Portland, Oregon, hails as the city with the most strip clubs per capita in America. Though it’s not a “statistically proven” ranking, by word of mouth, everyone knows that Portland rules the adult entertainment scene. Magazines such as TIME have included strip clubs in lists of “Top 10 things to do in Portland,” and websites like Business Insider have published articles questioning why the city has so many exotic topless clubs.
Walking around downtown and Chinatown, one can expect to see neon “live dancers” signs every block. And as we all know, Portland is recognized for it bizarre oddities, so clubs with free popcorn or “stripparaoke” are no strangers to the city.
Portland even has the country’s first vegan strip club, Casa Diablo. Business Insider noted that “Here, customers can enjoy a hummus veggie wrap while watching performers shed their non-animal-based g-strings. In a fashion only befit for Portland, change is given solely in $2 bills.”
The club has an infamous reputation around the city; I’ve heard stories of dancers OD’ing in the bathrooms and audience members being pulled on-stage to have their shirts ripped off. It’s no doubt Portland’s grungiest and riskiest strip club, and it was no surprise when VICE published an article in 2015 claiming that two of the club’s dancers were suing the business for “dehumanizing behavior by management.”
The bottom line is: Portland has an adult-dancer scene, and it’s huge. Not only is it huge, it’s wild. So, after living in the city for four years and never stepping foot in a strip club, I decided to recruit a friend and spend an evening exploring Portland’s adult entertainment scene. I can assure you, it’s a night I’ll never forget, and a night that concluded with me looking at pole dancers in a different way.
Strip Club #1: Mary’s
We started the evening at Mary’s, Portland’s first strip club opened in 1954. The club has quite a history.
According to Mary’s website, it began as a piano bar in the 1950s for “merchant seamen.” Topless women started to perform on stage during the pianists’ breaks in the 1960s, and in the 1980s, the club “went totally nude.”
It’s a strange destination, especially for two 22-year-old girls. As it’s one of the only strip clubs located in the “business district,” the majority of the clientele are old men and downtown workers. But despite being the oldest “adult club” in the city, it doesn’t have much else going for it.
“Thrillist” reported that the club has “lazy service, lazy dancers and one of the city’s best bartenders,” and I can attest to this. Though there was nothing special about the performers or the atmosphere, I got my vodka soda quick, and it was delicious.
Strip Club #2: The Lucky Devil
The Lucky Devil is where the night really began. This club is known for its good food and good service. Their menu isn’t what you’d expect a strip club menu to be, as it has everything from housemade burgers to pastas. So, after ordering nachos and Tecates, we took a seat near the stage.
It was still relatively early in the night, and besides the dancers and the bartenders, we were the only two females in the club. I’d say it was awkward but we’d already had a few drinks each, and at this point we were starting to enjoy ourselves.
We sat there, jaws dropped in amazement, at the women who climbed up the pole to do the splits eight feet in air, or slide down the pole upside-down while spinning, all without using their hands. The only time we peeled our eyes from the stage was to raise our beers and give each other a wink or whisper, “Did you fucking see that?!” We even developed favorites based on interesting ass-tattoos and the most impressive moves.
After the girls were done performing on stage, they’d circulate the club, talking to guests, helping behind the bar or hanging out by the bouncers at the front door. I watched them in awe, casually strolling through a full club in a g-string, while I’m self-conscious wearing a full piece bathing suit during summers. This is when I began realize how incredibly awesome strippers are.
They are feminism and girl power and strength, put in lingerie and placed on a stage for people to enjoy. Though some dancers were thin and fit, others were curvy and shapely. But no matter what their body size, they walked around a crowded room nude, and with complete confidence. Though most associate strippers with low self-respect and morals, I saw something different. I saw women who were confident enough, and who respected themselves enough, to express themselves on a stage in front of hundreds of people.
In a “Huffington Post” article, ex-striper Sheila Hageman (a valedictorian college graduate and recent mother of three) wrote about stripping as a “feminist act.” Hageman said that, “Women should feel as free as men always have and that begins with having the freedom to choose what we want and do not want to do with our bodies. I want every woman to have the confidence to claim that freedom without worrying about what others may think. If we dare to be seen for who we are, expose ourselves fully (in whatever form we choose), maybe others who have no voice will be able to also.”
That is what I saw in the women at The Lucky Devil; the dancers owned it. They were confident, courageous and didn’t care what anybody in the audience was thinking. They were doing what they wanted how they wanted on that stage, and as a woman, it was empowering.
When our “favorites” returned the to begin their second sets, we figured we’d been there long enough, and that it was time to move on to the next bar.
Strip Club #3: Sassy’s
Our final stop of the evening was Sassy’s, Portland’s most popular strip club. There was a line out the door and minimum room to stand once we got in. Drunk guys were putting dollars bills in dancers’ underwear and being thrown out by bouncers in bulletproof vests for touching the strippers. Men were being taken into a “back room” made of sheer curtains for private dances, and cocktail waitresses never let your drink become empty.
Though the crowd was rowdy and the atmosphere loud, the women here had the same cool, calm and collected attitude that they’d had at The Lucky Devil. When someone sitting at the “rail” (the seats along the stage) tried to touch a stripper, she’d simply look him in the eyes and push his hand back. If someone put their drink on her stage, she’d put it back in their hand and walk away. When someone at the rail didn’t tip (tipping at the rail is required), she’d call the security guards over.
The women were sure of themselves and their place. They made it clear that they were the ones in charge, not the men in the audience. Seeing women in that position of power was refreshing, and it was inspiring.
I don’t want this message to be misunderstood, I’m not encouraging young woman to trade in their university textbooks for lingerie and high heels. But I am encouraging them to reassess what courage and self respect as a woman means. And though some will disagree, I think strippers can be a great example of female confidence and determination. Any woman on a stage, confident and comfortable in her skin, is admirable.