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  1. Florida

Tampa strip clubs and the battle to bare it all: How the lap dance was outlawed 20 years ago

Tampa police raided clubs and dragged strippers out in handcuffs. Lawsuits were filed. The nation watched. Here’s how we became known as the strip club capital of the country.

A dancer twists around a pole, kicking her heels and arching her back for the men who watch with bills crumpled in their hands.

Other women, dressed in almost nothing, glide around the club, chatting with clients and grinding on them in front of mirror-lined walls. A rowdy bachelor party flings so much cash that one stripper has to retrieve a plastic shopping bag to scoop it all up. She high-fives each of her patrons as she dances off the stage.

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It’s just another night at Tampa’s Mons Venus. The “world-famous” full-nude club is a lot smaller than its reputation would have you believe. There are no private rooms. No doors on the bathroom stalls. It’s just a silver pole in the center of an octagon-shaped stage surrounded by a strip of shiny, black booths.

An entertainer performs at the Mons Venus adult club in Tampa. Associated Press (2012) [ CHRIS O'MEARA | AP ]

You can see the neon lights of two other nude joints from the parking lot — Score’s Gentlemen’s Club is just next door, touting steak dinners along with a peep show. Across the street is 2001 Odyssey, a squat purple and white building topped with a retro futuristic UFO where girls give private lap dances.

The Tampa Bay area has about 40 strip clubs, with half found in the city of Tampa. Their glowing marquees advertising NUDE GIRLS line some of the city’s busiest roads — Adamo Drive, West Shore Boulevard, Dale Mabry Highway — in between the restaurants, shops and stadiums where families take their kids.

Tampa has a reputation as the strip club capital of the country, part of its identity along with Cuban sandwiches and Gasparilla.

But that’s more myth than reality.

We don’t have the biggest (Miami does), we don’t have the most per capita (that’s Portland, Ore.), we don’t have the weirdest (also Portland, birthplace of two vegan strip clubs and a strip club haunted house).

So why is Tampa stuck with that label?

To find the answer, flash back 20 years, to a heated battle over morality and money. Those were the days of lawsuits and undercover busts, when police dragged dancers out of clubs in handcuffs. When thousands crammed into the Tampa Convention Center to hear strippers and clients testify until the early hours one morning. When this city laid down the law.

• • •

In 1999, city officials feared Tampa’s sex industry was getting out of hand.

It wasn’t just the strip clubs. There were lingerie modeling studios and massage parlors acting as fronts for prostitution and residential sex businesses, like Voyeur Dorm, where college-age women streamed themselves on the web.

Tampa City Council member Bob Buckhorn listens to arguments for an ordinance to ban lap dancing in the city of Tampa. Times (1999) [ BOB CROSLIN | Tampa Bay Times ]

Dick Greco, then the Tampa mayor, was especially horrified at Taboo Tampa, a swinger house that opened in Old Seminole Heights blocks away from where he grew up.

“My God, I’m no prude,” Greco told a Times reporter back then. “Pretty soon the whole town becomes a cesspool.”

Then-councilman Bob Buckhorn was also determined to crack down on the clubs.

"Adult use should not be a full-contact sport,” he said in a city council meeting that year.

In October 1999, Jane Castor, then a Tampa police lieutenant, led the city’s biggest strip club bust. Managers were caught serving alcohol as women danced fully naked. In one club, dancers performed sex acts on each other in front of undercover officers.

Tampa Police Lt. Jane Castor, City Attorney Jim Palermo and Tampa Mayor Dick Greco look over arrest reports of individuals arrested at adult strip clubs. Times (1999) [ CLIFF MCBRIDE | Tampa Bay Times ]

Weeks later, the City Council unveiled its weapon to clean up Tampa: the 6-foot rule.

The proposed ordinance would require that distance between patrons and adult entertainers. It wasn’t technically a ban on lap dances, but how can you gyrate on someone from that far away?

Other governments in Florida had already passed ordinances designed to stop the spread of prostitution and disease. Pinellas County had a 3-foot rule, as did Brevard, Citrus, Collier, Manatee, Volusia, Polk and Seminole. A handful of places outside of Florida imposed 10-foot rules. Tampa tried to land somewhere in the middle with 6 feet, a distance that would prevent “hand-to-genital contact” and be easy to enforce.

Attorney Luke Lirot stands outside the Mons Venus. Times (2006) [ CRYSTAL L. LAUDERDALE | Tampa Bay Times ]

Luke Lirot, a Clearwater-based First Amendment lawyer who represented club owners and strippers, said they referred to it as the ring of death. “You could have maybe four dancers in the entire club.”

Mons Venus owner Joe Redner led the resistance. He had opened Tampa’s first full-nude club in the ’70s and has been called the father of the lap dance.

