Illustration by Jon Sperry

In the first days of the 2009 legislative session, Oregon State Senator Bill Morrisette, a representative from the small town of Springfield, proposed amending the Oregon Constitution to allow cities and counties to regulate where "sexually oriented businesses" can set up shop.

Past attempts to exclude strip clubs and porn stores from Oregon's broad constitutional definition of "free speech" have fallen short, but the new measure, Senate Joint Resolution Five, is getting some traction in Portland. Some residents of the Montavilla neighborhood see a link between the abundant porn stores along 82nd Avenue and the prostitutes who walk the same street.

"Many of the high number of 'sex industries/businesses'—strip clubs, porn shops, and lingerie shops—in our communities are fronts for prostitution," reads the website of neighborhood activist group Montavilla in Action below the headline, "Please Support Joint Resolution Five—Call Your Senator NOW!"

During a crowded Montavilla neighborhood association meeting Monday night, February 9, long-time local activist Carol Cima argued in support of bringing the sex store regulation to a vote.

"Since we have zoning for slaughterhouses and hospitals, maybe zoning is the answer here," she said.

While planning experts and the police say they have no hard data to show there is any link between the existence of adult businesses and prostitution, many Montavilla residents came to this conclusion after the community held two "Prostitution Town Hall" discussion meetings last fall.

At the September meeting, former prostitute turned neighborhood activist Jeri Williams said, "We have too many sex shops in this town. If [a guy] goes into one of those places, and then goes out on the street and sees a girl, you know what's going to happen." When Williams announced that the city desperately needed to zone strip clubs out of certain neighborhoods, she received loud applause.

If approved by the secretary of state, Senate Joint Resolution Five could go before voters as a ballot measure later this year, or early next year. Oregon's definition of free speech treats all legal businesses the same, whether they are a Christian daycare or a strip club. The most recent attempt to regulate adult businesses, Measure 87, fell short of passing by less than five percent of the vote in 2000.

"Adult businesses can't be regulated more harshly just because of the content that takes place inside their business," says Oregon American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director David Fidanque. "If there are problems associated with that business, whether it's crime or littering or any other kind of nuisance, the city and police can regulate that."

Fidanque points out that while porn stores and strip clubs are heavily regulated in some states, they can't be rezoned out of existence.

"You can check with any state and there's going to be more adult businesses there than some people want," Fidanque says.

Exotic magazine owner Bryan Bybee says the implied link between prostitution and adult businesses is just a "scare tactic" by anti-sex industry activists. "There is absolutely no valid study that shows any link between adult businesses and prostitution in a neighborhood," says Bybee.

According to city planners, Oregon is relatively unique in the US because it does not allow cities to control where adult businesses can operate.

"The difficulty is how do you distinguish between Blockbuster and Fantasy Video?" says Senior Planner Jessica Richman, discussing a failed regulation measure from the 1980s. "Because of that gray area, people were afraid it would go too far and voted it down."

While the idea of getting sex stores out of the area in order to combat prostitution has ignited discussion in Montavilla, neighborhood opinion is still divided. Neighborhood resident Justin Cutler thinks ousting adult businesses would improve the area's feel, but that prostitution can only be tackled with more city services and help for sex workers.

"To think that zoning [adult stores] into a certain area will solve the problem of prostitution is ridiculous," says Cutler. "We need to engage with the problem on a more holistic level."