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Fun City Confidential

Why New York's sex industry still flourishes

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In his book Low Life (1991), Luc Sante describes New York in the years from 1840 through 1919 as a city alternating between morally liberal and reformist mayors. In Sante's scenario, "vice," like a cockroach, will boldly venture out into daylight, only to scurry back into the shadows when the law's crude broomstick looms.

But vice, whether in daylight or shadow, never stops doing business, as the police well know. Certainly, the hidden agenda of anti-vice law is as much political as it is moral. Authorities make a show of Cleaning Things Up, while (not coincidentally) raising property values in target neighborhoods. What the applauding public and press fail to consider is that human society has an ecological quality: Dam a river and unexpected pressures cause chronic flooding in unlikely places.

Enter Mayor Rudy Giuliani. He had barely finished repeating the oath of office in 1994 when he famously started squelching a panoply of "quality of life" crimes: turnstile jumping, panhandling, street vending, drinking alcohol on the street from open containers, marijuana possession, unlicensed dancing in clubs, and the like. Giuliani's list was a long one, and for the most part, residents signed on to the effort. The public drew the line, however, when he took on jaywalking and sub- way coffee-drinking, a ubiquitous pair of crimes in caffeinated New York.

The stress of New York life may also account for another common "crime" that Gotham's Comstockian mayor was proud to confront: the city's unparalleled sex industry. Long headquartered in Times Square, New York's red-light district (made famous by such movies as Taxi Driver and Midnight Cowboy) is effectively no more. In 1995, the mayor pushed a law through the City Council stipulating that no sex-related business be located within 500 feet of a school, a church, a park, or another X-rated business. The law also mandates that no more than 40 percent of any inventory of books, videotapes, or other such products be X-rated. After a series of court challenges, the law went into effect in August 1998.

Infrequent visitors to Fun City are routinely shocked. Thanks to Giuliani's legislation and the creation of the Times Square Redevelopment Project (a "public-private partnership"), 42nd Street between 6th and 8th Avenues now has the character of a suburban shopping mall. Movie theaters, chain restaurants, video arcades, and Broadway theaters (which nowadays specialize in shows based on Hollywood films) line a street kept pristine by an army of red-uniformed custodians.

The transformation is so thorough that one may forget to ask the obvious question: Where did all the perverts go? Are they home reading the Bible? Are they investing time and energy in monogamous relationships? Or did they simply find a new, less prominent emporium in which to buy the goods they want?

Where is New York's audience for sex? Everywhere. Just as Prohibition transformed a subculture of drinkers into a generation of drunks, New York has become a city where deviant sex has been mainstreamed.

Like true entrepreneurs, legitimate Manhattan clubs and theaters have filled a yawning market niche by offering artistic smut—all within a mile or two of the former epicenter of XXX offerings. For example, at Fez, a chic "Noho" night club, one can catch The Va Va Voom Room, a "classical burlesque show" hosted by the latex-attired Miss Astrid and featuring a succession of scantily clad cuties like Dirty Martini, a Rubenesque beauty who strips down to her shoestring. At Soho's upscale Spy Bar, one can't miss Tanya the Queen of Magic, a 60-ish topless dancer wearing a Minnie Mouse mask. At the Blue Angel Exotic Cabaret, just around the corner from New York University, see Miss Bonnie Dunn do her fan dance. At the Lower East Side's Present Company Theatorium, one can see the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, featuring fire-eating fellatio (actually a flaming dildo) and a plate-spinning act wherein the stick is gripped firmly in the performer's vagina. Down the street at the Slipper Room, the World Famous Bob, clad only in g-string and pasties, spins her breasts like airplane propellers. Across from the Slipper Room is Baby Jupiter, where sex worker Melanie Mile strips naked and dances with a knife, which she sticks you know where.

That's all late-night entertainment. At happy hour, stop by Justine's in Chelsea, an S&M theme bar—sort of a TGIF's for swingers—where the waiters and waitresses take turns whipping each other for tips. Or you can try the non-alcoholic Hellfire Club, a few blocks away in the meat-packing district, where the patrons take turns whipping each other for tips.

But enough about art, you say. What about Joe Six-Pack? Where do New York's red-blooded meat-and-potatoes men go for an old-fashioned skin show now that Rudy's closed down all the old sex clubs?

"Long Island City, around the base of the 59th Street Bridge," says one trench-coated aficionado, who prefers to remain anonymous. Oh, and there's the Sunset Park waterfront in Brooklyn, where many of the Times Square-area busi-nesses relocated after the crackdown. Both have emerged as competing red-light districts in the wake of Rudy's Raids, enough so that clergy in both neighborhoods have begun campaigns for better enforcement.

Those who prefer to remain in Manhattan can still visit a number of their favorite floor shows, many of which are hilariously transparent about their evasion of the law. The former Billy's Topless is now called Billy's Stopless. (Indeed, "stopless" dancing has become all the rage at other former topless clubs, such as the Baby Doll Lounge, the Kit Kat Club, and Legz Diamonds.)

Finally, three or four joints in the Times Square area remain stubborn islands of dirt in an otherwise wholesome sea. The biggest and most famous of these is Show World (perversely identifiable by its child-like carousel-themed décor). While seedy sex-hawkers hiss "Girls! Girls!" to likely-looking passersby on the sidewalk, precisely 60 percent of its space (and not an inch more) is devoted to Off-Off-Broadway legitimate theater. It recently showcased a topless version of Measure for Measure.

What, then, is the bottom-line result of Mayor Giuliani's crusade? Prior to the Times Square crackdown (and the closing of 60-odd sex shops), there were 144 X-rated establishments supplying New York City's demand. Today, the cockroach-counting police are proud to report that there are only 142.