The Reverend Dr. Ted McIlvenna settles his massive frame into a large, overstuffed couch and invites a visitor to join him for a discussion about nude dancing, morality, the First Amendment, and political corruption in San Diego. The way he describes it, the city is ground zero in a national battle between a rabid right-wing fundamentalist Christian anti-nude dancing group from the Midwest and McIlvenna, a gruff, 70-something veteran of the sexual revolution who runs a San Francisco sexology school and is the proud owner of what is reputed to be the largest collection of erotica, pornography, and sex research in the world.
A little more than a year ago, the San Diego City Council passed a new law banning lap dancing and various other forms of what McIlvenna considers artistic expression at the city's strip clubs. Since then, those in the local nude-dancing industry say, business has plunged sharply at many of the clubs, with one prominent exception: Cheetahs, a flashy strip joint in Kearny Mesa, its parking lot regularly packed with Jaguars, Cadillacs, Corvettes, and Porsches. Cheetahs appears to have prospered while other clubs claim to be struggling. And that, some say, raises questions about whether something is rotten at city hall.
McIlvenna, a retired Methodist minister, runs the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality. He says he was invited down to San Diego to study the strip club scene here by one of his board members, Harry Mohney. It is not exactly an accident that Mohney, who lives in a mansion up the coast in Carlsbad near La Costa resort, happens to be one of the key figures in the national Deja Vu chain, which is involved in five San Diego County strip joints and many others around the country. Mohney, called the Howard Hughes of the American porn scene by some industry insiders, has provided a well-appointed office for McIlvenna's study in Deja Vu's regional headquarters on the second story of a former bank building at the corner of Midway and Rosecrans. The rich brown carpet and heavy drapes are left over from the bankers' days; the walls are decorated with X-rated movie posters from the 1970s, on loan from McIlvenna's personal stash.
McIlvenna's school offers a master's in "public health in sexology," and he has recruited a corps of eager young students, many of them women, from the Bay Area to come to San Diego to study what he considers the peculiarly repressive habits of the locals, especially when it comes to the practice of striptease and the erotic arts. On a recent visit to check up on the study's progress, McIlvenna, a heavyset, grandfatherly type whose appearance belies his role as the inventor of Erogel, a sexual lubricant designed to protect against HIV, and a potent aphrodisiac he calls Vigorex Forte, recounts the string of obstacles he says have been placed in his way by city hall.
"I began to have serious questions about selective enforcement right from the moment I got here," McIlvenna says. "I wrote a letter to the city attorney's office and asked them if they would do a dialogue about the study. They said they didn't want to dialogue with us. A few days later, I got a call from this 'morality' group in the Midwest asking what I was doing here. There's something very, very strange going on."
At first, McIlvenna says, he wanted to start a "studio" in some of the Deja Vu clubs here, where dancers could practice their art and the students could conduct their research without being hassled by the vice squad. That way, he says, vice would be required to park their guns at the door before entering the establishment and wouldn't jeopardize his students' safety. "There are exemptions in the law for schools running studios in the clubs, but the police said no. Wouldn't even discuss it. Said, 'Sue us if you don't like it.' They refuse to honor the law unless a judge tells them to. That was all politically motivated. It just fed my suspicions about what has transpired behind closed doors in this fair city."
Instead of the studio, McIlvenna switched gears and instructed his students to discreetly conduct sex and lifestyle surveys among the dancers and their customers. "I decided to put the interns into those establishments." They fanned out with clipboards and long survey forms with questions such as, 'Counting your partner, with how many people of the same sex have you had sexual contact?' and 'During the past year, how often have you masturbated to orgasm?'
"We've been doing extensive sex profiles on all the dancers and in-depth studies of the patrons. At no point in any of this has Harry Mohney tried to influence us, by the way," says McIlvenna. "It was a lot more complicated than we thought it would be. The city didn't want anything to do with the study; they tried to block us at every turn. They didn't want us to find out the truth, that there isn't any prostitution problem, that these clubs don't disrupt neighborhoods. I suddenly understood that there might be selective enforcement going on, and it bothers me terribly."
Even more disturbing to McIlvenna, he says, is what he sees as the frightened attitude of local dancers and their reluctance to confront the city fathers whom he says are out to "destroy their freedom." "I asked 'em why they hadn't protested. I suggested they hang tea bags on their breasts and jump into Mission Bay, like the Boston Tea Party. They're too afraid. And nobody in the colleges and universities around here is interested in the welfare of the girls, either. My friend, this indeed is a very sorry situation for the First Amendment. I tell you, I'm quite ready to go to the U.S. Civil Rights commission. That's what I'm going to do. These poor girls are considered the lowest on the totem pole; just girls who take their clothes off for money. It's outrageous."