Sex & Relationships

Portland, Oregon -- Strip-Club City? Media Freak-Out Over Trafficking in Everyone's Favorite Hippie Utopia

We must respect sex workers as humans with rights and choices, and crusade against exploitation. Media freak-outs about sex work and trafficking accomplish neither.

Ah, Portland, Portland, Portland. What is it about Portland? IFC’s new show Portlandia walks the line between ridiculing and paying homage to a city “where young people go to retire” and where the “dream of the '90s” are still alive. As the New York Times put it recently, “’Nice’ is an adjective that Portland, OR can’t seem to shake.” Portland, it seems, is at least something to everyone.

But more recently, you may have heard the moniker “Pornland” kicking around. This stems from another fact about the city people love to recite: the city has more strip clubs per capita than any other city in the country, including Vegas. Of course, with clubs opening and closing, and a shifting population, that distinction is an estimate at best. A 2009 inquiry by the Portland Mercury found that, at the time, nearby Springfield, OR had the most strip clubs per capita while West Virginia had the most per capita for a state.

Either way it’s a memorable fact that makes some cringe, and others proud. Oregon’s constitution contains a strong free speech clause which, bolstered by a 1987 State Supreme Court case, protects the right to nudity and lap dances in strip clubs. However, efforts over the past decades, including bills in the State House and Senate currently being considered, have continually sought to exclude sexually oriented businesses from enjoying these rights.

In the end, one might wonder, what does this multiplication of strip clubs matter? For starters, it creates a perfect backdrop for some troubling allegations: after a 2009 raid turned up several underage prostitutes, Portland was branded a hub for child sex trafficking. In 2010, Dan Rather Reports and ABC World News with Diane Sawyer both aired in-depth investigative reports based on this trend, with each using the high number of strip clubs in the city to prop up their case. Both reports also perpetuate an alarmist tone about the escalating problem of child sex trafficking which takes advantage of racist and classist assumptions about sex work. They argue, in dramatic voice over, that this is serious because it’s not just “homeless” or “druggie” girls [of color] being lured into prostitution, but white, well-to-do, suburban girls.

The problem with these portrayals is two-fold. First, as Oregonian reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones points out in her January 2011 investigation, the allegations of child sex trafficking that form the crux of both major news reports are based on overblown and erroneous data. Hannah-Jones writes, “While a single case of a child in the sex trade is tragic, little data is kept locally on the depth of the problem, and the figures cited nationally crumble under scrutiny.”

Hannah-Jones traces nationwide alarm back to a 2009 prostitution raid in Portland – in coordination with raids in other cities across the country – that, in fact, turned up fewer underage sex workers than neighboring Seattle. Yet well-meaning and concerned Portland politicians and advocates (and media) took this intel and ran.

The reality is far messier (and scarier). Underage sex trafficking and exploitation is happening everywhere, not just in Portland. Yet this is a bitter pill to swallow, and when national news reports confine the blame to one particular city, that seems to somehow make the rest of us feel better. That’s how pointing fingers and assigning blame works, right?

To follow Hannah-Jones’ point, we need to let go of this notion that if the problem isn’t construed as dramatic and sensational, then we won’t care. People should care equally if it’s one girl or one million, and despite, not because of, her background, race, or drug use habits. Good data to back that up is crucial.

The second dubious and troubling connection these reports make is that somehow the presence of dozens of strip clubs and massage parlors means that child sex trafficking is rife. The tacit suggestion (and cue dramatic, panning shots of 82nd street, where many of the city’s strip clubs are), is that having many strip clubs (totally legal) creates an illicit and enabling environment for other illegal aspects of sex work.

The problem is that this link is tenuous, at best, and hardy anybody puts in the time or effort to try to prove it. While stripping and prostitution are both types of sex work, they aren’t the same thing. Is there crossover sometimes? Sure, but it’s not a direct causality. In short, these news reports represent guilt by association and without any proof. And you know who’s not happy about that? Portland strippers.

“They’re implying that strippers are prostitutes; they’re implying that pimps are coming into strip clubs to recruit girls,” Says Rocket, a veteran Portland stripper who writes for Exotic Magazine, blogs over at Tits & Sass, and runs a one-woman production company. “In my experience, it’s two separate worlds. In Portland, there’s very little crossover between prostitution and strip clubs, or very marginal.”

Rocket says she knows girls dancing in almost every strip club in Portland and has never encountered an underage girl dancing, let alone being forcibly prostituted in a strip club. Stringent rules apply to strip-club owners, like they do to club owners anywhere else in the country, and women have to show their IDs numerous times to get jobs. Girls who are under 21 (but over 18) are watched like hawks because club owners could lose their liquor license should they be caught with a drink.

Yet there has been little investigation done by the media, and especially among those drawing broad stroke connections between stripping and underage sexual exploitation. “I think that’s the problem with this ‘journalism,’” says Rocket. “Did they talk to any of the strippers? Because [sex work] is a “shady underworld” and a taboo that society is still afraid of, they feel like they don’t have to get their facts straight because no one’s going to look into it.” Indeed, the main sources for these stories are law enforcement officials, which, worldwide, have a history of tension with sex workers. 

Yet while Rocket and her co-workers’ careers remain moral judgment fodder for many, Portland’s proliferation of strip clubs has also led to an unusually de-stigmatized environment for them. “It’s a B-list celebrity status kind of thing,” she says. “People know who you are, you couldn’t hide it if you tried.”

Indeed, it seems that media coverage of one related aspect of sex work – underage sexual trafficking, for instance –unfairly pulls in all other aspects of the industry. Yet while Rocket and her colleagues may be unfairly maligned by misinformed media representations of their work, on the flip side this coverage provides an opening to educate, discuss, and de-mystify the sex work industry.

Rocket is part of a group of sex workers who post on the blog Tits and Sass, a platform to raise awareness about who they are and what they do, and critique (or satirize) the ignorance and hypocrisy of those who misrepresent them. 

“I honestly feel like we are on the cusp of something big in terms of sex work being more widely accepted by the mainstream, and specifically stripping,” says Rocket. “Maybe I say that because I live in the bubble that is Portland, Oregon, but I think we’re on the verge of something big, socially speaking. It sounds cheesy, but I feel proud that I could be some part of it.”

While still not a cakewalk, it does seem as though Portland strippers in particular – by virtue of living and working within a uniquely supportive environment – have an opportunity to lead change more broadly in terms of how society respects, talks about, and approaches the sex work industry.

Perhaps one of the biggest misconception to reexamine is that we can’t both respect sex workers as humans with rights and choices, and crusade against the exploitation of women and girls. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, but rather require us to distinguish between fact and fiction, and uphold a commitment to human rights – whatever that human may do for a living.