It is a well known fact that Portland has the most strip clubs per capita of any city in the United States. The city tends to lean into this part of its brand as a quirky and weird place full of alternative thinkers and dreamers—and much ink has been spilled elsewhere about how there are clubs that cater to vegans, craft beer enthusiasts, metalheads, punks, hip-hop trap fans, karaoke singers, Victorian burlesquers and beyond.
What has not been highlighted is the plight of the human beings who work in these clubs. First things first—sex workers are people who work in the sex industry, such as full service prostitutes, pornography models and actors, phone sex operators, erotic dancers and web cam performers. Although the majority of sex workers are cis women, there are also many transgender and nonbinary individuals in these trades, as well as some cis men.
Historically sex workers have been demonized by pretty much every society that kept written records, even though they have been prevalent in them all going way back to ancient Mesopotamia where prostitution even had spiritual and ritualistic connotations.
Patriarchal world religions—which means almost all of them—created an uncomfortably familiar purity dynamic that women continue to be held to. The founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, dubbed this dynamic the Madonna-Whore complex. It essentially boils down to the notion that women are either pure and viriginal—and thus worthy of respect, marriage and child-rearing—or they are sexual and promiscuous, the proverbial easy woman, and thus filthy, impure and unworthy of human dignity or respect.
It is a brutish and nasty business, as men are traditionally lauded as studs for their sexual prowess and virility, while the double standard proclaims women to be sluts for the same sexual behaviors.
This also warrants a mention of the regressive school of feminism known as SWERFs (Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminists) who argue “that sex workers, particularly those in the prostitution and pornography industries, become the victims of regular sexual objectification, exploitation, and violence; and that, by participating in this kind of industry, sex workers become co-perpetrators of these crimes. While most feminist schools support an individual’s right to choose what sexual activities they do or do not engage in, SWERFs take it upon themselves to tell other people what to do and what not to do with their bodies.”
This is a tired line of argument. Saying that sex workers sell their bodies is redundant and hypocritical considering that all of us who work jobs and participate in this late stage of capitalism rent out hours of our lives to employers and literally sell our bodies in the form of labor every time we work. To add a moralistic component to the kind of labor we sell seems to me informed by those same aforementioned purtianical and patriarchal traditions rather than on the truly feminist principles of female agency and autonomy. Rather than focusing on ending violence against sex workers, SWERFs focus on policing and punishing women’s bodies and sexuality. There is a very real and devastating problem of sexual slavery, trafficking, exploitation and abuse but SWERFs fundamentally fail to meaningfully address this by conflating consensual sex work with it.
Further, from the objectification point of view, many sex workers—including those I am friends with and spoke to for this article—found sex work to be empowering, fun and rewarding when it is at its best.
Now that all of that is out of the way, and getting back to the well-being of sex workers—and strippers in particular—in my conversations with workers in the field and upon further research I found a plethora of deeply troubling issues that must be addressed.
Several individuals I approached politely declined speaking about their industry for fear of retribution and those who did speak with me wished to remain anonymous. That says a lot about the safety and job security—or lack thereof—in their profession.
Both of the individuals I spoke with brought up harassment as one of the most persistent threats to their well-being. Customers often get aggressive and violate the boundaries of sex workers with little to no repercussions as club owners are eager to retain business even if it is abusive of their workers—and especially now in the wake of the pandemic and inflation-induced spending woes. Sex workers routinely face stalking and clients following them to their cars outside of clubs, and bouncers are technically not allowed to use force if a client is violent. Both said that this dynamic has worsened as of late.
Club owners have also themselves been the perpetrators of abuse and harrassment, including sex trafficking of minors, sexual abuse and racial and gendered discrimination.
In 2020, a local dancer named Cat Hollis organized with some of their co-workers to form the Portland Stripper Strike. According to Willamette Week, their aims were to “require cultural sensitivity training on a regular basis for all club staff, owners and management; ensure that Black dancers get fair hiring opportunities and desirable shifts; and require owners and managers to participate in listening sessions with Black dancers to learn about their experiences working at Portland clubs.”
They were successful in pressuring nearly 30 local clubs to adopt measures that protect their workers and have continued to gain momentum, including the foundation of the Haymarket Pole Collective, who state as their mission, “advocating proactive policy and equitable treatment for Black and Indigenous workers by facilitating restorative justice in the adult entertainment industry.”
They have also sued six local clubs in Oregon alleging federal wage violations akin to those faced by gig workers, with industry-standard malpractices ranging from management stealing tips, demanding illegal kickbacks and superfluous house fees.
