Jan. 29 – Feb. 4, 1988 – San Jose Metro
by Jim Wake
It’s a bright and clear Saturday afternoon, the kind of day to walk through the hills or visit the beach, not the kind of day to spend inside the cinderblock walls of the Bachelor Club. Just the same, five men have just paid $5 to get inside. I push my way past the curtain that blocks the sun from the interior of this little room on South First Street. A dozen small square tables are scattered about, with only a few more chairs than tables. A mirror ball sends shards of light throughout the darkened club. The low light, though, cannot conceal its shabbiness. None of the men sitting alone at the tables look particularly happy or well-adjusted. On a screen above a small stage, triple X-rated videos are shown. The sound has been turned off and the stereo blasts R&B and disco. V., an attractive black woman, slides from the dressing room near the stage and begins dancing.
She's down to the minimum -- the skimpiest of tops and a triangular patch of satin tied around her crotch. First she dances for a man near the stage. She passes by me and moves towards an awkward-looking man who has been sitting against the wall trying to look disinterested.
V. dances for him with labored enthusiasm. She leans over him so that if either moves, they will touch, and then she backs away. The man grins and slips a folded bill into her bra. She grabs a chair, raises a leg onto its seat and shakes her bottom within a few inches of the man`s nose. When she turns back, she is smiling at him. He folds another greenback and stuffs it into her G-string.
V. offers up a few pelvic thrusts, approaches the man one last time and leans over so that his face is between her breasts. She dances like this for perhaps ten seconds, then backs away. The customer grins a smug, lecherous smile as he slips one last bill into her bra.
Who is this man? What is he thinking and why is he here? Is he married? Does he have children? Can he possibly have a normal sex life and still find enjoyment in this strange game he plays with a nearly naked woman? These are some questions I don’t dare ask the patrons at the Bachelor Club.
And V.? She's articulate and bright-a 28-year-old mother of five, with three years of college and several years of experience in the health care field behind her. She's married to an unemployed welder, and the family has just recently moved from Los Angeles. They are completely broke and living in a shelter in Santa Clara. Working at the Bachelor Club provides quick cash.
But it’s not just the money; after all, she could always work as a waitress or in health care. And one need only talk with her for a minute to know that she's capable of holding a different job if she wants.
Before LA, where she danced topless, she performed naked in San Diego, in a booth with a glass divider to separate her from the patrons. The two sides were connected by a telephone, which the viewer would use to make his requests.
“That was the worst," says V. “l learned a lot about sex -- my own sexuality and what turns guys on. But it made sex seem disgusting. They would ask me to masturbate or stick things up my ass or act like a little girl."
Her voice fades off.
“Think about this," says Harriet Koskoff, who has spent much of the past five years studying the pornography issue and putting together a documentary film on the subject.
"What passes for entertainment in our society never ceases to fascinate me, This is legitimate entertainment.
"It intrigues me to no end that this goes on and you have all this tremendous eruption on all sides about whether or not it’s legitimate, whether it should be permitted, whether it's protected expression, whether we should condemn it."
It’s an issue that won't go away -- ever. Earlier in the century, there was Women in Love. And Tropic Of Cancer. Then Howl and Lolita. They were banned when they appeared, but are all available now and seem quite tame by today’s standards.
In the ’60s, there were topless bathing suits, topless waitresses and Carol Doda at the Condor.
Then came pubic hair, scratch and sniff and close-ups of aroused male and female genitalia. And in 1970 a Pornography Commission report virtually recommended against legal restrictions on pornographic materials (President Nixon rejected its recommendations).
In 1973, both the legality of pornography and the public's right to regulate it were affirmed in a Supreme Court decision that established the "community standards" rule. The “Miller Rule”, as it is called, specified three standards for determining when the censorship or regulation of obscene materials would be permitted: when a work depicts sexual conduct, specifically defined by state law, in 2 “patently offensive manner;" when a work lacks “serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value;" and when the work as a whole, applying “contemporary community standards. . .apeals to prurient interests."
Although this rather vague rule was intended to give communities the authority to exclude pornography it has, in effect, protected the porn industry from intrusive crusaders. If a community objects to pornography in its midst, it can take action, but if the community tolerates Debbie Does Dallas, that more or less establishes the community standard.
