TAMPA, Fla. -- Following an extensive remodel, the Penthouse Club in Tampa, Fla., is finally ready for next summer's Republican National Convention. Club operator DeWayne Levesque has installed two secluded VIP sections, which he hopes will help his club attract a bigger share of the 50,000 visitors expected to descend upon the city on Aug. 27 for four days of conservative politics and liberal partying. In addition to the club's new carpets and furniture, the private rooms are designed to provide cover so that camera-shy donors, politicians and aides can enjoy the strippers without fear of getting caught, he said.
A few blocks from the Penthouse Club, another strip club owner, Joe Redner, said he has high hopes for what the convention means for business at his all-nude club, Mons Venus. "I'm guessing we'll make five times as much in a night as we usually do," Redner told HuffPost. "Republicans got plenty of money. They take it all from poor people," he said.
Redner said he thinks many convention visitors will be in the market for a lap dance, but newly-released academic research suggests that some will be interested in the darker elements of Tampa's adult scene, too -- sex for sale. HuffPost teamed up with Tampa-based reporter Shawn Alff, of the Creative Loafing media group, to examine the potential impact of the RNC on two major pillars of the city's X-rated economy: prostitution and strip clubs.
"I can make between $50,000-$60,000 a night at Mons Venus during the days leading up to the Superbowl," Redner explained, "up from $10,000-$12,000 on an average night." When asked how a buttoned-up, political clientele might differ from a Superbowl crowd, Redner laughed. "All customers look [at the dancers] the same, no matter what they're wearing or what they're here for."
Mons Venus typically closes at 5 a.m., but Redner said he would be willing to keep the club open 24-7 during the GOP convention if demand merits it. That said, he may charge clients a premium at the door. "During the Superbowl I charge $50 a head. I may decide to do that during the convention, too."
In the meantime, Redner's got a few bones to pick with GOP policymakers. "[Republicans] keep saying this stuff about how if we tax the rich, then small businesses won't be able to grow. But I'm a small business owner, and I put all my money right back into my businesses in the form of capital improvements, which I don't pay taxes on anyway. So their argument isn't how reality works."
Another adults-only perk for conventioneers are scheduled appearances at clubs by well-known female adult film stars. Agent Brian Gross, who represents actresses Joanna Angel, Ryan Keely and Alexis Ford told HuffPost that "large events … give big name adult stars who dance on the circuit a great opportunity to get in front of a large crowd for their on-stage performances."
One star who might feel right at home during the convention is Lisa Ann of the "Nailin' Palin" adult film series, which lampooned the former governor of Alaska. Lisa Ann is currently touring, but no word on whether she's slated to hit Tampa next summer. X-rated starlets also offer the clubs a competitive advantage, which is critical in an industry that Redner said has been hard hit by the Great Recession.
For those with cash to spend, however, the options abound. An adult video producer who gave his name as "Brandon" said he plans to offer conventioneers an erotic limo service that includes the company of "models."
But don't expect to see Washington big-shots climbing out of Brandon's limo anytime soon. "The people in Tampa from D.C. will be there to work, not to get caught in a limo with [that stuff]," said a veteran Republican operative. "Now the delegates, that's another story, because they've only got one thing to do the whole time, which is vote for the nominee."
He also pointed to the recent surge in opposition video-trackers as a possible deterrent for strip clubs and the like. "I remember seeing ambush video guys outside of parties as far back as the 2008 convention in Minneapolis," he recalled, "and there's just so much more this time around." No doubt many Republicans also vividly remember the public outcry caused by a party-sanctioned visit to an L.A. bondage club last year.
For Republicans, elevated risk means that a higher premium will likely be placed on discretion, and this could be good news for Tampa's other adult services industry -- prostitution -- which is quietly poised for a 30 percent spike in sales during the Republican National Convention.
This number represents the findings of a study released by Baylor University this year, which measured the impact of the 2008 Democratic and Republican conventions on prostitution markets in Denver and Minneapolis. To gather data, researchers tracked new ads for prostitutes online at Cragslist.com's now-defunct "Erotic Services" section, as well as the more exclusive escort site Eros.com.
