SALEM, Ore. (AP) — 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.
The group, which has met about once a month with anywhere from four to 30 dancers, was convened by the Oregon chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. Wanting to help people with no political representation, the group tasked two contract lobbyists with figuring out how they could contribute.
"Social workers have always fought for people who want to fight for themselves," said Delmar Stone, director of the Oregon and Idaho chapter. "We're in solidarity with them in achieving human rights, basic protections, not being exploited."
Dancers warned the group not to require strippers to get licenses or make it harder for them to work as independent contractors. They like the anonymity and flexibility they have when they're truly treated as contractors.
The lobbyists brought their own news: Oregon's free speech protections, which are more robust than the federal First Amendment, severely limit the regulations that can be imposed. Rules that apply exclusively to strip clubs won't fly, so they'll have to be imposed on all "live entertainment" venues, bringing a whole host of fully-clothed entertainers into the mix.
Three times between 1994 and 2000, voters rejected constitutional amendments that would have allowed strip club crackdowns.
That means the government can't say where clubs can go, how much clothing dancers must wear or how close they're allowed to get to customers. Strip clubs can't be treated any differently than other places that serve food or alcohol.
A poster in the dressing room isn't necessarily a problem, said DaCorsi of the industry group, but he worries club owners would have to pay for a hotline. If regulations were needed, the industry should police itself, he said.
The dancers' work with lawmakers has surprised and confused DaCorsi and his colleagues, he said.
"How did it get to this point where entertainers got fed up to the point where they felt we need to enact a law or do some legislation around this?"
Follow AP writer Jonathan J. Cooper at http://twitter.com/jjcooper.