Can You Riverdance for Me, Honey?

Some businesses are immune to recession. The porn and sex industries powered through the 20th century and boomed into the new millennium as dot-coms went bust. But porn has its drawbacks: stigma, conservative crusaders and the heat of the law.

No sex/no nudity fetish salons represent a gray area in the tricky legalities of sex work. They are not, strictly speaking, against the law, but they could be interpreted as such, given a cop and the right situation.

When an insider first divulged that the application of lipstick was a popular fetish, I assumed he was joking. He told me to do an online search if I needed convincing: The search engine returned a generous smorgasbord of unexpected fetishes across a continuum of soft-core to hardcore.

There were smoking-fetish sites featuring images of women sucking on Salems. There were pantyhose, uniform, jean, latex, boot, fur, gay-male-foot, black leg, upskirt (the glimpse up a woman's skirt as she's walking upstairs or sitting in a chair), lipstick- and makeup application, wet shoes, washing hair, and wearing-clothes-in-water fetishes.

Mistress Trina, an employee of the Leg Shoppe in Manhattan, says that her house specializes in legs and feet.

"Some guys are into pointy shoes, patent leather shoes, bare feet, red toes, calves, thighs. They want to worship the feet, massage the feet, kiss the feet. Some just want to see your ankle moving. We also have cross-dressing sessions for guys who like to dress up in high heels."

The Leg Shoppe Web site also lists "slave training" and "sensuous domination" as available services. For foot fetishists, the mistress's prized feet can come in open-toe shoe, boot, or naked. Mistress Trina says the clientele are mostly businessmen: "Wall Street guys, bankers, lawyers, doctors." A one-hour session costs $175, and a half-hour $135.

So, how have they been doing in these tough times?

"The first week it happened (the terrorist attacks) it was bad, but after that it was the same." I ask if the salon runs as an above-board business, if, for example, they pay tax. "We pay tax," she says. "It's a company."

Jezebel's takes up a floor in a downtown Manhattan townhouse. It looks more like grandma's house than a dungeon. Clients are welcomed into a traditional living room with drapes and antique furniture, which, says owner Jezebel, "the customers seem to like 'cause it's not scary." She asked her clients in a survey if they'd like to see black leather, chains and whips hanging on walls and the answer, surprisingly, was no.

Jezebel's provides fetish and fantasy, from bondage, wrestling and role playing to the ever-popular foot and leg fetishes.

"It's all about acting out fantasies," says Jezebel. "There's one client who buys clogs for the girls and wants them to do Riverdance. He lies on the floor and watches their feet. We get guys who want to look at hairy forearms, guys who like to sniff you. One guy came in with a 30-page script involving he and a girl playing students at a boarding school. There were stage cues and everything."

I ask if she sees any female clients.

"Women come in with their husbands sometimes. Usually it's a woman wanting to dominate her husband with a mistress. Women call up and inquire about a session but they rarely come in."

Jezebel sees her business as a niche operation for a high-end clientele not looking for sex, and she takes the no sex/no nudity rule seriously.

"I suppose we could make more money if we were having sex," she says, "but we'd also be arrested and getting diseases. It's not worth it."

There are photos of Jezebel's girls on the dungeon's Web site. They are particularly attractive -- like art school students saving for tuition and an exotic trip to Thailand.

So, how has Jezebel's been weathering the recession?

"We were slow immediately after Sept. 11 because of our location, but I'd say, in the months after, we picked up and now we're doing better than we were in the months preceding."

In fact, business is so good that Jezebel is planning a move to larger premises.

Strip clubs are legal but highly regulated and zoned. Prostitution and brothels are flat out illegal. No sex/no nudity fetish salons walk a fine line between the two.

"Fetish houses say what they do isn't prostitution ... They might describe themselves as 'entertainment' or 'service workers,'" says Priscilla Alexander of the North American Task Force on Prostitution.

On the issue of where salons fall under the new zoning regulations, Alexander says: "What falls under the zoning regulations is whatever the police decide falls under them. It is all subject to argument in court." The degree to which they come under scrutiny, she says, "probably depends on the whim of the mayor and/or the police commissioner."

Whatever the current mayor thinks of the fetish business, it can be good for tourism. According to Jezebel many of her clients are in town on business, and many from the tri-state area come to Manhattan specially to visit salons.

The no sex/no nudity fetish salon appears harmless, innocent even, in comparison to the seamier aspects of the sex trade, like sex tourism and the international trafficking in impoverished girls and women. Indeed, one could argue that they are not so different from mainstream advertising, which is full of its own, albeit numbingly overexposed, fetishes like long blond hair and fast cars. The principle is titillation, even if the subject/object relationship is different.

So perhaps it's not so hard to understand why someone would rather perform in Manolo Blahniks for an audience of one and make $175 than waitress at Hooters wearing orange shorts and a tank top and make $3.30 an hour plus tips.

Meera Atkinson is a writer in New York. Originally published on Reprinted with permission. Copyright Salon Media Group 2001.

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