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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Alcohol in strip clubs? Washington Senate approves bill boosting dancer protections and allowing alcohol service

A small group of counterprotesters stands along East Sprague Avenue holding signs outside the former Deja Vu Showgirls strip club Saturday. The building is being transformed into a church.  (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

On the heels of last year’s closure of Spokane’s Deja Vu strip club, the state Legislature is considering an overhaul to the industry in Washington.

If enacted, legislation approved by the state Senate Thursday would provide a series of safety and worker protection to dancers, as well as allow Washington strip clubs to sell alcohol. The regulations build upon a 2019 law requiring strip clubs to install panic buttons, provide anti-trafficking trainings to dancers and keep a “blacklist” of customers who would not be allowed admission based on past conduct.

The 2019 bill also created an Adult Entertainer Advisory Committee predominantly made up of current and former dancers, which submitted a 2020 report to the Legislature on recommendations of further reforms on the industry. Provisions of the bill passed by the Senate this week are based on those recommendations in large part.

If passed by the House and signed by the governor, the new law would expand training requirements to all club staff, set minimum requirements for clubs to provide security, set limitations on how dancers can be charged and allow strip clubs and other adult venues to apply for a liquor license.

Bill sponsor Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, D-Seattle, said before Senate passage that the bill would “empower” workers to feel safe in their place of employment.

“For too long, the requests that these dancers have been asking for to improve their conditions in their workplaces, to be able to have the training and support and security that they need to be able to safely do their work … has not been heard,” she said.

Passing in a party line 26-20 vote, some Republicans signaled their support for greater worker protections in the adult entertainment industry but said the bill needed more work.

A similar bill passed the Senate last year but did not come up for a vote in the House. Debate around these reforms gained steam in recent weeks following a series of raids of LGBTQ+ bars in Seattle where employees and patrons were cited for “lewd conduct.”

The raids were conducted by the Joint Enforcement Team, a collection of Seattle police officers, firefighters and the state Liquor and Cannabis Board. Entering Seattle’s The Cuff Complex and The Seattle Eagle, the team cited the individuals and establishments based upon an exposed nipple and exposure of a body wearing a jockstrap.

The law enforcement entities enforced the same regulations in the raids that are elsewhere used to ban strip clubs from obtaining a liquor license.

The “newfound urgency” to pass the bill was a welcome change to Madison Zack-Wu, a Seattle-based dancer and campaign manager of Strippers are Workers – a dancer-led advocacy group that helped draft the legislation.

“There’s quite a few legislators who are realizing that the stripper bill needs to be passed with that alcohol repeal – that they’re one and the same issue. You cannot support queer venues and not support stripping venues,” Zack-Wu said.

Sen. Jamie Pederson, D-Seattle, decried the raids on the Senate floor as “from a different era” and like Stonewall all over again.

Stonewall refers to police raids in New York targeting LGBTQ+ people, starting at the Stonewall Inn in 1969. Backlash to the raids often is credited for sparking movements for LGBTQ rights.

“It’s important for us to send a clear and unequivocal message to the Liquor and Cannabis Board – who has had five decades to update this and has not – that it is time to start over and do this in an inclusive and respectful way,” said Sen. Marko Liias, D-Everett.

Why do dancers want alcohol served in strip clubs?

Washington bans all nudity from any establishment with a liquor license.

As a result, none of the 12 remaining strip clubs in Washington serves alcohol. Despite this prohibition, belligerently drunk patrons are still common because they often drink before coming to the club.

“We haven’t gotten alcohol out of the club, we’ve just left alcohol there in a really unregulated way,” Zack-Wu said.

Dancers often feel less safe because they don’t know much a patron has had to drink, which could impact their willingness to dance for them.

According to Zack-Wu, the sober atmosphere also makes strip clubs “less appealing and sociable,” and much less trafficked as a result. Clubs in Washington are “often totally empty,” in a way that makes the business “unsustainable.”

“Washington has always been notorious for being slow, but it was enough to pay your bills and be self-sufficient. Basically, you’re not getting any customers anymore. That’s not true in other states. Here, it’s pretty much unlivable,” she said.

Before its closure last year, Ashe Ryder was a dancer at Deja Vu Showgirls in Spokane Valley, the only Eastern Washington strip club.

A Strippers are Workers organizer, Ryder “loves” her job as a dancer and “desperately hoped” Deja Vu would stay open. Had the club been allowed to apply for a liquor license and served alcohol, she thinks it might have stayed open.