Now the controversy is once again becoming a public issue in San Jose. The city's low-key porn district is in danger of being zoned out of existence by an “Anti-Skid Row" measure backed by Mayor Tom McEnery and Councilwoman Susan Hammer. Meanwhile, another political drama is attracting attention and snickers from the press and the public.
Like many other downtown businesses, the Bachelor Club, two adult bookstores and the two adult movie houses clustered near the intersection South First Street and San Salvador have all suffered sharp drops in business along with the inevitable disruptions of a redeveloping downtown. So, when the city offered a rent subsidy program to downtown businesses to help them through lean times, the owners of the Pussycat Theater, the Pink Cat Theater and the Sex Shop Arcade figured that meant them, too. City leaders don't see it that way. "l don't care what kinds of books are being sold on the shelves of these stores," says Mayor McEnery “’‘m just concerned about the crime that results from these kinds of establishments when they are concentrated in one place. We’ve already seen what happens -- with crime and prostitution and drug use and all of that. We managed to clean it up with the help of the people in the neighborhood. So now we're dealing with it as a land use issue."
McEnery says that his position on the subsidy issue has been misinterpreted. "I'd like to see these businesses come forward,” he says with ample sarcasm. "Let them show us what good they are bringing to the downtown area. If they can demonstrate that they are serving the public, why we'll consider their applications like any other business."
Perhaps Councilwoman Lu Ryden has taken the most unusual position. "I'm a vocal opponent of subsidies," she says firmly “I'm not prepared to give them one red cent. lf it means that we have to go to court, and possibly lose, I have to leave that up to the council. These businesses pay taxes like other businesses, but the very prominent difference between them is the number of arrests.
“I talked with one police officer who has made over 200 arrests in one year. For lewd acts, indecent exposure, things that you don't mention in a family newspaper. Now, when that many arrests are made at a business, whether it's a pornographic bookstore or any other, I don't want to subsidize it.
“My main point in this is why, on the one hand, spend thousands of dollars in our police department enforcing the laws brought about by these businesses operating in the city, and then, on the other hand, give them money to operate? It doesn't make good fiscal sense.
“My personal opinion is that they don't belong in San Jose or any other town," says Ryden.
So Ryden must be supporting McEnery and Hammers drive to disperse the smut peddlers with a new city ordinance, right? Wrong.
"These are adult businesses -- they’re all going to stay in business. If they’re going to be anywhere, it should be downtown. I don't want them in the neighborhoods."
Stanley Fleischman, the Los Angeles lawyer representing the Pussycat Theater, promises a lawsuit if the city takes action against his client, or if his client’s request for a subsidy is denied.
“There are a lot of adult zoning ordinances around the country. Some of them have withstood constitutional attack and some have not," he explains. “But basically it’s my view that, unless they can prove that the people who attend our theater are anything other than the same kind of person who would attend the other theaters or attend a bar or anything else, it’s discriminatory and in violation of First Amendment rights to try and zone us out and not the others.
"lf they want to zone out all theaters, that's one thing. But to make a distinction between another theater and an adult theater, they have to demonstrate that there's something that goes on in the theater or out of the operation of the theater that creates a substantial problem -- that these are people who jam the street and keep traffic from flowing or whatever other zoning consideration you might have. I don't think they can do that. I think that it's all based on prejudice and dislike for the films, and not based on fact.”
As for the subsidies, Fleischman says, “lf the city is acknowledging that it is injuring businesses in the area and, in recognition of the injury, is making compensation, then it would obviously be in violation of equal protection to single out somebody they don’t like because of the content of the film."
The Pink Poodle is just outside the city limits of San Jose on Bascom Avenue, in the shadow of the huge Western Alliance sign on San Carlos. It costs $8 to get in the door. In comparison with the spartan Bachelor Club, this is a classy place. It's clean, and done up in red and black. A raised stage and a long runway are surrounded by a counter where men sit drinking coolers and near beer. State and county legislation has prevented the Poodle from mixing alcohol with nudity.
