Investigation: Sex for Sale?
HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) – With undercover cameras rolling, within ten minutes of walking into a local strip club, sex was offered to a reporter and photojournalist at WMBF News.
"We go upstairs and close the curtain and it's whatever you want for both of you," said one of the dancers with the asking price of $125.
The same thing happened at a second club.
Would it surprise you that Horry County lawmakers know this is happening?
Horry County Councilman Bob Grabowski says a lot of people know it's going on.
"Sure, it's the thing that goes along with that industry - prostitution," he said. "There are laws against it, but they still find ways around it."
"I've seen just about everything, things that I couldn't mention on TV," said one dancer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The dancer contacted us after we aired the first part of our series, The Grand Strip, which explained why these clubs are allowed to be in such popular parts of Horry County, like along US-501.
"According to the law, the places where the girls are dancing around are the same as some of the nightclubs at the top of some of the best hotels in town," Grabowski said, referring to a zoning ordinance that mandates if the dancers inside aren't completely topless, these clubs can register as regular nightclubs. The dancers can even get away with wearing opaque pasties.
Our dancer thought we should know that some girls aren't following the rules, and nothing is being done about it.
We saw that for ourselves.
"They used to be slapped $10,000 fines when something was done wrong or girls weren't wearing pasties," the dancer said. "They'd get a $10,000 fine five years ago. How come this isn't happening anytime now?"
Horry County spokeswoman Lisa Bourcier offers one reason: "Back in 2004, there was a big effort to go into these night establishments and we had our zoning administrator that went in with the support of the police department that went in and did write a lot of zoning violations concerning the ordinance. And then by the time it went to court, which was a costly battle, most of the cases were dismissed."
Bourcier says the county currently has two full-time zoning inspectors and admits since 2004, inspectors have not gone into these types of clubs on a regular basis.
"Horry County has over 3,000 ordinances on our books and with staffing issues and levels, most of our work is based on priorities," she said, noting that making certain dancers are wearing pasties is not one of the priorities. "We have tried numerous ways to try and get a hold of adult entertainment in Horry County, and it is tough and it is expensive and they do come with a lot of financial backing when we do bring these issues up in court."
Grabowski says keeping it under control is tough because dancers keep a watchful and suspicious eye on their customers.
"They just keep it quiet. They try to identify undercover officers that come in and if a man comes in they even remotely think is undercover, they won't offer anything," he explained. "Short of citing them over and over again for breaking the ordinances or the law, no I don't think there's anything else that can be done. The citation to them shows we're making an effort, but to them it's just a nuisance."
Surfside Beach resident Ted Potts, who heads up the Horry-Georgetown Prayer Task Force, doesn't like it, and neither do more than 1,000 others who signed a petition for stricter strip club laws.
"I've never lived in a place that had this much strip club activity," he said. "It's a growing area. We don't want it to grow in this direction."
So what are the options if strip clubs are able to take advantage of the current system? The strip clubs could be shut down.
"Clubs can be shut down by the state law of the public nuisance law," said Horry County Police spokesman Sgt. Robert Kegler.
What calls for a public nuisance? Kegler says anything from drugs to prostitution, and in the past officers have been able to help close adult bookstores.
"It all depends how many times the police have to respond out there and what types of calls we've responded to," he explained.
Bourcier says whether or not one of these clubs could be classified as a public nuisance is ultimately up to a circuit court judge, but she says it's up to county officials to collect evidence and take that information to a judge.
But if enough people signed Potts' petition and filed a complaint with the Horry County Council, Bourcier says the county would consider sending someone to check it out.
"If it was a priority of staff and council and we were getting numerous complaints and people were going in and seeing that women aren't doing what they're supposed to, we would take a resource off and probably go in at night and see what we could find out," she said.
From there, it would be up to the county's attorneys to determine if there was enough evidence to win a case before a judge, Bourcier said.
A lot is up to Horry County. If they try again to enforce stricter laws with new evidence is anyone's guess.
"It's hard to say," Bourcier admitted. "Each judge is different in how they interpret zoning laws and it all depends on how good of a case we can put together."
Our dancer says it all comes down to the people enforcing the law.
"There could eventually come a time where a club is found to be in violation of the public nuisance law," Kegler said.
But Potts added, "We're not going to give up. We're going to keep going until it happens."
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