The Law and the Skin Trade in the Windy City

Will The Last Person Leaving the Last Adult Performance in Chicago Please Turn Out the Lights?

By J. D. Obenberger, Attorney at Law
© MM J. D. Obenberger, All Rights Reserved

About three hundred owners of Gentlemen’s Clubs, strip joints, and exotic dance establishments met together in Las Vegas during the last week of August for a show annually sponsored by Exotic Dancer Magazine.

With the other lawyers who belong to the First Amendment Lawyers Association, I was privileged to meet with the Club owners from around the country and learn about Club operations and the now-critical problems many of them face from local government. It was an interesting and curious convocation which brought many different kinds of people together, from the tattooed cowboy Club owner in Anchorage, Alaska who regularly revs up his Harley and does a wheelie in his Club’s VIP Room, sending his dancers through the Club on one of his Arabian horses, to the corporate executive types of the big chains like Déjà Vu, Gold Club, and Spearmint Rhino, in their gray pinstripe suits.

The consensus was that this industry, under attack for many years from the authoritarian moralist wing of the conservative movement, is in serious trouble.

The men, women, and couples who come to live erotic entertainment these days are, in the main, a pretty normal bunch of people. There you will find people of every type, white collar, blue collar, White, Black, Asian and Latin, people with several degrees and people with no degrees. Married and single, straight and gay, monogamous and sexually carnivorous, they all are attracted to the celebrations of feminine sexuality that these Clubs offer as theater. While the quality of artistry will run the full range from elaborate set design, line numbers, torch dancers and flame swallowing entertainers to a simple brass pole behind a bar, all of these stages are unified in exultation of eroticism by its direct expression to adult audiences willing and eager to enjoy that kind of entertainment.

However, the Authoritarian Right (and I want to emphasize the word “Authoritarian” because the Right is a proper home of people deeply committed to the protection of individual Liberty and Privacy, and in my opinion, conservatism is their proper home) has been portraying the patrons of these establishments as a bunch of sick perverts and degenerates, whose very presence in their communities invites and creates “adverse secondary effects” of the erotic expression. They claim that the Clubs and their patrons bring decreased property values, an increase in crime, and a generally blighting effect to the places where they locate. These moralists have been largely successful in organizing themselves in communities across America, they are well funded and vocal, and they have intimidated local officials into the enactment of laws that, in many places, amount to the kind of regulation of adult entertainment that effectively outlaws it, laws which, in that respect, connive to violate the Constitution of the United States.

I have attended community meetings where the enemies of adult entertainment have told their neighbors, with a straight face, that gentlemen’s clubs attract child molesters. It remains a mystery to me what gratification any child molester would find in watching grown up women dance on stage. It is my impression that, to the contrary, it is the intolerant cranks who get on the bandwagon in opposition to erotic dance, and who make its suppression a life’s work, who are the oddballs in opposition to the values of contemporary America.

While flying back to Chicago, I sat with two young women, and after I read their palms (with a disclaimer that it was for amusement only) we started talking about who we are and what we do.

One was an earnest 26-year-old mother of two, a sixth grade teacher, a lady who grew up on a farm, now living in so small a town, so far downstate, that she claims to be able to smell the difference between cow and pig manures. She was on the second airplane trip of her life. My other companion was a 21-year-old former teen beauty queen who’d won the statewide crown and many lesser crowns in the pageants of an urbane New England state, a singer who had studied music at Juliard, a graceful young woman who had gone on to runway modeling on a sometime basis and data systems consulting on a more regular basis. She was an ardent convert to - - of all things - - the Mormon Church, and a very charming person who had made a sincere commitment to sexual abstinence until marriage.

Eventually the conversation turned to what kind of clients I represent and the meeting in Las Vegas. After I told them about it, I said, as I often have in meeting people outside this industry, that I recognize that some people just might regard my clients’ businesses as offensive or disgusting. Their responses immediately and simultaneously crackled at me like twin bolts of lightening over the Rockies.

The young, chaste, Mormon beauty queen singer told me, with immeasurable and conspicuous grace, that I should never make statements that sound like even half-apologies for the representation of the skin trade. As I struggled to explain to them about some of the reactions I’ve had over the years from folks of the moralizing persuasion, (and in their eyes, as I dug myself in deeper) the downstate Illinois schoolteacher said, in words that will be etched in my consciousness forever, “We may be straight, but that doesn’t mean we’re narrow.”

Now, I make it a point to learn something from everybody I meet, but I learned more from them than I had counted on when I boarded that plane. They had each reminded me that normal and well adjusted people really don’t feel threatened by live erotic entertainment in our society. It is not sick and revolting men who like to look at attractive women: It is normal men who come for the show.

Just like the politicians who have enacted these silly laws that pretend to create a moral climate that never has and never will exist (except perhaps in the meditative fantasy of an ascetic monk), I am guilty, and I was busted by these ladies, for listening too much to the cranks.

Now, if that can happen to me, as a first amendment and adult entertainment lawyer, if I can become defensive in a social situation because I hear too much of the shrill voice of intolerance, how can any elected official oppose it in public? How do you expect the politicians to vote when only those who falsely assume the mantle of the “moral majority” come to the meetings where such laws are proposed?

For those of us who enjoy this kind of entertainment, for those who own or work in establishments in this industry, for all of us, there is a plain choice. We either become involved in the democratic process or these cabarets and theaters will be destroyed, resulting in an America that will eventually tolerate no form of entertainment except that which would be suitable for young children.

