Vegas Tries to Clean Up Image

Associated Press Writer

Backstage between dances, when the strippers pause to smoke and adjust their lingerie, Andrea Hackett hurries into the dressing room with a stack of fliers and a plan to save the sex industry.

She catches them as they dabble in the blur of their lighted mirrors and worry about this night's meager tips at the nearly empty Deja Vu Showgirls club. Come to a meeting, Hackett, a dancer herself, tells them. Let's talk about how to stop the attack on your business, she says.

These days, a lap dance in strip clubs around Clark County, just outside Las Vegas, doesn't mean a dancer can really sit in a customer's lap.

It's part of a new -- dare we say it? -- less sinful Las Vegas.

County commissioners want to make sure lap dances don't get out of control, some prosecutors want to crack down on the outcall dancer industry, and gambling agents who used to concentrate on catching cheaters are prowling casino nightclubs for anything too risque.

"I don't think it's right," says "Heather," 21, a dancer in a red bra and too-big gold hoop earrings.

Something is changing in Sin City, and it's turning strippers into hesitant activists and making some people wonder if the city is having an identity crisis.

From showgirls to cocktail waitresses, skin always has been a part of Las Vegas. Even major casinos on the Las Vegas Strip feature racy, topless shows like "Le Femme" and "X." The $25-million Sapphire Gentlemen's Club, billed as the world's largest adult entertainment complex, just opened, offering sky boxes and 6,000 dancers.

Tourists who come to live it up are a huge part of the adult entertainment business, visiting 21 county clubs and 10 city clubs and inviting dancers to hotel rooms for private performances.

Many residents don't seem to mind the clubs either.

"I really don't care," says Las Vegas resident Wendy Whittaker, 47. "I wouldn't want my boyfriend to go, but that's what those places are for."

So when a county commissioner proposed cleaning up steamy lap dances, outraged dancers, their customers and even residents who had never been to a strip club didn't understand why. One commissioner got e-mails asking why the commission was wasting its time.

The result was a rowdy meeting last summer that culminated when a man accused Commissioner Yvonne Atkinson Gates of creating new lap-dance rules because she had repressed sexual ideas. Others accused her of trying to regulate morality.

"I'm not doing this for my sexual anything!" she yelled, banging her gavel. "I'm doing this because I think it's right."

Before the new rules, lap dances were illegal in Clark County. But the law was so vague it was rarely enforced. Lap dances remain legal in clubs in the city of Las Vegas.

Police spent 18 months undercover in county clubs and found that lap dancing led to simulated sex acts, "excessive grinding" and, in some cases, prostitution.

As of Sept. 1, lap dances are legal, but dancers can't touch or sit on the customer's genital area. They are allowed to touch and dance on a customer's legs. Commissioners initially banned stuffing dollar bills in G-strings, but later decided to approve the popular practice. They also said dancers younger than 21 can't work in topless clubs that sell alcohol, forcing them to move to all-nude clubs where alcohol is prohibited.

Hackett, 49, heard about the new rules before the vote but figured many of her colleagues hadn't. She formed the Las Vegas Dancers Alliance and visited clubs each night, signing up dancers to vote in September's primary election. She organized a small rally and monthly meetings, and distributed a guide telling dancers which candidates supported them.

"I think it's a joke. It's stupid," says "Crystal," 21, a dancer who registered to vote for the first time because of Hackett. "They should focus on real prostitution. We put Las Vegas on the map."

It's not just the strip clubs that authorities are paying more attention to, but the nightclubs inside casinos. State gambling agents patrol casinos nightly, looking for anything suspicious, but now they've added nightclub duty after complaints almost a year ago of public sex acts taking place at Baby's inside the Hard Rock hotel-casino. The Hard Rock agreed to pay a $100,000 fine to settle the complaints.

"It's a new market," says Bobby Siller, Nevada Gaming Control Board member. "Young people have a lifestyle that needs a little bit more attention to what is appropriate. People are having a great time, and sometimes it gets a little bit carried away."

Last year, in another effort to rein in the sex industry, the outgoing district attorney and another prosecutor wanted to ban private dancers in hotel rooms. The outcall entertainment industry has long been considered a front for prostitution, which is illegal in Las Vegas and Clark County. Despite police sting operations, the industry flourishes.

Huge billboards of scantily clad women beckon tourists to call one of the 124 licensed outcall businesses. The Yellow Pages have dozens of advertisements for "Mature Dolls" and "College Cuties."

"There's a million and a half people that live in Clark County, and I think they are entitled to a quality of life that doesn't include having to explain to your kids ... what that's all about," says Assistant Dist. Atty. Mike Davidson.

The County Commission has not addressed the issue, and new Dist. Atty. David Roger says it's not a priority.

"It's just good-natured fun," says Drake Hanson of Palm Springs as he watches the strippers at Deja Vu. "That's why people come here. They think of it as Sin City. I think it's asinine to try and regulate it. Vegas is Vegas."

That's why some people can't figure out why authorities suddenly care so much about the sex industry.

"Where's the logic?" says Deja Vu general manager Bob Proden. "It doesn't make any sense."

Some dancers and club owners say the new rules have cut into their profits. Employees at one club now answer the phone by saying, "Strip Tease, featuring lap dances as usual," because customers were asking if they had been discontinued.

Hackett says new lap-dance rules are just the beginning. The city and county are considering doing away with required $35 work cards for dancers and making them obtain more expensive business licenses.

She plans to circulate a petition to try to change lap-dance rules. "This is an all-out assault on adult entertainment in the adult entertainment capital of the world," she says.

Trying to shed some of the city's sin might not be that easy.

After all, it was the city's mayor who encouraged residents to go get a lap dance to help Las Vegas get back to normal when tourism dropped after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. "This is an escape for people," Oscar B. Goodman says. "To start pretending that we're El Paso with casinos I think is a major mistake. And I love El Paso."

University of Nevada, Las Vegas, history professor Hal Rothman says the trend has to do with Las Vegas trying to become a community.

"There's no doubt that our traditions and our future are somehow at odds," he says. "We're going to have to renegotiate the boundaries."

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