Porn Free

The city's war on sex shops has nothing to do with morality and everything to do with development. Especially around Times Square.

As police padlocked strip clubs and inspectors hauled 19 adult businesses -- including a gay bookstore -- into court, the media reacted as if the city had been liberated from a foreign occupying force. This was a victory for "all decent New Yorkers," crowed the Daily News, and the Times agreed: The new zoning ordinance that sweeps erotic entertainment into mostly far-flung corners of the five boroughs will serve the "worthy purpose of protecting communities from the adverse impact of sex-related businesses."

But the sanctity of neighborhoods has little to do with this crusade. Its main purpose is to pump up commercial development in midtown Manhattan, especially in the area around Times Square, where a quarter of the city's adult businesses are located. Public affidavits and private memos obtained by the Voice indicate that a powerful alliance of midtown realtors was involved in every step of the city's antiporn crusade. The Times Square Business Improvement District was especially active in crafting the new zoning amendment and lobbying for it. Yet the BID's most illustrious member, The New York Times, prefers to describe the banishment of sex shops as "a reasonable step to improve the quality of neighborhood life" rather than representing it as it really is: a boon to big developers.

If protecting communities were the point, the borough presidents of Brooklyn and the Bronx would not be among the most outspoken opponents of a zoning strategy that shuts sex clubs out of Chelsea while allowing them in Red Hook and Hunts Point. The fact that these neighborhoods are among the city's poorest -- and that nearly two thirds of the areas where sex shops will be allowed to operate have median incomes below the citywide average -- speaks volumes about just which communities are deemed most worthy of protecting against the "adverse impact" of porn.

Of course, realtors are not the only people who stand to profit from this crackdown. The mayor has much to gain from posing as the caped crusader of civic probity. This image plays extremely well outside the city, especially among conservative Republicans. And in the outer boroughs, it resonates with small property owners terrified of anything that might diminish the value of their homes. But Manhattan liberals have never been moved by the fears of homeowners in Queens. What stops them from speaking out now? Why have the usual pack of progressive pols -- not to mention arts groups, who might be expected to stand up against any infringement of sexual freedom -- been so conspicuously silent?

The easy answer is shame. As erotic dancer Cindra Feuer puts it, "most people who go to these places aren't out about it," and they aren't about to fight for their right to party. The nature of transgressive sexuality is that the higher up the status ladder, the more indefensible it becomes, as the saga of Monica Lewinsky attests. No wonder powerful liberals (and even the libertarian middle class) are loath to act up on behalf of pornography. It doesn't help that antiporn forces have allied themselves with certain feminists, but that didn't stop liberals from opposing the mayor's zoning plan when it was first announced three years ago.

Back in 1995, Mark Green, the Great Prog Hope, wrote a passionate critique of Giuliani's plan, objecting to its vagueness, its violation of the city's "history of tolerance and diversity," and the burden it would place on areas in which "many working class and low income people reside." But last week, Green told the Voice through a spokesperson that "overall, he is supportive" of the zoning, though he "does think there should be exceptions where the community supports the shops." As for Tom Duane, the city's first openly gay councilmember, in 1995, he wrote that he was "gravely concerned about the impact of this proposal and adamantly opposed to it." But last week, Duane, who is currently running for the state senate, could only fret about the impact on development in the meat market district now that sex shops can locate there. NIMBY is the last refuge of the chastened liberal.

What happened in the intervening years? For one thing, Giuliani's successful demonization of Ruth Messinger for a pro-porn position she didn't even hold amply demonstrated the stakes for any politician who dares to speak out against sexual repression. As for the activists, those groups the mayor hasn't silenced through his control of city funding (not to mention his selective use of police power, as in closing two clubs owned by zoning dissident Madeline d'Anthony) have largely been ignored by the media. As a result, Norman Siegel of the New York Civil Liberties Union finds himself in the unaccustomed position of being the lone voice in a wilderness of silent liberals.

"People keep saying to me, 'Why are you so concerned about this?'" Siegel says, "but I think it's important. Sexual freedom is a fundamental issue." Such intemperate remarks inspired the Daily News to observe last week that the ACLU is "obsessed with sex."

Of course, neither the News nor any other New York daily has done a poll of how the public feels about hauling sex shops into court, a far cry from the media's response to other crackdowns on cabbies, food peddlers, and jaywalkers. "I haven't even seen private polls on this," says political consultant Joseph Mercurio, whose clients have included Andrew Eristoff and Antonio Pagan. Mercurio calls the sex-shop crackdown "a hotspot issue," meaning that it is based in certain block associations and BIDs. "I don't think a lot of people really mind these places in New York," Mercurio says, "but they do have an opinion about whether porn should be in their face."

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