Portland’s First Hands-On Gay Strip Club Faces Challenges in the Era of Mpox

“Our unofficial motto is, if it’s legal and you can afford it, we’ll make it happen,” owner Justin Clouse says.

I have to sign a waiver to enter Fuzzy Navels.

That’s not something required at Silverado or Stag, Portland’s only other two gay strip clubs. “This is not Silverado or Stag,” owner Justin Clouse says.

At the main stage, the club’s other two guests this Saturday night have already paid to get our first dancer completely naked—which, according to Fuzzy Navels’ tipping incentive policy, costs at least $35. The young man wiggling on a small chair to the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” looks somewhat like Harry Styles: skinny with a few tattoos and wavy, sandy blond hair.

Clouse reminds the four of us that we’re allowed to touch the dancer and direct him from our seats, should we want him to show us our favorite parts of his body. We’re told to be creative with our demands. For $40 more, any one of us could buy the dancer’s underwear as a souvenir. One of the other men moves to the front row and strokes the dancer’s thigh and biceps but doesn’t venture further.

For the past two months, Fuzzy Navels has been operating Friday and Saturday nights, its blue neon glowing between a poker lounge and a shuttered dancing school on a dreary stretch of Northeast Sandy Boulevard out by the airport.

The Parkrose neighborhood storefront previously held the clubs Passionate Dreams and Secret Rendezvous, lingerie parlors where women modeled negligees at the request of straight men. Such businesses are often referred to as “jack shacks” for their reputations as barely concealed fronts for prostitution.

Clouse says Fuzzy Navels isn’t that, exactly. Signs are posted around the club forbidding patrons and dancers to touch each other anywhere in “the Speedo zone”—that is, the penis, testicles, sphincter and spaces in between.

But touching anywhere else? That’s encouraged—making Fuzzy Navels the only hands-on gay strip club in Portland.

“Our unofficial motto is, if it’s legal and you can afford it, we’ll make it happen,” Clouse says.

Clouse concedes attendance has been hit and miss. On its busiest night, Fuzzy Navels was only half full. “I think all industries are still suffering right now,” he tells WW.

The new club is part of an expansion in homoerotic entertainment businesses east of Interstate 205. A mile south, along Southeast Stark Street, the storied gay bathhouse Hawks opened a new, two-story location built from shipping containers. Inside: an outdoor hot tub, gym-style showers, caged lounge, glory holes, a sling swing, and scores of private rooms.

The grand openings arrive at an awkward moment, however.

Portland’s queer community might celebrate the launch of more venues to physically connect if only they didn’t appear during the outbreak of a virulent contagion most commonly known as the human monkeypox virus. Health officials are now calling it hMPXV, or mpox, in an effort to distance the virus from racist and homophobic connotations.

Nearly 20,000 infections have been diagnosed in the United States as of Sept. 2, with 141 cases in Oregon, 119 of which originated in Multnomah County.

The disease, characterized by fever, sore throat, aches and rashes followed by painful sores across the body, is spread by any kind of prolonged contact with infected skin and surfaces, and is disproportionately affecting men who have sex with men.

None of which sounds like great news for a gay adult entertainment venue where the central selling point is touching.

“I guess there’s always something coming down the line,” Clouse says. “It’s like anything: You just adapt as you go.”

Portland has long been ripe territory for lingerie parlors and sex shops, thanks to Oregon free-speech protections that rank among the nation’s strongest.

Lake Perriguey, a Portland lawyer who worked on Oregon Supreme Court cases that reaffirmed those protections, says the practices at Fuzzy Navels likely fall under what’s protected.

“The court affirmed that there is a lot of breathing room in Oregon’s constitution,” Perriguey says. “Indeed, a lot of heavy breathing room.”

Clouse, 46, decided to start Fuzzy Navels as an extension of his career in online content. His previous projects include the porn sites Straight College Boys and Redheaded Men, which he founded more than 20 years ago, and Bait & Tackle, a Las Vegas porn modeling agency and studio. Clouse lived in Las Vegas for 10 years, and now lives in Vancouver, Wash.

