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Sin Tax Error

May 29, 2012

Should strip clubs be taxed to fund state services for sexual assault victims? Tracy Clark Flory raises that question in a recent Salon article.

Strip club taxes seem to be popular these days. According to Flory, States from Georgia, Pennsylvania, Texas, Illinois, and California have all proposed targeted strip club taxes taxes.  Flory doesn’t offer any details about the proposals, but a quick Google search offers information about the situation in California, where Assemblyman Das Williams proposes a $10-per-customer tax to fund sexual violence prevention and victim-services programs. And just a couple of days ago, on May 24, the Illinois senate approved legislation that would require clubs to charge a $3 fee or pay a lump sum tax ranging from $5,000 to $25,000 depending on the club’s revenues.

Why a tax on strip clubs? Really it’s just another sin tax. Anything too pleasurable or naughty is easy to slap a tax on to pay for things we should be funding more fairly. But the justification given is worse than that because it’s based on a falsehood. The justification given in California, and elsewhere, is that strip clubs lead to rape.

But, as Flory correctly points out,  there is no credible evidence linking strip clubs specifically to increased rates of sexual violence. While research does indicate a relationship between bars of any sort and increased violence, no study yet shows a correlation specifically between strip clubs and general violence, or sexual violence. So, if these businesses are subjected to a special tax, then the proposals should not be based on the faulty reasoning that visiting strip clubs leads men to rape women.

Is there any other potential rationale for such a tax? Flory cites Bruce Ellison, director of the Bureau of Business Research at the University of Texas at Austin, says that advocates of these policies will also support their positions by pointing out that sexual assault programs primarily benefit women, and that strip clubs use women’s labor to entertain men, so there is a moral logic to taxing them to fund services that help women recover from violence often perpetrated by men.

This rationale isn’t widely vocalized, though, and thats a shame, because unlike the frequently-cited-though-false claim of a causal relationship between strip clubs and sexual violence – which is easily dismissed – this rationale is actually worthy of discussion. It encourages the asking of important questions. For example, is it legitimate to selectively tax transactions or businesses to support specific programs? And, if so, is it reasonable for such a targeted tax to be paid by one category of people in order to provide services used by a different category of people? (Note: questions like this underpin many important discussions about the providing of public goods. We should not shy away from these discussions!)

Many states use lotteries to fund education or senior services. Federal gas taxes support the highway system. State taxes on tobacco are used to help fund public health programs. Each of these is supported by a different logic. In the case of tobacco, the logic based on correlation. Tobacco use increases public health costs, so taxes on tobacco are used to support public health programs whose costs are higher when there are more tobacco users. In the case of gas taxes, there is a more direct link between consumption and use of the funded program. Users of the highways are taxed through their purchase of the fuel that powers their vehicles. In the case of lotteries and education the link is weaker. Despite the oft-made observation that the lottery is a tax on those who can’t do math, there is no clear connection between lottery players and the schools or senior centers their ticket purchases support. Yet these a widely supported and relatively noncontroversial programs.

Lets assume, based on those examples, that we accept the idea of targeted taxes for specific programs. A strip club tax supporting services for sexual violence survivors does not fit any of the models discussed above. It is neither a tax on the users of the program, nor is it a tax based a correlation between use of the taxed product/service and the social cost that the funded program is addressing. But, unlike the lottery example, there is a connection, and not a random one. Data published by the Centers for Disease Control (PDF) indicate that women are significantly more likely than men to be victims of sexual violence, and their attackers almost always men. When men suffer sexual violence, it is also more likely to be at the hands of a male perpetrator than at the hands of a female perpetrator. If we are going to selectively tax something to fund services for people who have been hurt by men, then choosing something that is consumed primarily by men makes sense.

The next question becomes whether or not it is wise to choose a kind of business that is wrongly believed to contribute to sexual violence. Would a special strip club tax reinforce this false perception? If we accept that a product or service primarily consumed by men should be the basis for the tax, is there no better choice? What about taxing video games, beef jerky, auto supplies, or subscriptions to men’s magazines? (I asked my Facebook friends what product or service was most likely to be consumed or purchased almost entirely by men. There were many suggestions, some of which are reflected in my list above. One particularly insightful suggestion was engagement rings. Since the majority of sexual violence against women occurs in intimate relationships, and since engagement rings are expensive and might generate substantial tax revenue, I wonder if that’s not a bad choice!)

Of course some women also purchase those things, but some women also pay to enter strip clubs. Maybe the question we really ought to be asking is whether or not we should create a tax built on gender stereotypes, and one which reinforces those same stereotypes? As I said earlier, the really important question is how to build a fair taxation system that provides the services our communities, states, and nation really need.

So, should states impose taxes on strip clubs to fund programs aimed at addressing sexual violence? Ultimately, I think that the likelihood of reinforcing false-but-persistent ideas about the erotic entertainment industry, and the fundamental problems of relying on sex and gender stereotypes outweigh the somewhat tenable “moral logic” raised by Flory and Ellison. I would rather see such vital social services provided in a more rational way.

A clever strip club owner, though, might like the idea. Strip club owners would have new ammunition to counter community objections by pointing out that the more successful the clubs are, the more funding is generated for important social services. As Das Williams, the California Assemblyman, told the Sacramento Bee, “Men will continue to go to strip bars…And you know what? They’ll feel better about it because they’ll be funding a needed service for women.” Imagine the highway billboards shouting out “Buy a table dance – give another victim of sexual violence the help she needs” or “Club Fantasy: Every cover charge prevents rape!”

Sex Workers


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