Paris Hoover went to Salem last March to ask lawmakers to watch out for strippers.
The 27-year-old Portland nude dancer traveled to the state Capitol to publicly demand rights. She trekked the halls for six hours, telling the stories of sweltering clubs with no air conditioning and broken poles to nearly a dozen state representatives, including House Majority Leader Val Hoyle (D-Eugene).
âMany of the freedoms I was allowed by the law, I wasnât being allowed by management,â Hoover recalls telling lawmakers. âI didnât become a stripper to be told what to do.â
Hoover is one of two dancers who became the face of two âstripper billsâ that worked their way through the Legislature last session.
And her work paid off. In July, lawmakers passed one of the bills, establishing a hotline for live entertainers to call to report workplace abuses—health and safety violations, wage disputes or harassment—and mandating the display of posters notifying dancers of their rights.
But Hoover's victory came at a personal cost.
Fellow dancers harassed her at the club where she used to work until she quit. She even stopped speaking to her best friend because they disagreed about the bills.
As it turned out, dancers themselves bridled at state government examining their livelihoods. And when strippers heard that a group of social workers and lobbyists were hatching a plan to ensure their civil rights, many grew angry and afraid.
âI want to be one of those people who does whatâs right regardless of the consequences,â Hoover says, âeven if that means everyone in the world hates me.â
The momentum for stronger workplace protections for strippers has grown in the past year—often because lawsuits and state investigations show abuse is rife in clubs.
In January, two former dancers sued Northwest Portland strip club Casa Diablo in U.S. District Court, demanding lost pay and damages for harassmentâincluding unwanted touchingâby customers and employees (âThe Devilâs Due,â WW, Jan. 14, 2015).
And this week, Commissioner Brad Avakian of the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries filed a workplace discrimination complaint against Stars Cabaret in Beaverton for allegedly employing two dancers under age 16—one in 2012, and another last year.
"We currently have investigations looking to see whether or not workers are being paid every dime that they're entitled to," Avakian says. "We've been around the block with clubs in Oregon before, and we know this is a particularly vulnerable population of workers."
Industry insiders say public concern about the treatment of strippers has always been minimal.
"If you're going to list the things Portland cares about," says Ray McMillin, a local strip-club DJ for about a decade, "naked women fall somewhere between potholes and black people, but far below the latest food cart or artisan doughnut."
But in April 2014, a group of lobbyists and social workers started a grassroots campaign for new protections.
Delmar Stone, executive director of the Oregon chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, says his organization began to think about stripper rights when a few members raised concerns last spring over industry abuses. Dancers are typically classified as independent contractors—meaning they work for tips, aren't eligible for health benefits or sick leave, and aren't entitled to workers' compensation if they're injured on the job.
"It was like, 'OK, somebody needs to do something.' Because that's what social workers do," Stone says. "This is a population that has no voice in the Legislature."
Stephanie Wahab, an associate professor of social work at Portland State University, helped arrange a meeting last fall where about 30 dancers, social workers and lobbyists sat around tables in a PSU classroom. Some had laptops and were taking notes. Others brought their attorneys and didn't identify themselves.
"It was a powerful meeting," Wahab says, "because people were speaking to the different kinds of abuses and health and safety concerns that were coming up in their jobs. There was just too much content and information on the table."
It was also contentious. A lobbyist pitched the idea of licensing dancers and requiring civil rights training.
But most dancers gathered opposed this. They didn't want to be "outed." Several sources say one dancer was pursuing a degree in teaching, and said she would be banned from her future profession if her dancing experience showed up on a background check.
And it wasn't just licenses that provoked disagreement. Dancers disagreed whether they wanted to be classified as employees, whether two-way contact dances should be allowed, and how to police industry abuses if at all.
Hoover and Elle Stanger became the public faces of the campaign, which narrowed to two objectives: creating the hotline and posting workplace rights in clubs.
Yet many dancers remained worried the lobbying effort would result in turning strippers into full-time employees.
Viva Las Vegas, a Portland stripper for nearly two decades and former editor of Exotic magazine, says by October more than 25 strippers had met in a small apartment on Northeast Sandy Boulevard to discuss their reservations about lawmakers' efforts.
"That was interesting—to see how loath we are to have attention," says Las Vegas. "It's nice to have our work legitimized, but mainly we'd just like to be left alone."
Hoover—who says she became a dancer because the flexible hours allowed her to deal with the effects of bipolar disorder—kept fighting anyway.
"I figured I would stick my neck out," she adds, "given I don't have as much to risk as somebody who has been doing our job for years."
When BOLI investigated a club where she worked in response to a complaint unrelated to the legislation, Hoover says her co-workers became angry and blamed her. She quit the next day.
She now dances elsewhere, and says she has no regrets.
âI wouldnât go back and abstain from the process,â Hoover says. âI wouldnât take back my testimony. I wouldnât take back the time and energy I spent caring about this.â