MEN SHUFFLED along Chancellor Street toward the Gold Club early Saturday, nearly getting past a line of Dumpsters to the strip club's dingy red carpet before cops standing outside told them that the business was closed for the night.
After the guys walked back down the alley, police led two women from the club in handcuffs toward 15th Street, where a police van was waiting with its back doors flung open. The Pennsylvania State Police busted the pair of buxom blondes earlier in the night in an undercover prostitution sting.
The raid was but a drop in the bucket.
Philly has about 30 strip clubs, ranging from glitzy chains like Cheerleaders to smaller venues that include peep shows or dancers in pasties, bikinis or otherwise not fully nude. Another 30 or so strip clubs lurk in the suburbs, and prostitution is a frequent problem at the clubs.
State and city authorities raided three clubs in November - the Penthouse Club, in Port Richmond, and the Oasis Gentleman's Club and Christine's Cabaret, in Southwest Philly - and arrested 11 strippers for prostitution and a man for promoting prostitution.
Friday night, it was the Gold Club's Tiffany Rowan, 30, of South Philadelphia, and Jamie Cleary, 34, of Egg Harbor, N.J., who were heading to jail for allegedly offering undercover officers sex for money.
"Promise me you're not a cop; I pegged you for a cop when you walked in," Cleary purred to one undercover detective. When he assured her he instead worked for Coca-Cola, she offered to masturbate him, or "maybe [oral sex] if your [penis] is nice," according to police reports.
"The club gets half and I get the other half; then nobody will watch what we do," she allegedly told him. A Gold Club employee referred the Daily News to managers for comment, but none returned a call.
Sgt. William La Torre, of the State Police's Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement, said that there are still ongoing investigations at other strip clubs in the city. He said that the Gold Club is pretty small compared with some of the other places, and the number of prostitutes usually depends on the size of the club.
"The bigger the place, the more girls there are and the higher the percentage of girls who are working as prostitutes," La Torre said after the raid.
Despite the problems, Pennsylvania lawmakers, in a sense, have embraced exotic entertainment. They recently passed a law allowing live entertainment - including strippers - to continue entertaining at all hours in clubs that have an extended-hours food permit, instead of requiring dancers to hang up their g-strings and pasties at 2 a.m.
Critics worry that more stripping leads to more problems. On the discussion boards of online strip-club lists, customers brag about their sexual exploits with strippers and advise each other about where to get what.
"You can't truly separate stripping from prostitution. It's a continuum," said Mary Anne Layden, who has counseled strippers and prostitutes as director of the sexual-trauma and psychopathology program at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Cognitive Therapy.
"A typical scenario is you get a young girl who decides to be a stripper because she wants money for college. But then [to cope], she gets drunk, high or disassociated to do it. So then she needs money for her addiction," Layden said, adding that club staffers encourage strippers to drink in order to drive up alcohol profits. "The prostitute and the stripper are so similar in their dynamic; that's why you see stripping flow into prostitution. That's the typical downward spiral."
Cops say that a bust at one club usually means that the women just move to another club. "A prostitute that was arrested at Christine's Cabaret was found to be working as a stripper at the Gold Club," La Torre said.
Beyond prostitution, several strip clubs have had some high-profile crimes in recent years, including beatings, shootings, robberies and at least two homicides. Last month, an argument outside Club Onyx, in South Philadelphia, ended with one man gunning down another.
And in 2009, the owner, a manager and a bouncer at Oasis Gentleman's Club assaulted two Delaware County men they'd just booted from the club - an attack that left one of the patrons dead. The accused in both slayings await trial.
Philadelphia Police spokesman Lt. Ray Evers declined to speak about strip-club issues and canceled an interview that the Daily News had scheduled with Lt. Charlie Green, who heads the citywide vice unit, citing an "ongoing investigation."
No one should be surprised about violence at strip clubs, Layden said.
"They have bodyguards there because this activity produces violence," Layden said. The violence is rooted in how men who indulge in pornography - Layden considers strip clubs "live pornography" - objectify women and view sex as an entitlement and a product that can be purchased, she said.
Add booze to that attitude, and you get guys not happy to stop with just looking, she said. That toxic mix can lead to sexual violence or other forms of violence when customers leave the club frustrated, lusty and liquored-up, she said.
"[Widespread] research on strip clubs is very rare, because if you think about how research is conducted, the first thing you need is willing subjects," Layden said. "And strippers are working in a toxic industry that keeps them silenced."
Still, in one small study that polled strippers, more than half reported that their customers verbally abused them and called them misogynistic names; pinched them or grabbed their arms, breasts or butts; flicked cigarettes, ice or coins at them; and followed them home.
One state is trying an unusual strategy. Illinois lawmakers, looking for money to reverse cuts in sexual-assault services, are considering a $5-per-customer "skin tax" at strip clubs. The proceeds would go into a fund devoted to preventing sexual violence and counseling its victims. Critics worry that such a tax would hurt business, turning cheapskate thrill-seekers elsewhere for fun.
In Pennsylvania, the new law that allows strippers all night was part of a huge package of changes to the state's liquor code, affecting everything from alcohol sales at airport eateries to happy-hour discounts.
Supporters say the all-hours entertainment portion of the law was intended for more innocuous purposes, like the all-night, alcohol-free charity dance marathon at Penn State.
But LaTorre and other critics say that the law now allows the nuisances associated with strip clubs to last until dawn. At least 10 Philadelphia strip clubs can stay open all night, La Torre said.