Toward a Genteel (Uptight?) Vegas

Priggish? Prudish? Revolutionary? Rising Efforts to Keep Sin City’s Hedonism at Bay

Stacy Willis

You sense genuine concern in Shari Peterson's voice when she tells the story—it starts with an incredulous tone—a kind of can you believe that? sound—but ultimately, she moves into a faster pace, a higher pitch, the controlled panic of a woman who is both threatened and determined to fight back.

"This happened to me in March 2000. My husband and I were taking my daughter to dinner for her birthday. She was 6 years old. We were on I-15 and we saw a billboard for Lil Darlins [strip club] of this woman.

"She was wearing something very bright. But there was dark shading in the crotch area, you know. Dark. And here I am with my six-year old, and what does that do to her? That picture says to me, you know, 'I'm waiting, come and get me.' We don't need to see that ... We went on to dinner, but I was so upset I couldn't eat. I couldn't eat dinner."

From there, in the weeks and months that followed, troops of sexually suggestive billboards seemed to be advancing on her family-oriented province. Hard Rock ads with naked torsos, Palms ads with voluptuous neathage, Ra ads with near-to-bed threesomes. Once, she felt compelled to pull over and snap a photo of a Pleasures Gentleman's Club billboard.

"It was this woman with a pearl belt. I took a picture of that sign and downloaded it, and I can see the woman's nipple," she said. "In these ads, every shadow has a purpose and that is to solicit emotion from the viewer. Our minds don't even know what we're looking at … It's enticing to children, and kids will go back because it's alluring, and this is very dangerous for children."

So on January 13, 2004, Peterson, a stay-at-home mom and 10-year Las Vegas resident, decided to do something about it. She wrote a letter to the county commission:

"…(A)dult entertainment billboards have become less and less interested in keeping at bay the sexual content of the business being advertised. I … am extremely concerned about the sexually suggestive and subliminal messages that are so boldly displayed. We have children, who have the absolute right to be protected from viewing adult entertainment billboards along our streets and highways … On behalf of our precious children, I urge you to please help protect them and take the necessary steps to change the law(s) with respect to what is allowable for general public viewing, or in other words, to force billboards and taxicab advertisements to contain only 'G' rated material …"

Soon she was gathering signatures from like-minded parents, networking and setting up her new e-mail address: [email protected] By March, she was dressed in sharp black business suit, accompanied by a toddler who was sporting a necktie, rallying a crowd outside a meeting of the Gaming Commission. "The fight isn't over!" she told the crowd of about a hundred people in the Grant Sawyer Building who wanted the commission to censure companies for the ads, which it did not. In her sleek shoulder bag, Peterson carried 8-by-10-inch color photos of various billboards—images of a young woman about to kiss another young woman, a woman's ankles with panties around them ("Buck all night!"), women with nearly exposed nipples—photos she whipped out to show her fellow protesters throughout the morning.

"Personally, I would want to do away with all of that—that kind of nudity," she said later. "I had to pick what [issue] I'm going to start on—billboards. But it is a larger issue, it's morality versus immorality. There was a man who worked as a bellhop at a Strip hotel, a friend of a friend, and he said businessmen come to stay there, and they want prostitutes brought to their rooms. It's everywhere …

"As Mel Gibson said, you will never be satisfied with that lifestyle. The cravings will just keep on. Like your body craves carbohydrates when really it wants protein."

By the looks of things, Peterson has support in the crusade against sexual imagery in public places. She is neither the first nor last to pick up this fight, but she takes her place in a city known for sex appeal in a period of rising antagonism from both sides of the issue. Several local groups are revisiting this age-old moral battle—the Main Street Billboard Committee, the Nevada Chapter of American Mothers Inc., Nevada Concerned Citizens and Porn Only In Zone (POIZ) among others—as businesses around town from sushi restaurants to radio stations work more flesh and not-so-subtle come-hitherisms into their ads.

Nationally, the backlash against America's love affair—or extended one-night-stand—with raunchiness is in full swing, from Clear Channel's dropping of Howard Stern to wide-scale disapproval of Abercrombie and Fitch's sexually charged catalog to the tired rants about Janet Jackson's Super Bowl breast-blurting. And since Vegas has ditched Disneyfication and re-sexified its entertainment climate to compete in a hyper-hormonal pop culture, it shouldn't be surprising that the city's more conservative residents would venture out of their home-to-work-to-church routines to complain.

