Sex

Stripping Away Free Expression

A Pennsylvania town tries-and fails-to ban a form of exercise.

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Dressed in a low-cut pink shirt, tight black booty pants, and thick, plastic platform stilettos, Stephanie Babines doesn't look the part of a political rabble-rouser. Yet an activist is exactly what Babines became when her efforts to help women shape up through fully clothed, decidedly G-rated stripper-inspired aerobics ran afoul of overzealous officials in the small western Pennsylvania town of Mars. This unyieldingly perky 31-year-old entrepreneur, standing in the small forest of steel poles that shoot up from the floor of her mirrored dance and fitness studio, has taught dance-phobic authorities an expensive lesson in federal court.

"It's pretty surreal to get calls from the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, never mind Dr. Phil, Jerry Springer, and America's Got Talent," Babines laughs, leaning back beneath a bookshelf filled with such revolutionary tomes as The World According to Mr. Rogers and The Housewife's Guide to the Practical Striptease. "It's not attention I went looking for."

A few years ago Babines was a senior executive at a financial services company, nary a feather boa dancing in her head, struggling with an 80-hour workweek that severely depleted her enthusiasm for the
gymnasium. One night over dinner a friend mentioned that pole dancing had become the hot new fitness trend. On a whim Babines purchased a pole online. "I thought it would be something silly to laugh about with my friends," she says, "until I started losing weight like crazy and fitting into cute jeans."

With the fire of a convert burning in her rapidly shrinking belly, Babines took a pilgrimage to the Las Vegas studio of fitness pole dancing's grand doyen, Fawnia Mondey, known more for her work in the instructional DVD Strip To It: Bump n' Grind than for her appearances in such postapocalyptic feature films as White Slave Lovers and Forbidden Rage: White Slave Secrets. Babines returned home as the first Pennsylvanian to hold one of Mondey's pole dance instructor certificates, signifying mastery of more than 60 moves and routines as well as basic first aid, should it ever be necessary to treat a client for excessive gyration.

Babines printed brochures and began teaching what quickly became overflow classes three nights a week at a local dance studio. Realizing she needed a place to stake her own pole(s), Babines rented space to pursue a more expansive, vampy fitness vision, including Power Lap Dance ("challenge your core and unleash your inner vixen!"), yoga, belly dancing, Hip Hop Aerobics ("learn the art of popping, locking, crunk, & funk"), and sessions with "Pittsburgh's only certified Hoopnotica Hoop Dancing Instructor."

Babines sank thousands into renovating her studio. The town inspector made mostly small requests light the exit sign, replace the furnace valve, and so on. But then she was blindsided by a subsequent letter declaring that the studio, which was christened Oh My You're Gorgeous, was an "adult business" ineligible for an occupancy permit. This was a perplexing pronouncement on a facility that forbade spectators and catered solely to fully clothed women.

Despite its cheeky name, the city of Mars isn't always amenable to cultural efforts perceived as alien. The "pink-and-black color scheme of Ms. Babines' website and the high-heeled shoe in her logo" were enough, according to court documents, to convince Code Enforcement Officer Gary Peaco to protect the community from these exercise classes.

"I've lived here my whole life, worked hard, paid my taxes, stayed out of trouble," Babines says. "I was shocked something I worked so hard for could be taken away over a misunderstanding, no questions asked."

Appeals to the zoning board went nowhere. Five students, including a devoutly Christian grandmother, spoke on their instructor's behalf. No one spoke against. Babines publicly invited board members to send their wives over for a workout. "One class with girls like me exercising in five layers of sweaty clothes, and the idea that this is an undercover strip club would have become hilarious to them," says Karen Nolan, a 25-year-old pole-exercise devotee and self-identified "ex-chunky monkey." All to no avail: Babines' two allotted appeals were denied. "Any sexual connotation, however mild, and some people suspect the worst," says another student, 47-year-old Tina Valeska. "The real story is a lot of women found an exercise program we could actually stick with. That wasn't sexy enough for their imaginations, I guess."