The men at the counter don't look especially demented -- just slightly so. They range in age from their early 20s to their mid-50s, but most are probably in their 30s. Many, probably are married. Most are well-dressed and well-groomed, and decidedly macho in their projected persona. Among the crowd are foreign faces; the faces of Middle Eastern students and Far Eastern businessmen. The counter and the stage are separated from each other by a Plexiglas barrier which extends to just a little above eye level. "
After a few minutes, the same large black man who has been working the door announces, “Please welcome back, the very bea-u-tiful … Tiffany!" Tiffany struts out onto the stage wearing only a flimsy unbuttoned top which she removes as she bumps and grinds and writhes and rolls her body around the stage and the runway Her act consists mostly of crawling up and down the runway, stopping in front of the men and spreading het legs as wide as she can manage so that she can best expose her crotch.
Some of the men crook their necks at odd angles to get a better look. At intervals, Tiffany cups one of her breasts, or touches herself and licks her finger. But she is not smiling and seems genuinely put off by the entire ritual. Despite the fact that she is manipulating her genitals, she seems detached and uninvolved in what is happening to her body When the song ends, the announcer calls out, “Let's hear it for … Tiffany!" She acknowledges the applause as she gathers in dollar bills offered by the patrons.
Tiffany departs, and a few minutes later the master of ceremonies is once again announcing, "Let's welcome back the very beautiful … Felicia!" Felicia is a slim Asian woman with engaging dark eyes. Her performance differs little from Tiffany's.
Later, when Felicia and Tiffany take a break, the show continues with the very beautiful Toni -- tall, young, slender and flirtatious -- and the very beautiful Natalie, the crowd favorite who dances to "California Girls" and has the kind of powerful, well-formed body that only comes from diligently pumping iron. These two women, at least, seem to be enjoying themselves.
"When you're hot, you're hot," says the announcer. “If you don't like that, we're all in trouble," he bellows like a broken record at the conclusion of each performance.
The spectacle is offensive to many women. “It’s worse than prostitution," remarks a friend when she hears a description. “At least there it's a contractual arrangement between one man and one woman. Whatever they agree to, they can do in private."
But when you talk to Pete Kuzinich, the Pink Poodle’s owner, he defends his right to run his club the way he wants. “Why shouldn't a man have the right to come in here and look at a pretty girl if he wants to? And if you talk about the exploitation of women -- it's all over the place. From the first soap opera on TV in the morning until Dynasty. It's hypocrisy for them to single out my club."
He also dismisses the common argument that pornography incites sexual violence. “It's not proven," he says. About that, Kuzinich is correct.
Once the Meese Commission's biased finding is dismissed, the research into a correlation between pornography and violence remains inconclusive.
Still, many would agree that most pornography degrades and objectifies women, and reduces the essence of a meaningful relationship between men and women to the act of anatomical union. That cannot have much of a positive impact on society. But are women the real victims? After all, they expose themselves to total strangers voluntarily.
Harriet Koskoff thinks the men suffer at least as much as the women.
"I’ve interviewed dozens of men who are self-described porno addicts," she says. “It's easy to see how it happens. But what's the end result of that?
“Does it really make them happier? We get into a very delicate issue here, because needs are being met. And yet I'll tell you what a surprising number have told me.
“It makes them more dissatisfied with what is actually available to them. It makes them more nervous about their own sexual performance. It makes them feel more inadequate about themselves and sexual activities. And they are frequently disappointed in their encounters with women because they’ve been masturbating -- conditioning themselves to an internalized movie of how it's going to be -- and it’s very rarely that way. So more attention should be paid perhaps to that than to whether or not it causes rape, or these other kinds of issues which you frequently hear from the more orthodox feminists."
At 15, C., like most normal, healthy teenaged boys, developed some of those prurient interests referred to by the Supreme Court.
"You had to be 18 to buy Hustler, but we got up the guts to do it and went in the store. My friend kept talking about college, so people would think we were older, and we picked up the magazine and then a bunch of other stuff -- orange soda and all -- so it wouldn’t be so obvious what we were doing.
“And then we're standing in line waiting to check out and I heard, ‘Hi son. What are you doing here?' coming from behind me, and turned around and it was my dad! Well, eventually we did get the magazine, and then the next week one of my friends offered me a gift, and after all that trouble that we had gone to, it turned out that he had got the very same issue of Hustler for me!"
