You can’t just take at face value the unofficial slogans of the Portland Chamber of Commerce. “There are more strip clubs per capita than any other city in the country,” “You’re never more than fifteen minutes by foot from a microbrewery,” and “We do too have a professional sports team in one of the major leagues!” That first statement, especially, is one that gets thrown around a lot. A lot a lot, by people who’ve never set foot in a club and yet find it one of the charming defining characteristics of the Rose City. Portland has a strip club culture like nowhere else, complete with its own magazine, celebrities, and scandals.
This week, a curious reader wrote into the city’s Pulitzer-winning alternative paper, Willamette Week, to ask if this is actually true. It is. If, like me, you took issue last summer with Tampa’s claim to this title in every article about the RNC, you’ll be please to see that the WW writer calculated a 1:9,578 ratio for Portland and 1:10,813 for Tampa. That’s a close enough margin to where the two cities could probably trade places on the list depending on the fortunes of a few clubs. It’s unquestionable, though, that Portland is the single easiest place in the U.S. to open a strip club, and that’s what lies at the bottom (lol) of its saturated nudie-bar market.
The single most important factor in the ease of running a strip club in Portland—or in all of Oregon, for that matter—is that nude dancing is protected as free speech thanks to a decision from the Oregon Supreme Court. In 2005 the court struck down prior rulings that upheld local laws regulating nude dancing and live sex shows, declaring that both were permissible under their reading of the Oregon Constitution’s free speech provisions. While there have been attempts at amending the state constitution to narrow its scope, both before and after this decision, none have stuck.
It’s the broadest definition of free speech as it applies to adult entertainment in the country. It struck down any. local. restrictions. on whether dancers could touch patrons or vice versa and whether sex-as-live-performance could be allowed. Local governments cannot ban strip clubs or sex shows, full stop. Just think about this, any of you who have worked in an area where you watched as laws were passed that mandated minimum clothing requirements or distance minimums or any other restriction on your work. There is a state where none of that happens. No pastie laws. No three foot rules.
Prior to these rulings, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission had the ability to regulate both dancers and strip clubs that served alcohol, and they did so rather strictly. At one point, dancers were warned that so much as touching their own breasts would be considered a violation of OLCC’s regulations banning lewd conduct inside clubs. But after the 2005 judgments, the liquor board lost its power to regulate the clubs.
There were already a ton of clubs in Portland long before these rulings, and what that comes down to is incredibly cheap and easily obtainable liquor licenses ($400 for a liquor license as of my last check) and the lack of requirement of a second license of any kind to have strippers performing on premises. Many local governments require strip clubs, whether they serve alcohol or not, to apply for pricey or difficult-to-obtain sexually oriented business permits. Portland has no such restriction. Any bar, if it wanted to, could have fully nude dancers as entertainment (and every bar has to serve food, but that’s an Oregon quirk for another day).
Along with Portland’s ever-freshening population of young women, the lack of licensing required for individual performers, and its socially relaxed attitudes that attach about as much stigma to stripping as to bar-tending, you have the conditions to saturate a market completely and make strip clubs as commonplace as coffee shops.