Sex and the Single Crusader

          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.  

          Enter DesElms--"the cowboy," as one observer calls him, chuckling: "He thinks he's riding into town to save us all." But like the new, neighborhood-based protesters, DesElms is remarkably antiseptic in his rhetoric. Gone are the '80s references to the evils of patriarchy, gone the sweeping statements about "civil inequality." The new tack is not to pronounce the sex business immoral, but to regulate it into a corner.

          To that end, DesElms and Bjorklund propose a series of three ordinances--one dealing with massage, one with escort services, and the final one with "sex-oriented businesses" including bookstores and movie theaters. The only one drawn up so far is the one on massage; it runs to 25 pages of painstaking detail, right down to which parts of the masseur's and the client's body must be covered with "non-transparent material or clothing."

          The basic idea of the new law is simple: Everyone offering massage for money would have to get a license from the city. Practitioners would have to provide ID, a full criminal history, and proof of insurance. "Massage facility" operators would have to similarly disclose their background, which officials figure would help them track potentially shady owners. Only people with at least 500 hours of training in the field would be eligible for licensing, though there's a grandfather clause for current practitioners. And once licensed, practitioners would have to expect random visits by inspectors or police officers, checking on things like whether customers recline on a proper massage table (whose definition alone takes up 16 lines), and whether said table is covered with "a light-colored, solid, or striped material."

          The way DesElms sees it, licensing would kill two birds with one stone. It would give legitimacy to therapeutic massage providers--whose trade associations, for precisely that reason, have by and large embraced his efforts. And, perhaps more importantly, it would make the cops' job much easier: Instead of setting up complicated undercover busts, they could simply write tickets. Though license violations would only be misdemeanors, they'd have the potential for serious consequences if they're tied to the state's public-nuisance law.

          Originally designed to deal with problems on the order of barking dogs, and more recently expanded to a host of offenses including prostitution and drug dealing, nuisance laws have become one of politicians' favorite tools to deal with undesirable behavior. It was Indiana's nuisance law--which, DesElms admiringly notes, "reads like a RICO statute"--that Michigan City used to close down its massage parlors. Minnesota hasn't gone quite that far yet, but the Legislature has been stretching the law to the point where it can now be triggered by all manner of "behavioral incidents." Arrests, whether or not they result in convictions, can get a nuisance action rolling. So can documented neighborhood complaints.

          And so, DesElms figures, could violations of his ordinance. "It basically offers a way to deal with these repeat offenders who just don't care," he says. "The Constitution is pretty clear about life and liberty and pursuit of happiness, etc. You can't go in and storm a place just because you don't like what goes on there. This gives [authorities] a remedy."

          Whether DesElms's theory will work out isn't clear yet. Several city attorneys contacted for this story say they're not sure that the nuisance law could be applied to license violations. The law recently passed its first court test in a case involving a Minneapolis landlord, but it's sure to be challenged again--as are DesElms's ordinances. Attorney Randall Tigue, who's fought a number of prominent local sex-industry court cases, says he won't voice specific criticism of the proposals "because I don't want to give anything away. But I'm sure I'll have a client who'll want to challenge [them]."

          Perhaps Tigue is right to hold his fire: DesElms's optimism notwithstanding, city officials who've been working with him are publicly noncommittal. Licensing office director Jim Moncur and assistant city attorney Dana Banwer both characterize the effort as "still in its infancy." City Council members contacted for this story said they liked the general idea, but wouldn't make up their minds quite yet. And the effort suffered something of a PR setback when Bill Bjorklund was described in a series of Star Tribune articles as so close to the Deja Vu strip club's staff he was considered "family." When asked to comment on the massage ordinance, Bjorklund said he was on orders from the Police Federation to "keep my mouth shut for a while."  

          DesElms, for the moment, remains undaunted. He calls Bjorklund a man of integrity and insists that "I can't believe that [the City Council] would do something so dumb and not pass this ordinance on the basis of some rumors and crap." Instead, he says, politicians should take stock of the potential payback: If the proposals pass, and "if licensing, the police, and the courts hold up their end of the bargain, within a year every one of those massage parlors along Lake St. and scattered around the city will be closed. I guarantee you that." Plus, Minneapolis will get bragging rights for having set a national precedent: "This is going to be model language that any city could use. We'll send it to you on diskette. All you have to do is do a search-and-replace on the word 'Minneapolis.'" And one day, the whole thing will become a chapter in his book. CP

          Annalyssa Helgeland contributed research to this story.

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