Everybody has a story like this. I remember at age 13 or 14, when Bruce got a hold of his dad’s copy of Tropic of Cancer. We sat around on Saturday afternoons giggling as we leafed through the book trying to find the dirtiest parts. A woman friend confesses how, as a 20-year-old, she and her companions went to Manhattan’s 42nd Street after ingesting sufficient quantities of mind-altering chemicals. “I went into one of those booths with a nude woman -- on a dare -- but I just stared at her. I was too freaked out to pick up the phone and talk to her."
Pornography to be sure, is almost as firmly entrenched in society as is sexuality. It's an $8 billion a year industry -- larger than the legitimate film and record industries combined. Obviously people like it. And even though the First Amendment has been interpreted over the years to exclude protection from certain kinds of obscene expression, the controversy still rages.
Not even the shrewdest legal minds have succeeded in coming up with the kind of clear standard that could be used to pinpoint which kind of expression is clearly dangerous; no argument exists like the one restricting the right of an individual to yell "fire" in a crowded theater. And in trying to come up with 'some measure of the harm that accrues to pornography, comparisons are automatically invited.
What about Rambo? What about Friday the 13th? What about Wayne Newton or the CBS Evening News or the State of the Union address?
Everybody is offended by something; and anybody can point to the harm they've suffered as a result of someone else’s exercise of free speech.
But that’s a cop-out, too. Women are degraded in the Pink Poodle. Sexual violence is sometimes inspired by pornographic materials. Crime rates do rise in the combat zones of American cities.
Women walking alone on South First Street do get harassed and propositioned regularly by the men who are hanging out at the Sex Shop Arcade and the Bachelor Club.
In the books, magazines and films that objectify women and depict sexual activity as a contact sport devoid of emotion, dysfunctional and maladjusted men get distorted and unhealthy attitudes about sex, sexual roles and women. And that leads to -- and more significantly results from-very serious social and cultural problems.
You hear a lot about the evils of pornography. But you don't hear much from the anti-porn crusaders on any plan to address the social and cultural conditions that lead to a dependence on pornography as a sexual outlet for alienated men trying to grapple with their inability to interact “normally” with a woman.
“I think I’ll spend all day at the Sex Shop Arcade," says the cartoon balloon over the head of a leering cat painted on the tackiest exterior on South First Street. Inside, the light is harsh. Videos are displayed at the front counter, and most of the remaining walls are covered with glossy magazines more or less arranged by category: gorgeous young women, gang bangs, bondage, transvestites, S&M and gay.
There are racks filled with books, several displays of dildos and vibrators --some more comical than profane -- and other sexual aids ranging from blowup dolls with unconvincing orifices to creams and ointments to improve sexual performance. A large man with drooping eyelids is parked, as he has been parked for the past 15 years, on a chair behind a counter next to the cash register.
A white-haired man in a suit walks through the door and plunks down two dollars. “Eight quarters, please," he says with a hint of embarrassment. Then he walks past the book racks, past the magazines on the back wall, through the doorway to the arcade.
The arcade is lined with tiny doorless booths ("One to a customer" says a sign) where films and videos are shown on timers -- two minutes for a quarter. A prominent sign is planted squarely in the middle of the arcade:
Notice: Masturbation, touching the genitals of others, oral copulation and soliciting to engage in such conduct are PROHIBITED on these premises.
Violation under authority of California Penal Code 647(a) and 314.1 Please Obey! If caught you ... can and will be arrested by police for any lewd conduct. SJPD patrol this area on a regular basis. Thank you, Manager.
It's the ultimate irony. Lonely horny men spend their spare time slipping quarters into these thrill machines. A Woody Allen image comes to mind-of the 22nd-century "orgasmatron" in Sleeper. But in the reality of the 1980s one has to wonder. What kind of gratification can these men get -- and what drives them to return again and again?
If they are functional, then they can feel a few minutes of physical arousal -- and leave with their loneliness intact and their needs unfulfilled. If they are dysfunctional, the awareness of it must be even more painful. These men are not so much loathsome as they are sad. And pornography, perhaps, is not so much the problem as it is a symptom of a kind of pervasive alienation that has proved too delicate and too difficult for either the politicians or the social scientists to handle.