In a recent Saturday night at the Gold Club, an exotic, supermodel-tall dancer is on the prowl to make a buck. Wearing a skintight, cut-off T-shirt and booty shorts, she eyeballs the sparsely populated club as she saunters across the room. When she spots a bored-looking young couple, she makes her move.
"Do y'all want any company?" she purrs, as she bends down to ear level.
"Not right now. We just got here," answers the woman, as the man grips his beer and locks his gaze on the fully covered dancer working the pole in front of their table.
"Aw, okay. I'm new at this. Only been doing it a few weeks. I really hate that we have to wear tops now," the dancer replies with a disapproving frown. She says she'll check back later and strolls away to seek out a patron who may want her company. Unfortunately for the dancer, more seats are empty than filled in the newly expanded Gold Club.
The dancer's modest new wardrobe stems from a county ordinance regulating adult businesses that took effect on January 1st. The law bans nudity and alcohol from businesses that meet the qualifications for an "adult cabaret."
As a result, owners of the Gold Club, the Pony, and other Memphis strip clubs have declared their clubs are no longer adult businesses. At the Gold Club, dancers look more like Hooters girls in tight tees and Daisy Dukes, while dancers at the Pony sport bikinis that fully cover their breasts and buttocks.
And while dancers continue to perform sexually suggestive pole dances, they do so without ever flashing so much as a nipple. The city once known as home to some of the raunchiest strip joints in the country now falls under some of the strictest regulations.
Because the owners are not operating their clubs as adult businesses, they're allowed to continue selling alcohol. Plus, they're not required to follow one of the more restrictive pieces of the county ordinance, which requires that dancers remain six feet from patrons during any performance. But the results are PG-13-friendly bikini bars that are a far cry from the bare-it-all strip clubs they once were.
"You can see more at a public swimming pool," says Steve Cooper, owner of the Gold Club, Christie's Cabaret, Italian restaurant Stella Marris, and several other clubs across the country. "For a federal judge to uphold an ordinance letting more be seen at a city-owned swimming pool, where 5-year-old kids can see girls in bikinis, is ridiculous."
The county adult-business ordinance, which adopts the state Adult-Oriented Establishment Registration Act of 1998, is nothing new. The Shelby County Commission passed the law in 2007, but club owners challenged the law's constitutionality in federal court. After being tied up in court for several years, the ordinance was upheld by U.S. District Court judge Bernice Donald last September.
In November, Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell, District Attorney Amy Weirich, and Shelby County sheriff Bill Oldam held a press conference announcing that the new rules would finally be enforced beginning January 1st.
At midnight on New Year's Eve, dancers in local strip clubs went backstage in next to nothing and emerged wearing something akin to what you'd see on a beach.
"They are trying to avoid the ordinance so they don't have to get a permit," said Mike Ritz, the Shelby County commissioner who sponsored the ordinance. "Sooner or later, I suspect we'll have one or more of the clubs and their employees, owners, or entertainers in court arguing that they are not a club."
Stickers on the door of the Pony nightclub on Winchester let patrons know that, as of January 1st, the Pony is no longer in the business of adult entertainment. But assistant county attorney Carter Gray said, at this point, the clubs have self-determined their status within the law.
"There's been no determination of that by us," Gray said. "What we could do, if we thought they were operating as [an adult business] and flashing or something, is cite them for not having a license and acting as an adult-entertainment club."
Had the clubs gone along with the ordinance and remained adult businesses, the owners, employees, and dancers would be required to apply for licenses and permits each year. Issuance of those permits depends on several factors, including whether or not the applicant has been convicted of certain sex crimes such as prostitution, rape, or public indecency. Permits are issued at the discretion of a five-member Adult-Oriented Establishment Board, the members of which are appointed by the county mayor.
Alcohol is banned from the premises of a licensed adult business, meaning patrons wouldn't even be allowed to brown-bag their own booze.
The county law bans nudity altogether, but dancers at a licensed adult business would be able to wear less clothing than the dancers are currently wearing at Memphis clubs. For example, pasties and G-string bikini bottoms would likely be allowed.
According to the law, nudity is defined as "the showing of the human male or female genitals or pubic area with less than a fully opaque covering, the showing of the female breast with less than a fully opaque covering of any part of the nipple, or the showing of the covered male genitals in a discernibly turgid state."
Dancers at a licensed adult business aren't allowed to have any physical contact with patrons, employees, or other entertainers during their performances, which must occur on stages at least 18 inches above the floor and removed six feet from the nearest patron, employee, or other entertainer. For now, since the clubs aren't licensed adult businesses, dancers may have contact with other patrons.
"If they're covered and staying away from the ordinance, they might try to get even closer to patrons," Ritz said. "I think some of these owners may end up with a couple of clubs operating as a glorified Hooters."
Jerry Westlund, who owns the Pony and several adult clubs across the country, wouldn't say much to the Flyer on the record, but he did express his disdain for politicians who use their office to legislate morality.
"I don't understand why in the world Mike Ritz thinks the areola is the demise of mankind," Westlund said.
"The law is horrible. Business is so slow, and all the men want nothing to do with you because you can't take your top off," says Monica Smith, a dancer at a local club who asked that the Flyer change her name to protect her identity. "I'm pretty sure this law, among other things, has ruined the business."
Smith only recently began dancing again after a three-year hiatus while she attended college. On the first night she worked after the ordinance took effect, Smith thought the wardrobe changes weren't so bad. She wasn't getting groped, and she made around $300. But that was a weekend night, and there was a bachelor party of well-behaved men in the club.
After working a few weeknights and dealing with the club's regular patrons, she's changed her mind about covering her breasts.
