Undressed & unregulated: Inside the lingerie modeling industry

Undressed & unregulated: Inside the lingerie modeling industry

PORTLAND, Ore. - The sign outside Ben Cunningham’s Southwest Portland business reads: "Pussycats." But according to his business paperwork, this establishment is a religious organization.

According to public documents filed with the Oregon Secretary of State, Cunningham registered the business as a tax-exempt religious organization called "XXX Church."

Pussycats is one of Portland's full-nude "lingerie modeling" shops, which critics say are unregulated outfits that sometimes sell sex.

A former employee says the only worshiping that goes on at Pussycats is by done by clients who pay money for sex.

"I worked there and made thousands of dollars," Nikki said.

"Nikki" agreed to talk to KATU News as long as it did not use her real name or her performer name.

"If you want to get (oral sex) you are going to get (oral sex). If you want to have sex - you're going to have sex," she said.

Nikki said Cunningham made it clear what he wanted for Pussycats' clients. She said if girls didn't have sex with the customers, they would be fired.

Terri Dunn, her husband and her daughter managed the Pussycats lingerie modeling shops for almost a year while Cunningham traveled through Central America. They said when he was home in Portland they witnessed the pressure on girls to perform.

Jen Dunn said girls were forced to either do what Cunningham said or face being unemployed.

"All he wants is his cut from it - so tell me that's not being a pimp," she said.
 
Emails and money transfers between the Dunns and Cunningham show the shops were bringing in $15,000-$30,000 cash each week and half of it went directly to Cunningham.

They said they also discovered some of the girls earning that cash were not adults.

Terri remembered one time in particular when she said she had to fire three girls after she asked them to buy her a pack of cigarettes and they had to admit they were not yet 18.
 
KATU also found two more girls who were underage and working at Pussycats. Jenny, also known as "Asian Peach" or "Peachy" was just 15 when sources tell KATU she started working for Cunningham.

Former employees also said a girl named LaLa was just 16 when she worked her first shift at Pussycats on Southeast Foster Road in Portland and later at Pussycats in Salem.

In a phone call LaLa told KATU News she left Pussycats when she turned 18.

KATU found images of both girls on multiple websites where they advertised as escorts.

This is not the first time KATU has encountered Pussycats owner Ben Cunningham. In November 2009, business owners along Southeast Division near 122nd Avenue complained to KATU that Cunningham was parading nearly naked women around in front of their stores and passed their customers and children.

Cunningham has not answered numerous emails from KATU before or since that story ran, but in a recent phone interview he said he never knowingly hired anyone who was not an adult.

He denied knowing Jenny, aka "Asian Peach," and said he believed LaLa was 18 when she went to work for him.

He also said he never encouraged anyone to prostitute themselves to customers. In fact, he said he tells every new employee that they will get fired if they agree to sell sex at his shops.

KATU News recently confronted Cunningham outside one of his shops in Northeast Portland where Cunningham again denied the allegations.

"Are you out of your mind?" Cunningham said as he pushed his way into his car. He drove off without answering any more questions.

There are dozens of these lingerie or private room shops, in Portland alone.

They are on the radar of a grassroots group called SOS Oregon. Founder Lisa Litehauser says the businesses need regulations.

"They do as little as possible to bring in as many dollars as they can," Litehauser said.

SOS Oregon has organized demonstrations against other adult businesses but Litehauser says the private room shops go unchecked more than any other segment of the adult industry.

Strip clubs normally have alcohol, food and gaming. They have to abide by regulations set by the health department, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission and the Oregon Lottery. 

Litehauser said there is rarely a reason for any public agency to inspect lingerie shops.

"They need to be regulated. They can't regulate themselves. Someone needs to regulate them," she said.

It's incredible, Litehauser said, just how little regulation there is for the businesses.

"You have to jump through more hoops to buy cigarettes in this town than you do to go into one of these places and buy sex,” she said.

Ben Cunningham has not been charged with any crimes and he told KATU by phone that if underage girls worked for him they must have used fake identification cards.