Let me start out by saying that I'm not a fan of strip clubs, topless bars or gentlemen clubs, whatever you'd like to call them. No, that's not some kind of self-righteous and condescending line delivered to curry favor with female readers. I'm a red-blooded male, and I have no shame in admitting that I'm quite fond of topless women. Anyone who knows me will also tell you that I'm not adverse to a cold beer either. I just don't like topless women pestering me for money while I'm drinking my beer. I find that it spoils both pleasures.
Once upon a time, the guys could meet up after work for a cold one at such an establishment to enjoy an artful dance interpretation of White Snake's Here I Go Again, while recounting the highlights of their day, pausing from time to time to deposit a folded buck or two on the edge of the stage, especially when something particularly acrobatic was achieved. But in the age of the big score, such patrons instead find themselves fending off by-the-minute invitations to buy the entertainers $20 glasses of fruit juice, or drop half the day's pay on the same dance performed five feet closer, while they recline on a “V.I.P couch” that smells like hospital disinfectant. Those same people who know me will also tell you that I'm far too frugal for either.
But while such establishments aren't my thing, I have nothing against those who still enjoy such entertainment in its modern incarnation. That's why I have to take exception to Manatee County's new Land Use Code aimed at crippling such businesses by not allowing them to serve alcohol. This isn't a response to a massive rash of crimes taking place at such businesses, but rather another attempt by a handful of people to legislate morality for an entire community.
It would seem that the fact that several such establishments have long been in business and thrived in the community indicates that a relatively sizable contingent of residents not only have no problem with such venues, but even enjoy utilizing their services. We're not talking pill mills or some other problem-inducing industry. These are walled-off, windowless establishments that only adults can enter. Nonetheless, the intent of the rule is to put local businessmen – taxpayers who have invested their money in developing a legal enterprise – belly up, while each of their two-dozen or so employees lands in the unemployment line – all so that this can be the kind of community a handful of unaffected people envision.
It reminds me very much of the attitude of many such people toward downtown Bradenton, particularly Old Main Street. Again, I hear over and over that a street lined with bars is “not what we want for our community.” Yet bars continue to be far and away the most prolific and prosperous businesses in that area. When it comes to such issues, doesn't a community vote with its dollars? If so many people really wanted boutiques and ice cream parlors, they wouldn't have such a hard time staying in business. There are over 300,000 citizens in this county. Officials need to keep that in perspective and decide whether an industry's success is more indicative of the community's attitude at large, than a few dozen complaints from people who object to something on a moral basis.
When it comes to “the kind of community we want,” public officials seem awfully flexible regarding issues like land development and pollution, especially when they are admittedly trading off ecological benefits for things like “the local economy” and “jobs.” But as a resident who loves this community, I care a lot more about issues like mitigating wetlands, encouraging more senseless sprawl, and the hollowing out of our urban core, than I do about what happens behind closed doors among consenting adults in a non-resource-intensive business – money being spent locally, helping fellow taxpayers earn a living with dollars that are more likely to be kept in our economy, without knocking down trees to do it.
I'm not sure what the real beef against these places is, and I suspect that there exists a natural politicization of the issue, as any public official who gets it put in front of them surely considers the ramification of being tarred as a “supporter of strip clubs.” I've heard the argument that it's degrading to women, but shouldn't the women who work there decide that? I've also heard wives complain that they don't want their husbands in such places, but again, is it the government's job to solve marital issues?
Also, allow me to assure any such spouse that there are few places where your husband's fidelity is safer than a topless bar. He has a much better chance of such an encounter going to Applebees for happy hour with the coworkers than scoring with an exotic dancer. Trust me, she has an unemployed boyfriend with frosted-blond tips and a lime green Mitsubishi Eclipse that she's taking all those folded up dollar bills home to, and the club has a well-heeled bouncer ready to show guys the curb if they get too touchy-feely.
Conversely, when it comes to what's happening of a sexual nature among businesses in our community, I can't help but point out that any citizen or commissioner who ranks a topless bar ahead of a Catholic church on their list of potential problems hasn't done very much homework on the subject. I have, and I wouldn't hesitate to tell you which one would make me more uncomfortable if my seven-year-old son had to walk pass it on the way home from the bus stop.
There have been nearly 5,000 allegations of sexual abuse cases made against Catholic Priests and Deacons in a systematic child molestation epidemic throughout this country. The church hierarchy has been shown to be complicit in many instances by failing to report or even investigate many criminal acts and often reassigning offenders where they continued to commit such heinous offenses against our children. It gives a whole new meaning to the word prey, but I haven't heard any talk of not wanting these places in our community – and they don't even pay taxes. But I guess it's not nearly as politically palatable to go after a church as it is a bar.
Bottom line is prohibition and the legislation of individual morality don't work and never has. If we want to decide whether otherwise legal businesses have a place in our community, than schedule a referendum vote during the next election and let the people decide for themselves. End-around legislation has a way of backfiring. A certain city to our north already tried to impose ridiculously convoluted regulations of strip clubs and they ended up inspiring the proliferation of full-nude/no-alcohol clubs that happened to coincide with the proliferation of nearby package stores that seemed to be particularly successful in selling the kind of mini-bar liquor bottles that are easily dumped into the over-priced colas at the club. I also suspect that the “relaxation parlors” will get a boost if the bars go bust.
Ultimately, the people of the community still decide what kind of community they build, whether you pass such laws or not. In the end, you just end up wasting massive amounts of resources trying to police your silly and self-righteous rules. I'd submit that the greatest challenge facing this community right now is high-unemployment and working-poverty wages, which are statistically shown to impact real problems like alcoholism, drug addiction and crime. I fail to see how shutting down more businesses and taking away more living-wage jobs will do anything positive in that regard.
Dennis Maley is a featured columnist and editor for The Bradenton Times. His column appears every Thursday and Sunday on our site and in our free Weekly Recap and Sunday Edition (click here to subscribe). An archive of Dennis' columns is available here. He can be reached at email@example.com. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook by clicking the badges below.