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Jordy Tollett

The history of SOB laws in Houston

From strip clubs to robot brothels, we’ve come a long way.

Somewhat sheepishly, the city official tried to explain why he had spent more than $2,000 in public funds entertaining out-of-town clients at a topless bar.

“They wanted to go there,” said Jordy Tollett, who regularly wined and dined prospective conventioneers when he worked for the Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau. “I couldn’t say, ‘You can’t go there.’”

That was in 1989. Since then, countless topless bars and adult bookstores have opened and closed, the city has rewritten its “sexually oriented business” law, Harris County and other jurisdictions have struggled to enforce their own rules, and litigation challenging these rules has filled court dockets.

Yet Tollett’s simple observation — “They wanted to go there” — conveyed a truism that still confronts Houston-area leaders seeking to repel or regulate such enterprises: Sex sells. This is true of the upscale “gentleman’s clubs” where business executives unwind after work, and it’s true of the seedy “massage parlors” — thinly disguised fronts for prostitution and human trafficking — that generate about $107 million in illicit revenues a year in Houston, according to a recent study.

The sex business, like others, has responded to continuing demand with innovation.

In 1983, when the City Council passed Houston’s first ordinance regulating sexually oriented businesses, no one could have imagined that people might someday pay $120 for an hour of intimacy with objects made of synthetic skin and highly articulated skeletons. But 35 years later, the council reacted quickly to reports that a Toronto-based company, KinkySdollS, planned to open a shop in Houston that allowed prospective buyers of lifelike “sex dolls” to take them for a spin on the premises for a fee.

I remember some stories in the Houston Press from back in the day about Jordy Tollett and spending money wooing visitors at Rick’s Cabaret. Different times, to be sure. I don’t have anything to add here, I just enjoyed this little bit of history and thought you might, too.