Erica Langley
NOT SO LONG AGO, A GLITTERING WORLD of gentlemen's clubs, adult theaters, and sex shops thrived on Seattle's First Avenue. A brief description of this now-lost world is depicted in the penultimate chapter of Jonathan Raban's Hunting Mister Heartbreak, which details his first impressions of Seattle when he paid the boom town a visit in 1988. He rented a room (for a mere $425 a month) on the penthouse floor of the old but still magnificent Josephinum building, on Second and Stewart. From his 13th-floor window, he commanded a view of the "lights of pleasure and temptation."

"Down on First Avenue," he writes, "The Midtown Theater was showing Depraved Innocent and Interlude of Lust. The Champ Arcade (The Adult Superstore) advertised Live Girls, and around the corner was a club that boasted 50 BEAUTIFUL GIRLS & 3 UGLY ONES! Another sign alerted one to the fact that Nina Deponca, the XXX STAR [one of the most famous African Americans in the porn business], was playing Seattle LIVE IN PERSON!"

When you look down First Avenue these days, all you see are boutiques and condominiums. The only sex businesses still around from this glimpsed era of "pleasure and temptation" are the Champ Arcade, the Adult Entertainment Center, and the Lusty Lady -- the rest have vanished. What happened to Seattle's bright world of flesh and fun? Or to put it more crudely, why did our city obliterate its genitals? Where are the areas designated for the business of pleasure, where a person can buy a dildo or doll, watch a healthy hunk do his erotic moves, peek at pretty girls dancing in mirrored rooms, squeeze with both hands the big breasts of a famous porn star "playing Seattle LIVE IN PERSON," or see onscreen men and women, women and women, or men and men performing sexual acts 24 hours a day?

The size of a city's pleasure market is so important that often it defines its identity. Montreal, for example, is a voluptuous city -- along its main downtown thoroughfare, Saint Catherine Street, porn shops and erotic clubs thrive. There's even a mega club with a towering sign that reads "Super Sex." Salt Lake City, on the other hand, is not voluptuous at all -- whatever sex industry may exist is hard to find due to its excessive "sexually oriented businesses" zoning ordinance, which goes so far as to regulate the type of lettering appearing on signs and placards. The law requires that adult businesses have no more than one sign, and that it be no larger than eight square feet. Signs have to be plain, too, with no decorative art and "alphanumeric copy only." No doubt pleasure seekers in this part of the world must use infrared technology to determine where the action is.

Something radical happened in order for Seattle to become suddenly sexless, a city without a "reputation," without a district of earthly delights. It had nothing to do with our mild weather or our supposed Scandinavian temperaments, nor did it happen naturally, simply because patrons lost interest or were dissuaded by AIDS, as was the case in San Francisco. And it wasn't due to a lack of parking spaces, either, as happened in Boston, where the red light district (known as the "Battle Zone" because it was popular among members of the armed forces) was so hard to get to that customers stopped showing up. It was a cold and deliberate action on the part of our city fathers and mothers, who saw "these establishments [as a] menace to individuals, businesses, and property owners."

So, where there was once a sign that read "Fantasy Unlimited," there now is one that reads "Seattle's Best Coffee," and where there was a sign that read "50 BEAUTIFUL GIRLS & 3 UGLY ONES!" there is now one that says "Pike Street Trading." (This so-called trading company is filled with old pioneer things, and to enhance its "general store" atmosphere, shopkeepers have propped a mechanical gold prospector by the door. During business hours, he babbles on in his mechanical voice about trees, shacks, poker, murder, money, and guns. Ahhh, the real Northwest.)


