty-eight sister associations across the country known as the Family Policy Council or Citizens for Community Values or the Free Market Foundation. They also had "action arms" and political action committees under many names in all fifty states. In 2009, Dobson received the "Ronald Reagan Lifetime Achievement Award" from the secretive Council for National Policy, in part for his railing against the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the adoption of no-fault divorce laws. He has been a member of the Council since 1981.
Jon Shields argues that the CR organizations helped create a more participatory democracy by mobilizing conservative evangelicals, heretofore an alienated constituency in the United States, and that the majority of these groups inculcates norms of civility and respect and cultivates dialog. But good manners may be a cover for the pursuit of antidemocratic goals.
After a thirty-year effort through dynamic organizational momentum, a religious "fifth column" has infiltrated the public arena. CR-Activists have helped conservatives gain office at the local, state, and national levels; influenced Supreme Court nominations; taken control of Congress for the first time in forty years, and triumphantly and proudly put George W. Bush, a born-again evangelical, into the White House. Bush's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives further linked church and state. Government-funded religious social service providers are allowed to discriminate, proselytize, and play by different rules than other charities receiving taxpayer dollars. Conservatives redirected the US Department of Justice civil rights mission away from challenging voting plans that dilute the strength of black voters and investigating hate crimes to considering discrimination against Christians. The department transferred or demoted some experienced civil rights litigators and replaced them with "holy hires." The Christian Right Regent University, founded by Pat Robertson, boasted placing one hundred and fifty of its graduates in the Bush administration. Senior officials of the Bush administration hired so-called “right-thinking Americans” for apolitical career positions.
Following the 2008 election of the Democratic presidential nominee, Barack Obama, several pundits—such as E. J. Dionne, Washington Post columnist and frequent radio and TV commentator, and David D. Kirkpatrick, New York Times writer—proclaimed the era of the CR dead, dying, or irrelevant. Several times this epitaph has been erroneously written. The CR forms the base of the Republican Party, which lost the presidency and congressional majorities in 2008 but resurged in 2010, gaining control of the US House of Representatives and many state governments.
CR-Activists continued their winning streak on the volatile question of same-sex marriage. More than one thousand ministers, mostly from evangelical congregations, but also Catholics and Mormons, united to pass Proposition 8, a ballot initiative to amend the California constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Rob Boston, writing for Church & State, suggests the CR-Activists are jumping into the issues of deficits and unions hoping to "forge an alliance with the Tea Party and create a right-wing phalanx so powerful no one can stand against it." As in the battle against the exotic dance industry, the Proposition 8 strategy included input from lawyers and political consultants coupled with a campaign of misinformation. Media technologies, sermons to galvanize congregations to engage in well-organized grassroots activity, and, of critical importance, funding from prominent CR-Activist organizations infused the initiative campaign. On the other side, the secular and compassionate message centered on securing rights for gays and lesbians. CR-Activists also enshrined discrimination through a constitutional amendment in Florida that eliminated marriage for same-sex couples, leading to a successful ballot initiative drive to ban same-sex marriage in Arizona. In Arkansas, CR-Activists succeeded in convincing voters to deny same-sex couples and most straight unmarried couples the right to adopt children or be foster parents. In 2010, some members of the CR aligned themselves with the emerging, dynamic Tea Party within the Republican Party to win congressional seats. The CR crusade to ban abortion, deny civil rights to gay Americans, inject religion into public education and other institutions remains in the public limelight.
The judiciary is not immune. CR-Activists targeted seated judges in California and Iowa. Vowing to be God's ambassadors on the bench, four San Diego Superior Court candidates were backed by pastors, gun enthusiasts, and opponents of abortion and same-sex marriages. "We believe our country is under assault and needs Christian values," said Craig Candelore, a family law attorney and one of the group's candidates. "Unfortunately, God has called upon us to do this only with the judiciary."
Dagmar Herzog believes that CR-Activists achieve power in these different controversial political and judicial domains primarily through attempts to control sexuality. However, there is ambiguity about which behaviors constitute "sex," and what it means. Seen through different eyes, sex can be anything from looking at another human being to sexual intercourse. Sex can mean a pleasurable activity, a sacrament, a means to procreation, an ecstasy, a disappointment, or a source of shame.
