Sex and the Single Crusader

A broken heart led Gregg DesElms to a one-man war on prostitution that could result in a tough new set of sex-industry ordinances for the city of Minneapolis.

          Gregg DesElms spills his guts in a hurry. "I have the dubious distinction," he explains five minutes into a phone conversation, "of being probably one of the nation's foremost experts on massage parlors, specifically the Oriental version. I'm one of the few anglo males who has been on the inside of those places. That is because for three years, I was on an emotional roller coaster with a woman who is with one of them. I thought I could help her change her life and go on to bigger and better things."

          As you may have guessed, the relationship did not end well. But it did send DesElms off on a quest to put the sex industry in its place--a project that could transfigure the smut landscape in Minneapolis, if he and a colleague get their way with a series of ordinances they're proposing to the Minneapolis City Council.

          But back to the story. After having his heart broken and his wallet lightened by $40,000 "just by knowing this woman," DesElms says he sat down in January of 1995 "and realized that even though I had gotten her out of the business, she hated me for it. She despised me for changing her lifestyle. I had her on a whole new track. She was learning to be a dental technician. I thought we were accomplishing something, but it became obvious that we were not."

          So DesElms moved on. He transferred his computer-consulting business to Minneapolis from Indiana and, in his spare time, began working on a book on massage parlors. Soon he was up to his ears in the research--interviewing parlor workers and their customers, reading voraciously about the subject, and digging into legal and regulatory minutiae.

          It was a trip to northwestern Indiana that sparked the idea of putting all that work to another use. DesElms discovered that Susie Kotts, a onetime Minneapolis massage parlor operator, also had an establishment in Michigan City, a town not far from where he'd grown up. He approached police and prosecutors, offering advice on "how to make their easiest and most successful busts ever." They were less than interested, but DesElms persisted--at one point personally setting up a bust with the help of a sympathetic undercover cop. Finally, an investigative TV producer in Chicago warmed up to the story--sweeps week was coming up--and produced a four-part series on massage parlors with "some amazing undercover video" DesElms helped him get. Not much later, prosecutors closed down all of Michigan City's parlors.

          Emboldened, and back in Minneapolis with a little time on his hands, DesElms got on the phone to the Minneapolis Police Department. This time, his interlocutors didn't need much convincing. The MPD, as it happened, had been under political pressure regarding prostitution. Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton--who once worked in the state sexual assault program and has called the fight against prostitution one of her top priorities--was on their case. So were southside neighborhoods and their council members. The MPD's leadership hooked DesElms up with one Sgt. Bill Bjorklund of the vice squad.

          What Minneapolis needed, the pair resolved, was a whole new legal approach to the sex industry--one so complex, so precise, so constitutionally watertight it might set a national precedent. DesElms and Bjorklund have been working on the project for six months; last week, the City Council considered the first of their proposed series of ordinances in a study session. It could come to a vote in a few weeks.

          It would not be the first time Minneapolis has made national headlines with anti-sex industry legislation. A decade ago, local politicians asked radical feminist scholars Andrea Dworkin and Catherine Mackinnon to draw up a new antipornography law. Sayles Belton, then a freshman City Council member, co-authored an ordinance declaring that pornography promoted "bigotry and contempt" of women, fostered "acts of aggression," including rape, and harmed "women's opportunity for equality of rights in employment, education, property rights, public accommodation, and public services."

          With that dogma set into public policy, it followed that making, showing, or selling pornography constituted discrimination against women, and could be prosecuted as such. Women--and, the ordinance noted, men and transsexuals--who had been assaulted "in a way that is directly caused by specific pornography" could sue not only their assailants, but also the makers and sellers of the material. Porn-oriented bookstores, movie theaters, and private clubs (which, the ordinance said, constituted a "conspiracy to violate the civil rights of women") all were potential targets. The amendment passed after a nationally noted debate, was promptly vetoed by Mayor Don Fraser, and faded into oblivion after federal judges struck down a similar law from Indiana.

          Since then, Minneapolis has tried more conventional approaches to constraining the sex business--chiefly zoning, which restricts adult enterprises to a small slice of downtown, and the criminal code, under which prostitution is a felony. Neither approach, in the view of antiprostitution activists, has made much of a dent. As a result, those activists (now driven by neighborhood concerns and property values rather than ideology) have been taking to vigilante justice. They've staked out health clubs, taken license numbers from suspected johns' cars, and sent postcards to the owners. Occasionally, all this has resulted in a business shutting down--and promptly relocating somewhere else.

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