In fact, when I represented a Club in Bridgeview, one of the most persistent objections of the enemies of adult entertainment was, “How do we explain this business to our children when we drive past it?” The obvious answer went right over their head: No society will have any cultural life worth enjoying if the standard for art and performance is its suitability for children of tender years. Look at Iran and Saudi Arabia, and consider whether those societies are fit model for America to emulate. (And I can’t resist the temptation to add that an entire generation of second, third, and fourth graders have inappropriately learned about oral sex before they have learned about regular sex from the evening news, courtesy of the Oval Office.) Just like ballroom dancing, nylons, poker and blackjack, lipstick, alcohol, coffee, and driving a car, there are many things which possess no evil in themselves, but which are just not appropriate for kids because children are not ready for them. And that is exactly how a child’s questions about adult entertainment should be answered. Most children can readily understand that answer, but it is beyond the capability of the moralists to understand. No, they would repress for everybody whatever is wrong for seven-year-olds.

Such repression need not come from the advent of an American Ayatollah, it can come from the unopposed political activity of a solitary “church lady” coming with a smile to a village meeting, bearing a freshly baked apple pie in one hand and a repressive proposal for a law in the other. National moralist organizations advertise against adult entertainment in church bulletins all around the country (I’ve seen the ad even in my Church’s bulletin) and invite readers to mail for their free local political action packet. That’s why adult use ordinances all look and read so similarly in so many municipalities that we consider as we help prospective owners with site selection: The ordinances come from a common, organized, and well-funded source of repression on a national basis.

If such a well-orchestrated and co-ordinated campaign of repression, reflecting only the extremist views of a small minority of bible-thumper zealots, is ever to be successfully opposed to protect freedom of choice in entertainment for all Americans, this can, should, and must be done by those who cherish Freedom in our land.

Few who have read this far would disagree with me. But we need more than mere agreement to preserve this freedom, we need united and concerted political action because the opponents are themselves united. We need to remind city hall in each municipality that adult entertainment is a source of employment income to hundreds of single parents in Chicago, that it is a powerful source of tax revenue for our schools, that, as Minneapolis and Atlanta learned long ago, it contributes to drawing the convention and tourism industry to Chicago, and thereby further creates both jobs and tax revenue in hotels, restaurants, and the transportation industry. The City of Chicago, a great City of Three Million persons, more than thirty-one miles long, has three and only three gentlemen’s clubs, and is unlikely to have any more under its existing laws, and I do not think that this is a tribute to those elected officials who care about tax revenue and jobs.

Will a small, vocal, and well-funded minority of intolerant, eccentric moralizers impose their will on millions? Indeed, they have already succeeded in many places. They come prepared with draft ordinances, ready to be adopted. They come with unscientific phony-baloney “secondary effects” studies that distort the truth to its breaking point. And, by their presence and implied organized political action, they intimidate our elected officials into passing laws that give lip-service to the possibility of establishing erotic entertainment venues, but which in reality amount to their outright prohibition.

How many Americans think that they need government to tell them what books they can read, what tapes they can watch, and what performances they can view?

That kind of government control is precisely the agenda of the crank moralizers: While they present themselves as advocating “American Values”, their agenda of intolerance and repression against the choices of willing adults is, in reality, approximately as American as the regimentation that came out of the Kremlin, Peking, and North Korea.

Americans hate censorship. Americans make their own moral choices. Americans think for themselves. And Americans are not prudes. Tolerance is an American virtue, and our traditional spirit of tolerance and economic opportunity is precisely what drew so much greatness to our shores from every other land.

If adult entertainment is to survive, those who are elected to local, county, and state office must hear from America the Tolerant, America the Mainstream. Those tolerant Americans who live in Chicago must be prepared to defend everyone’s Liberty by going to City and Village halls when these intolerant and repressive measures are being considered, ready to say, like the downstate teacher, “We may be straight, but we’re not narrow.”

In order to do that, there must be an organization to learn when such measures are being proposed, an organization to bring experts with real scientific credentials to expose the phony studies, an organization to mobilize the patrons of adult entertainment and all others who care about freedom of personal moral choice and artistic and performance choice.

So, I end this column with a question for you. The question is “how”? How do we of the mainstream oppose the cranks? How do we organize to defend American Liberty before city councils and village boards and state legislatures when it is under attack?

My own solution is to propose the formation of a group to be called FACE, Free Americans for Choice in Entertainment. I propose its immediate organization in the Chicago metropolitan area, not under my leadership or that of any other lawyer, nor under the control of any adult business, though they should participate and support the group, but composed of the patrons of adult clubs, the users of adult websites, all other persons who care about preserving a society open and free in its artistic and literary expression, members of all alternative lifestyles that have felt the hand of repression, and those who make their livelihoods in the adult business.

I invite the e-mail and snail-mail of those who care and I will respond to each. I admonish those who read these words and do nothing, that they will have only themselves to blame if erotic expression disappears from public performances within this generation.

This article is written to generally inform the public and does not provide legal advice nor does it establish an attorney-client relationship. If you have a legal issue or question, contact a lawyer. If you are arrested, make no statement and contact a lawyer immediately.

Joe Obenberger is a Chicago Loop lawyer concentrating in the law of free expression and liberty under the United States Constitution, and his firm has represented many owners, employees, and customers of adult-oriented businesses, both online and in the real world. He can be reached in the office at 312 558-6420 or paged in any emergency at 312 250-4118. His e-mail address is