President Barack Obama's choice of anti-gay, anti-abortion pastor Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration reminds us that the CR is a steady force in the political and cultural arena. The economic downturn has hurt everyone, including the CR. But as in the big Christian revivals of the nineteenth century, known as the second and third Great Awakenings and prompted by economic panics, evangelicals are drawing big crowds in these stressful times.
In July 2009, the Alliance Defense Fund, a CR-Activist organization, requested a meeting with Attorney General Eric Holder "at the earliest opportunity" to discuss, among other issues, the "illegal pornography [that] has flooded homes, businesses, public libraries, and even schools," which has been "devastating to America." The pro-censorship crowd devotes energy on all political levels. A group in Indiana, with affiliates nationwide, that aggressively targets exotic dance says on its website:
Citizens for Community Values is an educational organization devoted to protecting families from the harms of the porn/sex industry in all of its forms. . . . We believe that there is a great culture war for the soul of our nation being waged by many kinds of sexual revolutionaries that oppose the principles governing human sexual relations established by God.
I can testify from the "trenches" in the exotic dance battle—a conflict of which most people are unaware—that CR-Activists continually flex their moral muscle at the state and local levels in a relentless drive to eliminate the adult entertainment industry. The ever-growing public sexual expression in television shows, films, the Internet, and advertising fuels CR actions, as does nudity on clothes-optional beaches, in college spring break sexual antics, and in the performing arts. Playboy’s circulation has fallen from 7 to 3 million over the past quarter century thanks to the emergence of even more explicit media.
Exotic dance is merely one among several battle targets in a broader culture war. Moreover, words, themes, and images commonly broadcast are now being censored. Fines for violations, jeopardized licenses, and litigation ensue. Books are removed from libraries and school curricula are changed. Business advertising is constricted, and prescriptions, stem cell research, end-of-life decisions, and women's choice are denied. Instead, CR-Activists call for prayer in schools and the teaching of creationism and intelligent design. Marty Klein's America's War on Sex provides detailed illustrations of these diverse battles.
The exotic dance court cases that I've worked on—from First Amendment to sexual harassment, employee-independent contractor labor relations, obscenity, wrongful arrest, prostitution, and even homicide and suicide—have astonished me. And they've astonished others, too. I have received diametrically opposed responses to my unique vantage as researcher.
Anonymous people have sent me religious tracts designed to save my soul. A woman at a public hearing yelled, "You ought to be ashamed of yourself!" Wrongly assuming that exotic dancer equals prostitute, a friend who became a Los Angeles assistant district attorney responded to my tales about exotic dance by describing a prostitution case she had just handled. A former college roommate from the University of California, Berkeley, said, “I hope those sleazy club owners pay you.” A former academic dean of a major university refused to sign off on a research proposal to the Law and Society Program of the National Science Foundation to explore why people are so vehemently against exotic dance. He admitted he was uncomfortable with the subject matter! He said planners weren't concerned with adult entertainment when, in fact, the American Planning Association has sent out related materials to planners, had panels on the subject, published a book on the theme, and filed court briefs in favor of government regulations of exotic dance. And I later published articles on exotic dance in the peer-reviewed Journal of Planning Literature. A National Science Foundation reviewer of a proposal to study exotic dance in a particular community worried that the study would subject NSF to publicity from the Golden Fleece Award, which is given to grants ridiculed as a waste of public money by the US Congress. My belly dance teacher gasped, “Oh my God!” when she saw my New York Times article on exotic dance accompanied by a picture of a stripper, sandwiched between a piece on Middle East dance and a picture of a burlesque dancer. She didn’t like being associated with the adult entertainment offshoots of her art form.
Yet along with these negative reactions to my research and court testimony on exotic dance, I’ve also received neutral responses, accolades, and invitations to write and speak about my work. Newspaper reporters have asked, "What is a person like you with 'impeccable credentials' doing studying nude dancing?" I answer, "Anthropologists study human behavior." When I have conducted door-to-door exotic dance club neighborhood surveys, respondents have mistaken me for a member of the CR. Dancers have called me "Dr. Ruth," after the sexologist. A Nevada prosecutor said to me after my testimony, "I wish I had had you on my side." After my testimony about how striptease is a form of dance, art, and communication, male exotic dancers in the court gallery stood up and applauded (a no-no). Strangers write to me in appreciation of my attempts to report what is really going on. Friends, too. Renowned modern dancer, two-time Tony Award winner, Broadway choreographer/director, recipient of a MacArthur "Genius" Award, and 2010 Kennedy Center Honoree, Bill T. Jones is glad I contest censorship:
My jaw dropped when I saw the level at which the discourse around sexuality and individual freedom still labors and I am heartened, amused and inspired by your head-on confrontation of such ignorance. I thank you for the effort on behalf of all of us who would shake our bootie, grind our hips and caress another in public.
