PROFESSOR "POE" clicked through her first PowerPoint slide, standing tall in knee-high white vinyl boots. "First of all, stop pretending this isn't about money," Poe told the 55 Reedies and curious members of the public who squeezed into a Reed College psych room on Saturday afternoon, January 23, for her one-time class, "The Economics of Stripping." An IRS-certified tax preparer and former stripper, Poe prefers to be identified by her stage name
"The adult industry is just like any other industry. The producers just happen to be naked ladies and the consumers happen to be sad little men," said Poe, gesturing to a classic definition of supply and demand projected behind her.
Despite the large and lucrative nature of the stripping industry in Portland (local sex industry magazine Exotic lists 49 strip clubs in the city limits), all money exchanged in the clubs is considered part of the city's informal economy. That means the possibly millions of dollars exchanged behind closed doors are not studied by traditional economists and, in many cases, not taxed. Strippers have no local union or trade association, and no official group tracking how much they earn by city, experience, or age. The economy of strip clubs is anything but naked.
"While the industry is heavily regulated about what size of pasties and G-string you can wear, most states [don't have] many regulations about how dancers can be paid or treated," pointed out Poe, noting Oregon's acceptance of full nudity on the stripping stage.
Poe ran the class through the basics she gleaned from recent stripper memoirs as well as her own years stripping for tuition dollars in New Orleans, Eugene, and Portland. Steering clear of feminism or moral lines of inquiry, the pioneering strip-o-conomist focused purely on dollars and cents: Dancers are hired as independent contractors, which means no workers' comp, no hourly wages, and no legal protection to unionize. Normal labor rights go out the window; clubs routinely hire and fire dancers based on race, hair color, and boob size.
Dancers pay a nightly stage fee of $5-200 per shift to take off their clothes, plus they must tip out the bartender and DJ and invest in the capital costs of fancy shoes and racy underthings. The right costume can bring in hundreds of dollars. "The most money I ever made was at a logging convention in Eugene just wearing crummy overalls and dancing with a fake gun," said Poe.
On the other hand, says Poe, most clubs do not report dancers' earnings to the IRS, so many tell the tax gods they bring home far less than they do. Stripping will bring in $70-200 a shift in Portland, more if you can hustle lap dances better than the other ladies or are willing to work at a fetish club.
"Let me tell you, getting paid to give a golden shower, you feel gypped every time you pee after that," Poe told the amiable crowd, to laughter and applause.
In typical Portland fashion, the class concluded with a bike ride to Union Jacks on East Burnside. Informal economics unfolded as 10 of us students settled into chairs by the stage rail. We each placed a dollar on the stage and I watched a clean-shaven, tattooed girl with lens-less hipster glasses gyrate her gyno to Vampire Weekend. Quickly down to wearing nothing but a thin string, the dancer writhed in my direction and then, in a shameless aerobic feat, grabbed my dollar bill between her butt cheeks and rolled away. No matter which economic theory I considered, I felt cheap.
In a classic American-spending pattern, I had just shelled out for attractive goods I didn't especially want and definitely didn't need.