But it is. Because for decades, Vegas has been comprised of two communities—one that sells sin and one that quietly agrees not to interfere with that while enjoying the splendors of a thriving economy. The city depends on drawing in 35 million tourists per year, and has a sex industry that rakes in millions—a situation that goes a long way toward developing tolerance.

Groups who more vocally oppose "vices" in other cities typically take up different concerns here. Southern Baptists, which in many states have conducted loud and effective anti-gambling campaigns, held a yearlong national missionary project in Vegas three years ago and did not utter a peep about gambling. "Many, many Christians in Las Vegas work in the gaming industry. There is no reason for us to have a particular platform against gaming," Harry Watson, mission director of the Southern Nevada Baptist Association, told the Las Vegas Sun at the time. Similarly, the buttoned-up Mormon community has members whose business it has been to underwrite the development of Strip properties, while the church's missionaries are prohibited from going there.

Even as Peterson takes her sex ad concerns public, she notes: "My husband is supportive of my efforts, but he works for a company that the casinos borrow money from, so he has to be careful."

• • •

This sort of who-sets-our-moral-tone debate isn't limited to sexual ads. Smaller fights over community standards in the City of Sin have drawn the more chaste out for short-lived battles on various fronts recently.

Last summer, the abstinence movement took a bold step here. Armed with bucks from Bush, the state health division began airing radio ads saying that girls who have pre-marital sex will feel "dirty and cheap." This time, complaints over advertising came from Planned Parenthood and the ACLU, and the ads were changed. Further, the growing abstinence movement also held its International Abstinence Conference activities on the Strip last summer, in which they handed out "good girl cards" that said condoms can't really protect you from sexually transmitted diseases.

And it's not only sexual issues. Last month, a group of students staged an elaborate anti-smoking protest on the West Charleston campus the Community College of Southern Nevada, complete with dozens of shoe-box-sized black coffins—"coughins"—and protestors wearing masks to protect them from secondhand smoke. Their protest was aimed at getting smokers, who do smoke only outside, to smoke further away from the doors of the buildings.

"It's just not right. It makes those of us who choose not to smoke angry," said Tiffany Tien, 18, a tidy, petite girl wearing a surgeon's mask on a beautiful sunny day. "We chose not to smoke, so why should we be subject to second-hand smoke?"

Across the courtyard, three smokers took drags and watched the scene. "We are all adults, you know what I'm saying?" said Ksajian Bell, 20, wearing two giant, blingy crucifixes around his neck. "Las Vegas should be the last place this goes on … we smoke outside. We can't help it if the smoke gets in the classrooms. But these same people protesting probably eat in restaurants where there's smoke, or go to clubs or grocery stores …"

Back in the protest line, an enormous student—surely 80 pounds overweight—strapped on a mask to protect him from secondhand smoke, bringing to mind the far-stretches of the who's-accountable-for-my-problems protests nationwide. Fast food chains are changing their fattening menus in part to capitalize on health-conscious eaters, but also as a result of lawsuits from obese customers who blame the restaurants. And, as reported by the Las Vegas Sun, casinos are bracing for the possibility of gambling addicts suing because they are addicted to gambling—the push and pull of personal accountability vs. commercial enterprise goes on and on.

So against this canvass, those who say that sexually suggestive billboards will warp children or cause family problems are not so far outside the thrust of the legal climate. It seems that a growing number of people are pushing back against a culture of indulgence, asking businesses and institutions and their neighbors to keep their "offensive" practices to themselves.

• • •

"Let me make an observation," says Michael Wixom, a clean-cut, business-suit-wearing leader of a group tentatively named, Main Street Billboard Committee."We're at the vortex of a couple of issues. [The LCVA's] ad campaign—`What happens here, stays here'— is part of it. It epitomizes everything we're trying not to do here. I've been here 20 years, and if you look back, from the mob era forward, Vegas has been trying to do everything upfront, above-board and straightforward. Whenever anything calls that into question, it's not good. That campaign invites duplicity. Then the billboards add to that.

"The point is a deeper point. It's about who we are and what we do and what we're willing to do … We have a community standard in Las Vegas. The issue is the advertisers have set that standard for us, and they shouldn't have. As a whole they have taken it upon themselves to create an atmosphere here. And we need to develop and define our community standards as residents."