Joe Redner sits by the stage in the Mons Venus. Times (1999) [ BOB CROSLIN | Tampa Bay Times ]

Redner commissioned an economic impact study and took out a full-page ad in the paper explaining the financial benefits of strip clubs. He claimed the money the clubs pumped into Tampa — more than $150 million annually — exceeded what the Buccaneers brought in.

A sign displayed at the Mons Venus. Times (1999) [ JOCK FISTICK | Tampa Bay Times ]

He and other club owners also spent tens of thousands on lobbyists and experts. Those who provided analysis, according to stories in the Times, included a former medical examiner who disputed “contentions that nude dancing spreads disease, a consultant to report on the demographics of Mons customers and dancers, and an anthropologist to argue that child molesters and rapists come from sexually repressed backgrounds.”

The ban was introduced during a November meeting. Redner told his dancers to humanize themselves in front of the politicians. Tell them about your kids, he said. Your lives.

Strip club patrons and dancers packed council chambers on the third floor of City Hall. The line snaked down the stairwell and oozed out onto the sidewalk.

Dancers and their families gather along the wall waiting their turn to speak to the Tampa City Council. The public hearing was held to discuss a proposed new lap dancing ordinance under consideration by the City of Tampa. The dancers said the lap dance ban would spread hardship, not stem the spread of lawlessness and disease. Times (1999) [ BRUCE HOSKING | Tampa Bay Times ]

That was nothing compared to a hearing a few weeks later. That meeting lasted 13 hours. Seven hundred people packed into a meeting room at the Tampa Convention Center. About 1,300 others watched on a screen in an overflow room.

Nadyne Hines stands in line waiting to pass through a metal detector before entering the Tampa City Council meeting at the Tampa Convention Center. Times (1999) [ BOB CROSLIN | Tampa Bay Times ]

The Tampa hearing was prefaced with a warning: no hissing, no booing. Anyone removed from the hall would be arrested.

“If it were up to me,” one citizen weighed in, “I would make it over a mile distance, but six foot seems reasonable.”

Joe Redner arrives at the city council meeting at the Tampa Convention Center, joining about 2,000 others who came to watch the drama unfold. Times (1999) [ BOB CROSLIN | Tampa Bay Times ]

“I don’t think my mother would mind if I went in there and she knew I wasn’t wearing my clothes,” said another. "So, if it is not my mother’s concern, then it shouldn’t be yours.”

Debra Bolves holds up a sign expressing her view of lap dancing at the Tampa Convention Center. Times (1999) [ BOB CROSLIN | Tampa Bay Times ]

People watching the broadcast on public access television got out of bed and came to weigh in. One woman showed up in her bathrobe.

From left, dancer Kathy Hochholzer Chanda and Betty Lamb stand outside the Tampa Convention Center in support of lap dancing. They wore surgical gloves and mask as well as a 6-foot piece of crime scene tape to mock the proposed ordinance. Times (1999) [ DAVID KADLUBOWSKI | Tampa Bay Times ]

At the strip clubs, customers rushed in to get lap dances while they still could. 2001 Odyssey ran a $15 per dance special. By 7 p.m., at least 300 people had anxiously called the business to ask if the council had voted yet.

It hadn’t. At nearly 2 a.m., though, the council voted unanimously to pass the ordinance. It was the longest council meeting in city history.

The maximum penalty for violating the 6-foot rule? A $1,000 fine and six months in jail.

Mayor Dick Greco, left, signs an ordinance early Friday morning, Dec. 3, 1999, into law requiring at least six feet of space between dancers and strip club patrons. He hoped to do away with 'lap dances' in which clothed customers paid $20 to have a naked or nearly naked woman rub against them for the time it takes a disc jockey to spin a song. Members of Tampa city council, from left, Bob Buckhorn, Gwen Miller and Charles Miranda watch. Times (1999) [ CLIFF MCBRIDE | Tampa Bay Times ]

• • •

The lap dances didn’t stop.

Redner sued the city after the ordinance passed, but dropped it soon after. The city hadn’t made any immediate moves to check if dancers were following the new rule, and he wanted to see how it would play out.

Three days later, the city sued five clubs, including the Mons, for violating the ordinance.

Redner swapped the letters on his marquee: GRECO YOU COWARD ENFORCE YOUR ORDINANCE.

The Mons Venus used its billboard space to dare Mayor Greco to enforce the 6-foot rule. Times (1999) [ NEWMAN, AMY | St. Petersburg Times ]

Then the raids started.

Redner swore at Castor as her unit arrested strippers, screaming until he was taken away in handcuffs, too.

“We all went arm in arm there together,” he said in a recent interview.

