You've seen them along Northeast 82nd Avenue and lining the suburban strips of Washington County. With names like Hotties, Pussy Cats and Private Rendezvous, they advertise services from fetish fulfillment and Jell-O wrestling to rubdowns and shower shows.
They first sprang up more than 15 years ago. Now, one operator estimates more than 15 exist in the Portland metro area alone. Euphemistically called lingerie shops, they're also sometimes referred to as "jack shacks."
"Those are pretty much considered to be a front for prostitution," says Jeff Barker, a retired Portland cop turned Democratic state representative from Aloha.
Others could argue they're merely venues for adults to have a harmless good time. Now an effort to rein in the shops has become what some activists see as a danger to Oregon's vaunted free-speech protections, which rank among the strongest in the nation.
After neighbors protested a string of such businesses in Washington County last year, Barker and a few legislative allies are trying to contain the industry with several bills—including two constitutional amendments that could go before Oregon voters in 2012.
"It's about fucking time. You can quote me on that," says Jeannie Timpke, a lingerie-shop owner in Portland. "Things are out of control."
Timpke owns two locations, one next to a McDonald's on Northeast 82nd Avenue and the other on Southwest Barbur Boulevard. She says she strictly forbids prostitution. Cameras running in the private rooms keep the workers safe and clients on the up-and-up. But she says women who have worked in other shops tell her things are different elsewhere.
"These women are being brainwashed," Timpke says. "They're being taught to do things that just aren't right. Any regulation, I will celebrate it."
One way to curb the industry would be to let cities limit the shops by zoning where they can go. But that's impossible now because of a unanimous 1987 Oregon Supreme Court decision. The court ruled against the City of Portland for raiding a porn shop, saying it violated the free-speech clause of the Oregon Constitution.
The Legislature has tried repeatedly to give cities the right to zone sex shops. But changes to the state constitution require voter approval, and voters defeated three such measures, in 1994, 1996 and 2000. The last two tries came closest to success—both times, 52 percent of voters said no.
"They've made it clear that they do not want the government to decide what they read, see and hear," says Andrea Meyer, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, which opposes any such measures.
But state Sen. Mark Hass (D-Raleigh Hills) says the lingerie shops have now proliferated, and voters are sick of them in their neighborhoods. He attended rallies last fall against a string of shops on Canyon Road.
"This isn't your average neighborhood protest," he recalls. "They filled up a church in Raleigh Hills that held about 250 people, six weekends in a row. It was jammed to the gills. These are Democrats and Republicans who are just fed up with these places."
In summer, the shops in Washington County feature bikini-clad women in wading pools outside beckoning passing motorists, Hass says.
"What happens on Take Your Child to Work Day?" asked state Sen. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Beaverton) at a March 21 Senate hearing.
"Another question from a child going by today might be, 'Mommy, what's a full-friction lap dance?'" said Portland lawyer Hal Scoggins at the same hearing.
Lawmakers are trying two different proposed constitutional amendments. Hass and Rep. Tobias Read (D-Beaverton) are the prime drivers of both, and Hass insists the intended targets are lingerie shops, not traditional strip clubs.
The first, a Senate bill, would try again to carve out a specific exception to free speech in Oregon—this time, for live nude entertainment only, not porn shops.
But that effort is a three-time loser at the polls, so Hass' allies have a backup plan—a House bill that would simply replace Oregon's free-speech clause with the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Other states, like neighboring Washington, let their cities zone strip clubs. But the Oregon Supreme Court ruled the Oregon Constitution applies here, because it provides greater protection of speech than the U.S. Constitution.
Portland City Commissioner Randy Leonard says he welcomes the chance to keep the clubs away from schools and neighborhoods.
"We don't allow petroleum plants near a grade school," Leonard says. "It's a reasonable function of government."
But the ACLU's Meyer says swapping Oregon's powerful free-speech provision could scrap decades of established case law and roll back other liberties, including media rights and commercial speech.
"We don't know the consequences of such a broad proposal," Meyer says. "But I think it goes well beyond what the sponsors intended and certainly has unintended consequences."
FACT: A public hearing on the House bill to change the state constitution is set for Friday, April 1, at 1 pm in front of the House Judiciary Committee.