BY APRIL STREETER
"Tana the Tattooed Lady" at Devils Point, where stripping is supplemented by customers onstage singing karaoke.
// Photo by Joseph Eastburn
A strip club is a strip club is a strip club. Except perhaps in Portland. Long touted as the exotic dance capital of the U.S., Portland has so many clubs — now more than 60 — that a dark stage, a dance pole and supple women removing their clothing are no longer enough to guarantee patronage.
Instead, clubs are driven to differentiate and to tap new customer streams — similar to many consumer industries. While much of the coverage of the sex business in mainstream media portrays Oregon’s I-5 corridor as a hub for prostitution and sex trafficking, there’s also a legal and flourishing side to the sex industry. Its backbone may once have been strip clubs, but it is moving beyond these to experiment with other products, services and client bases. In true Oregon style, the legal sex industry here gets its start from our state constitution, written to expressly safeguard manifestations of free speech. Now the pleasure industry is expanding by innovating and catering to alternative-market segments, including sustainably minded and female consumers.
Nationwide, the sex industry is realizing that women are an untapped resource, says Kassia Wosick, an assistant sociology professor at New Mexico State University, whose research focuses on gender and sexuality. Increased sex-product consumption by women is undeniable, Wosick says. In particular, “we see women consumers investing their money in the industry through sex-toy and novelty products.”
Such products are now available through Oregon startups such as Hood River-based Bunnyjuice and Good Clean Love out of Eugene. Online, Sean Suhl and Selena Mooney have also had success with their soft-core, membership-based online site called Suicide Girls, launched in Portland in 2001 and now located in Los Angeles. Specializing in alternative, goth, punk and indie female models, Suicide Girls gets millions of page hits per week and has spawned knockoff competitors. Then there’s Club Sesso, a Portland swingers club getting in on the diversification of the industry by catering to a sex-positive and youthful demographic.
These new business models do more than suggest the mainstreaming of the sex business and its growing attraction for women. They also point to an effort at reconciling a long-standing contradiction in American culture: between sex as either an expression of idealized romantic love or crude adolescent fantasy. That is, in the U.S., there is a common cultural impression that society is obsessed and oversaturated with sex. Yet the images and the products we’ve had available to consume, like strip clubs, have tended to be somewhat pubescent, aimed at the same younger-man’s demographic that drives mainstream Hollywood action films.