Finding beauty and truth in a Portland strip club

The city of Portland loves its strip clubs, as it is home to more strip clubs per capita than any other major city in the U.S.

Viva Las Vegas is arguably the most famous of Portland’s many dancers, and her achievements can be measured both on and off the stage.

An accomplished writer, Viva’s published works include two book titles—Magic Gardens: The Memoirs of Viva Las Vegas and The Gospel According to Viva Las Vegas: Best of the Exotic Years—as well as articles in Portland Monthly, The New York Times and Village Voice.

As the daughter of a Minnesotan preacher, it may not surprise you to learn that Viva considers the stage her pulpit. “I love ministering,” she says in a tone that is both confident and sultry.

With 17 years of stripping under her belt, Viva feels fortunate to have found an art form that resonates with her, and says she would do it for free. “Art can be very inspiring, and I’ve always called this art,” she said.

Viva came to dancing for intellectual reasons. “I studied anthropology at Williams College, and I thought the way sex workers were considered wasn’t very thorough,” she said. “I wondered, ‘Why aren’t these people getting intellectual treatment?’”

“We treat sex workers like second-class citizens,” she added. “It’s actually very anti-feminist.”

While a senior in college, Viva took a trip to New Orleans with some friends. It was there she encountered her first exotic dancer, and it was then she decided it was what she had been searching for.

“It was anthropology, economics, art, body, sex and culture,” she said. “It was everything I was interested in.”
Believing it inappropriate to dance in her hometown where her father had established himself as a religious figure in the community, Viva found home in the rainy city.

Viva thinks Portland is a good place for sex work because the climate is generally more accepting. “It’s not all good, and we hear about trafficking that takes place, but I think women feel more comfortable choosing that work here.”

These days she’s dancing at Mary’s downtown, and she’s grateful for the amazing people she’s met there.

“I love my coworkers. They are some very independent and innovative thinkers,” she said.

While Viva acknowledges that not all sex workers are fortunate enough to be in the industry on their own terms, she thinks it’s important to respect the decisions of the women and men who are.

“If sex work is legalized and respected, we’ll have a better sex industry. Right now it’s corrupted by greed and vice,” she said. “Women stand most to benefit from its legalization.”

Viva sees her work as being more about empathy than eroticism. “Most girls will tell you it’s not about sex, it’s about connection,” she said. “Nobody ever asks for your phone number and nobody expects to get laid. Sometimes people just want to talk as humans.”

That human interaction is what Viva cites as her favorite part of the job. “I love that every day is different and I can connect with the patrons on a very deep level,” she said.

“Everything is a part of the human experience. I’m not there to judge you, I’m there to find that common ground.”

To illustrate the level of empathy the women at Mary’s bring to their work, Viva shared a story about one of her co-workers, Beth.

“We have a regular customer, an older man with pretty severe autism, and Beth makes him feel like a part of the family,” she said.

“One day he came in after his father passed away and he was really distraught,” she explained, adding that the man was living with his father when he died.

“Beth took him to the humane society, got him a kitten so he wouldn’t be lonely, and made sure he was connected to any resources he might need. Within a week this guy went from suicidal to totally okay, and now he brings the cat in for a visit once a month.”

Stories like this aren’t exceptional, Viva says. She and her co-workers have made deep connections with many lonely patrons that have wandered into Mary’s, and it’s that connection that inspires passion in her work.

“I’ve always been looking for beauty and truth, and I feel really lucky to have found that,” she said. “And well, it’s awesome to just dance around to music on stage.”