One of the tricky things about working in strip clubs is that dancers are technically classified as private contractors. This means that they essentially pay the clubs to work when they do. Thus they found themselves in dire straits during the height of the pandemic when they could not work due to state-mandated shutdowns, but also did not qualify for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance or Paycheck Protection Program loans.
In spite of all of this, in 2020 some strippers were able to cobble together imaginative and brilliant stop-gaps like the socially distanced drive-through strip club pop-up at Lucky Devil Lounge and the stripper food delivery service called Boober Eats. Sex workers are incredibly smart, resourceful and flexible—as one of the dancers I spoke to said, “you don’t last long in this industry if you are not.”
That same source also emphasizied the impact of the rise of OnlyFans and other online sex work spaces. On the one hand, these platforms have opened up space for different bodies and diversified the industry as well as bringing crucially important conversations about sex work, racism, gender and expression to the fore. There is also broader acceptance and appreciation for sex work as a creative outlet for and by creators with full agency, consent and autonomy regarding their sexuality and content.
The negatives that they brought up regarding OnlyFans are the glamorization of the sex work industry by online creators—some of whom have not worked at in-person full service sex work environments—which has been creating some friction between veteran sex workers and these digitally-based newcomers.
Both of the people who spoke to me expressed their hope that sex work will be decriminalized, legalized and guaranteed the same kinds of worker protections most other industries already enjoy. The people who engage in this work must be safe and a key to that is destigmatizing the industry and changing social and cultural attitudes. Sex workers have long been targets for a disgusting level of abuse.
One of them brought up the old police code NHI, a designation meaning “no humans involved” that was applied to various violent crimes ranging from murder, rape, assault and theft committed against individuals who were considered a low priority by law enforcement. Most often those considered low-priority individuals were sex workers, people of color, transgender individuals and other often-overlapping and oppressed marginalized identities. While the police supposedly no longer use this code, that attitude carries on in their criminalization of sex workers and the wider social stigmas that sex workers face.
That brings us to the 2018 passage of FOSTA-SESTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) and the disastrous consequences for sex workers ever since. On its face the bill purports to be about targeting sex traffickers, and as such it passed 97-2 in the Senate. The Berkeley Journal of Criminal Law (BJCL) reported that “FOSTA-SESTA has pierced the shield of net neutrality, curtailed free speech, and severely impacted the emotional, physical, and financial well-being of people, primarily women, who engage in sex work consensually or who have been sexually trafficked.”
Sex workers had previously been able to use online harm-reduction tools like VerifyHim—a service which helped them screen potential clients through past references to ensure they respect boundaries and are safe—or to share “bad johns” lists compiled by fellow sex workers to avoid disrespectful and violent clients. They have since been forced to use other less safe venues. After FOSTA-SESTA passed, crimes related to pimping tripled in San Francisco and increased interactions with police led to an 180% increase in arrests for loitering and prostitution in New York City.
These laws do not make sex workers safer—rather, through increasing their contact with the police they are put at greater risk, as well as being criminalized in the so-called justice system.
BJCL also reported that the police have a well-documented history of violence and sexual assault of sex workers, citing a study on the interactions between sex workers and the criminal justice system in New York City, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice and published by the Office of Justice Programs’ National Criminal Justice Reference Service: “30% of [sex worker] participants reported that they were threatened with violence by a police officer, and 27% reported that they were harassed by an officer because of their gender presentation. Often, this violence involved sexual contact during stops. Additionally, 15% of participants reported that an officer did not arrest them in exchange for sex.”
They conclude that the act hasn’t even led to the effective prosecution of real sex traffickers, arguing that in pushing the purveyors of both consensual and non-consensual sex farther underground and into the dark web, the law has actually worsened the problem of sex trafficking in the U.S. and that there has only been one case prosecuted using the act as of 2021.
Clearly we as a society owe it to one another to respect each other’s agency and bodily autonomy. It is beyond asinine and hypocritical that sex workers are shamed, stigmatized and attacked when this work is clearly not going anywhere and is one of the oldest professions in the world. Sex work can be a net positive to our society by aiding individuals in consensually and safely exploring their kinks and sexuality and by providing enjoyable, lucrative and empowering livelihoods to the workers within it.
Even when the exploitative social relationships of capitalism and patriarchy are finally relics in the dumpster fire of the past—and that world is struggling to be born right now—sex work will likely persevere, as it has through the many epochs of human social life. Human beings like sex, with and without strings attached, and there will always be people who exchange it in economic terms. It is not for us as individuals to curtail the agency and consensual choice of other individuals regardless of whatever personal moralities one may subscribe to. Rather, it is incumbent upon us all to stand up for the safety and rights of sex workers as we would hope others will stand up for us.
Illustration by Whitney McPhie