The dramatic expansion in the numbers of exotic dance clubs and in the size of audiences since the 1980s, with the advent of the gentlemen's club supplanting the strip joint, threatens the CR. In this changing landscape, couples and women increasingly attend the cabarets. Attesting to the popularity of exotic dance is the "stripperization" of America—strip aerobics in gyms, pole dance parties in women's homes, and DVDs on stripping for the everyday woman. Wives and girlfriends are flocking to classes. Exotic dance has become a staple of American entertainment. In 2003, Time reported professional trend spotter Irma Zandl’s forecast: "Strippers are really setting the trends right now." In 2009, Gucci and Neiman Marcus stores featured the kind of shoes that I had seen only on exotic dancers a few years earlier.
Why Christian Right Activists Attack Exotic Dance
So, why are CR-Activists targeting exotic dance in particular? CR acceptance of Biblical injunctions concerning the use of the body, modesty, a male-female polarity, and patriarchy, as well as beliefs about the inherent uncontrollable nature of men are part of the answer. In addition, unrealistic expectations about women created by beautiful nude dancers and jealousy of performers create opposition to exotic dance. Eroticism unleashes passions that defy the dictates of CR churches and their male leaders in a world of absolute right and wrong. More importantly, however, CR-Activists’ behavior, according to some opponents, is that of "sexual jihadists" struggling to reorganize American life. The implications of the outcome of attacks on exotic dance are frightening for all kinds of dance, other performing arts, you, me and American democracy, as I will explain later.
Harnessing an organizational network fueled by technology, money, and lawyers, an emboldened division of the CR fights adult entertainment as part of Dominionism. This political religious movement has a grand design to supplant our constitutional democracy with a Bible-based, Christian, theocratic governing elite. Obsessed with dominion over the nation, movement adherents believe that expansion of state control over sexuality is key to creating a salutary environment for their children and making way for their ideal state. Believing that it is God's will that the country be subject to literal Biblical rule, some zealous evangelical (e.g., Baptists, the Pentecostal Holiness, Reformed-Confessions, and Anabaptists, many who worship at nondenominational megachurches) fundamentalists, Charismatics, and conservative Catholics make up the "troops." Political activism is considered a duty. The Quiverfull movement advocates that parents should accept as many children as God gives them (based on Psalm 127) in a concerted effort to win the culture wars demographically. Women attempting to control their own bodies are viewed as seizing God’s power. Emphasis is placed on militaristic imagery, particularly arrows. The children become the arrows of the parents, part of their tools of war against the enemy.
The fact that exotic dance is under the umbrella of the US Constitution, with some measure of First Amendment free speech protection, constrains CR-Activists’ use of government to ban exotic dance outright. So its leaders do an end run around the Constitution. For "the public good" and especially to "protect our children," CR-Activists enter or lobby government to enact regulations that censor exotic dance, harm the business by eating away at its essence, and trample many people's civil liberties. Not unlike some other political groups, the CR-Activists mobilize a "disinformation factory." Vociferously and persistently capturing media attention, CR-Activists unstintingly charge that the clubs attract prostitution, drugs, and other crime; spread disease; degrade women; depreciate property; and hurt a residential or business district or city image—the so-called adverse secondary effects legal doctrine. This doctrine emerged from court decisions that deferred to legislatures' intent to protect the public welfare, even though the asserted need was based on invalid, outdated "studies." Social scientists have recently disproved these reputed adverse secondary effects by calling into question the shoddy methods of the so-called studies and conducting consistently robust new research that has been published in scholarly journals since 2001. No study shows a link between what exotic dance is—the dance movement, costume, props, and distance or touch between dancer and patron—and any negative effects.
