IN IOWA, IT'S EASIER TO OGLE DANCING GIRLS DRUNK THAN SOBER.
BY JULIA BARTON
DES MOINES, IOWA -- michelle Flagstad remembers the rainy
afternoon in May when her job became illegal. She had her
curlers in her hair, getting ready for the commute from her
home in Des Moines to her workplace in Ames, when her
boss called. "We're closed indefinitely," the boss said. Why?
"Go out and buy a newspaper."
just signed a
bill making nude dancing in non-alcoholic bars a crime -- and that's
exactly what the
21-year-old English major at Drake University had been doing two nights a
week to put
herself through college. Years ago, the state had invoked its
liquor-licensing authority to
require at least G-strings and pastie coverage at premises serving alcohol.
establishments -- including Blondie's, the bar where Flagstad worked -- got
restriction by selling no booze at all. And that was the way that Flagstad
"I can handle a sober proposition [from a patron] better than a drunken one
that goes on
and on," she says. But these nude "juice bars" infuriated conservative
wrote legislation outlawing any glimpse of "the genitals or female breast
entertainers at all places with a sales tax permit -- unless that person,
in the judgment of the
state, qualifies as a theatrical performer.
But Flagstad has not lost her job yet. The Iowa Civil Liberties Union won
against the new law until Tuesday, when a constitutional challenge to the
law will be heard in
federal district court. "Nude dancing almost always occurs in a private
forum where only
consenting adults see it," says Randall Wilson, legal director of the ICLU,
which has filed
the challenge on behalf of three juice bar owners and a dancer. "The
government's interest in
stopping it is non-existent."
But other state and local authorities don't see it that way. Battles like
Iowa's are going on
across the country, and they're not limited to the provinces. Employees,
patrons and owners
of more than 100 sexually oriented businesses in New York City, backed by
the New York
Civil Liberties Union, are suing to overturn a new zoning ordinance that
would confine their
activities to a few industrial areas and wetlands. The zoning ordinance
affects the human
body as well: It forbids both men and women from exposing their genitalia
(especially if the
men are in a "discernibly turgid state"); and in a move that would make New
prudish than Iowa, it bans the sight of a female dancer's breasts at any
point "below the top
of the areola."
Proponents of nudity restrictions argue they're not out to crush freedom of
among consenting adults, only to protect neighborhoods, women and children.
places for nude dancing create specific harmful effects," says Scott
Bergthold, director of
legal affairs for the National Family Legal Foundation, a Phoenix agency
that helped craft
Iowa's anti-juice bar dancing law. "Those include prostitution of female
dancers and an
increase of indecent exposure, rape and assaults on police officers in the
Civil libertarians say the evidence supporting such claims is flimsy and
also point out that the courts have demanded higher standards when it comes
forms of expression. "If I make a contentious speech in a public park, the
state can't just
ban it because they don't want people to riot," Wilson says.
Both the Iowa and New York cases may end up converging at the U.S. Supreme
and it won't be the first time the Court has considered the First Amendment
rights of nipples
and pudenda. In the 1991 case Barnes vs. Glen Theater, the court ruled that
dancing deserves a measure of constitutional protection, states could
require G-strings and
pasties in the interest of "societal order and morality." But the 5-4
decision (with three
concurring opinions and a solid dissent) was so confused, says Marjorie
Heins, director of
the ACLU's Arts Censorship Project, that civil libertarians can still
restrictions on nudity in court.
Meanwhile, juice bar dancers and owners in Iowa are bracing for the worst.
One club in the
appropriately named town of Mount Joy attempted to sidestep the impending
law in May
by changing its name from the Southern Comfort Lounge to the Southern
Theatre for the Performing Arts. Local law enforcement raided the place as
soon as the ink
from the governor's pen had dried. "The dancer was female," wrote the
"and she did not have any clothes on." If the courts uphold the law,
manager could face a year in jail and a $1,500 fine.
Michelle Flagstad can't figure out how a G-string over her nether regions
the safety and morality of Iowans. She says it would do nothing to protect
her if Blondie's
becomes the sort of place the state does allow, where near-naked dancers
But as one who's had plenty of time to observe the prurient interests of
can understand why everyone from the governor to her patrons seems obsessed
is really a small patch of her overall physique. The sight of it may not be
a big deal to her, or
to most women, she says, "but to men -- it's all the difference in the
Aug. 18, 1997
Julia Barton is a regular contributor to Salon.
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