Legal bills piled up. Babines contemplated selling her house to continue the fight in state court. Desperate, she took a day off from work and drove to the Pittsburgh offices of the American Civil Liberties Union.

They didn't take walk-ins. It began to rain. Through tears Babines scribbled out a seven-page plea, stuffed it into the mail slot, and drove back to Mars demoralized, unaware that an ACLU lawyer would call that very afternoon or that she would soon have to warn her unsuspecting day job boss that one of his analysts was about to be outed on the A.P. wire as a crusader for strip-pole rights.

"We don't usually take on zoning cases, but look more closely and this really is a classic ACLU case," ACLU attorney Sarah Rose says. "Government officials were using the zoning code to crack down on the First Amendment–protected teaching of an expressive art they found controversial." Last August the ACLU filed a scathing complaint in federal court, comparing authorities in Adams Township, of which Mars is a borough, unfavorably to communists ("while a repressive country like China allows dance studios to teach pole dancing, the defendants in this small Butler County town have misapplied their zoning code to deny Ms. Babines her right to teach this new combination of art and sport to interested adult women") and requesting relief from "the pall of orthodoxy imposed by defendants on the people in their town who wish to communicate unconventional ideas."

The township folded. Babines had her occupancy permit by October. In February she was awarded $75,000 in damages and attorney's fees. The settlement forbids "peeping booths" and nudity, up to and including "the showing of the covered male genitals in a discernibly turgid state." None of this, of course, was ever part of the program, but Babines doesn't mind codifying it. "If there's one thing I hope people take away from this, besides that they should stand up for their rights even if the situation seems hopeless," she says, "it's that women don't need to be naked in front of an audience of men to be hot or sexy or empowered."

Shawn Macomber (shawnmacomber@gmail.com) is a writer in Philadelphia.

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  1. “the showing of the covered male genitals in a discernibly turgid state.”

    I bet whoever put that into the wording got themselves in a turgid state just thinking about it.

    Prudes.

  2. I can understand why they could have been confused intially, but why did they persist in denying the permit even after it was obvious that it was an exercise studio and not a strip club?

    I just don’t get it.

  3. Authoritarian types will do anything to avoid admitting that they’re wrong, even on the smallest point.

  4. tumescent > turgid

  5. Plus she’s a cutie – cheers, Stephanie!

  6. And I thought our codes were ridiculous and the code enforcement stupid beyond recognition from our stupid sign ordinance that’s hurting business. THIS, however, is ridiculous.

  7. “Pennsylvania – The Turgid State”

    A keystone could easily be morphed into a codpiece…

  8. “We don’t usually take on zoning cases, but look more closely and this really is a classic ACLU case,” ACLU attorney Sarah Rose says

    Translation: We love zoning laws most of the time.

  9. And this thread is worthless without better pics.

  10. Small town tyranny can be just as egregious as the crap from D.C.

    Libertatrians who think federalism is THE ANSWER are advised to remember that.

  11. Serve on some small town board, HOA, or committee some time and you’ll see that there’s a lot of little Hitlers among your neighbors. I remember one guy arguing that we should oppose some resturant on a major highway because it could attract folks from a nearby town who would see our nicer homes and decide to come back at night and rob us.

  12. My only concern is the stiletto heals. One would expect above average incidents of ankle injuries compared to other forms of aerobic exercise.

  13. Small town tyranny can be just as egregious as the crap from D.C.

    Libertatrians who think federalism is THE ANSWER are advised to remember that

    It’s easy to escape small town tyranny — move a couple miles. Escaping federal tyranny — not so easy.

  14. Small town tyranny can be just as egregious as the crap from D.C.

    Small-town tyranny can be WORSE than the crap from DC, because small-town politics is basically spats between bitchy neighbors elevated to the status of A Government Issue. For all the things I dislike about Obama and Congress, I don’t have to worry they’re personally out to get me.

  15. I’ve watched a few pole sliders in Western PA. They could use some better training.

  16. Pennsylvania town of Mars.

    So… women are from Mars.

  17. Small-town tyranny can be WORSE than the crap from DC, because small-town politics is basically spats between bitchy neighbors elevated to the status of A Government Issue.