Sex and the American City

American cities deal with the sex industry in roughly three ways, which, in a sense, mirror the stages of a city's physical and psychological development. The first is to ignore it altogether, to let it go unchecked: Cities in this stage are not even aware that they are entitled to enforce sexual mores, and tend to have only simple "lewd conduct" codes that are weak and rarely used. The second stage is the ego stage (in the Freudian sense). At this point, a city realizes that it is a city and sees itself in relation to other cities. This is a kind of awakening, akin to that of Adam and Eve, who upon realizing that they were naked, hurried to cover their private parts. A city like SeaTac is a great example: Before it called itself a city, the sex industry thrived! Along Pacific Highway South, which was known as the "strip," massage parlors, peep shows, and prostitutes prospered (they only had to pay a $40 fine if they were caught, and the police didn't try very hard to catch them). Then, on the somber day of February 28, 1990, SeaTac declared itself a city, and like other "important" cities, established an ordinance and doubled its police force. Within five years, the once vivid and vital sex industry was reduced to just one "all-nude dance club." In the preemptive days of the Bible, a city of sin would be destroyed by fire and brimstone from heaven. In our age, a city manager writes up a meticulous ordinance.

The third stage is when a city becomes so big and confident that it need no longer compare itself with other cities. It sheds its inhibitions and develops a distinct identity and lifestyle. These cities are much like European aristocrats, who look down on the middle class for their incontrovertible respect of property, deep sense of decency and order, and vulgar displays of new wealth and status. This is the case with Los Angeles (the porn capital of America), Chicago, and until recently, New York City -- under Mayor Giuliani's reign, New York has been reduced to an aspiring status it hasn't seen in 200 years.

In Seattle, we are in the "awareness" stage, thrown out of Eden and grabbing at fig leaves. Seattle became aware on November 28, 1988, when it passed its very first ordinance regulating adult businesses. Before this ordinance, there was only a "lewd conduct" code. The city didn't think it was so big then; conventioneers and fancy hotels did not rule the downtown core. Seattle didn't desire to impress the world -- it didn't care. It was as relaxed as a hippie in a pea patch. Then Seattle started getting ideas (the mirror stage); it started seeing itself in relation to other cities (Atlanta, Denver, Houston), and figured it wanted to become like these placeless cities, or placeless ideals, as the novelist Matthew Stadler once called them. When Seattle saw it could, indeed, be like them, it set out to destroy its sleazy sex industry, replacing it with "healthy retail."


Sex and Text

Although Seattle is not a sexy city, it does have a sexy law. Because an aspiring city can't come out and forbid the existence of adult shops and clubs (that would be unconstitutional), it has to do the most perverse thing: create a law so elaborate, so dense, and so rigorous that it makes it impossible for anyone to operate such a business legally. In Seattle, this law is called Ordinance 114225. It was sponsored by our city mother, City Council Member Jane Noland, and approved by our city father, then-Mayor Charles Royer; its function is "to regulate businesses, managers, and employers that provide adult entertainment" for the sake of "public peace." And to do this, to secure the "public peace," the text is not only graphic about what it wants to erase, but deploys almost every municipal agency (the fire department, the police department, the public health department, the building and construction department, the licensing department) to the "battle zone."

It was Foucault who once pointed out that the West, unlike China, Japan, India, and other countries, has never produced an ars erotica, or an art that expresses the experience of sexual pleasure, but has instead a scientia sexualis, which is a procedure of telling the truth of sex. Similarly, Seattle has never produced an ars erotica, but instead a codex licencia, a dense document of codes and rules detailing proper and improper conduct within the realm of the senses. Ordinance 114225 fills the absence of an ars erotica: Its obsession, its determination, its perfection, its round rhythms, perpetuated by the repetition of voluptuous and visual words like vulva, oral, and areola, create a steady beat, not unlike that which drives the greatest erotic text of all time, "The Song of Solomon." ("My beloved put his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for him. I rose up to open to my beloved; and my hands dripped with myrrh, and my fingers with sweet-smelling myrrh, upon the handles of the lock.") In fact, I can't help but think of the important insight made by Zimbabwe's greatest writer, Dumbodzo Marechera, who observed that the Bible is a very erotic text, with all its prostitutes washing feet and fathers lying with their daughters after a few glasses of wine. The same dynamic is at play here: This text which is meant to destroy sex, to control it, to tell "sleazemeisters to get lost," as one zealous Seattle Times reporter put it, can also be read for the purpose of exciting the erotic imagination.

