What I Learned Visiting Portland’s Most Notorious Strip Clubs
What I Learned Visiting Portland’s Most Notorious Strip Clubs

What I Learned Visiting Portland’s Most Notorious Strip Clubs

After visiting the three clubs in one night, I was left with one very visceral reaction.
December 28, 2016
11 mins read

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.

What I Learned Visiting Portland’s Most Notorious Strip Clubs
Image via Portland Hot Spots

“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.

What I Learned Visiting Portland’s Most Notorious Strip Clubs
Food at The Lucky Devil (Image via Deston Nokes)

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.

What I Learned Visiting Portland’s Most Notorious Strip Clubs
Image via Spike and Tie

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.

Olivia Wickstrom, Portland State University

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  1. Surprisingly, good, upbeat article – though I’m disappointed that you gave Mary’s Club such short shrift: it’s the one club owned, managed and staffed by women.

  2. “They are feminism and girl power and strength, put in lingerie and placed on a stage for people to enjoy…”
    You see the mixed message here when it comes to feminism? As a guy, had I said this, I’d have a group of man-haters screaming at me for objectifying women…BUT…when they say the same thing, it’s about the power of a woman. Can you feminists please get on the same page and cool it with the contradictory statements for once? …and maybe stop hating yourselves?

  3. To the author: I work at Lucky Devil every Sunday, Tuesday and Friday 9pm-close, and I wonder if I was there for this!

    Regardless, thank you for your positive framing of a very necessary and healing line of adult entertainment.

  4. This could have been a really good piece if it didn’t read like a Yelp review for a new restaurant written by someone who has only eaten at fast food joints. Suffice it to say that when a couple of 22 year old junior reporters are given the task of describing the PDX strip club scene in a compelling way, there’s bound to be some disappointment. Readers of Study Breaks should have commissioned a properly scoped treatise from a mid-50s, bitterly divorced male perspective – you know, someone with the requisite experience.

  5. No. There will never be one, single, universally accepted definition of feminism, and it is unreasonable for anyone to expect it. Feminism means something different to everyone, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Don’t worry about what people would say if you wrote that, because you didn’t write it. If you have something insightful to say, write your own article. Your angry little paranoid rant contributes nothing interesting to the discussion.

  6. this is so sloppy. no one is doing splits 8′ in the air at lucky devil because the pole isn’t close to 8 feet high; two dancers did sue casa for sexual assault and labour violations, and it’s so great that you toured some of the worst clubs in portland and had fun! did you tip at least a dollar a song for every dancer? bc if not we were silently hating you for taking up space like the trash you are.

  7. I get the desire to want to make stripping an act of power, and it is. The act of using ones beauty and body to prise money from others is about power, but Feminism? I don’t agree.

    In your article you failed to interview these women. It’s only your personal experience, which is great as a piece of any article. As a reader, and one who has been to strip clubs and opposes them, I’d like to see a deeper look into these women’s experience.

    You see the smiles and strengths, as one who knows several, I hear their disgust and contempt for the customers, our culture and it’s poverty, and their personal greed.

    Finally, if this is the main kind of body positive sexuality available to our young generations, it will only feed the objectification that continues to put lovely young women in dumpsters.

  8. “They made it clear that they were the ones in charge, not the men in the audience. ”
    They are only in charge as far as they can keep the loyalty of the bouncers. There is a point of breakage here.

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