"The men are getting vicious. They say, 'You can't take your top off? Well, fuck you,'" Smith said. "Or they'll say, 'How much will it cost to see your tits after you get off work?' It's nice to talk to the men, but when they are being foul about what they want to see, it's no fun."
Smith said some of the more-seasoned dancers are now traveling to clubs in Mississippi, where the law still allows for topless dancing.
Gold Club owner Cooper said he's already noticing a change in patronage.
"Well sure, it's hurting business. The whole intent of this law is to try and put us out of business," Cooper said. "When you can go to Coyote Ugly or [any dance club] and see more grabbing and bumping between couples on the dance floor than you can in an adult-entertainment club, something is wrong."
Cooper said the new rules will have a negative effect on tourism and convention planners choosing to hold their events in Memphis.
"What the public doesn't realize is your best convention cities around the nation, like New Orleans, Las Vegas, and Atlanta, all have some form of adult entertainment," Cooper said.
Kevin Kane, president of the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB), wouldn't comment on whether or not he's worried about new club rules slowing tourism. He would only say "the CVB doesn't track the number of visitors and conventiongoers who go to adult businesses."
On a recent Saturday night at the Pony, however, business seems to be booming. Almost every seat in the club is filled, and garters on the dancers' legs are overflowing with cash tips. Nonetheless, the owners see the county ordinance as an effort to shut their businesses down.
Ritz claims that wasn't the intent.
"We weren't trying to eliminate them. If we were trying to eliminate them, we would have written an ordinance that looks a lot different," Ritz said. "We said then and we say now, we expect some of these clubs will survive."
In fact, according to county commissioner Steve Mulroy, strip clubs are protected free speech under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. But local governments can regulate how the clubs do business in an effort to stave off the so-called secondary effects of strip clubs, such as crime and lowered property values.
"You might be able to say there's far less evidence of a reduction in property values or increase in crime for a Hooters-style place or a bikini bar than for a hardcore strip club," Mulroy said.
In 2006, around the time the county was considering adopting the state law regulating adult businesses, the city and county collectively paid Duncan Associates, a Texas-based consulting firm, $38,000 to conduct a six-month investigation into Memphis strip clubs and adult bookstores.
The findings: full nudity, physical contact between customers and dancers (some of which included "insertion of tongues and fingers into bodily orifices," according to the Duncan Associates report), illegal private rooms, and lax security. The year the study was conducted was the same year Platinum Plus, the city's most notoriously raunchy club, was closed under the state's public nuisance law.
Ritz said the county felt compelled to do something since there was no Memphis adult-business ordinance on the books. Although the county can't usually legislate within city limits, the commission chose to enact the state's Adult-Oriented Registration Act, which allows counties to enact rules within cities if there isn't already a city ordinance being enforced.
That state law, however, must be applied in full if local governments choose to enforce it. Since the county commission had no other option for enforcing a law within the city, it was forced to accept all parts of the state law with no substitutions.
"We'll continue to apply this in Memphis unless Memphis ever promulgates, passes, and enforces its own ordinance," Mulroy said.
The Memphis City Council discussed an ordinance that would supersede the county's law and allow beer sales in strip clubs, but that was tabled indefinitely in 2008. At the time, Councilman Edmund Ford Jr. moved to table the ordinance while the county law was being sorted out in federal court. But after Judge Donald upheld the ordinance last year, the council made no moves to revive the discussion.
Hope for the Breast?
Despite Donald's ruling in favor of the county ordinance, Cooper and Westlund say they are appealing the decision. Attorneys for the strip clubs, Edward Bearman of Memphis and Michael Murray of Cleveland, Ohio, did not return calls for comment on the appeal's status.
Even if the strip-club owners don't win their appeal, there may still be hope for topless clubs to exist within the city limits. At any time, the Memphis City Council could pass an ordinance that would supersede the county rules. Memphis city councilman Shea Flinn hasn't given up on a planned proposal to establish a red-light district within the city limits.
"There has been some movement on that [ordinance] in the past few months, and we're still compiling it. The number-one problem we're facing is finding suitable property that would remove the secondary effects of strip clubs from neighborhoods," Flinn said.
When he originally floated his red-light district idea in 2009, Flinn proposed moving strip clubs to Presidents Island, but that option is no longer on the table.
"Homeland Security put the kibosh on that, because there's a port there. That was a backward step that we've been working through, but I'm not in the business of arguing with Homeland Security," Flinn said.
The key, Flinn said, is finding an area to accommodate multiple clubs and that's far enough away from neighborhoods, churches, and schools. Once a property is identified, the proposal to the city council would deal with zoning changes, licensing requirements, and enforcement. Flinn said the property chosen for a red-light district would have to be in an area that could be easily policed.
If the council passed such an ordinance, club owners would have the option of moving into the special district if they wanted some level of nudity in their clubs. Outside the district's boundaries, the county law would still apply.
"The goal is to make it more profitable to be located in the new district and less profitable where they are now. That way, it's not the government telling them where to run their business. It's the market," Flinn said.
Flinn expects to have a proposal ready to present to the council within the next few months. Until then, the clubs will probably continue to operate as bikini bars, and Ritz said authorities will be keeping a close eye on what's going on inside. He gives the clubs "30 or 60 days, at the most, before they slowly go back to the way they were."
But despite his disagreement with the new law, Cooper is playing it straight at the Gold Club. That doesn't mean he's giving up the fight.
"It's a crazy law, and the thing people don't realize is, when you let the government take your rights away in one area, they'll start taking them away in other areas," Cooper said. "People need to be careful what they wish for. They may wish to harm a small group of people in the adult-entertainment business, but who knows what's next?"