When speaking in his book, Sexuality, of the law that prohibits gays from openly participating in the armed forces, the cultural critic Joseph Britow seizes on the obvious paradox that inhabits all proscribing of sexual practices. "Take, for instance, how in the United States members of the military in the mid-1990s can lose their jobs for uttering the words 'I am homosexual.' The law that censures this disclosure must itself articulate the words 'I am homosexual' in order to denounce them. On this model, sexuality becomes the site on which contradictory transfers of power occur, whereby the court that holds the power of the law must, at least in theory, commit the crime it condemns." This is precisely the fate of our ordinance.

It has become the very thing it set out to destroy. The lawyers, the politicians, the city fathers and mothers have ultimately handed down to us a great piece of erotic fiction! "Performance of a dance," one of my favorite passages of the ordinance reads, "involves a person who touches, caresses or fondles the breasts, buttocks, anus, genitals, or pubic region with the intent to sexually arouse or excite the person." Fondling breasts, caressing the anus -- my goodness! I hope my wife doesn't discover that I'm reading this steamy stuff.


Sex and Fiction

Because the ordinance has to ban everything, it has to say everything. This means making sure there are no gaps, that every aspect of adult entertainment is covered and smothered with codes. But the consequence of this incredible detail that touches on almost every possible pleasure that can be derived from peep shows, gentlemen's clubs, sex shops, and adult theaters is that it collapses the text. Texts have limitations; they can only hold so much information before they finally cave into fiction. The writer Jorge Borges has said this time and time again: Heavy text, text that tries to cover every aspect of real life, ultimately becomes a work of fiction. This is why he called philosophy a branch of "fantastic literature" -- all of that consideration and effort renders the text useless and only good for the delights of reading.

If it's true that all art aspires to the condition of music, meaning that art desires to become absolute, pure, abstract -- then the same must be true of texts, be they fiction or news reports. They aspire to become not only abstract, but to be independent, to be motivated by their own systems and logic. They long to perpetuate themselves like a dream that, although initially inspired by clues from the waking world, finally cuts the moorings and begins to drift in the sea of its own preference. This is why it is not surprising to find that even cities with no adult entertainment industry have ordinances existing entirely on their own.

Bothell is a good example. The city has no sex shops, peep shows, or adult clubs, yet it has a dense adult entertainment ordinance. Indeed, the only place to find erotic pleasures in this city is in the text. Some cities have ordinances that are totally fantastic, achieving at times the condition of poetry. Take, for example, the ordinance in Bradenton, Florida, which requires that a dancer does not expose more than "75 percent of her breasts or 66 percent of her behind in public." It is, of course, impossible to enforce this ordinance; even the sheriff doesn't know how they will estimate the "percentage of exposure." The text is not there for reality; it exists purely for its own sake, for the pleasure of saying again and again, "66 percent of her behind."

Though Seattle's elaborate ordinance has not reached the level of literature, it is still hard to imagine that it is talking about the Seattle we live in. Rather, it must relate to some other fantastic city where thousands of people "simulate sexual intercourse, masturbation, sodomy, bestiality, oral copulation, flagellation" and use devices that forever stimulate the "pubic region." The ordinance is a work of fiction because it is only believable while you're reading it, not when comparing it to the light of day. And so this grand attempt to capture in words all of the infinite combinations and possibilities of pleasure strives to replace actual sex. When there is nothing left of it, when the text has seduced and emasculated the streets in its quest for purity, all that we will have left is the text -- the pleasures of the text.


Seattle Vice

Police officers act as the link between the written law and the individual -- they are the interpreters and administrators of the text. But what happens when the police try to enforce a text that is purely fictional on a person or a situation that is not?

