License to Strip 

A southern Tennessee county clamps down on sex businesses

A southern Tennessee county clamps down on sex businesses

Honey (not her real name) can climb a dance pole, wrap her legs around it, slide down slowly, flip her legs over her head and bring them down to the ground in a perfect split. “I used to be in gymnastics,” the 27-year-old dancer at the Club Utopia showbar in Giles County boasts. But one of her most impressive feats is dancing while criticizing an optional state law that her county has adopted (and that her club is so far ignoring) requiring strippers to stay at least 6 feet from patrons. The law also requires dancers to report their names, addresses and phone numbers to the county clerk to get an adult entertainer “license.” “Why should I have to get a license to do this?” says Honey, a thin dancer with long, reddish hair. “I’m not a doctor. This doesn’t require a degree. I’m not endangering anyone. What business is it of theirs?”

Despite such arguments, Honey’s days of wearing pasties and G-strings and rubbing against patrons at the Club Utopia while remaining anonymous may be numbered. After four years of legal maneuvering, the newly formed Giles County Adult Oriented Establishment Board is closing in on the handful of strip clubs, adult bookstores and massage parlors that, for over two decades, have made the county a landmark—at least in the eyes of many truck drivers—on the otherwise lonesome drive from Birmingham to Nashville.

Pressure from the board already has caused the temporary closure of the Boobie Bungalow, a dance club just off Interstate 65 in Elkton. “I’ve run this business and paid my taxes for almost 24 years and almost never had any trouble,” says owner Alvin Russell. “And it would be one thing if all this would have been an attempt by the government to just regulate us, but it wasn’t. This is an attempt to put us out of business.”

Many people in Giles County are cheering the board, saying that the disproportionate number of such businesses in this southern Tennessee county of about 30,000 people has been a long-standing embarrassment for the area. “We don’t want this sort of thing near our homes and near our families, and the state law gave us a chance to regulate these businesses once and for all,” says Bobby White, a Pulaski businessman and one of the organizers of Citizens for a Better Giles County, a grass-roots organization that is fighting the adult businesses.

Others don’t see what the fuss is all about. “The community isn’t proud of these businesses, and shouldn’t be, but they do pay taxes,” says Casey Jones, the owner of Elkton Farm Supply, where many retired men gather to relax, talk and pass the time. “I think if you were to ask around you would find that many people here in Elkton feel the same way. I know that I hear a lot of people say that we don’t need to close businesses down when we need every dime of taxes that we can get.”

The current legal morass between Giles County and its adult businesses started in the state legislature. In 1998, lawmakers quietly passed a series of regulations targeting adult-oriented businesses such as strip clubs and bookstores. State Sen. Keith Jordan of Franklin, whose seat is now occupied by Marsha Blackburn, sponsored the bill. “At the time, it seemed to me that there was a spate of these adult entertainment establishments appearing around us, and it is very clear to me that the proliferation of these places brings with it a whole lot of social problems such as crime, prostitution and drug usage,” Jordan says.

His bill was based on regulations that he said had passed constitutional scrutiny in other jurisdictions. However, State Sen. Steve Cohen of Memphis argued and voted against the bill, saying that despite what some people might think, exotic dancing is a form of expression protected by the U.S. Constitution.

Unlike most laws passed by the legislature, the regulations did not take effect unless local or county governments chose to “opt into” them. So far, the Metro Council has not chosen to opt into the state law, probably because the Council already has passed a similar, locally initiated bill, sponsored by at-large Council member Chris Ferrell. (It’s not being enforced now because it’s tied up in federal appeals court.) But several other counties have opted into the state law, including Madison, Sullivan, Lincoln and Coffee.

Largely under pressure from Citizens for a Better Giles County, the Giles County Commission voted to opt into the state law and form an Adult Oriented Establishment Board in November 1999. That board then sent a letter to every establishment in the county that it suspected of being an adult businesses and told them to meet the regulations. For strip clubs, this would mean requiring dancers to get permits at the courthouse, enforcing a 6-foot rule and stopping the sale of alcoholic beverages.

A few months later, in April 2000, Club Utopia owner James “Big Jim” Prince, Expressway Books owner Paul Friedman and a Club Utopia dancer named Jennifer Edwards filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Nashville against local law enforcement authorities, the board and the state of Tennessee. In that lawsuit, filed in Judge Thomas Higgins’ court, the plaintiffs asked the judge to declare the state law unconstitutional.