The results showed that both conventions "increased the count of Craigslist sex worker ads by a substantial amount." In Minnesota, the researchers observed "a 29-44 percent increase in Craigslist ads in Minneapolis during the RNC." The Democratic convention, meanwhile, produced a 47-77 percent increase in ads for sex workers in Denver. The actual number of new ads posted during the conventions, however, was nearly identical for both cities. Denver had fewer ads to begin with, so it grew by a larger percentage.
Perhaps surprisingly, the one group of sex workers who didn't benefit from the 2008 conventions were the high-priced escorts on Eros.com -- the kind of women who have been linked to more than a few politicians in the past. One of the authors of the study, Dr. Scott Cunningham, recalled a high-priced escort who explained the trouble with political conventions. "She said to me, 'Scott, there just isn't enough disposable income at those political things. But there's a really great radiology convention up in Chicago, and I always go to that.'"
The reality, however, is that most of Tampa's prostitutes won't be jetting from one convention to the other. Conversely, they could end up in the hands of a man like Charles Fox, who ran a brothel in the middle of South Tampa for nearly seven years until he was arrested last month. According to police, Fox kept up to five women at a time enslaved in a small greenhouse using a combination of fear, drugs, alcohol and violence. He sold them to men online, controlled their every move, and took 100 percent of their earnings. Those who protested were tied up, raped, or worse.
For men like Charles Fox, political conventions are a great place to make money, said anti-trafficking advocate Andrea Powell. "You can be sure a pimp knows when large numbers of men are going to be in the area," she said in an interview with HuffPost, "and he'll do whatever he can to get his piece of that business."
Powell is a co-founder of the Fair Fund, which helps rescue trafficked young women, and she said there is absolutely no way for a potential customer to know whether a prostitute has been trafficked.
"This concept that you can differentiate between willing sex work and trafficking is really complicated, because sex work fuels trafficking, and there's so much money involved," she said. "Consider that one girl can have sex with 15 men in a night, at $100 an hour. This means she's producing $35,000-$40,000 a month for whoever owns her."
With police resources stretched thin during the convention, officers are unlikely to make prostitution busts a big priority. "Our primary focus will be to ensure that we have a smooth and safe event," Tampa Police Department spokeswoman Laura McElroy told WSFA this spring. "But we will enforce all of our laws, and have officers assigned to enforcing our prostitution laws." Police also said they would be "keeping an eye on Craigs list [sic]."
But if that's the plan, then Tampa law enforcement may be a few steps behind. Craigslist.com closed their "Erotic Services" section in 2009, under increasing pressure from the Justice Department and consumers. In response, much of the online prostitution jumped over to the Village Voice-owned site Backpage.com, which currently dominates the market (disclosure: Creative Loafing publishes classified ads on Backpage.com, although not for adult services). In Tampa, more than 480 new ads for adult services were posted to Backpage.com on Monday alone, with at least 230 of them tagged "Escort." Many of these had disclaimers saying that hourly rates were for "companionship only," and not for sex. But the photos suggest otherwise.
Unlike Craigslist.com, Backpage appears to welcome the chance to litigate any challenges to its adult services section. Their case is girded by a 1996 law that absolved individual websites of responsibility for illegal content posted by users. Last month, lawyers for Backpage.com won a victory in court when a judge dismissed a lawsuit that had been brought on behalf of a teenage girl forced into prostitution and sold by a pimp through Backpage.com.
As prostitution continues its steady migration from the street corner to the Internet, sites like Backpage are well-positioned to play an even bigger role at 2012 political conventions than Craigslist did in 2008. But a lot can happen in 12 months, and Backpage has powerful enemies. As the site fends off external threats, the toughest criticism leveled at the Mons Venus club may come from the owner himself. "I would never frequent a strip club if I didn't own one," Redner said. "I don't like to be teased."
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