Seattle's vice unit encompasses this very contradiction. Because they represent a law that is fictional, they are like poorly drawn characters who have sprung out of a novel to haunt and harass the living. Their policing of pleasure in our city is much like a run-in between a modern oil tanker and Captain Hook, a parrot on his shoulder and a patch on his eye, asking the Korean crew where the treasure is! In this impossible interaction, all meaning has collapsed. "It's like a hypnotized man making love to a chair," to borrow an image from Nabokov. The very thought of it is utterly ridiculous. Unfortunately, the ones talking fiction have the power (the guns, the handcuffs, the jail cells) to impose their will on others (who usually have nothing on). This is the structure of the relationship that currently exists between the men and women in the adult entertainment business and the fictional figures projected by Ordinance 114225.

When I spoke to local erotic dancers, they explained that they saw Vice's policing of clubs (which, above escort services and peep shows, is the favored place to "investigate" -- there are about five reports a week on "undercover" operations in erotic dance clubs, staggering when you consider that there are only four of them left in Seattle) as nothing more than sheer harassment. Their methods are bizarre. They walk into an adult club, ask a dancer for a lap dance, knowing very well that she is going to break the law because there is no way she cannot break the law -- a dancer must remain six inches away from a patron and no part of her body, even her hair, is permitted to touch the customer. After the dance, the vice cop leaves the club without informing the dancer that she was the subject of an investigation, goes back to his police car, and identifies her by looking through file photos (all dancers in Seattle have to submit a photo of themselves when they apply for their $75 dance license). Based on a match made from memory, he determines the identity of the dancer who has "sexually aroused" him. Two weeks later, the unknowing dancer receives a letter in the mail informing her that because she "fondled her breast in a way that simulated sex" or did something with her "vulva," she could lose her license for 20 days. In some cases, the city presses charges and the dancer has to see a judge, who then charges her $75 (the city's sad attempt to recoup some of the lap dance money it lavishes on Vice) for her wicked deeds.

"Yeah, they can do whatever they want," one dancer said. "The city of Seattle looks at the dancer the way they look at criminals. They handcuff us. Throw us in jail. It is harassment! Some nights I get tickets from the same cop, even if I didn't dance with him. But how can I make a case in court? Even the judges see us as criminals." Another dancer expressed exasperation at the whole wretched confrontation between fiction and fact. "Let's be real," she said, blowing a puff of smoke. "How am I to make money if there isn't any touching? Really, no one would come here. So I know there is going to be touching, and they [Vice] know there is going to be touching, so they send a ticket after they got a hard-on. It is all fucked up."

The problem is not only with clubs but also with peep shows, which are harassed so frequently that so-called "sexual minorities" recently addressed the problem to the Seattle City Council, requesting a revision of the ordinance. They feel it enables Vice to unfairly target and harass gay men who frequent certain "video arcades" -- and indeed, every week, the Seattle police write up a heap of reports about "panorama" (peep show) violations. Claiming to be acting "in response to complaints" (Who is complaining? The Christians who march outside of the Love Boutique with their signs about sin, salvation, and Satan?), the vice cop conducts an "inspection of the premises," sits in a booth, and waits for someone (usually a gay man) to come in. Then he checks the man's ID and sometimes drives him downtown. The cycle of harassment recently escalated when Jane Noland, our beloved mom, added "public health hazard" concerns to the reasons for "micro-managing" the pleasures of the city. The city council set up a commission to determine whether the grievances expressed by "sexual minorities" were well-founded, and concluded that indeed they were. According to police data, since 1997, adult businesses frequented by gay men (Love Boutique, Adult Entertainment Center) were raided 120 times, whereas those frequented by heterosexuals (Lusty Lady, Champ Arcade) were raided 47 times. And of the 73 arrests made at these adult businesses, 69 occurred at the Love Boutique and the Adult Entertainment Center. These figures are so extreme that they indicate not only harassment, but a vice squad that is addicted to a cruel game of power, erections, and handcuffs.