Community standards seem to be the buzz term in this debate. State law allows officials to take actions against ads that are "obscene" and defines "obscene" this way:

(A)ny item, material or performance which:

(a) An average person applying contemporary community standards would find, taken as a whole, appeals to prurient interest;

(b) Taken as a whole lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value; and

(c) Does one of the following:

(1) Depicts or describes in a patently offensive way ultimate sexual acts, normal or perverted, actual or simulated.

(2) Depicts or describes in a patently offensive way masturbation, excretory functions, sadism or masochism.

(3) Lewdly exhibits the genitals.

Appeal shall be judged with reference to ordinary adults, unless it appears, from the character of the material or the circumstances of its dissemination, to be designed for children or a clearly defined deviant group.

But what determines a community standard? And who are these "ordinary adults?"

"What we need to debate here is, 'What is within reason?'" says Laurie Shrage, an ethics professor at Cal State Poly University and speaker for the Institute of Ethics and Public Affairs Research. "I think few people today would regard it as reasonable for a parent to demand removal of an ad featuring an interracial couple or a pregnant woman," she said, referring to ads that were opposed in previous eras. "[Vegas] needs to have a public discussion about whether demands to remove all or most nudity from children's view are reasonable—there are clearly different cultural standards on this."

On a trip down Maryland Parkway, there are stacks on every block of escort mags with hoochie mamas spread inside. In the pages of newspapers like the one you're reading, there are plentiful T&A ads. The Crazy Girls asses have been on the back of taxis since 1997, all over town. On the 2I5, there's a woman falling out of a swimsuit advertising sushi. In the Yellow Pages, a hundred escort ads.

But this isn't the Vegas that some people consider to represent their community standards.

Antoinette Montandon, stay-at-home mother of five and wife of North Las Vegas Mayor Michael Montandon, said, "It's past time for apathy on this. We need to do something. As far as fighting the smut goes … it's stirred people's hearts and emotions."

Montandon is Nevada Chapter President of American Mothers Inc., a group devoted to educating moms on being good moms. The group bills itself as a nonpolitical group, but nevertheless calls for mothers to take a stand against the pornography industry and its influences.

"I feel very embarrassed with my 12-year-old son having to look at a woman's chest hanging out in a billboard ad," she said. "I say, 'I hope you respect women more than that'—he puts his head down and he's embarrassed.

"Of course there's always going to be good and evil on this Earth, and there are some very immoral individuals who are not taking responsibility with these billboards … The majority of people do have great standards, but we've been complacent to the point of almost being ignorant.

"But now it [smut] is in the neighborhoods and it's blatant. Now our kids see it in every way, shape and form," she said.

But, says a city of full of dissenters, this is Vegas. What'd you expect?

Sexual images seem to have sneaked up on both Montandon and Peterson. As they tell it, the Vegas they moved to was not laden with sex, but instead was a city known for swimming pools, suburbs and mainstream dreams.

"I feel like when I moved here from Southern California, I didn't look at it as such a sexual city," Peterson said. "I never viewed it as so overtly sexual. In my mind I thought of it as a gambling city and a place where you lay by the pool in the sun and maybe go to a club at night …

"Advertising to come here for sex isn't right. If you want to drop a few quarters, that's one thing. And I knew it had pools, laying by the pools—a fun young single, life—but not the dirtiness," Peterson said.

Montandon said she came here 12 years ago thinking of Vegas as a place to "make dreams come true."

"When Mike and I moved to Las Vegas (from Arizona) we thought, 'How exciting to be away from family and spread our wings,'" she said.

"When people asked, 'What's good about Las Vegas?' I would say, 'Well, it's not necessarily the most beautiful place, and yes, there are topless bars and smut, but that happens on the Strip, that's that industry. But out in our life, in the neighborhoods and stores, I think I actually forget that I'm in Las Vegas.'

"But now it's not like that any more," Montandon laments. "The KOMP radio billboards [large breasts, small shirts] are everywhere. And that's not even our standard. That's the standard of the tourist."

Next to a McDonald's and a block from an elementary school, near Charleston and Lamb, a giant KOMP billboard this spring touted "Boobs, Beer, and BS." Mothers cringed. One, in fact, contacted Councilman Gary Reese, who contacted the freshly upstanding Clear Channel—which happened to own the billboard—and it was removed within days, according to the Review-Journal.

