There Will Be No Sex in the Champagne Room

Feb. 17, 2014Free Press Houston

In the “Soul Sister” episode of Comedy Central’s satirical cop show “Reno 911”, an officer is shown wielding a folding yardstick to enforce the six-foot regulation between a dancer and her customer. As a result, they must flirt their star signs through the officer translating from his post between them. It ends with officer and customer bonding over fishing, while the dancer disappears, unnoticed by either man. I laughed my ass off.

Last October, a decidedly unfunny thing occurred in my community. A local cantina, unused and boarded up, was part of a human trafficking bust where underage girls were bought and raped, then beaten by their captors. The Houston Chronicle story reported that neighbors–my neighbors–witnessed over 20 underage girls being led out of the club. Thirteen men were caught, but one, Alfonso Diaz-Juarez, remains a fugitive. He’s still on Harris County’s most wanted list, and human trafficking is still one of Houston’s most pervasive problems. But my community received no response or awareness to the threat in our backyard.

Last November, Mayor Annise Parker’s office published a press release announcing the settlement of a 16-year-old lawsuit with several strip clubs and other sexually oriented businesses (SOBs). Lawsuits flew when Houston approved an ordinance restricting SOBs’ proximity to schools and churches, a three-foot rule for dances and even what defines a sexually oriented business. So finally, Houston settled to drop the three-foot lap dance rule and allowed more nudity, table dances and so on.

In return for bare breasts, the suit-happy SOBs gave up their private rooms (where the drug deals and the prostitution and the rape usually happen). They cannot hire or contract anyone accompanied by another person who “speaks for her, holds her identification, collects her pay … or appears to exercise control, force or coercion over the person.” (Which, really? Really, SOBs?) The clubs must adhere to strict drug and prostitution background checks. They must provide “annual human trafficking awareness training and disseminate materials regarding human trafficking awareness” to their staff. And on top of that, SOBs must collectively contribute $1,000,000 to fund a human trafficking unit within Houston Police Department’s Vice Division.

Should a club fail to do their part, the 1997 ordinance will go into effect. This hurts the SOBs in two ways: the SOB loses the competitive edge of freedom from 1997 regulations, and the other SOBs now have to pay a bigger share of their lucrative trade to fund the Human Trafficking Unit. So it’s in everyone’s interest to work with law enforcement.

In a city with such a huge trafficking problem, Houston has only had a human trafficking task force comprised of officials from different organizations, like the FBI. Which is great, but its members could not focus exclusively on human trafficking.

“This is an opportunity to do something truly effective,” said Council Member Ellen Cohen, former director of the Houston Area Women’s Shelter, who championed funding for Houston’s 6,600 rape kit backlog last year. “It’s a reasonable policy to deal with … well, there’s no word bad enough for those who think of humans as commodities.”

For Cohen, the trade is a fair one. “The three-foot rule was never enforced,” she said. “It couldn’t be. You’d have to have a huge number of officers in these SOBs, just sitting there.”  The rules around covering women up were also difficult to enforce, especially as dancers wore pasties, paint and liquid latex to get around the law.“What we gave up was something we couldn’t enforce anyway,” said Cohen.

Meanwhile, Houston couldn’t enforce human trafficking violations either, or fund a properly trained unit. As a result, assaults were underreported and unaddressed, fueling our position as an ideal hub for human trafficking. Houston Police Department Captain Charles Dunn, who has worked with trafficking task forces, told Houston Chronicle that “Without a doubt, a large portion of human trafficking takes place in the sex industry. . .”

It is troubling, as a Houston lifer, that the unit has to be funded this way and not through, say, the usual channels of community or the city or other businesses, the way such things usually go (I think). Some religious and women’s rights advocates agree, saying the settlement makes Houston vulnerable, that it sends the wrong message or that the city has made a ‘deal with the devil.’ The New York Times reports The Houston Area Pastor’s Council may sue the city.

“SOBs exist because there is a demand for them,” says Cohen in response. “If we really want to be free of SOBs, we need to teach young women to base pride on their skill sets, not how they look–and we need to teach young men to appreciate women as equals and not people there for personal gratification.”

Others question whether (and when) the city will enforce the new regulation to all SOBs, instead of the 16 involved in lawsuits against the 1997 ordinance.

“In one way, I see and understand the controversy of it,” says Dunn. “Looking at it another way, it makes sense the industry is taking part itself to take care of this problem occurring in this industry.”