The sad consequence of these fictional cops' harassment is that, in the case of adult clubs, it forces them underground, where dancers and other workers are vulnerable to real criminals. As legitimate clubs close, dancers move to clubs that have found loopholes in the law to keep cops out, such as declaring themselves private and for members only. "These places are scary," one dancer told me. "One had a girl shot while she was dancing onstage. And every time I go in there I think of her ghost." Another complained that while regular clubs keep plenty of bouncers on staff to remove troublemakers, this kind of protection is not guaranteed in places that are no longer public and legitimate parts of the community. And then there is the issue of pay: Dancers complain that in private clubs you end up working harder for far less money.


Sex-Crime Fiction

On the second page of Seattle's obstinate ordinance, there is a statement that attempts to associate adult entertainment businesses with crime and prostitution. "Regulation of the industry is necessary because in the absence of such regulation significant criminal activity has historically and regularly occurred." But as everyone in Portland knows, there is no connection between real crime (including prostitution, which is not a real crime) and the existence of adult businesses.

For years, a group of concerned citizens in Portland, fearing that the presence of such businesses "might increase the risk of school-age children being confronted by sex criminals," has been trying to force the city to adopt zoning laws for adult entertainment businesses (currently, Portland has no restrictions on where adult businesses may open). They were so desperate to make the connection that they adopted a Grants Pass girl -- raped and killed by a neighbor who, it turned out, had pornographic images on his computer's hard drive -- as a martyr for their cause. Despite all their attempts to legitimize their concerns, however, even a Portland police spokesperson had to admit that their "assumptions" about increased crime were "incorrect." And when a strip club and sex store opened in Portland's downtown five years ago, the police said publicly that there was no increase in the volume of calls to the area. In the end, Ordinance 114225's absurd statement about "criminal activity" has nothing to do with our real city, but a fantasy constructed and elaborated by our city fathers and mothers, who are incapable of separating sex from crime.

So intoxicating is the association between sex and sin that a 1997 Tacoma News Tribune article described how the city of Lakewood "declared war on X-rated foe" by doubling its Vice Squad and writing an ordinance that prevents "grinding and groping" in these clubs, which "criminals are drawn [to] like moths to the flame." The article made this ridiculous concluding statement: "Crime statistics, meanwhile, show [that] plenty of thefts, vehicle prowling, and assaults occur within 1,000 feet of the clubs. But similar numbers are reported at locations elsewhere along South Tacoma Way and Pacific Highway Southwest, perhaps saying as much about that area of town as the clubs themselves." Perhaps? And are these other "locations" schools and churches?

The real loci, it turns out, of a "variety of crime, from car theft to prostitution" in King County are Community Transit Park and Rides. The situation is so "out of control" that earlier this year, the Community Transit Board of Directors desperately approved a $400,000 dollar plan to equip these areas with surveillance cameras. But this bit of news doesn't "strike a cord," because the moral compass doesn't become profoundly excited when one line points to Park and Rides and the other to crime.


Sex -- the Less Said the Better

A long time ago, back in Zimbabwe, I had a cousin who had "learning problems." He was what the British call "daft," and so to keep him occupied, my grandmother gave him the chore of herding her cows in the pasture. One day he was trying to fetch a cow that had strayed, but for some reason the cow would not come. My cousin began hitting the obstinate cow with a stick, but the damn cow refused to move, and mooed in pain every time my cousin hit her. He did this for the longest time, and finally we went to where he and the cow stood, and saw immediately that the poor cow's foot was stuck in the barbed wire fence which separated my grandmother's land from her neighbor's.

We pointed out this fact to my cousin, who had his stick raised to deliver yet another blow, and finally broke the cruel cycle of stupidity and pain. Now I ask, who can break the cruel circuit of stupidity in Seattle -- this circuit of fictional characters punishing real people, endlessly, night after night? When will our city grow up and out of this morbid middle stage, this "banished from Eden" madness? No time soon, I regret to say. In 1998, Seattle imposed a moratorium on the opening of new sex businesses. It was extended this year, and at the meeting where city council members agreed to the extension, our city mother Jane Noland said this of Seattle's businesses of pleasure: "The less said the better." Indeed, Mother, all we have to do is read your erotic text in the silence of our bedrooms.