Edwards, a 27-year-old dancer who went by the stage name “Barbie,” gave lengthy testimony in that lawsuit. Edwards said that as a dancer, she was an independent contractor who paid Club Utopia owner Prince $35 a night for the right to dance and keep all the tips she made. She also said that a friend had introduced her to the idea of exotic dancing and even showed her how to do it. “ [It was] kind of like when I went to work construction. I just sort of watched and was led through it,” said Edwards, a single mother who testified that she hoped to become a mortician when her days of dancing were over. Edwards, who no longer works for Club Utopia, also said that it would be an invasion of her privacy to have to get a license.

White, with Citizens for a Better Giles County, says that the argument that strippers shouldn’t have to get a permit because it is an invasion of their privacy is nonsense. “Most of the girls who work in these types of establishments have criminal records for drugs and different things, and they aren’t the kind of people that you want in a community anyway,” he says. “I’m glad that the new state law says we can check them out and keep them from working in places like this.”

White also says that the idea that adult businesses should be closely regulated and monitored is perfectly understandable, especially given the level of government intrusion in other businesses. “I’ve been in business in Pulaski for 30 years,” he says. “I’m in the furniture business and the real estate business, and I own a pawn shop and a check cashing business, and I have to get a license and meet regulations in every business that I’m in or the government will shut me down,” he says. “I don’t know where anyone is getting the idea that these places shouldn’t be regulated.”

During the months immediately following the federal court hearing, attorneys for both sides advised their clients to wait for a ruling before moving ahead, which is why owners and dancers at establishments such as Club Utopia and the Boobie Bungalow mostly continued to ignore the regulations. But there was one break in the stalemate: In December 2000, the Giles County sheriff’s office, under pressure from the Adult Oriented Establishment Board, raided the Boobie Bungalow and fined four of its dancers $500 for performing nude and violating the state’s public indecency act (which is not enforced as strictly in Davidson County, where dancers routinely perform nude at clubs such as Déja Vu.) “Some of the girls had nothing on but the juke box,” says Sheriff Eddie Bass.

Then last month, the Giles County Adult Oriented Establishment Board decided to move ahead. The board notified all the adult businesses that they had to meet the regulations by Nov. 6. At a meeting of the board two days later, the county clerk said that most of the adult bookstores had filed the necessary applications, but the strip clubs such as the Club Utopia, Boobie Bungalow and Watering Hole had not. The board then told Sheriff Bass to make an independent determination as to whether those clubs are in violation of the law. “At some point, I will probably send an officer into these places in plain clothes,” Bass says. “It will be pretty obvious pretty fast as to whether they are in violation.”

It has now been over a year since Judge Higgins heard the case about Giles County’s adult businesses, and no one has any idea when he will rule. Higgins sided with adult businesses a couple of years ago in a case regarding a similar set of adult regulations in Davidson County. However, the Davidson County ruling was appealed, which means that the legal morass in Giles County could drag on even after Higgins makes his decision.

In the meantime, each of the adult businesses in Giles County seems to have its own strategy of how to survive. Boobie Bungalow owner Alvin Russell is trying to get the city of Elkton to “opt out” of the Giles County ordinance and replace it with a different set of regulations that would allow him to sell alcohol and institute a 1-foot rule instead of a 6-foot rule. Elkton County attorney Joe Fowlkes, who also represents the area in the state House, says he doesn’t know whether the Elkton council will go along.

Since Club Utopia is not located in an incorporated town, it can’t do what Russell is trying to do with his business. It will have to live with whatever the federal courts, the Adult Oriented Establishment Board and Sheriff Bass decide.

So far, the implications of this haven’t really worked their way down to Honey, who, like her dozen or so colleagues, continues to dance on stage for dollar tips and give table dances for $20.

“I don’t know whether something will happen or not, but I hope not because I’m happy here,” Honey says. “If this place weren’t here, I guess I’d work in Nashville. But I don’t think I’d feel as comfortable dancing totally nude, which I’d have to do if I worked in Nashville.”

Honey also says that as a single mother with two kids, she needs the money. “I don’t know why they won’t just leave us alone. Maybe the people who are trying to put us out of business are just jealous because they don’t have a job as fun as this one.”

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