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Exterior photograph of a strip club advertising full nude entertainment (Cheetahs, in San Diego, California). (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Here’s Why You Really Don’t Want a Strip Club Next Door

• August 30, 2013 • 5:50 PM

Exterior photograph of a strip club advertising full nude entertainment (Cheetahs, in San Diego, California). (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

A new spatial analysis of sexually oriented businesses—yes, you guessed the acronym—finds crime is indeed higher in their wake.

You want a strip club next door (Lamar Odom need not answer)? Whether you’re a patron or not, most people I’m guessing would answer no. Which is probably why the cheatin’ side of town tends to be where the politically impotent reside.

Given the First Amendment and all, there’s not a lot of ways for cities to get rid of or expressly forbid most sexually oriented businesses except by claiming there’s something unique about these enterprises that creates problems, say litter or crime, that the city can regulate.

And so city attorneys turn to a small but thumb-worn set of academic studies that assert there are unpleasant “secondary effects” from having a sexually oriented business—the academics get to call them SOBs, and so shall I—nearby. These effects range from the clearly quantitative, like lower property values (just as bad as having a landfill or a homeless shelter next door!), to the more subjective, like person-to-person shenanigans that may offend your sense of propriety.

One quantitative measure that hasn’t been fully nailed down, though, is crime—is there more crime on your block because of the gaudy bomb shelter selling adult toys on the corner?

The authors suggest SOBs attract “perfect” victims: Cash-carrying men predisposed for a stroll on the wild side.

One body of work answers this with a conclusive yes. “SOBs are ambient crime risk point-sources,” University of California-Irvine criminologist Richard McCleary wrote in a 2007 report for the city of Los Angeles. “As a hypothetical pedestrian walks toward the site, victimization risk rises; walking away from the site, victimization risk falls.” Less hypothetically, when the Lion’s Den sex shop opened in the Interstate 70 offramp otherwise known as Montrose, Illinois, crime in the village rose 60 percent. When the Den closed two years later, crime fell 60 percent.

But there’s a smaller body of work that suggests crime isn’t worse near venues like strip clubs and peep shows—and may even be lower. A prominent line of thought goes that since these establishments are already squeezed into sketchy neighborhoods, how could they escape the ambient problems? University of California-Santa Barbara psychologist Daniel Linz, who routinely challenges assumptions at the nexus of adult entertainment and the First Amendment, argues that just because it seems likely that porn draws problems, that assumption is not enough justification to trample on rights. As he wrote in the 2004 paper on strip clubs in Charlotte, North Carolina: “This investigation suggests it may be best not to assume adverse secondary effects in the form of greater crime emanate from adult businesses in a community. Further tests of this assumption on a community-by-community basis are not tremendously difficult.”

(Academics on both sides of the “secondary effects” debate have served as expert witnesses, and those whose results differed have some issues with Linz’s findings. They argue, for example, that using calls for police service, as Linz did, are not as good a metric as actual crime reports, and suggest that a 15.7 percent increase in calls is statistically significant.)

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor summed up the research problem in a 2002 ruling in which the city of Los Angeles wanted to keep SOBs at least 1,000 feet from each other:

This is not to say that a municipality can get away with shoddy data or reasoning. The municipality’s evidence must fairly support the municipality’s rationale for its ordinance. If plaintiffs fail to cast direct doubt on this rationale, either by demonstrating that the municipality’s evidence does not support its rationale or by furnishing evidence that disputes the municipality’s factual findings, the municipality meets the standard set forth in Renton. If plaintiffs succeed in casting doubt on a municipality’s rationale in either manner, the burden shifts back to the municipality to supplement the record with evidence renewing support for a theory that justifies its ordinance.

Criminal justice professors Eric S. McCord and Richard Tewksbury routinely come down on the side that argues SOBs promote crime nearby, and in a new study in the journal Crime & Delinquency, they use spatial analysis to attempt to put some closure on the controversy.

In earlier work from their hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, the duo discovered that crime was significantly higher at the SOBs’ premises (i.e. not their neighborhoods) than at a control group of bars. (Violent crime, in turn, is significantly higher at strip clubs than at adult bookstores, which is perhaps self-evident to any viewer of SportsCenter.)

In their new work, again set in Louisville, they conducted three separate sets of statistical analysis on geographic overlays of reported crimes and SOBs. Using “location quotients,” for example, they found that violent crime is 12.3 times more likely within 500 feet of an SOB and 8.3 times higher a thousand feet out than in Jefferson County overall. To overcome criticisms that by using the county overall you’re including crime-free cow pastures and airport runways, they ran another comparison with 400 randomly selected intersections. Regardless of the comparison, until you reached about 750 or a thousand feet out from an SOB, crime was going to be more common.

While not aiming to explain why this is, the authors suggest SOBs attract “perfect” victims: Cash-carrying men predisposed for a stroll on the wild side, often with a drink or a toke in them, who are not going to be enthusiastic about calling the cops if they can help it.

Their analysis also factored in some of the demographic data in the SOBs’ neighborhoods—things like racial makeup and the percentage of residents who are renters or single parents—to account for factors that have been correlated with higher crime rates in the neighborhood even without porn. After accounting for those, crime was higher around SOBs. As sexually oriented businesses—video and book stores, peep shows, strip clubs, novelty stores—are not all alike, the authors found it difficult to suss out the worst offenders; this type of business tends to cluster (again, both the bane and the solution of many city fathers).

Even though they stated that their results merit additional regulation, McCord and Tewksbury were hesitant to cast their indictment too far:

There is no evidence in our data of temporal ordering of whether the SOBs arrive and subsequently crime follows, or whether SOBs locate in areas that have already high rates of crime. However, it is reasonable to assume that SOBs promote crime due to the opportunities they provide, but it is also possible, even likely in view of economic and social considerations, that the presence of these land uses are only tolerated in neighborhoods of social disorganization and lower social economic status that are already prone to higher crime levels.

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

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