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Testifying Against Censorship of the Strip Clubs



Rob Hardy


You might not expect Judith Lynne Hanna to be an advocate for striptease. She's an academic, and she is in her seventies. She did her doctorate, however, on dance as nonverbal communication, she has as an anthropologist been studying exotic dance as a particular specialty since 1995, she visits exotic dance clubs to do research, and she has published hundreds of articles and books. She has been one of four judges at the national Exotic World Pageant at the Movers and Shakers Burlesque Museum and Striptease Hall of Fame. She has also worked as a consultant expert in over a hundred legal cases in diverse states where governments wanted to shut down or restrict dance clubs. She likes communication, she likes dancing, she likes expression of fantasy. She does not like restrictions of expression, and in Naked Truth: Strip Clubs, Democracy, and a Christian Right (University of Texas Press) she tells us why. Though her book has plenty of appendices and footnotes, it also has news stories and anecdotes, and descriptions of her testimonies in court. It is entertaining, but it is also a serious examination of how activists are trying to use sexual regulation in order to limit entertainment and enforce morality along church guidelines. It is no teapot tempest, she says: "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." 




Hanna was drawn into this arena of research in 1995 when she was asked to be an expert witness in a First Amendment case about 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." This was the start to her becoming "the world's only expert court witness on the dance itself - from ballet to stripping - as nonverbal communication." She is obviously proud of her role. "Newspaper reporters have asked, 'What is a person like you with "impeccable credentials" doing studying nude dancing?' I answer, 'Anthropologists study human behavior.'" 




Hanna mentions several times that dance has been restricted by religious fundamentalists though the ages. The Taliban, for instance, permits no dancing and restricts women's freedom, but of course that is not the source of the religious objections she is up against. Hanna describes herself as in opposition to a particular politically-aimed version of Christianity, the Christian Right (CR) activists. While striptease artists trade on fantasies, the CR fight against fantasies as they interpret them. There are Christian sects that allow no sort of dancing; they "know" that males swaying along with females is an obvious symbolic depiction of sex. The waltz was famously thought of as scandalous and indecent when it became trendy in the early nineteenth century because it so obviously signified coitus. Tut-tuts came in their turn to the rumba from Cuba, the merengue from Haiti, the lambada dance from Brazil, the tango from Argentina, or the flamenco from Andalusia. Serious modern dance performances, such as at the American Dance Festival at Duke University, have included nudity and come under criticism from "Concerned Christians for Good Government" because of it. If there is a sexual element in dance, so be it; people enjoy such things. Mencken was right; Puritanism is "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy." 




If the CR activists, fearing such happiness, don't want to ban all dancing, they are eager to all ban strip clubs everywhere. It is insufficient that they try to influence their own members to stay away from such places; they try to get the government to shut the establishments down. In Hanna's view, this infringes on First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights which need constant defense. Men (and increasingly women) go to strip clubs for all sorts of reasons. It may be for refuge, relaxation, or simple entertainment. Looking at nude bodies and dancing is fun for onlookers. Watching and fantasizing is just something humans do. Some enjoy companionship with other customers, and sometimes music producers, disk jockeys, and stars use the venue for business. Strip clubs have been a launching pad for new music. The dancers, too, perform for diverse reasons. Hanna had initially expected to find exploited "bimbos" when she did her backstage interviews, and she did, but that wasn't at all the norm. There were stockbrokers, for instance, and many other strippers that had full-time day jobs. "They told me they danced to get exercise, have fun, and pick up some extra money." Some of the women may be exploited, but as Hanna points out, you don't have to go to a strip club to see women exploited. "There are good clubs and bad clubs, and good bosses and bad bosses. Every industry has that." Her research, and that of others, indicates that stripping increases the dancer's sense of control and self-esteem. It would seem that popular instruction via DVD or in person about the gymnastic aspects of pole-dancing or the aerobics of stripping do the same thing. The CR leader in Portland, Oregon, who insisted that women who perform in clubs have the same experience as those in concentration camps is surely wrong. 




Court decisions have made it plain that dancing is expression, and exotic dance comes under the protection of the Constitution and First Amendment. That ought to settle it, but the CR activists seem not to care about such protections as long as they might be able to do away with an activity whose enjoyment by others offends them. In Jacksonville, Florida, they insisted that strippers had to wear garments that covered more flesh than do swimsuits at the beach. "The question naturally arises," says Hanna, "why government should require more clothing for performers communicating a protected message before consenting adults in a controlled environment than it does for citizens walking around in front of children in public while intending to convey no message whatsoever." Since they can't stop the expression presented by strippers, the activists try end runs against the clubs by insisting that such clubs spread disease, invite prostitution, promote drug use, increase crime, or depreciate property. Hanna reviews the evidence for these charges, and finds that there are no studies that reliably show such changes, though this does not keep the CR from bringing up the charges, and sometimes judges agree with them. If the CR activists can't close the places down because they are immoral, they will try to make it too expensive for them to operate, insisting that the government extract a "sin" tax or that the clubs have to hire security guards or pay a license fee no other business has to pay. And if that doesn't work, there is always slashing the tires of patrons, smashing windows, or sending in death threats. 




The CR activists do not speak for all Christians, and there are Christians who object to their objections and their way of making them. There is even Reverend Mike Kaminski, who applauds the change in the industry's evolution away from "strip joints" and into gentlemen's clubs, and writes about the bad rap the clubs get. Pastor Mike is also the official chaplain for Wild J's Gentleman's Club in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. At the very least, the CR activists can be said to be continuing the anti-sexuality and anti-pleasure effort that has been a backbone of fundamentalists for ages. 




"The crusade against exotic dance," writes Hanna, "does not serve the larger public interest and is costly to the taxpayer, people's livelihoods, and most importantly, civil liberties." Her bright, detailed, and engrossing book strongly supports free expression and shows that it makes no difference if that expression involves bodily movement, sexuality, or fantasy. It should make no difference at all that some people find such expression "naughty."



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