    You said it, sister. More laws and regulations allow every neighbor, every petty clerk, and every chance encounter in a parking lot to turn into a tyrant, capable of jailing or harassing you.

  18. Greenpeace just came out in opposition to the massive, 1,200-page bill the House is considering today.

    http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/press-center/releases2/greenpeace-opposes-waxman-mark

  19. “I’ve watched a few pole sliders in Western PA. They could use some better training.”

    I played a club in the Dakotas years ago that had really lame strippers. The girls were cute and all and were allowed to get totally naked and finger themselves and what not, but when they started their routines, the initial dancing looked as if they were marching to Sousa.

    Also recall playing a club where one of the strippers danced to “Thirty Days in the Hole” We laughed our asses off.

  20. I once saw a stripper dance to “Butterfly Kisses”. Very surreal.

  21. For all the things I dislike about Obama and Congress, I don’t have to worry they’re personally out to get me.

    No. They’re out to get me.

  22. J sub D,

    I assume you mean that federalism alone isn’t the answer, because state and local governments are perfectly capable of terrorizing us without checks on their powers (e.g., the federal government). Couldn’t agree more. Of course, my support of increasing the level of federalism here is about returning the states to their earlier role as a counterpoise on federal power. God knows we need something more than the three branches, who think a check is something you write $10 trillion on.

  23. From our July issue

    Dear Reason staff,

    What the fuck!? I subscribe to the print edition of your magazine. It usually arrives sometime in the second week of the month. By which time you’ve already posted 3/4 of it online.

    Why do you go out of your way to be such douche bags to your paying costumers? What would it cost you to hold off on the print articles for a couple of weeks before you give them away?

    Do you have something against subscribers? Are we a thorn in your side? Why are you two timing us like that?

    Fuck you very much
    Warren

  24. Too bad this didn’t happen in Intercourse, PA, or Blue Ball, PA.

  25. “What the fuck!? I subscribe to the print edition of your magazine. It usually arrives sometime in the second week of the month. By which time you’ve already posted 3/4 of it online.”

    So that you can read it on the go, in the rest room, on a plane, etc.

  26. And this thread is worthless without better pics.

    Pic 1
    Pic 2
    Pic 3

  27. I’ve watched a few pole sliders in Western PA. They could use some better

    dentists.

    Too bad this didn’t happen in Intercourse, PA, or Blue Ball, PA.

    Or Scotrun – which someone always reads as scrotum.

  28. “Too bad this didn’t happen in Intercourse, PA, or Blue Ball, PA.”

    Or Pleasant Gap, PA

  29. Am I the only one that knows that this excersise is very old news? Carmen Electra came out with it back in the early 2000s.

  30. So this place is women only? I hope some guy sues her for sex discrimination.

  31. Am I the only one that knows that this excersise is very old news? Carmen Electra came out with it back in the early 2000s.

    The idea is old, the phenomenon is recent. Stuff like that happens all the time. Idea hits the market, sits idle for five years, then *bam* it takes off as a “new” thing.

  32. So this place is women only? I hope some guy sues her for sex discrimination.

    And I hope he loses so as to set a precedent for freedom of association.

    1. pfft discrimination my ass, the reason why most of us don’t teach men, are because men are pigs.

  33. Oh and this thread requires a link to:
    Pole Dancer vs Kitten

  34. It’s easy to escape small town tyranny — move a couple miles. Escaping federal tyranny — not so easy.

    Yep, just pack up your property (house, farm, business that you’ve spent years developing) and move to the next county.

    Were I an asshole, I’d point out that other nations accept immigrants and relocating outside US borders is not that difficult either.

    OK, I admit it. I’m an asshole.

  35. For all the things I dislike about Obama and Congress, I don’t have to worry they’re personally out to get me.

    What, you’re not a taxpayer, Jennifer?

  36. “it’s that women don’t need to be naked in front of an audience of men to be hot or sexy or empowered.”

