Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Houston's War on Sexually-oriented Businesses

Last week the City of Houston won a legal victory in its war against sexually-oriented businesses (SOBs). A state district judge ruled in favor of the city, which had sued the Penthouse Club for violating an ordinance that prohibits SOBs from operating within 1,500 feet of churches, schools, day care centers, and parks. The Chronicle story quoted Mayor White:

This is a good day for Houstonians that want to protect the decency of our neighborhoods for families, and also want to say no to those businesses that degrade and exploit women for profit.

I say no to these businesses by not going to them. I vote with my wallet and support businesses that provide me value. Those that do not do so do not receive my money. I certainly don't lobby to have them shut down or to control how they operate, even when I find them indecent. In fact, I really can't imagine anything that goes on in SOBs being more indecent than what happens at City Council on a regular basis--the violation of individual rights.

The city plans to file a lawsuit to close another thirty to forty such businesses. City officials believe that as many as 120 businesses are in violation of the ordinance.

The city's fight to close SOBs has drawn support from neighborhood civic associations.

"We have supported this action in the city in its fight the whole way," said Bart Jones, president of the Briargrove neighborhood association.

"My rule of thumb has been if I can't walk my child in the direction of your business, maybe your business shouldn't be in the area where I raise my child."
I empathize with Mr. Jones. I would not want such establishments in or near my neighborhood. But disliking something does not justify using government coercion. And maybe he shouldn't raise his child in an area that has such businesses. He has freedom of choice, and he should recognize that the business owner has the same right.

Government's proper purpose is the protection of individual rights, including property rights. The right to property is the right of use and disposal--the right to use one's property as one chooses, so long as that use does not violate the rights of others. The only way to objectively violate the rights of others is through force--by compelling or prohibiting specific actions.

The city has put forth numerous arguments to support its position. In addition to the uproar from civic groups, the city maintains that SOBs promote other illegal activities, such as drug use and prostitution. If the city simply wanted to segregate these activities to keep them away from children and families, the city's position would be somewhat understandable. But that would still be a violation of property rights, and it is clearly not the city's goal.

The city's ordinance also prohibits SOBs from being within 1,000 feet of one another, prohibits dancers from soliciting drinks from customers, and mandates that dancers remain at least three feet from patrons. None of these provisions has anything to do with children or families. They are aimed at prohibiting behavior that the city finds unsavory. They are aimed at putting the SOBs out of business.

The activities that take place between consenting adults are nobody's business but those involved. Personally, I dislike many activities that I routinely witness, such as giving money to beggars, talking on a cell phone in a store, and picking really ugly wall colors. But altruism, boorish behavior, and a lack of taste should not be illegal. We should be free to associate with those who engage in such actions or not. What is done on private property is between the owner and his guests, so long as all individuals act of their own volition and consent.

The activities that occur within an SOB are between the owner, his employees, and his customers. Those who do not like those activities are free to avoid such establishments. The number of people who dislike those activities is irrelevant. Each individual has a moral right to pursue his own values, so long as he respects the mutual right of others. And this is true even when others find those values repugnant. If someone wants to pay to look at naked women, and the women want to be paid to let him, it is nobody's business but theirs.

The city's war on SOBs is essentially the same as anti-sodomy laws. Both seek the restrict the voluntary actions between consenting adults that occur behind closed doors. Both are based on the premise that some can impose their values upon others. Both are based on the premise that individuals do not own their bodies. (Interestingly, until Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, it was illegal for married couples to engage in oral sex in many states.)

I suspect that somewhere in Houston there are people consensually engaging in sexual activities at this very moment that I would find disgusting. The fact is, I don't know who they are, where they are, or what they are doing. In other words, it has no impact on me because I am not there to witness it. And unless the members of the civic associations are there to witness the activities in the SOBs, they too are not impacted. And if they are there, then they have no basis to complain.

The civic associations, and the city, would argue that they are impacted by the activities that occur outside of SOBs. If this is true, and legitimate crimes are being committed, then the city should be enforcing the appropriate laws. But to pass blanket restrictions on all businesses of a certain type, regardless of the actual facts regarding a specific business, is arbitrary and a complete renunciation of the city's responsibilities. Instead of apprehending real criminals, police officers are parading around with yard sticks to insure that dancers do not get too close to patrons. (I wonder if those officers get hazardous duty pay.)

If the city really wants to make neighborhoods decent, they would be protecting individual rights. They would recognize and protect the right of each individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They would outlaw the initiation of force and allow all adults to engage in whatever consensual and voluntary actions they choose. And they certainly would not declare it illegal for a naked woman to be within three feet of a man.


madmax said...

I don't think you go far enough in defending SOBs and I don't see what is so offensive about them. All these "civic organizations" are motivated by a religious, life-hating, sex-hating philosophy. Sexuality is a natural phenomenon. If some people want to buy prostitutes or do countless other sexually oriented things that would make Sunday church-goers blush that is there business and their right.

To defend laissez faire one must defend legalized and *unregulated* prostitution, legalized gambling, legalized drugs, polygamy and adult-age incest. Some of these may seem unsavory to many but that is irrelevant. Now there is a question of how these things would operate in a free society. IMO, without zoning laws which shouldn't exist, a free society would deal with them the way it would deal with all land-use issues, by land covenants. There would be no central planning by religiously influenced legislators.

For me, this shows how radical Objectivism is. An Objectivist society would totally defy religious morality and most cities would have a "Bangkok section" to them as well as a "Vegas section". We live in a Christian culture and nowhere is that more evident than with regards to sex.

A rational culture would consider what goes on in Churches far more obscene than what goes in strip bars, massage parlors, or brothels.

Anonymous said...

These types of laws are nothing more than politicians grandstanding for the media, to show that they are "doing something" for their constituents.

What nobody fails to mention is that existing laws already protect homeowners like Mr. Jones. He and his neighbors have the right to quiet enjoyment of their property. The SOB owner is not allowed to infringe on this right; to do so would be a nuisance, a common law tort.

But the city is not trying to provide a remedy here. It is attempting to preemptively punish the SOB owners for a crime which has not yet happened.

Brian Phillips said...

madmax-- While I agree that many "unsavory" activities should be legal, I disagree that we should defend them. There is a difference between what should be legal and what is moral. I will defend the right of individuals to engage in activities that are voluntary, but I would not defend those who engage in activities that are immoral, such as taking drugs.

Texas Conservative-- I agree that this is a pre-emptive action, at least in part. It most certainly is political grandstanding.

Harold said...

Madmax really knocked one out of the park with this post. There is so much work to be done.

A rational culture would consider what goes on in Churches far more obscene than what goes in strip bars, massage parlors, or brothels.

That's right. Compare the false, anti-human, and anti-rational messages preached in the church to consensual adult sexual behavior. Talk about a warped sense of morality.

Anonymous said...

Wrong or right, moral or unethical, sexual advances, either offered or solicited, it actually depends on the subject's reply when such a matter occurs. If two consenting adults join in an act involving sex, who is to blame? Nobody.

Brian Phillips said...

I basically agree with your conclusion. But I would state your question differently. Whose rights have been violated? That is the only concern of the government, or should be.