Nonetheless, CR-Activists manipulate the public by adopting secular reasoning with corrupted democratic concepts and the adverse secondary effects myth—belief or camouflage for positions held on moral grounds. Recasting their religion-based moral objections honestly or disingenuously, the exotic dance adversaries read from a hymnal of spin and gain support for regulations to destroy the adult hospitality business. The adverse secondary effects doctrine acquires a cachet of truth and consequently provokes broad public denunciation that inadvertently supports CR-Activists’ efforts to break down the walls separating church and state. Even some feminists, following the oppression paradigm of dancer exploitation and perpetuation of gender inequality in the Catherine MacKinnon/Andrea Dworkin mold, aid CR-Activists’ attempt to strip the First Amendment, corset the exotic dancer, and dismantle the industry.
Not surprisingly, some politicians of any religious persuasion periodically, especially at election time, exploit and reinforce stereotypes about the cabarets and assail female exotic dancers. Such a red herring diverts attention from government failure to cope with the real problems of education, crime, health, and traffic. Thus, the politicians show their constituents that they are working on their behalf and merit being returned to office—even if their jurisdiction doesn't have a club.
Ironically, youngsters and even pastors belie the proclaimed rationale of CR-Activists "to protect our children" by upholding family values and going after adult clubs to create a salutary puritanical environment. Coarse language and profanity have long been heard among kids, including on elementary school playgrounds. Middle school and high school students' incidences of booty dancing, oral sex, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and transmission of venereal disease make a mockery of CR-Activists’ efforts to ban fantasy in venues that only adult patrons may voluntarily enter. The booty dancing, or freaking, style (the female bends forward and rubs her buttocks against the male's groin) has been popular among African Americans since the late 1970s. Brought to public attention in Spike Lee’s 1988 film School Daze, booty dancing shocked white parents nationwide when it reached their schools in the 1990s. I got lots of calls from radio shows and the press to comment on this development. Of course, home schooling and isolating one’s children can somewhat shelter them. Also ironic is the fact that Catholics and Baptists established organizations to help victims of sexual predators in the churches.
Exotic dance is about fantasy, a common human phenomenon, not carnality and pedophilia. The exotic dance industry, civil rights groups, and even various religious denominations—armed with their lobbyists, lawyers, and expert court witnesses and free speech advocates—fight back against CR-Activists. Cases periodically reach the US Supreme Court. Only recently has the court put brakes on some legislative action based on the presumptive need to regulate exotic dance. Governments can now be challenged on the truth of their claims based on "studies." Unfortunately, not all lower courts pay heed.
Awakened to the broadside against exotic dance as part of a larger war on democratic values, I am moved to offer an unprecedented look at the battle between a powerful minority group and a marginalized strip club industry, with a bit of titillation plus a large share of gravitas. Clearly, exotic dance is a lightning rod, indeed, a barometer, for a maelstrom of public discord. Yet, CR-Activists' insidious encroachment on civil liberties draws little notice.
Culture wars and male clergy contesting the female body and dance are nothing new in American history, as I discovered reading about dance in New York Times articles dating to the newspaper's inception in 1851. Some artists and dances now widely acclaimed were "morally offensive" in their time. While clergymen railed against "debauched" dancing, dancing masters fought licensing laws. For the most part, restrictions against dancers were unsuccessful or short-lived.
Recurring conflagrations over exotic dance differ from notorious First Amendment battles over Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographic exhibits that displayed male genitalia, the explicit sex in the movie Behind the Green Door, and the breasts and vaginas portrayed in Hustler magazine and online. Unlike those arts that use paper, canvas, and film, exotic dance manifests itself through the live body—the instrument of dance and of sex. Exotic dance is palpable, a multisensory performance, a nonverbal "conversation" in which patrons may become active communicators. More importantly, the exotic dance conflict bears on women's choice, discrimination, economic survival, and social mobility in addition to men's well-being.