    Yeah- they do…

  37. Appeals to the zoning board went nowhere.

    I can’t stand it when amateurs try to deal with local zoning boards. Appeals go nowhere. By the time it goes that far, it’s too late. She should have applied for a zoning variance before she decided to sink money into a rental property. Hell, before she even signed a lease. She would have had a chance to spell out exactly what she wanted to do, and had a chance to pay off officials behind closed doors. I said it before. Rule #3 when starting your own business – have a competent attorney on retainer (not your BFF’s sister’s, cousin’s, uncle, whatever). I don’t like it, but that’s the way things are.

  38. So that you can read it on the go, in the rest room, on a plane, etc.

    Only when Kerry Howley does an article.

  39. So this place is women only? I hope some guy sues her for sex discrimination.

    If you’re a guy and you spin around a pole, either you’re gay, a firefighter, or gay.

  40. I once saw a stripper dance to “Butterfly Kisses”. Very surreal.

    Remember, a lap dance is always better when the stripper is crying.

  41. good article

  42. Appeals to the zoning board went nowhere.

    Only because (a) the women weren’t actually taking their clothes off and (b) the members of the zoning board weren’t allowed to stuff dollar bills into their g-strings.

  43. If it were up to me, I’d get rid of all local governments–every last one. 90% of the people that work for them are petty tyrants. States for criminal law, Federal govt. for national defense. That’s all you need.

  44. Not saying the local govt is right, but I doubt they were simply deciding arbitrarily, ‘let us harass a poor innocent businesswoman.’

    I have been looking at some very intersting photographs – specifically, the satellite photos (from Google’s satellite maps) of 222 Mars Valencia Road, where this business is located. This business is either in, or very near, residential areas – apparently single-family homes. It’s not off in some industrial wasteland where neighbors don’t care about appearances. Local governments often get nervous with what appears to be an adult business in the vicinity of single-family residences. The residents aren’t always too enthusiastic, either.

    This is one of the pages of the business’s Web site. Read along (you’ll enjoy it!) and see why a square, unhip zoning official might mistake this establishment for an adult business:

    ‘Party Packages

    ‘XOXO – Pole Dancing, Lingerie and Other Products

    ‘The BEST of both worlds! Bring back the Fire, turn up the heat in your relationship and empower yourself! Learn to Rock the Pole like a Temptress then bring out that Vixen as you learn how to enhance your sexual relationships. $200 and up. Contact us for pricing.

    ‘Temptress – Pole Dancing Party

    ‘A Pole Dancing Party is where Fun meets Fantasy. Learn basic moves on a dance pole or practice the ones you already know. Strut your stuff and FEEL LIKE A WOMAN!! A pole dance instructor will set up a pole (or 2) at your location or in our studio and provide lessons for approximately an hour and a half. Pole dancing parties can be combined with any of other services and product lines for the ultimate party! Ask for ideas! $200 and up. Contact us for pricing.

    ‘Flirting – Strip Tease, Lap and Chair Dancing

    ‘Embrace your sexuality and improve your confidence! Start with the basic fundamental moves. Learn walking and eye contact, core hip rolls, sensual floor work, transitional moves, basic turns and spins, and finally, peeling off of layers. This class will also incorporate a lap dance segment that is choreographed into a routine. $175 and up. Contact us for pricing

    ‘Goddess

    ‘Do you want to experience pole dancing and chair dancing? This party includes learning basic sensual movement, sexy floor work, simple pole maneuvers, and pole spins! $250 and up. Contact us for pricing.

    ‘Seduction – Private Lessons

    ‘Want to have your own little secret? Tying the knot soon, celebrating an anniversary or want to spice things up? This package includes four (4) 1 hour private lessons and two (2) in studio classes. Learn floor work, lap dance, striptease and/or pole dance techniques choreographed into a routine that will knock your partner?s socks off!. $225’

  45. What, you’re not a taxpayer, Jennifer?

    They are not personally out to get me, RC. My first couple years of journalism, I had to cover my share of zoning board meetings and other petty-tyrant town councils, and I’ve seen how they work. If DC were run the way small-town governments were, Obama’s tax and governance policy would look something like this:

