A single entertainer dances on the main stage of Golden Dragon Exotic Club in Portland, Oregon: her clear platform heels clunking as she winds through two brass poles. There are but two separate, still, and completely noiseless customers watching her. One sits on the stained crushed-red velvet booths lining the walls, and another sits in the ring of booths rounding the stage. Both recline in utter silence, watching the dancer as one might watch a football game on television.
Portland slammed into lockdown on March 23, 2020, with Governor Kate Brown’s stay-at-home order. Many businesses like this dancer’s that rely almost entirely on physical intimacy got swept away on the pernicious current of the pandemic: members of Portland’s rapidly blossoming sex industry scattered to the wind.
She calls herself “Medusa” and works at Golden Dragon as well as a club in Gresham. This adjustment has been especially difficult for workers like her. “It’s even harder for me there because the restrictions are really strict at that club [in Gresham],” she explains, her faux eyelashes rapidly flapping as she blinks. Her skintight silver bodysuit glints and glimmers with every movement she makes. She holds a few dollars between her perfectly manicured fingers and crosses her legs, her platform heels weighing them down to the eccentrically-patterned floor. “The CDC’s always coming in,” she continues, “so we just have to make sure we’re following every rule all the time.”
At the start of the pandemic, most clubs in Portland, Oregon, closed, forcing dancers like Medusa to resort to other means of sex work. “I actually stopped working in clubs for a while and I was just doing online stuff,” she said. remembers, “I was actually going to get another 9-to-5 and then I decided to go back to the clubs and just see how it is.” She soon became more comfortable returning to in-person stripping. Still, despite her devotion to following safety guidelines and Golden Dragon’s strict distancing guidelines, clubs are emptier than they have ever been in Portland. She gestures to the nearly empty room. “Right now, I think this is because people are just afraid to go to the club,” she concludes, “I’ve never seen one this empty before.”
She said there are ways besides coming in to patronize clubs like Golden Dragon through which members of the Portland community can support adult entertainers. “If [community members] know anyone who dances or does online sex work right now, I think it’s important that they support their friend right now. Even if you’re not in the industry, it can help to tell your friends, ‘Oh, I know this person who dances at this club’. Just spreading the word to people who like going to clubs or maybe just to shows, even.”
The two flights of stairs leading up to the front desk at the club imitated the whimsical confetti carpet pattern one might find at a skating rink. Two burly security guards sporting head-to-toe black outfits and an earpiece demarcated by a curly translucent wire man a dimly lit desk.
Electronic dance music is blasting through loudspeakers on either side of the desk, and multicolored lights strobe in the space beyond it, but the atmosphere somehow feels lacking. Once patrons make their way past the desk and into a room with an unusually low ceiling and a small stage illuminated in the middle, the reasoning for the lack of ambiance becomes abundantly clear. In this area, the only other noise filling the space is coming from the bar, behind which another towering, sturdy figure stands stacking soda cans. This is Nick Morris, a bartender and security guard wearing a thin rectangular pair of lensless glasses and a clear mouth shield instead of a mask.
“I’ve never seen a night like this before,” he said, letting out a sigh of disbelief. “Even on really slow weekdays.”
Since March 2020, a new part of his job has been to make sure that clients– even those who come into the club in groups– stay at least 6 feet apart at all times. What’s more, he explains that dancers are not to come within six feet of customers either, making his job of keeping dancers safe all the more difficult. “I usually have to tell the guys who come in here [to stay apart from others] quite a few times a day,” Morris said.
The Portland-Metro Region is an exceptionally lively and progressive region when it comes to the growth of the sex industry and companies like Golden Dragon. In fact, as of 2019, Portland boasts the title of the city with the most strip clubs and adult entertainment venues per capita of any city in the United States. In all, Portland is home to 54 completely nude strip clubs for its approximately 647,000 citizens. The density of clubs in the city surpasses those traditionally thought of as massive contributors to the sex work industry like Housten, Los Angeles, and New York City. The midtown area of Portland alone houses more than 50 storefronts that specialize in the merchandising of erotic paraphernalia or offer sexual intimacy coaching and practices. With sex being such a lucrative business in the Portland Metro Area, the pandemic presents the challenge of a lifetime to the city. Companies who make their living on sex must now adapt or fizzle out. This much is true not only for adult entertainment but for sex education, as well.
Amory Jane, general manager and sexual education coordinator at one of Portland’s highly-rated sex toy boutiques, She Bop, sits in front of a whimsical children’s poster in her home office. What appears to be multicolored curlicues resembling red, yellow, and blue worms spatter across the white paper. Her strikingly blue eyes blink coolly at her camera as she speaks. Jane is teaching an instructional course about oral sex– titled “BJs with AJ”– later today.
“My first couple of classes were really awkward,” said Jane. “I was like ‘Where do I look? Am I looking [at the screen] or up here?’” She points at her camera and admits, “I’m still a little awkward about it.”
She Bop is known by Portland locals for dazzling in-person customer service and hosting community events, lectures, classes, and discussions surrounding every facet of sexuality. AJ is currently teaching all of her courses entirely virtually. Like countless other establishments in the Portland-Metro area and workers that specialize in sexual education and practice, AJ and She Bop have had to do something that no one in the sex industry has ever done before: adapt their business model so that there is no physical touch or close proximity involved.
According to Jane, businesses that specialize in sex education have to rise to the occasion when it comes to teaching in the pandemic. “We used to do a lot of events and classes at our North Portland location,” recounted Jane, “When COVID hit, we had to cancel all of our events and transition them to online, which was kind of hectic. Up until that point, we were really known for all of our in-person customer service.”
