From pioneers in the 1800s to early punk rockers in the 1970s, Portland, Oregon, has long been a haven for nonconformists. And though the punk of the ’70s might be long gone—drowned in a sea of bottomless brunch and faux lumberjacks—there’s a different group keeping Portland’s tradition of radical performance alive; one that’s more Courtney Love and less Kurt Cobain.
It’s mid-July, but in Portland, summer remains a well-kept secret. The early morning sky is gray and a ghostly dampness clings to the leafy, urban landscape. I’m meeting Liv Osthus at Guilder, a cafe and bar on NE Fremont Street, where she’s sitting outside, enjoying the overcast and a gluten-free cookie.
Osthus is small and blonde and in her 40s. She’s a stripper who originally came to Portland in the late ’90s to be a punk rocker, having just graduated from Williams College in Massachusetts, where she studied cultural anthropology. “My fetish was community,” she says between bites. She explains that growing up as the daughter of a traveling Minnesota preacher made it difficult to anchor herself in any one group of people for too long—a struggle that stripping in Portland would eventually resolve.
At the time that Osthus migrated west, Portland was still a magnet for garage rockers and DIY ruffians. In the ’70s and ’80s, the city had cemented its enduring reputation for nonconformity, producing some of punk’s earliest and surliest, such as Smegma, Ice-9, Neo Boys, and The Wipers.
In a 2005 interview with music and culture news site XLR8R, author Mark Sten (All Ages: The Rise and Fall of Portland Punk Rock) described the early days of Portland punk and its free-spirited nature: “There used to be something in the water in Portland that kept people a little bit more eccentric than they are in places like Seattle or Bakersfield,” he said. Sten added, “There was a sense of having been freed up that was not followed immediately by being closed in by a new set of rules.”
Notice the use of the past tense. Nowadays, many fear that this same Portland is losing its edge; that the “OVER” sketch from Portlandia was more prophetic than simply teasing—wherein Fred Armisen, outfitted with gauged lobes and a raggedy chin beard, discovers one by one that all his favorite Portland activities have been co-opted and ruined by a buttoned-up corporate crony who moves in to town and starts enjoying the same bars, bikes, and shell-based arts and crafts.
And it’s not far from the truth: Forbes has designated Portland as one of the top five places for business every year for the past five years, ushering in a wave of young and highly educated technology workers who love their alternative milks and their rare herb–infused small-batch booze.
Meanwhile, punk as we know it slowly continues to wilt away in the city of roses. Satyricon, the longest-running punk venue in the western U.S., closed in 2010 after 27 years, and other beloved institutions are struggling to keep their doors open: Famous punk club The Know closed down and reopened only to close down again two years later in 2018.
But if Osthus is any indication, those who fear the extinction of a liberated Portland might need to shift their gaze away from the punk clubs and direct them instead to the strip clubs. It’s there—rising from the cigarette smoke, cheap well drinks, and strewn panties—that Portland’s tradition of nonconformist performance is very much alive and well.
Osthus, who is known around town as Viva (short for Viva Las Vegas), is also a musician, author, cancer survivor, single mother, and the focus of a documentary called Thank You For Supporting the Arts—a phrase she repeats every time she receives tips from customers at Mary’s, the oldest strip club in town.
Mary’s is an institution, and one of a whopping 54 nude clubs in the city, a figure that makes Portland the per capita strip club capital of the country. And while some would argue that small business is a dying breed in Portland, Mary’s is family-owned and -operated: In 2006, Vicki Keller took over for her father, the late Roy Keller, who originally opened the club in 1954. In fact, most of the strip clubs in Portland are what Osthus characterizes as “mom-and-pop”—hyperlocal neighborhood spots with a host of regular visitors.
Stripping in Portland is a cultural pastime, and a mode of connection and community-building. Given the small-scale nature of the majority of Portland’s clubs, dancers are often able to forge real bonds with clients when they wish to. Elle Stanger, an author and blogger who self-identifies as Portland’s “Stripper Writer” and hosts a podcast called “Strange Bedfellows,” dances for 18 hours a week at Lucky Devil Lounge in Southeast. Though she wouldn’t classify her work as “educational” per se, Stanger is a licensed sex educator, and it shows. “The more I incorporate art and personality into my sex work entertainment, the better interactions I have and the more genuine connections I forge with clients and peers,” Stanger says.
The sense of camaraderie extends beyond the four walls of the club. When Viva was diagnosed with breast cancer, fellow strippers stepped up. “This community had my back. I felt so held,” Viva says. “One woman had her husband build [a playhouse for my daughter] in my backyard while we were out of town. There’s just so much generosity.”
Sometimes even non-sex-workers like local chef Nikeisah Newton, contribute to the community feel: When she noticed her stripper friends were leaving work with no healthy food options available so late at night, she fired up her stove and founded Meals 4 Heels. Now she takes orders and delivers meals like the Verbal Tipper (lemon pepper couscous, massaged kale, artichokes, fresh veggies, and cotija) and the G.T.P., or Get That Paper (roasted cauliflower, sweet potato noodles, herbs, and toasted coconut), out of her 2004 Nissan Altima. She also sponsors events like Heaux Stories, which she describes as a storytelling showcase for POC femme and trans sex workers.