    –A “vintage media” tax that triples the purchase cost of old Victorian-era stereographs, solely because Obama knows I collect them and anything that makes me miserable makes him happy;

    –A save-the-environment tax resulting in a $100 monthly fee for anyone whose hair is over two feet long (since human hair doesn’t disintegrate too well, and might clutter landfills and clog storm drains). Obama passes this tax solely because he knows I would hate to have to cut off my long hair. Or maybe it’s because he knows Michelle is jealous of it — either way, if my hair were short this tax would never have been proposed;

    –Tweak the “no watching TV while you drive a car” law so that a GPS is now legally considered a television. Obama knows how much I depend on my GPS unit when I’m driving to interviews in places I don’t know, so a law making it illegal for drivers to use a GPS would make my job much more difficult, which is the sole Obama wants to enshrine it in law.

    — Another save-the-environment tax on people who are slightly pigeon-toed, because we wear out our shoes faster than most people, thus straining earth’s natural resources (actually, because Obama knows I’m pigeon-toed and wants to fuck with me).

    No, RC: as bad as the pols in DC are, and as vile as their laws tend to be, they are NOT crafted with the sole purpose of making you-personally miserable. Nor are they deliberately out to get me. But at the local level? Oh, yeah. It’s just Dysfunctional Clique High School on a larger scale.

  46. I’m with prolefeed on the localism thing.

    The people with the “house, farm, or business that they’ve spent years developing” tend to *be* the pricks that try to get the local govt to do their bidding and get in everyone else’s business.

    My admitedly cursory investigations also tells me it’s tougher for people of modest means to emmigrate from america than immigrate to it. (because of work & property ownership restrictions in other countries, even Canada)

  47. I always thought pole dancing looked more like an exercise routine than a sex act anyway. Chubby women doing it under bright florescent lights in garish exercise unitards and sweatbands should be enough to burn the sexual interest out of just about all but the most peculiar fetishist’s mind.

  48. “Also recall playing a club where one of the strippers danced to “Thirty Days in the Hole” We laughed our asses off.”

    Can’t top “She’s Got the Jack”. Truth in advertising, I supposed.

  49. “Too bad this didn’t happen in Intercourse, PA, or Blue Ball, PA.”

    Not really. Amish strippers don’t smell very good.

  50. What if she ran a tantric yoga studio? Obviously she has to sell the idea of improving one’s sex life, but I don’t see how that counts as an “adult” business. I find that people actually changing and improving themselves so they can perform better in a certain aspect of their life would probably be a good example to set among all those poor “single-family” residences who think they should be exempt from exposure to such terrible things.

  51. “Too bad this didn’t happen in Intercourse, PA, or Blue Ball, PA.”

    Or Virginville, PA

  52. Is this why the poles are melting?

  53. Group anal sex is a form of exercise.

    So is violence.

  54. “Small town tyranny can be just as egregious as the crap from D.C.

    Libertatrians who think federalism is THE ANSWER are advised to remember that”

    It’s easier to move out of small towns, and often-times limitations on free speech are less under state constitutions than under the federal one. I would have rather the ACLU had filed the suit in state court first.

  55. I always thought pole dancing looked more like an exercise routine than a sex act anyway. Chubby women doing it under bright florescent lights in garish exercise unitards and sweatbands should be enough to burn the sexual interest out of just about all but the most peculiar fetishist’s mind.

    The town councilman who put the halt on the pole exercise is probably a chubby chaser who doesn’t want his wife dropping any pounds. Yes, it gets that weird in PA.

    And once again, their roads suck.

  56. Yes, Mars, PA did compare unfavorably to the Communists until they finally relented after she brought out the big guns.

    Unfortunately this is not unusual. There are a lot of communist-types in the U.S. these days.

    See my url.

  57. I’m proud to say my wife was part of the staff that worked on that case.

    I’m pleased to say that as a thank you she’s been given free lessons.

  58. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on…the Bible’s books were written by people with very different mindsets

  59. This article is very good,full expression of the author’s thoughts and feelings.aaa

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