Caught Looking


They closed down the Bitch Booth on Friday. Workers hauled away the windowed doors (“EXOTIC. LADIES. TIPS APPRECIATED.”) to the peeps. Show World was shut to its devoted public and, through windows that once offered to Eighth Avenue images of featured performers whose mammoth endowments are still under warranty, passersby could see a skeleton crew desultorily accommodating the inevitable demise of porn.

To recapitulate: on Thursday the First Amendment­friendly United States Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens—after what seems like dozens of appeals and reversals over the past three years—referred to the entire court an eleventh-hour request by owners of the remaining sex-related businesses to delay enforcement of a city law banning such establishments within 500 feet of a church, a dwelling, a school, or one another. This followed by a day Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s summary decision to reject just such a stay.

“This gives us a great deal of encouragement,” Herald Price Fahringer, lawyer for 107 of the 146 affected businesses, pronounced of Stevens’s action, although by now Fahringer’s battle-worn optimism has begun to sound rehearsed. The last legal hope is that the motion will endure until fall for the case to be heard again, this time by the Supreme Court. In appealing to that court, Fahringer suggested that, if the mayor’s zoning regulations are to go foward, “the petitioners will either have to close their theaters and bookstores or face criminal prosecutions.”

Even so, store owners have already begun to make fundamental changes in their business. They’ve put bathing suits on nudie dancers at Show Follies. They’ve started reducing the volume of X-rated videos in stock at the Palace to the 40 percent a mayoral memo suggested would pass muster. Hollowly invoking the constitutional issues he flouts, Giuliani has said that closings won’t occur overnight. It will be a matter of months, he said, while inspectors from “appropriate” agencies visit the city’s sex-related businesses to measure their compliance with the 1995 change in zoning. “The law does not allow the city to just go in and close down places on Day One,” he said. “It requires a certain amount of evidence and observation to take place.”

That won’t really be necessary. During a campaign that has already deployed the Department of Health, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and even the hooker-happy NYPD to harass sex-shop owners, the mayor has more than made his point. As Beth Haroules, a lawyer for the New York Civil Liberties Union, has said, “With the city shutting places left and right, there really could be a massive chilling effect on the industry, which will lead to its complete disappearance from the city.”

There’s some obvious irony in the fact that—even as he systematically drives one industry out of business—the mayor mounts his soapbox to complain that developers responsible for the recent construction disaster in Times Square have been slow to compensate small businesses affected by the catastrophe. “If they can’t derive some revenue in the next three to four days,” says Giuliani, “then a lawsuit two years from now and a big claim two years from now may not be worth as much as it seems to be.”

The architectural critic Lewis Mumford once remarked that, “despite its bludgeoning absolutions, its vicious wars, the Twentieth Century may yet be known as the age of sexual efflorescence.” Mumford may have been right in some overarching sense, but he didn’t live long enough to experience the bludgeoning absolutions of the millennial neo-puritans, who equate sexual efflorescence with what the social historian Timothy J. Gilfoyle terms “negative vitality.” No person with honest experience of Times Square before it got turned over to developers would ever have called the place dull. Yet the inevitable buzzword used to describe the place now is “revitalized.”

If you hurry, you can catch the “revitalization” at work all along Eighth Avenue, as workers hurriedly replace existing shelves of porn with so-called “classic films.” In Times Square one type of penetrating drama is giving way to another overnight. Where consumers (well, pro-porn consumers, and they do exist: as feminist writer Lisa Palac remarks in her new book, The Edge of the Bed, porn may be repetitive, stupid, and boring, but “watching people have sex is compelling”) once felt free to revel in a resplendent array of sex titles categorized as lesbian, amateur, couples, anal, bondage, she-male, or kink, they’ll now find films from, say, the underappreciated oeuvre of Erik Estrada. If Giuliani gets his way you can forget about wanking yourself to sleep over Titfucking or the all-female Aerobisex Girls. Instead you’ll be able to slip Jailbreakin into the VCR and hop an express to dreamland.