The Bulletin

How beachfront salsa dancers almost derailed an anti-prostitution bill

By: - March 5, 2020 6:35 pm

Salsa dancing at Havana ’59 in Richmond. (Scott Elmquist/ Style Weekly)

Lawmakers voted this week to tighten the state’s anti-prostitution laws to include illicit massage parlors, but not before attaching a last minute-amendment to assuage concerns the legislation might unintentionally outlaw an annual beach-front Latin dance festival.

“We had a little bit of a challenge working with how to incorporate Latin dances — whether it’s salsa, bachata, merengue — into this,” Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, told his colleagues on the Senate floor earlier this week, noting Virginia Beach hosts an annual Latin Fest and organizers worried bathing-suit clad dancers and dance-instructors might be swept up in the new rules.

Under the state’s current prostitution laws, it is not illegal for massage parlors to offer what might colloquially be referred to a happy ending, though cities and counties can pass ordinances to ban the practice locally.

As part of a broader effort to crack down on human trafficking, the Virginia State Crime Commission recommended legislation in 2018 to make it illegal on a statewide basis to charge money for what one local sheriff described as “masturbatory services.”

The resulting legislation failed last year but was revived this session by Del. Karrie Delaney, D-Fairfax.

The legislation fared better this year, but some interest groups worried the proposed language — which banned touching a persons unclothed intimate parts “with the intent to sexually arouse or gratify” — might also apply to them by, say, prohibiting an instructor from grasping the buttocks of a dance partner.

Likewise, strip clubs worried the law could outlaw lap dances, prompting enough phone calls to her and other lawmakers that Delaney’s aide sent out an explanatory email to other members.

Delaney said the strip club’s concern stemmed from a misunderstanding — lap dances are clothed affairs so the law wouldn’t apply.

But the dancers required a floor amendment. The solution: new language that more explicitly outlines the body parts that can’t be touched. Before discussing it on the Senate floor, lawmakers asked the teenage pages who run errands to leave the room.

The legislation cleared both chambers this week and is on its way to the governor’s desk.

“I don’t share that concern that the language would have scooped them up,” Delaney said, “but an amendment that relieves any concern they have while allowing us to get to our target goals to address human trafficking — let’s go forward with that.”

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.