The flesh trade flourished in the Capitol's shadow a few decades ago.
The Snuggle House, a new downtown business offering "therapeutic touch," has vowed to steer clear of sexual activity. Ironically, in choosing 123 E. Main St. as its location, it is in the heart of Madison's former red light district. The area centered on the intersection of Main and King Streets, on the southeast corner of the Capitol Square, and extended for several blocks.
Prostitution in Madison expanded dramatically throughout the 1970s. From 1970 through 1975, there were a grand total of six arrests for prostitution. In 1978 there were 60. By 1980 there were 112. The figures come from a 1981 study by the Madison Task Force on Prostitution.
That year a downtown businessman told the Associated Press, "You wouldn't believe the change that takes place on the Square between 4 and 6 o'clock in the afternoon. The working people go home and the prostitutes and the pimps take over."
These were not Hollywood's soiled doves with hearts of gold, like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. They were aggressive, hustling streetwalkers. Their clients were just as bad; women leaving their offices were propositioned and harassed.
"Street prostitution is considered anathema to downtown businesses," recalls David Couper, chief of police from 1972 to 1993. "They just go crazy. We had to work out some way to get the situation under control."
Even today, Couper is at a loss to explain the increase. "As I recall it, most of the young women working there were from Milwaukee," he says. "I don't know if that meant that Milwaukee was doing a hard press on prostitution and they got on the bus and came to Madison, but that would maybe be my suspicion."
During the same period, massage parlors flocked to the area. The first, Shape Ship, opened on South Butler Street in 1972. Four years later, Madison had 42 massage/escort services.
No one had an answer. In 1977, a semi-religious group calling itself Citizens Concerned for Our Community began pressuring the young mayor, Paul Soglin. He replied that their time would be better spent lobbying for more county courts, ensuring quick prosecution.
Increased city enforcement pushed prostitutes to outlying hotels and truck stops. County enforcement pushed them back downtown. "It was like the Whack-a-Mole game," says MaryAnne Thurber, a retired Madison police officer who worked sting operations as part of the city's war on prostitution in the late 1970s and early '80s. "There was no eradication. It was just redistribution."
The Snuggle House reminds Thurber of Sundays during sex-district era.
"Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday were businessmen that were, 'Honey, I'm at the office' or were out of town. Friday and Saturday were the pervs, because if they had any semblance of normalcy, any social structure, that time was spent with your main squeeze or your best buds.
"But Sunday were the lonely hearts -- the people who would pay somebody just to pay attention to them. I felt bad for people on Sunday."
Then she arrested them.
The Dangle Lounge, a strip club at 119 E. Main St., closed in December 1982. The Dangle was long blamed as the sex district's focal point, along with the nearby topless Mustang Inn. But its closure had no effect on streetwalking.
An answer of sorts finally came in 1983. "We just flooded the area," says Couper. "We said we'd put up a blue tent and stay there until they were all gone."
The overwhelming police presence in the Main-King area marked a turning point. Women officers dressed as streetwalkers and arrested would-be clients. A new city ordinance afforded easier prosecution. Massage and escort services were also targeted.
It worked, perhaps because it was a two-pronged attack. Earlier, in 1980, District Attorney Hal Harlowe helped launch a program that was unique in the country. The First Offenders/Prostitution program offered counseling and training to women who wanted to get off the street. In its first year, 73 took part. "Prostitution is rooted in poverty," Harlowe noted.
As part of project "Blue Tent," Couper wanted fines for solicitation raised, with dollars going toward the program. He also wanted to post rewards for pimps. Looking back, he wishes he had done more.
"I think what we're finding more today is that prostitution is really a lot like slavery," says Couper, who elaborates in his 2012 book, Arrested Development, a guide to policing in the 21st century. "I think I would have tried to look a little bit more upstream, [at causes,] at the same time we were trying to solve the street problem."