Fuzzy Navels has so far signed only two house entertainers, who closely resemble the models on Clouse’s previous sites: young, lean men in their early 20s who could pass for “Portland straight,” as Clouse puts it.

Clouse’s dream: a club where guests can meet erotic performers in the flesh—and direct softcore scenarios in real life that men often pay to watch online.

“At the base level, when the crowd tips at least $15, the guy’s butt will be visible with no underwear,” Clouse said. “If you spend $35 from the crowd in any which way, there’s going to be a guy fully nude onstage.”

The reality? Fuzzy Navels has the potential to stand out in Portland’s gay nightlife scene, especially for anyone with a penchant for bossing around boys, but it’s still a work in progress.

Photos of supposedly straight men with erect penises and hairy ass cheeks from Clouse’s archives are plastered throughout the club, both a celebration of his work and a last-ditch effort to deter straight men who didn’t notice the new signs or read the waiver‚ which states that their likenesses can be used online if recorded for the club.

Lap dance booths are still under construction, as are the club’s kitchen and full bar. “I say if you’re here to eat, you’re here for the wrong reason,” Clouse says.

You cannot yet order a fuzzy navel at Fuzzy Navels. For now, it’s soda or beer.

Bryant Haley of the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission confirms that Fuzzy Navels has a limited license to serve beer, wine and cider. “We do not have a specific regulation that covers ‘touching,’ as other similar businesses have differing forms of contact with dancers,” Bryant adds.

There is a photo booth to snap memento pics, and a VIP room where guests can pay to play card and classic video games with dancers. On my second night at the club, I spent more than an hour playing Uno with the two dancers. No one else entered the club until it closed at midnight.

A few blocks north, the new Hawks location has stark white walls, bright white light, and narrow corridors. It feels more like a repurposed corporate park than a bathhouse designed from scratch.

Moody dance pop and techno played. Men soaked in the hot tub, chatted on the cannabis-friendly smoking patio, showered together, and reclined in lounge areas on both floors, occasionally disappearing into dark corridors or private rooms. The most basic of these contains a locker and a cot-style twin mattress pad, and the most deluxe boasts full-size mattresses and a Dutch door-style glory hole obscuring a participant’s upper body.

Hawks’ employees made the most laps throughout the club, checking rooms regularly for any signs that sheets needed changing or surfaces required spraying and wiping down. Cleaning instructions to new employees were heard louder than any other noises.

Hawks originally opened on Southeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in 2012. It hosted regular HIV and STI testing clinics through the Multnomah County Health Department and Cascade AIDS Project.

The new Hawks will soon feature clinics for administering mpox and COVID vaccines from the health department, along with its other health care offerings.

Dr. Kim Toevs, director of the county’s communicable disease and harm reduction programs, says it’s actually safer to allow places like Fuzzy Navels and Hawks to operate than to leave people vulnerable to mpox to their own devices.

“Folks are going to connect with each other anyway, and it is a better use of our relationships with those venues to be sites where we can provide vaccinations,” Toevs says. “It’s an important pathway to reach folks in the community who are highest risk.”

Multnomah County provides education for all businesses where contact with strangers is unavoidable—including hotels, gyms, nail salons, barber shops, massage parlors, and medical clinics, along with nightclubs, dance parties, and sex clubs—and advises them to continue following their COVID sanitation regimen, wear hygienic personal protective devices such as gloves and face masks, and quarantine if they suspect infection.

Toevs says it’s too early to tell if mpox cases will continue to fall, but its spread is nowhere near as rapid as COVID or HIV, and she attributes the LGBTQ+ community’s education about symptoms and vaccines as a reason for comparatively low case numbers.

Meanwhile, at Fuzzy Navels, Clouse is not discouraged by the bad timing of his club’s opening.

“We just want people to come in, have fun, and not worry about anything else,” he says. “You’re not seeing the guy you’re going to go on a date with. But it’s fun for the night, we play the fantasy, and I guess I’m not conservative about nudity, so I thought, why not make an experience that you know what you’ll get?”