Will San Francisco pull back the veil on its strip clubs?

San Francisco is about to boldly go where few cities dare — inside the private booths of adult entertainment clubs.

The town where anything goes is poised to try to make sure that some things don’t. A city commission is scheduled to vote Wednesday on a proposed ban on closed areas in strip clubs so physical contact between performers and patrons can’t take place behind the green door.

Clearly, they’ve never been to the Folsom Street Fair, where people don’t seem to need a booth to show their love and affection. But in San Francisco, it doesn’t take a whole lot to find a lobby for any given issue — even if it means amending about a dozen city codes to try to rid clubs of “nontransparent booths.”

Ifthat sounds a bit prudish for sin city, you can imagine how difficult it’s been to try and come up with legislation that will let exotic dancers ply their trade while taking the bump out of the grind. It’s been such a steamy issue that the Commission on the Status of Women has been grappling with it for nearly two years in an effort to make strip clubs safer, more legitimate workplaces for women.

As members of the commission have discovered, taking the sleaze out of adult entertainment involves more than just trying to convince club managers to live up to a brand new code of ethics. So they enlisted the city attorney’s office to comb through The City’s administrative and business codes to find ways to make the clubs conform to a whole new set of rules.

The idea that San Francisco would start sending out the sex police to more closely monitor clubs is a curious one, considering that the District Attorney's office has essentially refused to prosecute any dancers arrested on charges of prostitution. But the COSW is one of the more sensitive bodies in San Francisco’s politically correct lineup, and it’s the panel’s conclusion that those “private encounter areas” promote an atmosphere of coercive prostitution and increase the risk of sexual assaults.

They are also intent on making sure that exotic dancers are not financially abused in any way — which is why they’re also seeking to outlaw stage fees whereby women must pay money up-front to club managers, a dirty dance that has raised the ire of serious adult entertainers everywhere. Of course, the fees already are illegal, but the practice has apparently continued nonetheless, since “law-abiding” is not one of the first descriptions to come to mind when one mentions strip clubs.

Commission members have actually come up with a fairly clever way to enforce club actions — by requiring club owners and officials to get permits to run their shops. The permits, which would be issued by the city Entertainment Commission, would require clubs to post work rules and pay rates, to have club officials fill out detailed background forms, and to provide The City with drawings of the physical layout of the premises. Considering that only about two of the two-dozen adult dance clubs in San Francisco have permits, it’s a change long overdue.

“We just want to ensure that the dancers are in a safe working environment and that they are fairly compensated for their work,” commissioner Angela Williams told me. “We’ve talked to a lot of the groups and agencies involved during the past two years to get to this point. We’re certainly not trying to make decisions in a vacuum.”

Of course, there’s no certainty that all the problems will magically disappear. Sex clubs have managed to operate without strict licenses in San Francisco for decades, and one could fairly call the industry predatory. And given that prostitution doesn’t seem to be a crime to a lot of prosecutors in The City, new regulations regarding the world’s oldest profession may end up being a purely political exercise.

The entertainment commission so far has hardly been a pillar of distinction — a lot of people blame the crime-related problems that occur in North Beach on weekends to the commission’s rubber-stamping nature with regard to liquor and club licensing. But if the Board of Supervisors adopts the new permit regulations, at least the chain owners of most of the sex clubs won’t be able to shimmy through the sizable legal loopholes that currently exist.

You could probably argue that if women wanted to work in a safer, cleaner, more healthy environment, they might not flock to an industry that involves pole and lap dances and money exchanges based on the kindness of strangers.

One city adult club is advertising its services as involving “felony foreplay.” But as I’ve learned over the years here, when sex is involved, it’s best not to judge.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@examiner.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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