by Candi Cushman

The growing strip-club scene preys on vulnerable young women, but a backlash is brewing.

       I am not going to have sex with you, and I will not do any perverted things. But will you please help me? Joanie Krause, 24, asked this question in a letter she wrote last year. Desperate for a way out of her nine-year career as a Dallas-area strip dancer, Mrs. Krause mailed the letter to a pastor whose address she found in a pile of junk mail.

        "You feel like this zoo animal that's always in a cage," Mrs. Krause said. You have all these strangers coming up to you, like coming up to the animals, and they are saying, 'Oh you are so pretty, I'd like to pet you, I want to take you home,' and then they leave you there in that cage."

       Life outside the cage wasn't much better. Raped at age 12, Mrs. Krause turned to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain. To help support her habit, she began strip dancing at age 15.

       Mrs. Krause's story is not unusual in the growing world of American strip clubs. According to University of Pennsylvania psychiatrist Mary Anne Layden, between 60 and 80 percent of nude dancers were raped or sexually abused as children. And the burgeoning market for exploiting them shows no sign of losing steam. Today there are more than 2,400 clubs, according to a popular strip-club webzine. Annual revenues at some clubs are as high as $8 million, and they employ as many as 200 dancers.

       But as the strip-club culture spreads, a backlash seems to be developing. Communities, activists, and groups of reformed strippers are beginning to find ways to fight strip clubs and help the women trapped in them. In this movement Mrs. Krause found hope. In March the pastor to whom she sent the letter referred her to Amy's Friends-a Dallas group founded by ex-stripper Amy Dupree.

       Like Mrs. Krause, Mrs. Dupree-both were recently married-suffered a violent childhood (sexual abuse from age 4 to 7) that catapulted her into the sex industry. After waiting tables in a strip bar for two weeks, a club manager pressured her to take the stage at age 18. Eleven years later, Mrs. Dupree was a traveling "feature dancer" making $100,000 a year and buying fancy sports cars and luxury townhouses.

       But the glittery lifestyle only served to hide deeper layers of anger and pain. The constant sight of women "crying in their money" backstage, and pressure to perform lewd acts to keep up with competition, gnawed at Mrs. Dupree. Two years ago she drifted into the Preston Road Church of Christ in Dallas for advice about a troubled romantic relationship. Instead, she heard a sermon on the Ten Commandments. Haunted by the thought that her performance on stage was offending God, Mrs. Dupree said she decided to leave the sex industry and help other women do the same.

       That's when she started Amy's Friends, one of at least nine groups nationwide dedicated to helping women leave strip clubs. Over the last two years she has helped more than 30 women escape the sex industry through a 12-step process similar to Alcoholics Anonymous, except that Mrs. Dupree's higher power has a name: Jesus.

       On a recent Wednesday night at the Preston Road Church of Christ, seven women gathered around a small wooden table to begin Step One of Amy's Friends. First on the agenda was a birthday celebration for 19-year-old Jennifer, who last month graduated from high school. Jennifer is also trying to leave the strip club where she supplements her income as a veterinary assistant. If she agrees to stay away from strip clubs, Amy's Friends will financially subsidize her for one month and then slowly scale back support until she finds a full-time job. Each woman is allowed to attend two or three meetings before committing to the three-month program.

       The group began by reading verses from the book of Romans and the first part of Step One: "We embrace our powerlessness and we stop pretending." Pretending is a means of survival for strip dancers, meeting director LeAnne Riley explained later. Also a former strip dancer, Ms. Riley shed light on the web of deception that exists inside the strip-club scene. It's an unspoken rule that neither clients nor dancers reveal their true identities, she said. "You have to put on a mask," she said. "The drinking and the drugs-all of those things help you keep the mask intact."

       Ms. Riley was a 20-year-old single mother when she started dancing. She promised herself that she would never perform table or "lap dances," but "as time went on I lost more and more of my morality," she said. "Like little pieces, I just left them behind until in the end I was all used up and I had nothing left."

       Club managers purposely make it difficult for the women to leave, said David Sherman, who left a job as northwest regional director for the D?j? vu strip-club chain to establish the National Organization Against Lewd Activities, which lobbies for more state and federal regulation.

