ANCHORAGE - Looking back on her 19 years, BobbyLee Castoe says one year of stripping for a living was worse than multiple years in and out of the McLaughlin Youth Center, a juvenile jail.
"Basically you feel like a dog," she said. "You do tricks."
She hated hanging from poles while contorting her barely clad body. Some men grabbed at her, she said, and others told her she was ugly. One smacked her when she wouldn't go home with him.
Castoe took up stripping when she turned 18 to pay the rent, working in one of Anchorage's nonalcohol strip clubs where dancers and customers need to be just 18, not 21, as in bars.
She's been in and out of jail for shoplifting and assault since age 15 but said it was stripping that left a mark.
"It's not worth it," she said. "It tore me apart."
She quit after she got a job at a major retailer.
Pointing to stories like Castoe's and fears that stripping could lead to drug use and prostitution, some elected officials in Anchorage are pushing for stricter regulations on the under-21 strip clubs.
The state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board regulates the over-21 strip clubs that hold liquor licenses. But some local state legislators and Assembly members say the strip clubs not regulated by the ABC board lack scrutiny.
There are at least two such clubs operating in Anchorage, open to workers and patrons age 18 and over. State Reps. Lesil McGuire, an Anchorage Republican, and Les Gara, an Anchorage Democrat, said 18-year-old women aren't old enough to buy beer or even cigarettes (the legal age is 19) and might not be ready to start stripping either.
"They are entering an environment they are not prepared for," McGuire said. "They get sucked into it, and it moves on to other things. I don't want them in these environments."
The state lawmakers want to require occupational licenses for strippers ages 18-20. The license would be awarded after the prospective employee attended career counseling and education courses about preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
Castoe isn't sure a license requirement would deter young women from stripping, but she believes that if businesses gave inexperienced teenagers a chance at a job, they might have better options.
Gara said he wished lawmakers could ban stripping by people under 21, but they can't under federal constitutional law.
Owners of the under-21 clubs in Anchorage think occupational licensing is unnecessary.
"If they wanted to keep track of something, that might be OK, but if it's meddling in someone's morality, that's just ridiculous," former Showboat owner Terry Stahlman said.
As far as requiring education about sexually transmitted diseases, Stahlman yelled over the phone: "That's horrible! What are they saying? These girls are not whores! We're not talking about prostitution here."
Sex in strip clubs is against the law and doesn't occur, Stahlman said. He would fire an employee who engaged in sex at the club, he said.
One of Stahlman's employees, Jacqueline Pickens, who started stripping at 18, said the license and classes seem unnecessary.
"We already went through those courses in high school," she said.
Pickens, now 24, manages the Showboat and is not stripping. She said she has worked at an over-21 club and thinks clubs are safer and healthier for the women when there's no drinking.
The women she works with don't sleep with their customers, she said. They earn $200 to $500 a night dancing on the stages of the dimly lighted lounge. Dancers make most of their money through tips. They pay the business for time spent on the floor, and they tip bouncers and waitresses.
Pickens said she started stripping so she could be self-sufficient and take tropical vacations. She's saving up to buy a house and wants to go to school to study sociology.
Stahlman and Carol Hartman, co-owner of Fantasies on 5th Avenue, both say the proposed regulations in Alaska all stem from "some woman" who is "having a fit" about young people in strip clubs.
That woman is Nancy Fair, and she's happy that government officials are taking action. Fair, a member of the Service High School Parent Teacher Student Association, learned from her teenage children that 18-year-old students were going to strip clubs.
Fair believes that can interfere with their education. Youths who are visiting the clubs - or perhaps even working at them - are mixing with and distracting younger kids at school by talking about the strip clubs, she said.
So she visited the clubs.
"It seemed sad to me that there were girls that felt they needed to make a living that way," she said. "It seemed such an unhealthy choice, and I felt sad that people didn't have a better way."
The pre-licensing education could help those not aware of their options, Fair said. She was a member of a group that helped Gara form proposals that attorneys are reviewing to be put in a bill.
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