Rhode Island teens under 18 can’t work with power saws or bang nails up on roofs.
But dance at strip clubs? Sure. Just as long as the teens submit work permits, and are off the stripper’s pole by 11:30 on school nights.
It’s enough to surprise even those in America’s mecca of striptease and sin –– Las Vegas.
“Everybody buzzes about ‘Nevada and Sin City, tsk, tsk,’ ” said Edie Cartwright, spokeswoman for the Nevada attorney general’s office. “But we regulate it.”
Providence police recently discovered that teen job opportunities extend into the local adult entertainment world while they were investigating a 16-year-old runaway from Boston. The girl told detectives that she worked at Cheaters strip club this spring, and the police got tips about other underage girls working at another club on Allens Avenue.
That’s when the police found that neither state law, nor city ordinance bars minors from working at strip clubs. Those under 18 can’t buy pornography, and no one may take pictures or film minors in sexually suggestive ways. But the law doesn’t stop underage teens from stripping for money. Even if the police saw underage boys or girls on stage at a strip club, they wouldn’t be able to charge them or the club owners with a crime.
“I’ve been doing this a long time,” said youth services Sgt. Carl Weston, “and I can’t find anything that says it’s illegal for a 16-year-old or a 17-year-old to take her top off and dance.”
State law says that anyone who employs a person under 18 for prostitution or for “any other lewd or indecent act” faces up to 20 years in prison and up to $20,000 in fines. But that isn’t enough to prevent underage girls from working in strip clubs, said senior assistant city solicitor Kevin McHugh, who researched the issue a dozen years ago when a teenage dancer was found at a raided strip club.
The term “lewd or indecent” is subjective, McHugh said, and is applied to behavior that’s protected by the First Amendment. “Since we have strip clubs in Providence,” McHugh said, “citizens don’t consider [stripping] lewd.”
With the age of consent at 16 in Rhode Island, the police worry that teenage strippers could take their business to the next level and offer sexual favors –– and it wouldn’t be illegal. State law currently allows indoor prostitution, and two bills intended to ban it have stalled in the General Assembly.
State and federal child labor laws dictate the number of hours and times of days that minors may work, and forbid certain jobs considered to be hazardous. For example, those under 16 can’t work on ladders or pump gas. Youths age 16 and 17 can’t work in manufacturing or excavation.
“Nowhere does it say anything about a kid not being able to strip,” Weston said.
Establishments with city liquor licenses need to keep the teenagers from the booze, but not the stage. “You can’t serve alcohol if you’re under 18,” Weston said, “but you can be the target of a man’s groping hands at age 16.”
But a Rhode Island teen stripper won’t find work in Massachusetts, where state law prohibits anyone from hiring minors under 18 for live performances involving sexual conduct.
Other states have had mixed encounters with the issue.
After a 12-year-old girl was found dancing nude in a club in Dallas last year, the city council swiftly passed rules barring minors from strip clubs and automatically revokes for a year licenses for sex businesses caught employing or entertaining minors.
But an Iowa county judge ruled last year that a striptease by a 17-year-old girl at a strip club was artistic expression protected by the First Amendment. The state attorney general’s office has asked the state Supreme Court to review the ruling.
Nevada, meanwhile, doesn’t let anyone under 18 work in casinos or in public dance halls where there is alcohol — and there are no strip clubs in Nevada without one or the other, or both, said Cartwright, of the attorney general’s office. Minors aren’t even allowed to deliver mail to brothels.
When questioned about Rhode Island’s law, Michael J. Healey, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, offered a copy of the current state law but did not comment for this article.
But Weston, of the Providence police, was adamant that the law should be changed.
“It leads to a societal breakdown,” he said. “These are just little girls.”