Strip Clubs and Sexism in Craft Beer

There were a number of interesting subplots to the Craft Brewers Conference last week, but none more so than the attention lavished on Portland's famous strip clubs. And from old England to New England to Montreal, many women found it pretty offensive. Stan has a good round-up of some of the voices in that debate, but I wanted to add a local's perspective. As with so many things, the further away from a situation you are, the clearer the lines look. Up close, they're fuzzier.

1. Why so many strip clubs?
Oregon isn't a particularly libertine place (a majority of residents came from New England and the Midwest) and Portland, with its sapphire-blue politics, is pretty women-friendly, two facts that make strip clubs seem like a weird fit. And indeed, strip clubs have been controversial for decades. They exist because Oregon has one of the most liberal free-speech laws on the books. ("No law shall be passed restraining the free expression of opinion, or restricting the right to speak, write, or print freely on any subject whatever.") In two famous cases, limits on strip clubs came up before the Oregon Supreme Court (in 1982 and 2005) and both times the Court said strip clubs were protected by the Constitution. (It also means a rather liberal interpretation of "expression"--full nudity is Constitutionally kosher.)

2. Prudery, objectification, and agency
Portlanders have had all the strip club debates--often. When they are such a prominent fixture of your streets, you have to think through the thorny issues. Are strippers victims of patriarchy or third-wave feminists expressing their bodies naturally? If you see strippers as victims, you are obliquely asserting that they have no agency in the matter. This is one of those times when living far away may make things less clear. Once you know a stripper (as I have), it's not so easy to take the I-know-what's-best position. On the other hand, it's pretty clear why strip clubs exist. Not everyone who walks into a strip club is thinking about the wonderful celebration of women's rights they're about to experience.

3. Titillation for fun and profit
Oregonians have made our peace with them, but some percentage of visitors always turn into 16-year-old boys when they hear there are strip clubs here. Three years ago, I was gobsmacked to hear that Redhook was going to host a strip club crawl. "Beer and strip clubs?--partay!" By merely hosting the CBC in Portland, strip clubs were guaranteed to become an issue. Since Portland's strip clubs always magnetize people coming to the city, I suppose it was inevitable that they would play a starring role in the CBC. It seems crazy to associate your brand with an activity that will offend some decent proportion of your customer base, but it happens regularly.

4. Women, beer, and Portland
The beer world is overwhelming dominated by white men. It has a history of racism, bigotry, and rampant sexism. If you go to any beer geek event--like the CBC, say--you'll see an ocean of white, mostly male folk. Anyone who would like to see this world evolve has to take special steps to avoid making the same mistakes that have made it an exclusive club for so long. 

And here's where Portland and Oregon really have shined. We have a number of women brewers and this is where the Pink Boots Society was formed. If you walk into any pub in town, you'll see a pretty even distribution of men and women (all drinking, naturally, good Oregon beer). Women run some of the best pubs in town, write about beer, and even (until recently), talked about it on the radio. It's frustrating to think that people will walk away think Portland is this uniquely sexist city, when the picture's a lot brighter than that.

That said, if this whole strip club discussion got the brewing industry thinking more deeply about its own sexism and how to include women, I'm willing to have Portland take its lumps.