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Taxing Strip Clubs for Rape? What's Wrong With This Picture?

Strip clubs are an easy target for religious moralizing and political pandering — but should they be special targets for taxes?

 It used to be that strip clubs were merely blamed for society’s ills. Now they’re actually being charged for it.

In recent years, measures have been introduced in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Texas, Illinois and, most recently, California to apply special taxes to strip clubs — specifically to fund sexual assault services. Now, even if you  aren’t inclined to view erotic entertainment as the source of all evil, this might seem an appropriate aim — who wants to argue against additional support for rape survivors? It would seem even more so when you consider politicians’ and activists’ repeated claims of solid scientific evidence showing a link between strip clubs — specifically those that sell alcohol — and sexual violence.

That is, until you look at the alleged proof.

The key study advocates point to is one commissioned by the Texas Legislature in 2009. But that very report states, “no study has authoritatively linked alcohol, sexually oriented business, and the perpetration of sexual violence.” What’s more, when I talked to Bruce Kellison, director of the Bureau of Business Research at the University of Texas at Austin, and one of the authors of the report, about the alleged link between strip clubs and sexual assault, he said, “That’s not really what our study was trying to do.”

What it  was trying to do was review the research on whether clubs have a “negative secondary effect” (in other words, harmful side effects). “Most of the [research] has found that there is a moderate amount of increased criminal activity outside of clubs,” he said. That’s a point contested by some: Daniel Linz, a communications and law professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says studies used to support restrictive zoning or special taxes on strip clubs are methodologically flawed — they fail to use appropriate controls and rely on inconsistent and unreliable data sources. Take, for example, that zoning laws often relegate strip clubs to shadier parts of town, where, of course, there is greater crime. Without an appropriate control, that crime can’t be attributed to the club itself.

According to a study Linz conducted, “Those studies that are scientifically credible demonstrate either no negative secondary effects associated with adult businesses or a reversal of the presumed negative effect.” He tells me, “We’ve done crime map after crime map after crime map of many cities and there just aren’t clusters of crime around [strip clubs]. Most crime in most cities tends to occur around high schools.” Tax the teens!

That’s just to speak of crime in general. The important thing here, given the aim of these tax initiatives, is sex crime. The Texas report looked at the incidence of sexual violence in particular inside the clubs and found that there wasn’t “additional sexual assault violence going on in the clubs,” says Kellison, or even around the clubs.

Again, as with many things in this arena, that’s contested by some. Richard McCleary, a criminology professor at the University of California, Irvine, whom Linz says he’s had a “10-year scientific battle with,” argues that there  is a sexual violence impact, but not the kind that these initiatives imply. He cites a 1998 survey of “a small sample” of adult entertainers that found a high rate of reported sexual victimization inside or nearby the club. This contradicts the findings of the Texas report, however. It’s also important to note that the proposed special taxes don’t go directly toward victimized dancers; the intended target is much broader than that.

McCleary also backs up his assertion saying that street prostitutes “are attracted to the neighborhood because of the clientele and that tends to be an extremely violent trade.” Even if we’re to presume that street prostitutes are driven to strip club neighborhoods in droves, and that they in general experience a high level of violence in their work, it isn’t a direct consequence of the venue itself. As Judith Hanna, an anthropologist and author of “Naked Truth: Strip Clubs, Democracy and a Christian Right,” told me, decriminalizing prostitution would be a much more effective way to address the violence that street prostitutes face.

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