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Opinion: Councillors focus on the bump instead of the grind

The budget is stretched. The Gardiner is crumbling. The city is struggling over how to pay for expansion of the transit system. But never mind all that little stuff. City councillors spent most of the day on Friday talking about how to regulate lap dancing in strip clubs.

The Licensing and Standards Committee pored over an 84-page report from city staff proposing amendments to Chapter 545, Article XXXII of the Toronto Municipal Code. One amendment would change the "construction standards" for lap-dancing booths, where dancers gyrate for customers one-on-one. Another would update the language in the bylaw to replace the term "burlesque entertainer" with the simpler "entertainer." Yet another would define a designated entertainment area as one "in which services may be provided which are designed to appeal to erotic or sexual appetites or inclinations."

The updated bylaw would require club owners to install hand-sanitizing dispensers, to keep dancing poles in good repair, to post warnings about the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases and to equip lap-dancing booths with a panic button in case a dancer faced assault or harassment.

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To guard against funny business, the report from city staff proposed requiring the dancing booths to have one side that is either open, transparent or covered with a partition no more than four feet high. To discourage open sexual contact while avoiding outlawing hand shakes, the new bylaw would clarify the old "no-touch" policy by forbidding a dancer or patron "to touch, sit, or rest on, or make any physical contact with the covered, partially covered, or uncovered breasts, buttocks, genital, pubic, anal and perineal areas."

As Scarborough Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker put it after nearly five hours of hearings, "this committee can make even sex boring." Still, he and his fellow councillors approved most of the new rules. At least now, he said, there is "a list of body parts that you shouldn't touch" – progress indeed for Toronto the Good.

Earlier in the hearings, he even suggested making the partitions on lap-dancing booths lower because "you can have a lot of action going on lower than four feet." After all, "most people's laps are lower than four feet."

Is this really how people with a big city to govern should be spending their time: determining the height of lap-dancing doors?

Adam Vaughan shakes his head. "I don't think we should be regulating sex," the downtown councillor says.

The city has a legitimate right to intervene if strip clubs are causing trouble for a neighbourhood – noise, drug use or other nuisances. It also has an interest in making sure they don't threaten public health through the spread of sexually transmitted diseases – something best handled through education and health services.

Otherwise, Mr. Vaughan says, the city should not be concerning itself with who touches whom where in private establishments. "Good luck with regulating that. It's not my job as a city councillor."

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No, it's not. The rights and wrongs, dos and don'ts of what goes on in a strip club are matters well beyond their ken. It's a complicated business of changing practices and evolving public morality.

As recently as the 1960s (an aged relative of mine reports), strippers at the Victory Burlesk at Dundas and Spadina had to wear panties and pasties at all times or face arrest. One former stripper at Friday's hearing recalled the days when a "table dancer" would cart a box around a club, park it in front of patrons, jump on top and perform a private dance. Lap dancing has been around for at least a generation, its legality fought over in the courts.

Councillors who try to micromanage what goes on in a strip club are just dancing in the dark.

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