It was a little victory, but it sets up an interesting question for the upcoming 100th anniversary of Vegas celebration. The city has contracted with Clear Channel to run the media side of the celebration—the company that is both too pristine for Howard Stern and hosts several of the sexually suggestive billboard ads around town.

• • •

But what these grassroots groups in Vegas want is either what they consider "accountability" on behalf of the businesses, or the laws changed to prohibit that sort of advertising anywhere but in the tourist district.

"If an adult cannot have a moral law that anchors them, then they shouldn't be given that right [to put up billboards]," Montandon said. "My husband is supporting 'no billboards at all' in North Las Vegas. If they can't stay within moral laws, they shouldn't have a billboard. I think that's pretty courageous of him."

Wixom said ultimately the elimination of billboards in the greater Vegas area may be his group's goal. A kind of my-way-or-the-highway approach, he says, is the only way to pass constitutional muster.

"It's a city of choices, and as a general rule of thumb, I don't want somebody choosing what's right for me and my family. I can't choose when it's on a billboard. I can turn of the TV, but I can't turn off a billboard.

"We're not a moral watchdog. We don't have a beef against anyone or the casinos, we understand the role of gaming in our community, do your business, that's fine. But allow us to choose what we see. We are not on a moral crusade … but they are forcing these images on me.

"What I would like all of those folks to do is not put those images on I-15."

But Allen Lichtenstein, counsel for the ACLU, says advertisers are safe: "The billboards in question are not obscene under state law," said Lichtenstien. "The fact that some members of the community dislike them is fairly irrelevant. Someone else might not like to see a religious billboard.

"We don't have a right not to see things we don't want to see," he said. "There is this idea that 'I don't have to see things that I disagree with,' but free speech doesn't work like that. This is an issue that raises it's head periodically—free speech is difficult."

And while a common refrain is, "You can't legislate morality," some in this group would disagree, even say that legislation is actually the codification of morality.

"I know the difference between right and wrong," Peterson said. "Certainly we benefit from casinos, and that allows us to have no income tax, and brings in a lot of money. And people say, well, you live in Sin City, you can just look the other way. Well that would be nice but that's just not right. I want my children to have a wonderful, pure, innocent childhood."

The clash of neighborhood and porn has happened before—once in 1997 in a protest against Hot Stuff adult retail store—a protest that created POIZ.

Lee Haynes, 63, once a candidate for public office and often an outspoken citizen, joined the neighborhood group picketing Hot Stuff's neighborhood location near Decatur and Charleston. Ultimately, after a long fight, Hot Stuff moved out.

In the last legislative session, like-minded groups backed proposed legislation that would have defined "community standards" in law, and Haynes was one of the ill-fated bill's supporters.

"It would have created a 'community of common interest standard'" Haynes said. "Basically we were saying that 100 adult members of a community can create a 'community interest standard' by geographically defining their community, and then say, 'These are our community standards: 1,2,3 etc. …

"We knew we'd get a constitutional challenge as to whether a hundred adults could do that, but it would've been a resolution more than a statute," he said. The bill died without much fanfare, but he said they'll try to introduce it again in 2005. Additionally, Haynes is involved in an effort to develop an "adult overlay district" in the city that would define where adult businesses can and cannot exist more clearly, but it has met sluggish response from the mayor and council.

• • •

The ratcheting up of a full-fledged moral battle goes on, both here and nationally. Culture watchers point to everything around us as evidence of "harmful" sexploitation: Virtually everything on TV—from Herbal Essence's orgasmic shampoo commercials to Britney Spears' lip-synching a masturbation song—has sexual overtones. Radio, even without the famous shock jock, promotes an industry of music saturated with lyrics about sex and violence. The Internet is simply a porn free-for-all.

And in Vegas, traveling on the densely populated I-15 alongside the Strip, one is treated to images of giant boobies bouncing out of itty bitty shirts; enormous steamy encounters between a hot man and a hot woman, a hot woman and a hot man and a hot woman, a hot woman—wait …

What's that?

The Palms billboard there, the one that two weeks ago showed two lovely ladies with ample neathage, is different. The neathage is missing. That part of the billboard, the square panels in question, seem to have been removed, leaving a blank rectangle. Vandalism? Censorship? Compromise? An act of God?

"Turns out the wind blew them down," said Brad Albertson, spokesman from The Palms, a clear subscriber to the sex-sells policy. "It wasn't anything more exciting than that. We're just waiting for the wind to die down to replace them …

"Our policy hasn't changed."

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