Anyone wanting to watch an X-rated movie in one of the peep-show booths at Three Star News in Ventura may soon end up watched himself.
To comply with the city's new picture-arcade ordinance, owners of the adult bookstore say that by next month they will have removed doors from the 12 viewing stalls, increased lighting and positioned the booths so that patrons inside are in full view.
"I personally feel this is an infringement of the privacy rights of individuals who go into the arcade," said Robert A. Sarno, a Beverly Hills attorney representing Three Star. "But until a court agrees with me . . . our every intention is to cooperate."
Ventura police say those changes will bring the city's only X-rated bookstore into compliance with the regulations, which were approved by the City Council last winter during a grass-roots protest against the availability of pornographic material in the community.
The council, presented with more than 8,000 signatures by the Ventura County Coalition Against Obscenity, agreed in December to ban enclosed or concealed viewing stalls, to reduce the "potential for unlawful conduct of a type which facilitates the transmission of disease."
Sole Store Affected
Although council members said the ordinance was not aimed at pornography or any particular merchant, the only business affected by the regulations was Three Star, which is open 24 hours a day on Main Street downtown. The store, which was given six months to make the necessary changes, expressed its willingness to cooperate with the city shortly after the ordinance took effect in June, police said.
"The thing we're concerned about is being able to inspect the booths," Ventura Police Lt. Pat Rooney said. "A person walking through the business portion of this building should be able to see what's going on in there."
An identical ordinance, however, shed a bit more light than police had bargained for in Modesto, the northern California city whose regulations served as a model for the Ventura ordinance.
When doors were removed from peep-show booths in the city's four picture arcades last fall, officials were stunned to find that visibility had not discouraged patrons from masturbating and engaging in other sexual acts.
"We thought, 'What person in his right mind was going to do the same stuff that he was doing before, now that the doors are open and the lights are on?' " Modesto Police Sgt. Skip McKune said. "But much to our surprise, the lewd activity did not stop."
Initially, about a dozen arrests were made for lewd conduct and indecent exposure, McKune said. However, as sexual activity continued in the arcades, police were forced to organize a special undercover team that arrested more than 100 people during a six-week crackdown earlier this year, he said.
"There were guys there even groping our undercover officers," McKune said. "We started thinking, 'Geez, what's going on here?' "
Eventually, police won a court order closing the stores for allegedly fostering illicit activity in the city of 145,000. A legal challenge brought by the arcades is pending in court, but, in the meantime, the adult shops have remained shut.
Courts Back Regulations
The validity of peep-show ordinances was established in 1979 by the state Court of Appeal, which concluded that such regulations were justified by the need to reduce the risk of health and safety problems caused by patrons.
"Among such visitors, it is foreseeable that some will be predisposed to conduct that which is offensive, dangerous to others and even unlawful," the court wrote in an opinion favoring the city of Los Angeles over a challenge by Erotic Words and Pictures, the same Chatsworth company that owns Three Star and about 30 other such bookstores in California.
Although Ventura police have observed some evidence of sexual activity at Three Star over the years, they say there have been no complaints about the store recently.
The front of the shop houses mostly general-interest paperbacks and magazines, whereas all X-rated material is on the other side of a swinging door in the back. A red neon sign warns that the section is for "Adults Only."
The peep-show booths, along a corridor off the back room, are equipped with padded Naugahyde benches. Video screens inside offer a selection of about a dozen films, with titles such as "Anal Angels" and "Primal Urge."
Inside the dimly lit compartments, a quarter buys a minute's worth of movie. The booths don't function, however, unless the doors are closed and locked.
"The funny thing is that, when they force the doors off, they create the offense," Sarno said. "If what we call lewd conduct occurred in a closed booth, there's no violation of the law."
But the more than 100 advocates of the ordinance who packed City Hall last December hailed it as the first step in ridding the county of obscene material. They said their ultimate goal is to see traditional Judeo-Christian values of morality restored in the community.
Spokesmen for the group, which is expected to meet later this month, declined to comment on enforcement of the ordinance.