And while adult entertainment remains taboo just about everywhere else, it’s often said that in Portland, you can’t go more than a block or two without passing a club. The sheer volume alone has done a lot to normalize the industry. To emphasize the level of general acceptance, Stanger tells me about community events like a Planned Parenthood fundraiser that involved ordinary, non-stripper civilians dancing naked on stages and learning the basics of pole dancing. “That’s compared to, you know, women who [I’ve interviewed for the “Strange Bedfellows” podcast,] who work in New Jersey and New York and say, ‘I didn’t tell anybody. None of my family knew, none of my friends knew, I didn’t date for five years,’” Stanger says.
From saloons to gambling halls to brothels, Portland has been a hub for vices since the era of the pioneers—but some of the difference in attitude can be attributed to actual legislation. Oregon is the only state with a constitution that specifically protects “obscenity” under the First Amendment, following the 1987 case State v. Henry. The stipulation allows full nudity and a full bar (with hard liquor) under the same roof. “I found it really icky when I went to New York City and you had to wear a G-string,” Viva says. “To me it implied shame. Those workers are like, ‘Oh, you Portland girls are whores. You don’t even cover that stuff.’ And it’s like, ‘No, that stuff is beautiful!’ The government says that has to be covered up, but for what reason? Because it’s shameful? Or because it incites men to lust? It implies shame and we absorb it—we more than anyone.”
Outside of Oregon, stripping isn’t often revered as a form of self expression. Sandria Doré, a Portland-based dancer who performs as Dria, talks to me about her brief stint in Colorado, where she says management wouldn’t even let dancers on the floor if they had chipped nail polish or if they weren’t wearing enough makeup. But here, the dancers agree that similar requirements around self-presentation and aesthetics are rare, if not unheard of.
“I hear from dancers around the country who say Portland girls have it really lucky because we can be heavily tattooed,” Stanger says. “Some of us have armpit hair, some of us have leg hair, some of us don’t shave our pussies. You could wear ballet shoes and do this, or you could have short hair and do this, or you could be a trans woman and do this. People come from all over the world because they’ve heard that Portland strip clubs are so artistically diverse and based on freedom of expression, and somewhat freedom of sexuality. Portland has broadened the horizons for what’s possible in strip club entertainment,” she says.
In many cases, the strippers here are a reflection of the progressivism that modern Portland has come to embody. The alternative and nonnormative is not only celebrated, but becomes a viable commercial asset—and, in the case of stripping, is even elevated onto a dimly lit, sweat-covered pedestal.
“It’s really exciting that as a young adult trying to pay my bills, I’ve found the ability to not only make money, but also feel valued and like I’m doing a job that is actually important,” says Cloud, a nonbinary dancer at Pirate’s Cove in Northeast. Their degenerative eye disorder once made it difficult for them to hold down steady, well-paying jobs. Sex work, however, has offered them unparalleled flexibility.
“Finding this world and community gave me the tools to not only exist and participate as a disabled person, but also find my performative and artistic voice in the process. I think Portland is a place where dancers of all different kinds, for the most part, are allowed to express themselves and what makes them feel sexy. A thick bitch with tattoos in sneakers can do just as well as a petite blonde in stilettos here.”
Even so, sex workers everywhere have to fight for respect and to be taken seriously. Viva’s lost relationships because of her job; Viva, Stanger, and Dria have all faced criticism for being mothers and strippers; in 2015, the owner of Casa Diablo (“the world’s first vegan strip club,” located in Northwest) faced a lawsuit for allegedly mistreating dancers and withholding payment; dancers of color tend to be fetishized at best or completely shut out of clubs at worst. “Racism, transphobia, and fatphobia play heavily into a lot of club owners’ decisions to hire dancers, but it’s uncomfortable to talk about,” says Cloud.
Dria, who was born and raised in Portland, says that when she first started stripping 15 years ago, a lot of clubs practiced a no-hip-hop policy. “They were like, ‘It brings the wrong kind of customers.’ There was a lot of microaggressions and anti-blackness.”
But, much like the punks of yore, strippers here channel their frustrations into their art. They capture what makes Portland Portland, and in turn what makes Portland punk, by asserting their personalities on stage and defining for themselves what’s sexy in an industry—and a world—that otherwise defines it for you.
Everyone I speak with emphasizes how much they love what they do, especially Viva. “When I went to my first strip club on spring break in college, I was just blown away, not just by the theater, but by the art of it,” she says. “The actual human connection was different from so much theater and art that I’d seen, especially in college, where it tends to be really intellectual. I was just like, this is real and this is accessible.”
As we sit at Guilder chatting, a postal worker walks past us, rocking a small bleached mohawk. Viva and I share a knowing look, suppressing our amusement at the irony, and I ask her if she sees any overlap between punk culture and stripping. She smiles. “Stripping is very similar in attitude to punk. It’s very accepting, but also like, let’s think about society in a completely different way. It’s about thinking for oneself and thinking critically about culture and not succumbing to traditional ideas of what is right and what is shameful—not don’t think outside the box, or don’t be naked, or have a little more classical training. If you have something to say, you are going to thrive on these stages.”
And with that, it appears Portland punk will live to see another day.