Jane explains that She Bop canceled all in-person education and shopping, leaving management no choice but to lay off half of their staff.
“The team we had left worked really hard to make sure there wasn’t a gap in classes. People still needed sex-ed. In fact, people probably needed it even more now.”
Jane said that navigating the hurdles of fear and doubt in the sexual education community is challenging, but evolution often follows adversity. She approximates that She Bop used to host two to three classes for interested community members per week. Transitioning to online classes allows speakers to hold closer to eight per week. This sudden increase in the interest in sexual education classes results from students’ willingness to participate in an online class rather than risk the embarrassment of attending in-person classes, Jane says.
“That’s been a blessing in disguise for us,” said Jane. “People are sometimes shy about signing up for in-person classes.”
While the shift to online classes has been rocky for her team, Jane suspects that the company will continue to adopt an online model for customers who might not feel comfortable discussing sexual gratification face-to-face.
This trend persists through all layers of sexual education, according to Stella Harris, a former educator for She Bop and a full-time sexuality coach and educator.
Before COVID-19 rocked her business, Harris considered herself a business owner like any other.
“I had a little office and would see individuals and couples there [for coaching],” she recalls, a hint of wistfulness shining in her bespectacled eyes. “I haven’t done that since last March.”
Harris’s demeanor reminds one of any other therapist: her countenance is calm and steady. Her knitted sweater is situated in a perfectly symmetrical way on her shoulders. The olive-green color of her outfit even matched the tufts of greenery hanging from black frames against her white background wall. In reality, her job looks a little different from what one might expect.
“Functionally, it looks a lot like therapy,” she described, “You kind of just sit there and talk about stuff.” She smiles and does not hesitate to add, “Although, a lot of the conversations I had were much more colorful than that.”
Similar to She Bop, Harris reorganized her profession to the demanding mold of the pandemic. However, as a crucial element of Harris’s occupation includes informing people on healthy sexual boundaries, she has found herself adjusting her curriculum to romantic situations unique to relationships forged in the era of COVID-19.
She explains that her educational work is now “…very much geared toward the pandemic, how to communicate safe boundaries, and bubbles within [pandemic-safe sex].” As well as teaching classes on masturbation and sexual self-care, Harris has begun teaching courses on topics like online dating and how one might set conditions for a Tinder date in respect to social distancing guidelines. “I started a class that is specifically about writing love letters and sexting that I’ve done a number of times during the pandemic.”
Unfortunately, several of Harris’s new enterprises before the citywide shutdown last March shared one common theme: group intimacy.
“One goofy thing about all of this: the book I just had come out in March was about threesomes,” Harris said. “Obviously, that got put under contract a couple of years ago. It felt very goofy to have a group sex book come out in the middle of a pandemic.” Besides the obvious need to shift her focus to more individual-based teachings, Harris has also had to adapt to teaching healthy sexual practices over Zoom. Like her peers at She Bop, she is doing her best to embrace this method’s challenges. “There have definitely been some silver linings,” she asserts. “A lot of people are never going to walk into a [sex shop] for a class. [Zoom] is making [sex education] more accessible for people who aren’t able to get out to stuff.”
While sex education has adapted in surprising and more accessible ways than many imagined due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many businesses that specialize in turning sexual education into practice for the urban community faced a much different story in March of 2020.
One such business which found itself in dire straights despite making adjustments to the pandemic was Catalyst: A Sex Positive Place in downtown Portland. When businesses were operating as usual downtown, Catalyst’s storefront worked much like a community meeting place centered around a BDSM dungeon. The shop was able to stay afloat during most of the last year until March of 2021 when it closed for good. Theresa Reed, who also goes by her alter ego “Darklady,” was the owner and operator of Catalyst: a sedate yet lively character sporting bright red headphones that one might expect a DJ to wear at a nightclub. Surrounded by trinkets and toys, including a Star Wars piggy bank in the shape of a Storm Trooper’s helmet, she smiles as she reminisces on Catalyst in its prime. “[Before the pandemic] we were very fortunate,” she recalls, “We had pretty much every day of the week booked out.”
Reed fondly recalls what the shop used to be. Like She Bop, Catalyst hosted special events to attract Portland residents to the establishment. “Every Friday was naughty karaoke,” she added without much elaboration. A thin smile appeared on her burgundy-colored lips, and her eyes brightened as memories came flooding back to her about her once-thriving, eccentric day job. Her work at Catalyst was her passion. While actual sexual practices were prohibited in the space, people were allowed to explore kinks and sexual fantasies in the dungeon area. Theresa felt that being a part of this meant that she was a part of her community realizing gratification and fulfillment. “The dungeon was open during that time. It was amazing. There were always so many people connecting with one another. Two weeks later…” The spark of pride slowly faded from her, and her gaze fell toward the floor.
“Last month, we put Catalyst into storage. We are no longer in business as a brick-and-mortar entity.”
Catalyst began altering meetings and enforcing strict guidelines on meetings pertaining to BDSM practice when the pandemic started. Reed said that, as the realization that COVID-19 was likely not going to be a temporary setback, she moved all events online and attempted to schedule Zoom meetings with some of her more regular clients. Though her efforts to spark public enthusiasm about online sessions were persistent, she eventually found that they were not enough to keep the lights on at Catalyst and closed the shop.
As vaccines become more widely distributed throughout Portland and the Pacific Northwest in general, businesses like Catalyst and Portland’s entire sex industry are likely to open back up to the public for in-person services. However, it is unclear what long-term effects and changes will impact businesses like She Bop, Catalyst, and Golden Dragon in years to come. However, one inference is consistent among business owners, sex workers, and adult entertainers: the sex industry in Portland is experiencing its most momentous shift in history. –Isabelle Williams