Back in the early 1950s, Carnival magazine hired a fresh-faced beauty named Bettie Page to feature in an article called “Guide for Stripteasers: This Is As Far As You Can Go.” Bettie smiled her signature smile and teased various levels of undress, displaying striptease outfits that were in line with state law at the time: a mesh one-piece swimsuit in Kansas; a mandatory 6-inch fringe skirt in Texas; barely anything at all in Louisiana; and so on.
While burlesque has come a long way since the 1950s, modern stripteasers still work under the thumb of the law. Lawmakers have struggled to define what’s allowed when it comes to burlesque, but one thing is for sure: just as Bettie showed us in 1953, what’s “legal” all depends on where you’re stripping!
The Good: Striptease is Constitutionally Protected
Each state uses their own laws to regulate striptease. Keep in mind that these laws are always limited. No state can actually ban nude dancing! This is because the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the good old “supreme law of the land,” prevents the government from making any law that will stop our freedom of speech.
Thankfully for burlesque, the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted the 1st Amendment to protect not only the things we write and say out loud, but also certain forms of “expressive conduct”. By law, this includes nude and partially-nude dancing. California v. LaRue, 409 U.S. 109 (1972).
The Bad: States Can Still Regulate Striptease
At the same time, the 21st Amendment grants very broad regulatory powers to each state. States use their laws to dictate when, where, and how strippers perform. For instance, states can go beyond their normal “police power” to regulate the sale and use of liquor. While a state can’t declare burlesque “illegal” without infringing on our constitutional rights, they may, however, place restrictions on the sale of liquor during a show. This, in turn, can discourage patrons from attending.
In addition, while nude and partially-nude dancing are certainly protected by the 1st Amendment, the Supreme Court has also ruled that artists such as ourselves don’t get unlimited freedoms. States can legally censor our dancing under certain circumstances. For instance, many states draw the line if dancing is considered “obscene.” Such local boundaries are often established by community standards or formal laws.
Most of the state cases and statutes governing striptease operate within this tension, creating a shaky balance between a stripteaser’s 1st Amendment rights and a state’s 21st Amendment powers.
It’s important to remember that the laws on striptease differ state-by-state. If faced with a legal issue concerning burlesque, find a lawyer and check in on the local cases, laws, and regulations for your state. However, no matter where you are, striptease is a constitutionally-protected form of expressive speech.
In Part II of “Striptease and the Law,” we’ll explore many landmark cases that had the biggest impact on burlesque shows across the country. In Part III, we’ll discuss FOSTA-SESTA and other laws and regulations governing what stripteasers can post online, including social media, online forums, and our own personal websites.