A comment on my perspectives is warranted. I am a former Los Angeles high school civics teacher with an MA in political science and a PhD in anthropology. I have been a long-time advocate of the First Amendment and empiricism. I couldn't believe that in this day and age there would be such an intense church-state conflict reflected in the fight against exotic dance. Following government orders to crack down on clubs, police have lied under oath, forged a dancer's name on a sign-in sheet and then denied it, or claimed a dancer was nude during an entire dance when nudity was only its climax. CR-Activists participate in drafting legislation, litigating challenges to the constitutionality of such legislation, and "street fighting" tactics in pursuit of substituting the Bible for the Constitution. Many judicial courts have been intentionally or unintentionally complicit. I am saddened by the public’s stereotypes that ultimately harm many people’s well-being. I must admit, I savor the courtroom's "improvisational theater dance"—the adrenaline rush of verbal challenge and the opportunity to educate and win over an audience mired in misconceptions. And I'm driven to tell the naked truth about the conflict I have been learning about for many years.
To those unfamiliar with the history and beliefs of the CR and the methods of a segment of the politically active CR, this book may appear, at first blush, to be an unfounded diatribe and a brief for the clubs or dancers. But the unfolding saga of my on-site experience (ethnography), buttressed by the writings of current and former members of the CR, scholars, and journalists, all combine to suggest otherwise. Uncovering this knowledge certainly challenged my preconceptions. Although balance is commonly the norm in serious writing, balance presumes legitimacy on both sides. However, balance can also be a pernicious concept implying that all ideas are equally valid. I don't think so. Do we give equal time to creationism? Nazism? Government battles against sexuality eerily recall sequential acts of fascist and totalitarian countries that have eaten away at human rights. Recall, Adolf Hitler wanted theater, art, literature, cinema, press, posters, and window displays cleansed of all manifestations of sexual ideas and stimulations and placed in the service of a moral, political, and cultural idea. So, too, the Taliban permits neither any kind of dance nor women's freedom.
Naked Truth: Strip Clubs, Democracy, and a Christian Right follows in the tradition of Franz Boas, father of American anthropology. Skeptical of prevailing views about various subjects, he questioned common assumptions and emphasized being at the scene. In an attempt to popularize the new science of anthropology, Dr. Boas indirectly brought the immediate forerunner of exotic dance, the Middle Eastern belly dance, to US public attention for the first time at the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition. My efforts to demystify exotic dance in the public arena also follow in the tradition of Dr. Margaret Mead, a member the Columbia University anthropology faculty, who dispelled myths through ethnographic research.
Yes, there is a plethora of books on religion and books on "strippers" that suggests the intense interest in these areas. A continually growing body of literature analyzes the Christian Right's initial mobilization, subsequent growth, and related issues. There are also many books on exotic dancers, their history, motivations, exploitation, objectification and agency, identity, self-esteem, and various experiences. A few books focus on exotic dance club customers. After all, sex piques curiosity and sells. The risqué carries a magnetic mystique.
However, Naked Truth: Strip Clubs, Democracy, and a Christian Right looks at provocations to our Constitution through the eye of exotic dance and sorts out fiction, fantasy, and fact surrounding this adult entertainment. The book explores the prism of religion, law, and sexual fantasy undergirded by concepts of the First Amendment; religion as a crucible of meanings in discourse and action; and philosopher Michel Foucault's view of the body as a locus of power.
My observations of exotic dancers onstage and off in performer-patron connections, coupled with the voices and photographs of stakeholders, take the reader behind the closed doors of exotic dance clubs. Clubs have elements of carnival and tourism, a "transgressive" adventure for dancers, patrons, owners, and staff. Readers may want single-answer explanations for their questions: What is exotic dance, the battle target? Who are the dancers? Patrons? Club owners? What are the clubs like? But complexity and diversity intertwine with historical time, governments' regulations, and jurisprudence.
My experiences with communities, government meetings, public hearings, and court proceedings, buttressed by media reports, archives, and scientific studies, bring the reader outside the clubs and into their neighborhoods, counties, cities, and states. I have spoken with neighbors, both residents and businesspeople, about the clubs' impact on the neighborhood's quality of life. Voices of exotic dance adversaries and defenders, portraits of the arsenal of weapons used against clubs, the defense's responses, and case studies will illustrate the conflicts and raise issues of questionable citizen action, police tactics, and government practices.
Chapter 1 describes the CR-Activists' reasons for hostility toward exotic dance and for their crusade against the adult entertainment industry. Challenges to traditions, Dominionism, interpretations of Scripture concerning patriarchy, the body, dance, nudity and lust, and the CR view of the nature of men are key reasons. The First Amendment constrains CR-Activists from completely obliterating exotic dance. But they are unrelenting in their goal to drive the exotic dance industry out of business. Chapter 2 gives a picture of their battle strategy. CR tactics are imbued with militaristic rhetoric, boss politics actions, multimedia campaigns, "street fighting," and psychological and legalistic approaches for moral reasons.
