We’re Not in G-Rated Kansas Anymore

Times Staff Writer

Outside, the prairie lies dark and still. In the windowless gray building by the Interstate 70 offramp, a clerk with a tired face rings up sex toys. “Need batteries for that?” she asks politely, again and again.

Two women in prim business suits gawk at a shelf of raunchy gag gifts, giggling. A truck driver searches thousands of DVDs for a pornographic movie. Near the Love Sling of Ecstasy, a wife confers with her husband by cellphone as she studies a tidy display of vibrators, hundreds of them, in every size and color.

Adult “superstores” like this are popping up all over rural America -- brightly lighted, clean, as well-organized and well-stocked as a Wal-Mart.


Remote freeway offramps are X-rated in Quaker City, Ohio (pop. 563), and Nelson, Mo. (pop. 212), in Montrose, Ill., and Perry, Mich. The Lion’s Den chain operates 29 stores in the Midwest, including this one in Abilene, off Exit 272, near the cows and hay bales of Dickinson County.

In these small towns, the arrival of big, brash porn shops has been unexpected -- and divisive.

Debates about morality, obscenity and privacy have played out at church suppers and planning commission meetings -- and sometimes, in court.

John Haltom, who owns the Dr. John’s Lingerie chain, recently spent time behind bars in Nebraska and Utah for promoting obscenity and selling pornography to minors. He and other adult-store owners have also taken the offensive, suing city officials for trying to force them out of business or state lawmakers for censoring their billboards.

Here in central Kansas, the Lion’s Den faces criminal obscenity charges; a judge will hear the final pretrial arguments Tuesday. The store has filed a federal lawsuit against Dickinson County for trying to restrict where and when it can sell sex-themed merchandise. That case will be heard in January.

Many locals find themselves conflicted. A hairdresser says adult stores are wicked, then admits she might like to try a few products to spice up her relationship. A sales representative says he supports free enterprise, but he hates to see his town collecting sales tax on obscenity.

“I haven’t worked it all out yet,” said Amber Brook, a young waitress. “I grew up in a Christian home, and I believe there’s a right and a wrong. But I don’t feel that gives me the right to impose my values on others.”

The discord in Abilene was set off last fall when, without warning, the Lion’s Den opened this superstore in a former Stuckey’s restaurant off Interstate 70, one exit west of the town of 6,500.

Lion’s Den executives would not comment on why they picked the location. But several adult-store managers said stores on rural offramps thrived -- not because there was an unusually heavy demand for pornography in the heartland, but because the market had not been well-served until recently.

“There’s no competition within 40 miles of me,” said Jeannie Smith, who manages a Lion’s Den in Newton, Iowa. “We’re doing great.”

Rural locations also appeal to store owners because land and buildings tend to be cheap. There are few neighbors to complain about late-night hours. Potential customers stream by on the interstate, including long-haul truck drivers who are likely to stop anywhere that’s open at 3 a.m. just to keep themselves awake.

And, perhaps most important, out-of-the-way counties like this one have few -- if any -- laws to restrict sexually oriented businesses.

“These rural communities never thought they’d have to deal with what they perceived to be a big-city problem. So they were caught, as we say, with their ordinances down,” said Scott Bergthold, a Tennessee lawyer who has built a career out of helping towns fight adult businesses.

Abilene markets itself as an all-American town, the home of former President Eisenhower, Russell Stover candies and the racing dogs’ Greyhound Hall of Fame. But that’s not to say the community is all G-rated.

Along with the standard Hollywood blockbusters, the local Video Junction used to stock a small -- but popular -- selection of pornographic titles. “We had them here 18 years and never heard a word about it,” said owner Gary Sweatland, who stopped carrying them after protesters raised a ruckus about the Lion’s Den.

Just over the county line, in a dingy old gas station reeking of cigarettes, I-70 Adult Novelty has operated without protest for a dozen years, selling pornographic videos and charging by the minute to watch X-rated movies in a curtain-draped booth.

Even so, the Lion’s Den stood out as flagrantly provocative, with its garish black-and-yellow billboards, its ads on country and western radio stations and its huge stock of blow-up dolls and battery-powered sex partners.

“This is not your Playboy of 30 years ago. This is porn on crack,” said Phillip Cosby, a local activist. “There’s no end to the depravity.”

As it happened, Cosby retired from the Army the day the Lion’s Den opened. He took it as his mission to drive the store out of Dickinson County.

Teaming up with pastors, Cosby organized a 100-day, round-the-clock vigil in the Lion’s Den parking lot. The protesters didn’t just hold up signs. They took down the license numbers of truck drivers who went into the store and reported them to their companies. They raised nearly $5,000 in a single day to put up a billboard in a nearby field declaring “Pornography Destroys Families.”

Then they circulated a petition calling for an investigation into the Lion’s Den business practices.

Kansas law requires counties to respond to such petitions by convening a grand jury. In April, the jurors indicted the Lion’s Den on 29 counts of promoting obscenity for selling such items as Stephanie Swift’s Vibrating Love Doll.

A judge will review the charges -- all misdemeanors -- on Tuesday. If the case goes to trial, a jury will decide which products fit the state’s definition of obscene, which includes any device “marketed as useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs, except

Lion’s Den executives would not comment on the case. But in a 60-page brief, the company’s lawyers argued that the Kansas obscenity law was unconstitutional. The ban on marketing sex toys is arbitrary and capricious, and it violates the privacy of Kansans, “who have a right to engage in lawful intimate acts free from state interference,” the lawyers wrote.

The sexual devices on display in the Lion’s Den “provoke the moral condemnation of at least a vocal minority of citizens,” the lawyers acknowledged. “But not all moral sentiments are entitled to force of law.”

Or as Lion’s Den customer Jennifer Woods put it: “There’s way too much judging going on here.”

Woods, 31, said she and her husband often drove an hour and a half round trip to shop for sex toys. And she didn’t want anyone telling her that was wrong.

“It’s not their business what we like to do,” she said.

Glancing at a video shelf, Woods said she considered some of the merchandise obscene, but said that was hardly a reason to shut the place down.

“This store is sitting out here all isolated, not bothering anyone. Why should anyone bother it?” said truck driver Herbert Fulson, 45. “If you don’t like it, don’t come in.”

The protesters, however, are demanding changes.

Cosby has called for a prayer vigil before Tuesday’s court hearing. He’s also urging other rural communities to follow Abilene’s lead in fighting the sex stores any way they can.

That prospect doesn’t scare many adult-store owners.

“The way I look at it, protesters just bring in more business,” Haltom said. “You can’t buy that kind of advertising.”