'No Justice, No Booty': Portland strippers continue organizing for better working conditions two years after Stripper Strike PDX
- Dancers in Portland, Oregon, have continued organizing for better working conditions since 2020's Stripper Strike,
- Sex workers were left without access to aid during the pandemic and created mutual aid groups to make ends meet.
Two years since a general strike among strippers in Portland, Oregon, prompted nearly 30 clubs to adopt worker-protecting measures, sex workers in the region are still organizing to secure better living and working conditions, while their movement has gained steam nationwide and internationally.
Strippers and other sex workers told Insider they still face sexual harassment and assault at work, by both management and customers of clubs, and conditions have been more challenging since the pandemic made owners more desperate for business. Despite some progress, Black dancers reported hearing racist remarks and facing discrimination at work.
Portland is home to the most strip clubs per capita in the US, with a unique culture and economy that relies on club tourism. In summer 2020, more than 100 dancers protested for better working conditions and nearly 30 strip clubs – facing the financial pressure of the pandemic as well as missing dancers – ultimately agreed to undergo anti-racism training, listening sessions, and hire more dancers of color.
"We've shifted our focus from dealing with the clubs directly to dealing with people's personal everyday safety and security, to put them in a spot where they feel okay telling their boss to fuck off for a week," Cat Hollis, organizer of the 2020 Portland Stripper Strike, told Insider.
"And it's really hard to do that when you're a person of color who's scraping by and in a town that's meant to chew you up and spit you out."
A Stripper Strike Legacy
In 2020, Hollis, who is nonbinary, uses they/them pronouns and worked as a stripper at the time, felt called to organize a series of protests among other strippers in Portland as they and other Black dancers reported facing racist harassment and discrimination at work. They alleged multiple clubs illegally withheld wages and required illegal kickbacks in addition to the risk of sexual violence they and other dancers regularly face in the clubs.
Hollis, as well as three other dancers, have a suit pending against six different strip clubs in Oregon, alleging federal wage violations similar to those faced by gig workers, including management stealing tips and demanding illegal kickbacks and house fees. While they're dedicated to seeing the suit through, Hollis said, they are focused more on taking concrete actions directed toward helping sex workers and enabling them to further organize on their own.
"When I started listening to what the community was saying during our listening sessions throughout 2020 and into 2021, was that people needed to take care of their basic needs — they needed things like diapers, they needed things like COVID testing," Hollis said. "They needed things that create the stability in their lives to be able to go up against their boss."
Since 2020, Hollis, now a full-time organizer with the Haymarket Pole Collective, has helped the nonprofit raise $1.6 million in donations and grant funding to provide material support for strippers and sex workers in Portland.
Outside Portland, the wave of momentum caused in part by Hollis' organizing hit Los Angeles, where dancers at the Star Garden in North Hollywood voted this month to become the nation's first unionized strip club since San Francisco's Lusty Lady closed its doors in 2013.
An Owner's Perspective
For club owners, the needs of dancers frequently take a backseat to the financial needs of the business — especially during the pandemic, when strip clubs – classified as "live entertainment" venues – were forced to close due to coronavirus concerns.
Some owners, faced with business closures and striking dancers, had contentious relationships with strippers who organized during the early days of the pandemic. One club, Union Jacks, was repeatedly named by dancers who said the club had issues with fair treatment and that management unfairly discriminated against Black dancers both before and during the pandemic.
Union Jacks club did not respond to Insider's requests for comment.
Other business owners, like Shon Boulden, who runs both Lucky Devil Lounge and Devils Point club in Portland, tried to embrace requests from organizing dancers in hopes of keeping morale up and doors open.
"This whole industry, as far as in Portland, the strip club industry, the restaurants, the nightclubs, the nightlife in the street, you know, it all feeds off of each other," Boulden told Insider. "So that even impacted you know, you know, bartenders, all the people who were staff, sound engineers, security people, bartenders."
During the early days of the pandemic, Boulden turned his club into a drive-through strip venue that served food to ensure he and his employees kept working. The dancers who volunteered to stay working despite club closures were mostly white, prompting Boulden to be called out by the Haymarket Pole Collective for racist hiring policies in his own clubs. He said he and his staff took the criticism to heart and underwent an implicit bias training hosted by HPC and tried to make his club more inclusive.
"Lucky Devil Lounge strives to create an inclusive, equal opportunity space and welcome all races and ethnicities! BIPOC performers to the front!" reads a disclaimer on the Lucky Devil Lounge website. "We are aware & take responsibility for the past narratives surrounding our clubs. We are here to provide a safe, positive, and profitable atmosphere for everyone."
Since being called out in 2020, Boulden has become a more vocal supporter of labor and mutual aid organizations for strippers, which he says are a benefit to the larger community.
"I think anybody that supports support dancers and provides like information for them as a resource is a good thing," Boulden told Insider, adding that providing mental health and housing resources to dancers helps his business in the long run. "You know, those are all things that help us continue to keep this industry."
In a high-turnover industry like sex work, dancers with less experience are unlikely to have heard of mutual aid organizations or labor and union groups like Haymarket Pole Collective and the group behind the Los Angeles strike, Strippers United. More experienced dancers, who have been stripping longer than two years, see the benefit of the groups, but have urgent needs beyond hiring practices and tipping procedures that need to be addressed before they consider unionizing.
Dancers face sexual harassment and assault by both management and clients while stripping. One stripper told Insider she wore a butt plug with a fox tail during a dance on stage, which was suddenly pulled out by a customer. She reflexively punched the man who had just sexually assaulted her and, while he was not removed from the venue, she was fired by the club owners. Another dancer told Insider she helped a new girl home after she'd been drugged by a customer. Others still told Insider about stories of druggings, shootings, and other sexual violence while at work.
In addition to the risk of violence, dancers also face increased stigma when seeking traditional aid resources. Many were ineligible for unemployment benefits, even as clubs closed during the pandemic, given the under-the-table nature of their work.
"I think that groups like that should also partly focus on things that they can do to help dancers," a stripper by the name of Mercedes told Insider. "Like, help find housing that will not deny us, help find programs that we can actually get into that aren't like, 'well, we can't track your income. We can't help you.'"
Strippers currently employed in clubs told Insider there are three main things they're seeking when it comes to pursuing better working conditions: one, management that treats them equitably and does not discriminate based on gender identity or race. Second, clubs that offer protection from threatening clients and do not punish strippers for standing up for themselves. Last, strippers told Insider they hope to find club owners who do not charge unreasonable fees and skim funds from private dances.
If a dancer can find fair treatment in a safe club with high-end clientele, they've found a "good" club — though most experienced strippers will settle for two signs of a "good" club to begin dancing somewhere new, knowing how difficult it can be to find all three.
Ultimately, the dancers who spoke to Insider all expressed how much they love their jobs and the financial security stripping provides. However, each also indicated that the sex work industry itself faces magnified issues of prejudice and stigma, which in turn makes it a hard job to sustain without strong community help.
"It's still very mixed. I feel like it's really positive because, financially, I've been able to like gain a lot of freedom. But you know, you see a lot of things like drug addiction. Things like racism, like fatphobia," a dancer by the name of Sarah told Insider.
"You see a lot of negative things and it is like a really emotionally taxing job."
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