       Mr. Sherman said he lured in young women by hiring more waitresses than he needed. The extra help was little more than stock supply-or, as Mr. Sherman put it, a "commodity" for the club. Waitressing was the first step of a subtle reprogramming process designed to acclimate potential dancers. "Let's be honest, people are creatures of habit and the more you see something the more normal it becomes," said Mr. Sherman.

       Step two was to gain emotional and financial control over the women, which included confiscating money or demanding that the women ask permission to go the bathroom. The goal was to make the woman completely dependent on the strip club for both social life and livelihood, making escape almost impossible. "If a girl has to continually ask to go to the bathroom, how can she feel like she can make any great decisions that are bigger than that?" Mr. Sherman asked.

       Mr. Sherman's day of reckoning came when he discovered that a medical student he recruited to dance later dropped out of school to become a porn-video star and contracted AIDS. In testimony before Michigan legislators this year, Mr. Sherman gave a chilling description of the tax evasion and manipulation of women that often characterize the industry. Local municipalities don't carry a big enough stick to chase million-dollar strip bars out of the backyard, he said.

        "When I ran clubs I used to laugh about it," he said. "You knew that you had millions of dollars behind you and no matter what they did you were going to fight it. If you did get ticketed or fined you still had plenty of money to pay."

       Even when city regulations do succeed, strip-club chains often escape into outlying rural communities and small towns-a phenomenon Governing magazine dubbed "Porno Sprawl." This phenomenon has kept business booming at the Community Defense Counsel (CDC)-an Arizona-based legal group that assists cities in regulating sexually oriented businesses. Over the last few years, CDC executive director Scott Bergthold said he has represented roughly 700 small to mid-size cities.

       According to Mr. Bergthold, the proliferation of more than 40,000 pornographic websites-many offering live feeds from strip bars-has aided the growth of strip clubs. "The reason is because there are more people addicted to sexually explicit material and they are looking for places to go and act out on that," said Mr. Bergthold. "I mean there is a point at which you would rather go and have a lap dance than go and look at...the computer screen."

       As a result, the ability to ban lewd activities such as lap dancing has become a key factor in the battle against topless bars, and the U.S. Supreme Court handed local communities a trump card this April. In its Pap's A.M. vs. City of Erie ruling, the Court upheld, Pa.'s right to ban nude dancers who didn't wear at least a G-string. Skirting murky First Amendment issues, the Court based its decision on the harmful "secondary effects" of strip clubs on the community.

       The ruling sent sex-industry lobbyists scurrying. "We are kind of waiting for a somewhat accelerated attack on live adult entertainment," lamented National Cabaret Association lobbyist Mike Ross to an industry webzine. According to Mr. Ross, regulations contributed to the closing down of 10 percent of the nation's strip clubs.

       Though accurate in predicting an attack, he might be surprised to learn that the most aggressive soldiers are coming from within. Dallas ex-stripper Amy Dupree, for instance, plans to join forces with CDC to file a class action suit against Dallas-area strip clubs. Though club owners exert strong control over dancers, many escape worker's compensation costs and sexual harassment lawsuits by listing women as independent contractors or lessees and requiring them to rent their own stage space or pay a "shift charge."

       Victim involvement also jump-started efforts in northern Indiana to regulate strip clubs, which had hitherto met with apathy from the Christian community. But when dramatic black-and-red billboards touting the "victims of pornography" began sprouting up along Indiana highways, more than 300 churches jumped on the bandwagon, said the American Family Association's Vickie Burress. She put pastors to work distributing invitations to a community rally. As a result, over 700 people showed up on a snowy night to hear ex-stripper Laverne Barker expose the ongoing crime in local strip joints. "The first time I bought cocaine was with the manager of Cagneys (local strip bar) and this happened at the strip bar," Mrs. Barker told the crowd. Her testimony caught the attention of the Fort Wayne city council, which announced plans to hire CDC.

       Meanwhile, groups like Amy's Friends keep trying to disentangle women from the strip-club scene. At the Dallas meeting last week, former stripper Joanie Krause offered a sober word of encouragement. "I've seen people who didn't have an understanding of God, who didn't pray for it, and they died without it," she said. "I prayed for it, and I feel so privileged that I was given the opportunity to open my eyes before I died."

Reprinted by permission from WORLD Magazine, Asheville, NC.