What is the "incendiary" exotic dance that consumes so much of CR-Activists' and governments' time, energy, and monetary expenditure? Chapter 3 defines exotic dance. What the CR fantasizes? Pornography? Women who take their clothes off for sex? Who is actually onstage? How did they get there? What makes exotic dance "speech" with "serious artistic merit" that exempts it from being obscene in the legal sense and losing First Amendment protection? Why do men go behind the closed doors of adult entertainment clubs? How does the "devil seduce" patrons in an illusionary playful world? Male fantasy and vulnerability are part of the play for pay. What is the dancer's cornucopia of ploys in the game? Are there any socially redeeming values to exotic dance?
Because exotic dance is not an isolated phenomenon but part of American culture, Chapter 4 addresses the issue of nudity and touch that CR-Activists single out. Are nudity and touch expressive elements found in past and contemporary mainstream arts? Theater? Musicals? Opera? Theater dance? Performance art?
CR-Activists' opposition to exotic dance clubs plays out in different dogged ways. I describe attacks on exotic dance and how they unfold in communities and courts. Chapter 5 discusses assaults on adult entertainment and the consequent bench (before the judge) trials that took place over an eight-year period in Maryland. Spurred by religious groups and legislators acting on behalf of their own morality or that of their constituents, the conflict centered on a club and Prince George's County's chief executive and council. The story began to unfold when a riot squad entered a family-owned club with weapons in full combat readiness—"Don't move or talk or we will use physical force and fuck you up," warned an officer. The saga progressed with no convictions but more harassment and restrictive county ordinance after ordinance, each followed by legal challenge and an ironical denouement.
Chapter 6 reports interrelated antagonistic actions against exotic dance and dancers in Minnesota. Once again, Christian morality was the prime mover. Dancers were charged with obscenity and had jury trials. What constitutes police "evidence"? Looking up nude dancers' crotches? How do expert court witnesses act? How does a trial progress, a jury arrive at its verdict? What do members of the community think?
The CR claims that exotic dancers are degraded and exploited. But are they? Do they need to, or want to, be saved? Are they subject to unique workplace experiences? Chapter 7 focuses on the dancers' working conditions, examining the kinds of clubs where they dance, from brand-name chains of gentlemen's clubs listed on stock exchanges to the sleazy strip joints of yore. The dancers' bosses make a difference. What are contentious issues between dancers and the clubs? Dancers as independent contractors or employees is a big one.
The CR and others believe that exotic dance clubs cause adverse secondary effects. Chapter 8 looks at the charges of terror and crime: murder, rape, other types of violence, property destruction and damage, prostitution, bribery, and drugs. If exotic dance clubs have these problems, are their numbers disproportionate compared to other places of public assembly? Who is doing what to whom? Where is the real harm? What is the role of stigma in the judicial system and society more broadly?
In light of the CR-Activist-initiated belligerent behavior toward exotic dance, Chapter 9 turns to how the industry defends itself. The First Amendment, Takings and Due Process Clauses of the Fifth Amendment, and Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution plus case law, citizen action, and club proactive and reactive responses facilitate a defense. Key court decisions legally constrain CR-Activism and government battle tactics, although some judges ignore them. The adult cabaret industry gains inadvertent defense from a number of Christian and other religious denominations that resent those seeking to impose their own specific views on the nation. Dogma and pluralism clash, the separation of church and state is squeezed. After all is said, what is the significance of a war at the margins of society for mainstream American democracy?
Given the public’s inherent interest in sex, religion, and the direction of this country, Naked Truth: Strip Clubs, Democracy and a Christian Right is directed to both liberal and conservative readers. I have been interviewed by the media from the Washington Post to the Washington Times, from National Public Radio to Laura Ingraham and Focus on the Family. I hope this book will enlighten localities concerned about the impact of exotic dance clubs on their quality of life; planners, police, legislators, lawyers, and judges involved in the regulation of adult businesses; members of the adult industry; and dancers' families, as well as people interested in anthropology, criminology, dance, jurisprudence, politics, religion, sexuality, and women's issues.