Any tourist guide to Portland will tell you about the strip clubs.

There are dozens of them, something for any taste or any neighborhood, helped to ubiquity by Oregon’s fierce protection of free speech.

Tired of watching well-meaning strangers impose their own visions for improving the plight of the dancer, some of Portland’s seasoned strippers are working directly with state lawmakers and professional lobbyists.

Around the country, strippers have stepped up their fight for better working conditions. Some are suing. Others have filed complaints with state regulators. A handful have unionized. But the effort in Oregon to work directly with the Legislature — with the support of lobbyists — is unique.

“The hardest part about being a stripper is battling the stigma that we are victims that need help from outsiders,” said Elle Stanger, a stripper who’s been active in the movement. “It doesn’t matter if you work in education, clergy, any kind of blue collar work — the people who do the work know what the work environment needs.”

Stanger has worked her entire five-year career at the Lucky Devil Lounge. She’s pleased with the management, she said, and isn’t concerned she’ll face retaliation for speaking publicly. But as the assistant editor of Exotic Magazine, a local publication for the sex industry, she’s seen plenty of clubs. They’re not all as great as hers.

“Some of the buildings are literally dilapidated and not maintained,” Stanger said. “You have entertainers that could injure themselves from broken glass on the stage, poor wiring with the sound system. We just want to get these workplaces up to a minimum safety standard at least.”

There may be a few bad apples, but most club owners take dancers’ safety seriously and are appalled when strippers are mistreated, said Claude DaCorsi, a club operator and president of the Oregon chapter of the Association of Club Executives, an industry association.

“We’re here to protect and make safe environments for entertainers,” DaCorsi said. “They’re the reason we exist.”

The dancers and lobbyists have settled on a handful of improvements they’d like to pursue.

Ideally, they want to see strip clubs comply with mandatory health and safety standards — clean stages, structurally sound poles, adequate security. But that could be a tough sell in the Legislature.

More realistically, they plan to push for a mandate that clubs display a poster outlining dancers’ rights with a hotline they can call to ask questions or report abuses. They want the hotline to be staffed by people with experience in the industry, not bureaucrats or law enforcement.

Strippers generally work as independent contractors rather than employees. They pay a stage fee or a portion of their earnings to the management, bartenders, bouncers, DJs and other support staff.

The contractor status means clubs don’t have to pay payroll taxes or provide health insurance. It also means that dancers can’t be managed like employees.

Many young women get into the business without much work experience and are exploited, some strippers say. Not knowing their rights as independent contractors, dancers may not realize when a management demand is illegal or inappropriate, they say. The association helps keep them from being on their own.

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