“I really do think that had the bill passed last year, that the club wouldn’t have been sold, or at least it would have been doing better financially before it did,” Ryder said.

With Deja Vu gone, the only strip club in the area is Stateline Showgirls across the border in Post Falls. Idaho also has strict rules about alcohol in strip clubs, and nudity isn’t allowed if alcohol is served. Alcohol is only allowed in bars where dancers are required to cover their breasts. Stateline does not serve alcohol, and some nudity is allowed there.

When Deja Vu first reopened after the COVID-19 pandemic “all the customers were back in and all the dancers were excited to get back to work,” Ryder recalled. But as the economy soured, business dried up. To Ryder’s recollection, many weekends post-pandemic only saw a dozen or less patrons on a given weekend night.

In the months before the club’s ultimate summer shutdown last year, Ryder and her fellow dancers often would leave the clubs with no more money than when they started.

Since its closure, Ryder has been dancing in Portland, Montana and Idaho to pay her bills. She does not dance in Seattle because the same economic forces impact the west side of the state.

“I’ll go out to Portland for a month to make my money and support myself. But it is exhausting and expensive to constantly travel,” Ryder said. “I miss my family so much. This is the best way for me to make money, and I really love my work. But not having Deja Vu has made my life so much harder.”

Strip club ‘house fees’

Dancers are typically not employees of the strip club where they work. They are independent contractors who rent out the spaces in which they perform. Rather than receiving a salary, a dancer will set their own rates and be paid directly by the patron.

Ryder likes being a contractor. It allows her to set her own hours, to come and go from a strip club as she pleases, and to make a lot of money in a short period of time. But because strip clubs do not see the majority of money a patron may spend at their establishment, they have to make it elsewhere.

In many other states, clubs get the majority of their revenue from alcohol sales. In Washington, clubs are more reliant upon the money dancers pay to use their space.

At Deja Vu, Ryder would generally pay the club $90-100 a weekend night to perform and an additional amount to use VIP rooms for private dances, which depended on how long each room was used.

These fees are generally much lower in other states. In Portland, she typically pays between $50 and $70 for her nightly house fee on a weekend – even though Portland clubs are much busier.

Zack-Wu described a similar culture in Seattle where dancers could pay upward of $200 in their nightly house fee.

“There’s just a massive financial power imbalance in Washington clubs because dancers are the source of revenue for club owners here. They don’t have a lot of customers. They’re not selling food and drink, so they have to just put all that pressure on dancers, and we’re pretty disempowered by that,” Zack-Wu said.

According to Ryder, Deja Vu increased its house and room fees in the last few months before it closed. The move caused an exodus of dancers, which Ryder believes contributed to the club’s closure.

If passed, the proposed legislation would cap house fees at $150 a night, and the fees must be equally applied to all dancers. The bill would also ban the practice of “back rent,” which is when a dancer would owe the club money if they could not pay the house or room fees at the end of the night. Back rent can also occur if you cancel or no-show a shift you had previously agreed to work.

“If you have a bad night, you leave with little or nothing or even less than that. Clubs keep track of what you owe, and you will have to pay that back over time, especially if you want to keep working,” Zack-Wu said.

Safety provisions

According to Ryder, Deja Vu stopped collecting back rent after it reopened following the pandemic. In part, she credits that to the renewed legislative focus following the 2019 bill. Though she was grateful for the panic buttons and patron blacklist, these new regulations were not always strenuously enforced. She is hopeful the added regulations in the new bill will protect dancers more.

“Because clubs were so desperate for money, we would allow repeat offenders back in. There would be inappropriate, nonconsensual touching from the customer, which would get them kicked out. But they would be back a week or two later,” Ryder said. “We need these increased security measures to feel safe.”

Under the new bill, strip clubs would be required to do the following:

  • Provide at least one employee during all business hours whose primary duty is security.
  • Require all employees to take training every two years on preventing sexual harassment discrimination and assault in the workplace, and on conflict de-escalation and first aid.
  • Have a written policy for submitting allegations regarding customers and for ejecting offending customers.
  • Provide a panic button in each room where a dancer may be alone with a patron.
  • Provide annual proof of panic button compliance.
  • Restrict minors from the premise.

According to Zack-Wu, the essence of the bill is to provide “as much autonomy as possible” because that is “what keeps people safe.”

“These are workers that deserve rights, and the Legislature needs to be on that side of respecting marginal workers who deserve basic protections,” she said.