Tampa Police arrest a dancer at the Mons Venus on Dale Mabry Highway late one Friday night. Times (2000) [ DAVID KADLUBOWKSI ]

It went on for months: The clubs defied the ordinance. Police made arrests. As soon as the cops left, the remaining strippers resumed dancing on customers as if nothing had happened.

Joe Redner stands outside the Mons Venus after Tampa Police dragged dozens of his dancers from his club in handcuffs. Times (2000) [ DAVID KADLUBOWSKI | Tampa Bay Times ]

In July 2000, about 40 undercover officers conducted a raid across five strip clubs. Police made 70 arrests in one night. Twenty-eight were from the Mons. Redner swears the raid was personal, triggered because he refused to shake Greco’s hand at a city function.

“I said, ‘I’m not your friend and I’m not a hypocrite.’” Redner told a reporter. “He said ‘well, let’s go to war.’”

Greco didn’t recall that incident when asked recently. He told reporters back then that the raid had been planned for over a month.

In January 2001, two Dallas Stars hockey players were arrested at the Mons before Super Bowl XXXV. The NFL faxed warnings to each team in the league urging players to stay away from Tampa’s strip clubs.

By the end of July 2001, the 6-foot rule had triggered more than 300 arrests. Redner paid for every one of his dancer’s legal battles. Lirot, meanwhile, asked for jury trials for hundreds of the women.

Joe Redner smiles while a man wearing a T-shirt showing a likeness of City Councilman Bob Buckhorn with horns on his head and fangs voices his opposition to the proposed sign ordinance for adult clubs. Times (2000) [ JIM REED | Tampa Bay Times ]

All this activity generated news stories around the world, growing Tampa’s reputation as strip club central. Tourists were afraid of getting caught by police mid-lap dance during their vacations.

Judges went back and forth on whether the ordinance was too broad. In 2002, the maximum fine for breaking the 6-foot rule was halved to $500 or six months probation. Violators could spend up to 60 days in jail.

The dances and the raids kept going until spring 2003.

Then, quietly, it all stopped.

When Greco was replaced as mayor by Pam Iorio, the city shifted its attention to other crimes.

“We were more focused on the actual crime rates,” said Stephen Hogue, who was sworn in as police chief later that year.

“It takes an entire day to do one of these cases,” Lirot said. “The judges got so disgusted with what appeared to them to be a complete waste of public resources that even if there was an adverse conclusion — no jail time, no fine, no court cost — the message was clear: Don’t do this. We don’t want to waste any more time on these cases.”

The clubs won the battle. But at a cost.

“Millions and millions of dollars, both taxpayer money and club operators’ money, went into this battle,” Lirot said, “and I think it was finally established that these clubs are part of the social fabric, for better or worse.”

• • •

Go into any one of Tampa’s numerous clubs today and you’ll see dozens of women twerking a lot closer than 6 feet from their customers.

The rule that prohibits that activity is still on the books, but police reports show it hasn’t resulted in an arrest since 2005. And no one really talks about it anymore. Buckhorn didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment for this story. Castor didn’t, either.

Ironically, Redner, 78, now works with law enforcement, brainstorming ways to stop sex trafficking and calling the cops when customers get too rowdy during bachelor parties. He’s on fine terms with Buckhorn, whom he voted for in 2004, and Castor, the now mayor who he runs into at Sweet Tomatoes.

Joe Redner, owner of Mons Venus in Tampa, poses on the club's stage Wednesday, April 17, 2019. JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times [ PENDYGRAFT ]

People who work in the industry say things have slowed down over the last 20 years. Some clubs reported up to a 40 percent dip in business after police raided their clubs. Then the internet provided a cheaper and easier way to see strangers naked.

Yet on a recent Thursday at the Mons, Redner’s club was packed with customers and dancers until well after midnight.

Samantha Daniel slides down a pole on the stage floor at Mons Venus gentleman's club. Times (2012) [ LEAH MILLIS | Tampa Bay Times ]

In between dances, women freshened up in a fenced-off area outside. They clustered around a purple picnic table covered in makeup brushes, Funyan wrappers and empty cans of Red Bull. They poured each other shots and helped one another glue on strips of eyelashes. They counted their bills in neat stacks. One dancer, completely nude except for 6-inch, leather boots, devoured a microwave Marie Callender mac and cheese covered in Crystal hot sauce.

Savannah Soule, a 28-year-old who performs under the name Minnie, sipped kratom tea through a straw in between dances. She strips at the Mons until the early morning, then stays up a few more hours to take her 10-year-old daughter to the bus stop.

“I want to stay until the Super Bowl comes,” she said. That’s in 2021.

Some of the dancers who were dragged out of Mons Venus in handcuffs 20 years ago now run the show as managers.

As for the current dancers, many are younger than the 6-foot rule itself.

Most of them don’t even know it exists.

This story was reported using Times archives. Times senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.