Driving down Ocean Highway through Brunswick County in North Carolina, you couldn’t miss the establishments called Close Encounters and Playmates. Close Encounters was basically a large, concrete box of a place, set back from the main road, but lit in the dark with a creepy, alien-esque glow. Playmates’ decorator wasn’t quite as innovative; the drab building sat in plain view of the highway and boasted only a little bit of neon, along with a Dementor cloud that infected all passersby with momentary despair.
While not exactly far from the strip clubs just down the road in Myrtle Beach, these two buildings both somehow felt distinctly out of place. Maybe it was their out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere-ness that made one wonder, what the hell really goes on in there?
Close Encounters has since been shut down, to be reopened as community college classrooms. And Playmates, along with another nearby business, Sun Spa, is the subject of a (second) recent prostitution bust. Five women were arrested last week for charges related to prostitution, some also for drug possession, and the county sheriff’s department has emphasized that these arrests will help close both businesses. The sting appeared to be a triumph for law enforcement officials, who have received unending complaints from the community, including church, school, and neighborhood groups.
Beautiful contributors to the landscape that they were, I might have been on the phone to police, myself, if I lived next door. But it isn’t — or at least it shouldn’t be — just about appearances. After the prostitution bust that led to the closing of Close Encounters last June, the sheriff’s department claimed to have considered and subsequently ruled out human trafficking. These women were in violation of the law, guilty of poor moral conduct, and they would be held up as examples to the community. Sheriff John Ingram wanted to make the message clear: “We are going to be there and enforcing the law and aggressively trying to shut these places down.”
Tough laws and vigilant enforcement of those laws are key in preventing crimes like prostitution, and I applaud Brunswick County’s efforts in that respect. However, as far as their investigations into the possibility of human trafficking, I have to wonder, what exactly is their definition of the term?
None of the five women had local ties to the area; two came from out of the state, and three from other countries. All were living at their respective place of “employment,” sleeping on couches or massage tables. After the related sting last summer, police seemed to think the women arrested at that time may have been part of a larger prostitution ring, shuffled from state to state in order to elude the law — and, of course, to maintain their fairy-tale lifestyle of isolation and sex work in skeezy, small-town strip clubs.
Busting a group of prostitutes might be an easy (and showy) “fix” to the problem of unsavory businesses tainting a community’s image. But the questions remain of who exactly was in charge of these women, and whether or not those women had a choice in living and working at Playmates and Sun Spa. Not to mention, who were their clients? Avoiding the answers ultimately fails any potential victims in these scenarios and gives a free pass to whomever kept the businesses running. The message that Brunswick County won’t play host to prostitution is loud, yes, but not as clear as it should be.
Photo credit: Daniel Zanini H.