In the every-man-for-himself tradition that has made the Texas brand of individualism legendary, Houston has always shied away from the idea of zoning. It refused to govern growth even during the years when the town was lunging and sprawling its way to becoming the nation's fourth-largest city (pop. 1,726,000). Now Houstonians are beginning to notice that big corporations and the builders of futuristic skyscrapers have not been the only beneficiaries of the unregulated boom. Their town has become a leading contender for a little coveted title: America's Pornography Capital.
Houston sports a pornucopia of nude encounter parlors, nude dancing clubs, hard-core movie houses and so-called adult bookstores that offer private booths in which patrons can watch 25¢ peep-show movies and engage in anonymous sex with other patrons through holes cut in the walls. Because of the dearth of zoning laws, the porn traffic, instead of being centered in one "combat zone," as in Boston or Washington, turns up everywhere, even near churches, schools and nurseries. "I think Houston is getting a reputation for being soft on this kind of thing," says City Councilman Frank Mancuso, whose district is littered with user-friendly sex enterprises.
Public pressure has prompted Houston police to develop one of the nation's largest antiporn squads, with eleven officers, and has given Houston courts the dubious honor of apparently leading the U.S. in the number of porn cases tried (200) and the percentage of defendants convicted (91%). Sergeant William Brown, head of the city's vice squad, calls the antiporn crusade his city's "No. 1 priority." Says Brown: "Twenty years ago, all we saw was black-and-white movies. Now we're seeing live sex onstage. What's next? Sex with children?"
Moral outrage is only one of Houston's concerns. The sex arcades have also become "a prime center for the transmission of disease," says Dr. James Haughton, director of the Houston health and human services department. Nearly 11% of the 214 cases of syphilis detected by one city clinic in the first quarter of this year have been tracked to the arcades. Now the spread of AIDS has intensified Houston officials' fears about the anonymous sex parlors, which cater to homosexuals.
Houston does have location restrictions on certain sex businesses under a 1983 city ordinance, but establishments that were in operation before the law was enacted escaped regulation, while others simply ignore it. Although civic protests, police actions and a more recent ordinance governing the operation of the sex arcades have produced some small victories over the porn merchants, police say that only a few arcades have closed. Mayor Kathy Whitmire, who promoted the antiarcade ordinance, is seeking re-election on Nov. 5, and her opponent, former Houston Mayor Louie Welch, has made the proliferating sex industry a major election issue. Said one attorney who is defending several antiarcade cases: "This stuff always comes up around election time, just like clockwork."