It’s been quite the stormy week for Stephanie Clifford, better known as adult film star Stormy Daniels. On Wednesday night, Daniels was performing at Sirens Gentlemen’s Club in Columbus, Ohio, when she was arrested by vice officers and charged with three misdemeanor counts of illegal sexual activity. Within 24 hours, the charges had been dropped and the chief of the Columbus Police Department had apologized for the “mistake,” but there are lingering questions about whether the undercover sting had political motivations because of her ties to President Donald Trump. Moreover, the incident has drawn attention to a law that criminalizes consensual physical contact between strippers and their patrons.
“This was a setup & politically motivated,” Daniels’ attorney, Michael J. Avenatti, tweeted Thursday morning, shortly after his client was released from the Jackson Pike jail after posting $6,054 cash bail. Daniels has been a target of Trump’s, as well his supporters, ever since she came forward and confirmed reports that they had a brief affair in 2006.
One month before the election, Trump’s personal attorney paid Daniels $130,000 to keep quiet about the alleged affair; when the story was exposed by the Wall Street Journal, Daniels confirmed that she had slept with Trump once, shortly after his wife Melania gave birth to their son. She has also filed multiple lawsuits against the president, alleging threats and intimidation, and accusing him of libel. Avenatti doesn’t believe it’s a coincidence that the undercover vice officers were at the club the night that Daniels was performing.
According to court documents, the incident began at approximately 10 p.m. on Wednesday night, when four undercover officers from the Columbus Police Department arrived at the club to investigate complaints “alleging prostitution and drug activity.” Daniels was performing a topless act that included pushing patrons’ faces in-between her breasts (commonly referred to as “motorboating”) and fondling the breasts of a few female audience members – including, unbeknownst to her, three of the vice officers.
“So there are undercover vice officers that came to the club for the purpose of trying to get her to touch them so that they could then arrest her, which is ludicrous,” Avenatti told the New York Times. “My understanding is that a number of undercover officers were female, which was not unusual to my client, because a huge number of women are turning out to see her shows. And a couple of officers asked her to allow them to place their face in between her breasts.”
Daniels was planning to plead not guilty at her first scheduled court appearance, but prosecutors dropped the charges just a few hours after her release. The rarely used 2007 law under which she was arrested only applies to people who “regularly” appear nude or seminude at a particular establishment; Daniels was scheduled for a two-night gig at the club, but otherwise was not a regular performer.
Columbus police chief Kim Jacobs said in a statement that while the undercover officers believed they had probable cause to arrest Daniels, “the motivations behind the officers’ actions will be reviewed internally.”
Michael Probst, a criminal-defense lawyer in Columbus, told the NY Times that while there have been a few recent undercover strip club stings, the focus has been on “the quote-unquote Champagne rooms, where someone might be trying to engage in sexual conduct” with a stripper, not an individual dancer’s stage act.
“To me, clearly the objective was to be there for Stormy Daniels,” he said.
Whatever the reason for the undercover vice operation, the law which gave the officers probable cause to arrest Daniels is seriously problematic. Stripping is legal sex work, and Daniels consented to being touched by patrons, including the vice officers, who then gave their consent to being touched in return. While Daniels is technically exempt because she is not a regular performer at the club, this law nevertheless criminalizes physical contact between strippers and adult patrons, even in cases where consent has been given by both parties. A conviction for “illegal sexually oriented activity” comes with a possible penalty of 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Meanwhile, the President of the United States has been accused of violating the consent of at least 15 women, for allegations ranging from sexual harassment and forcible kissing, to groping and rape – and he has never had to answer to any of them, let alone spend a night in jail.