In south Providence, at the crossroads of O’Connell Street and Allens Avenue, red signs reading “Godiva Nude” and “Cheaters Topless” call attention to an already noticeable building, one that stands practically alone amidst warehouses and wire fences. These two roads lead, and these two signs point, to Cheaters, a strip club that recently acquired status as the metaphorical locus of Providence’s underage stripping controversy.
In June, a Providence police investigation shed light on a loophole in state law and city ordinance: nothing prohibits a minor from working at a strip club. As city officials worked on the case of a 16-year-old Boston-born runaway, they learned she had worked at Cheaters during the spring using a fake ID.
Although child pornography laws prohibit photography and the filming of minors in sexual situations, they do not apply to live performances. In a similar loophole, child prostitution, as a lewd and indecent act, is illegal, but state law does not consider exotic dancing under these terms. In fact, “lewd” and “indecent” are complicated and subjective terms; the Providence Journal quoted Senior Assistant City Solicitor Kevin McHugh saying, “since we have stripping clubs in Providence, citizens don’t consider [stripping] lewd.”
These very ambiguities reflect the absence of clarity in the current underage stripping discussion and the underlying question which it implies: how did police officers, city officials, and state politicians remain unaware of such a controversial loophole?
Solomon asserts his lack of seniority as one possible explanation. “I’ve only been on the council for three years; surely if I had known three years ago that this [underage stripping] law existed, I would have worked on the ordinance then.”
“Sometimes when [elected officials] enact legislation, I don’t think they conceive of every possibly loophole,” Providence Police Sergeant Carl Weston said.
Underage stripping is not the only controversial and unlikely state law; prostitution is legal in Rhode Island so long as any solicitation occurs indoors. Recently, Mayor Cicilline issued an executive order that prohibits indoor prostitution. Representative Joanne Giannini is the sponsor of legislation to end both prostitution and underage stripping in the state. In a July press release covering Giannini’s efforts to end underage stripping, she claims that “the issues are intertwined, since the prostitution loophole ostensibly allows performers at strip clubs an easy opportunity to also solicit prostitution without breaking laws,” which thus increases the risk of child prostitution
How legitimate are the connections Giannini and others have made between underage stripping and indoor prostitution. Police fear that, given the young age of consent in Rhode Island—16—underage stripping will too easily facilitate the transition of exhibitionism into underage sexual solicitation. And under current law, it wouldn’t be illegal.
Still, perhaps the presence of loopholes and the absence of clarity form an exaggerated depiction of Providence as city of sin. And for now, there is little evidence to contradict such a depiction. The only documented underage stripping occurrence reflects neither regular practice nor club owners’ complicity.
“I’m not sure how widespread [underage stripping in Providence] is,” Solomon said…and really, no one seems to know.
Public discovery of the city’s hidden permission–if not open acceptance–of underage stripping has surfaced in various efforts at prohibition, spanning multiple levels of government. In July, Representative Giannini announced that she is working on legislation to ban employment of individuals under 18 as exotic dancers. A Massachusetts law that prohibits employment of anyone under 18 to exhibit nudity or appear in any act involving sexual conduct is a model for the legislation.
Mayor David N. Cicilline responded by issuing an executive order prohibiting the license board from giving an adult entertainment license to any establishment that employs anyone younger than 18.
City Councilman Michael Solomon proposed an ordinance, co-sponsored by Council President Peter S. Mancini and Councilman Nicholas Narducci, which, like Representative Giannini’s bill, would prohibit underage employment at strip clubs. Solomon introduced the ordinance on the council floor during the last week of July, and it was then sent to the ordinance committee. This week, there will be a hearing on the ordinance, which Solomon hopes will return to the Council for approval. Strip clubs in violation of the new law would be fined $500 for an initial offense, and $1,000 for each following offense.
Regarding public support of his efforts, Solomon said that he has not received “any negative feedback on the ordinance from club owners or citizens.” This August, representatives from ten Providence strip clubs—including Cheaters—signed a non-legally binding, written pledge to not employ anyone under the age of 18. Andrew J. Annaldo, Chairman of the City Board of Licenses, distributed the pledge, which will possibly act as a supplement to legislation. As the fates of both Giannini’s bill and Solomon’s ordinance remain predictable but uncertain, the pledges constitute the only written document that concerns underage stripping and serve as a symbol of cooperation between the city and its licensees.
“No one wants [underage stripping] to happen, including the licensees. They have plenty of people for those jobs without going to the children. They don’t want that reputation either,” Serena Conley, License Administrator for the city of Providence, said.
Sergeant Weston added that the owners of strip clubs are adamantly against underage stripping. He noted that in this economy there are plenty of adult women “breaking the door down to come work” at the city’s clubs.
The reactions of public officials, citizens, and police officers to the disclosure of underage stripping and the ongoing controversy of indoor prostitution mark a noticeable tension between the law on paper and the law in practice, a tension that has implications beyond the confines of these two contentious topics.
Sergeant Weston said that in spite of state law and city ordinance, the police would act on suspicion of child endangerment and detain any underage stripper.
“I have every right and responsibility to protect the juvenile,” Weston told the ProJo. “If she refuses [to leave], she’ll leave in handcuffs, and I’ll worry about the repercussions later.”
In an entirely unrelated loophole, it is legal for a civilian to walk on any public street in Providence with a loaded rifle, but Weston told the Independent that under no conditions would he leave the scene of (what is not technically) the crime undisturbed.
KATIE LINDSTEDT B’11 is currently unemployed.