The Strip Club Vote
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When a few officials of the local Republican party in Cleveland, Ohio decided to treat themselves to a good old-fashioned boy's night out at a strip club, they were greeted with an alarming sight: a Fox News television crew.
"They asked me why Fox was outside," says Angelina Spencer, The Circus club owner, "and I told them they were doing a story about our voter registration campaign."
"They all scrambled and fought over the back door. One guy even got his tie caught in the door," she laughs.
Who can blame them? Strip clubs are hardly synonymous with political activism. Unlike every other industry in America, the adult entertainment business tries to stay as far away from Capitol Hill as possible. In the skin trade, discretion has mostly trumped politics until 2004.
In this presidential election, everyone from strip club dancers to CEOs of live porn sites are encouraging their customers to get involved and vote.
Spencer, who is the executive director of ACE National, a trade association of adult nightclubs, says her political wake-up moment came when Kristin Kritzler, a 20-year-old who strips at The Circus, was sent to Iraq earlier this year.
"That opened a lot of entertainers' eyes and got them involved in politics," she says. "At that point, I realized that we were dealing with an untapped constituency."
In April, Spencer sent out 800 voter registration kits to adult nightclubs, lingerie stores and adult bookstores across the country. Approximately 160,000 customers filled out voter registration cards on the spot, but many took the cards home to mail in. "This was more successful than we ever anticipated," she says. "We never expected to get this much publicity."
Since May, 800 of the roughly 4,000 adult clubs in America have launched voter registration efforts, registering an average of 200 voters per club.
"This is the most important time to be active. There will never be a more important election," says Spike Goldberg, CEO of Homegrownvideo.com, an amateur porn streaming video site that receives 100,000 unique daily visitors. "Until now, no one has harnessed that power. This is merely the beginning."
Homegrownvideo.coms "Get Out the Vote" banner ads link to the Rock the Vote web site. Rock the Vote doesnt tally new voters specifically from porn sites, but overall, the non-partisan organization has registered 1.3 million new voters.
A week before the election, Goldberg plans to post a letter to his members highlighting the differences between President George Bush and Sen. John Kerry on issues including free speech, healthcare, the military, education and the war.
"Were not in the business of telling people who to vote for, we just want them to vote," he says.
While Spencer, a registered Republican, emphasizes the fact that ACE's registration drives are also nonpartisan, she – like many others in her industry – openly expresses concern about the Bush administration, especially its Attorney General John Ashcroft's hostility toward pornography.
During a speech in 2002, Ashcroft said pornography "invades our homes persistently though the mail, phone, VCR, cable TV and the Internet," and has "strewn its victims from coast to coast."
"Ashcroft used to care more about pornography than terrorism," says Scot Powe, professor of law at the University of Texas. "The guy is a throwback to the early 50s; maybe thats being too generous."
Over the past four years, Ashcroft's office has launched dozens of investigations of adult content businesses and filed obscenity cases against porn firms.
David Wasserman, a first amendment attorney who defends adult web site operators, says those actions are the tip of the iceberg. "My fear is that a second Bush administration will unleash a slew of prosecutions against adult entertainment web sites, video stores and producers of adult films."
Dave Manack, editor of Exotic Dancer magazine, agrees. "Another four years with George W. Bush could be damaging to the adult industry," he says. "Were not necessarily rallying behind Kerry, but the Bush administration makes no bones about the fact that they dont support the adult entertainment industry."
Many in the adult entertainment industry say another reason why theyre encouraging customers to vote is because unlike the Clinton administration, the Bush administration makes no distinction between child pornography and adult entertainment.
President Bushs 2005 budget provides increases of $13.8 million to fight crimes against children and obscenity, lumping the two together both in funding and policy. The Department of Justice describes "efforts to help state and local law enforcement protect our communities from crime, pornography, and obscenity with several key initiatives to protect our children from pornography and exploitation; stop Internet crime against children; and prosecute adult obscenity offenses."
"We donate thousands and thousands of dollars a year to Adult Sites Against Child Porn. We want nothing at all to do with child porn," says Greg Clayman, president of Videosecrets.com. Clayman is doing his part as a member of Internet Media Protective Association, a trade organization of adult webmasters. The IMPA has asked all of its members to offer links to the Rock the Vote site.
Attorneys who defend free speech say all citizens should be concerned about the government's crackdown on the adult entertainment industry, even those who are opposed to pornography. "Anytime you start allowing the government to draw lines about indecency, theyll continue drawing them to put as much speech as possible out of the reach of the average citizen," says Marv Johnson, legislative council for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Johnson says 70 percent of Americans say free speech is important, but that support begins to drop drastically when it comes to pornography. "Youll always find a certain segment of the populace to stop speech with which it disagrees and the government would love to do the same," he says.
Over the past year, Hustler magazine publisher and author of "Sex, Lies and Politics: The Naked Truth" Larry Flynt has repeatedly drawn a connection between post-9/11 laws such as the Patriot Act and Ashcroft's anti-pornography crusade. In an interview with Wired News, he said, "A lot of Americans think, 'I'm not Arab, so it doesn't affect me.' But the Patriot Act has no color barriers. They just used part of the Patriot Act to bust a strip club owner in Las Vegas."
The target of anti-porn activists for years, Flynt is still going strong, currently touring the country promoting his book and vociferously attacking Bush. Flynt is a member of the "anybody but Bush" camp and his web site is chock-full of information about everything from gay marriage to the latest polls.
Scot Powe has no doubts that the Bush administration will go after the adult entertainment industry if it is re-elected for another four years. The question is: how successful will they be?
"Given the way obscenity laws are drafted, its almost impossible to get a conviction," he says. "Even the Supreme Court has been pretty good when it comes to free speech rights."
Still, if Bush wins the election, Powe says we should expect a flurry of anti-obscenity bills and legal actions to strengthen the administrations family values platform and please its conservative base. Those who are targeted will face costly and lengthy lawsuits. "If the government decides to fight, theyll fight all the way to the Supreme Court," he says.
With Americans spending around $10 billion a year on adult entertainment, the industry clearly has an opportunity to influence the outcome of the election. "A few Republicans have politely asked me to stop," Spencer says. "Anytime you get strip club owners involved in the political process, you know its going to be quite an election."