Washington Strippers Win Bill of Rights

Dancers in Washington state have been fighting for increased protections at the clubs they work. Last week, they won legislation known as the “Strippers’ Bill of Rights.”

Kim Kelly

A dancer who works in Seattle clubs poses for a photograph on Feb. 1, 2024. AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill into law last week described as creating safer working conditions in adult entertainment establishments” and known popularly as the Strippers’ Bill of Rights.

It’s pretty simple why we are passing this bill,” Inslee declared when he signed SB 6105. These are working folks, and working people deserve safety in the environment in which they work.”

It may seem simple, but the bill’s passage marks the culmination of years of hard work from Strippers Are Workers, a dancer-led advocacy group that has been fighting to pass industry-specific labor legislation since 2018. It’s been a long, difficult road with several significant setbacks; a similar version of the bill floated in 2023 was nixed by conservative House Democrats who shied away from its language around alcohol legalization (at the time, Washington was the only state in the nation that banned alcohol entirely from strip clubs and other adult entertainment venues).

"These are working folks, and working people deserve safety in the environment in which they work."

Dancer Madison Zack-Wu, the main organizer for Strippers Are Workers, can hardly believe they pulled it off this time. Going into this session, I was convinced we only had about like a 5% chance of passing the bill,” she tells In These Times. I can’t tell you how surreal and kind of unbelievable it is.”

While labor nonprofit Working Washington provided early support for the most recent campaign and for the roughly six-year-old version (the Dancer Safety and Security Bill), Zack-Wu says their involvement soon faded, and she was left to steer the ship solo. (Working Washington did not respond to a request for comment.)

Zack-Wu unexpectedly found herself working as the main organizer, the campaign manager, and the policy lead all at once. I was supposed to just be the dancer leader, doing phone banking and a little bit of consensus building, but within a month, it became obvious that I was the only person who was going to be working on the campaign,” she explained.

The Dream Girls strip club in Seattle. AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson

Zack-Wu, who first began working as a dancer when she was 18, is no stranger to multitasking; she kept working at clubs to supplement her income until a car accident left her unable to perform. Since then, she’s been living off her savings while fighting to get this bill passed.

It’s been a crazy fucking ride,” she says with an exhausted chuckle.

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But Zack-Wu also says it’s been worth it because she and other advocates say the law will enact the most comprehensive statewide protections in the nation for workers in the adult entertainment industry.

Strippers are workers, and they should be given the same rights and protections as any other labor force,” State Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, the bill’s sponsor, said in a statement. If they are employed at a legal establishment in Washington, they deserve the safeguards that every worker is entitled to, including protection from exploitation, trafficking and abuse.”

The campaign’s primary focus for the new law has been on improving dancers’ working conditions especially around expanded safety regulations. Strip clubs in Washington will now be required to hire full-time security guards, add keypad locks to dressing room doors, and conduct sexual harassment training for all employees. 

Echoing earlier state legislation passed to protect hotel workers, the new law will also require clubs to install panic buttons anywhere a worker may be alone with a customer. It also takes a meaningful step towards legalizing alcohol sales in strip clubs by doing away with a Liquor and Cannabis Board rule that forbids lewd conduct” from taking place in establishments that serve alcohol. 

Until now, Washington was the only state in the U.S. with a total ban on the sale of alcohol in its strip clubs, which dancers say placed them at an economic disadvantage. Under Washington state law, alcohol-serving establishments are barred from allowing lewd conduct,” which can include exhibitions of nudity or sexual performances. As Zack-Wu explains, most strip clubs tend to rely on alcohol sales to make up the bulk of their revenue, but because this hasn’t been possible in Washington, club owners have passed those operating costs to the dancers by requiring house fees” or club fees” every night they work. That eats into the workers’ take home pay and often throws them into debt.

Kasey Champion, a former dancer who now teaches at at the University of Washington and organizes with Strippers Are Workers, told KUOW she knew dancers who’d been thrown into thousands of dollars in debt to their employers due to exorbitant stage fees. I paid about $185 a day,” Champion said. If I showed up that day and didn’t have any cash in my pocket, and I didn’t make any money, then I could put my debt down.”

A dancer in Seattle who recently earned her master's degree in library sciences while working in area clubs. She was among those fighting for state bills that would increase statewide protections for workers and dancers at clubs. AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson

Bree Lemasters, another dancer and member of Strippers Are Workers, spoke about a sense of desperation” for Seattle dancers during a public hearing for the bill. The anxiety to make rent that night has created a toxic culture,” she explained. The regulation also incentivizes club owners to cut corners by hiring fewer security staff and spending less time on employee training. 

The lack of alcohol sales also increases antisocial behavior from the clientele, Zack-Wu explains, which can create risky situations for workers. Customers are still able to drink at nearby bars before entering the club, but club bartenders have no control over their inebriation level.

You can feel it here. You go into a club in Washington and it feels weird, it feels bad,” she says. And so the people you want to be patronizing clubs [like bachelorette parties and queer folks] are not going to them, and the only motherfuckers who are, are the crusty-ass old white dudes — and those are the ones who are going to be more likely to commit acts of violence.” 

In Portland, you can go get your food, you can just hang out,” Lemasters said. There happens to be strippers all around you … it feels more like an adult Dave and Buster’s. Here, there’s one purpose … which is to see naked women.”

“You can feel it here. You go into a club in Washington and it feels weird, it feels bad,” she says. “And so the people you want to be patronizing clubs [like bachelorette parties and queer folks] are not going to them, and the only motherfuckers who are, are the crusty-ass old white dudes—and those are the ones who are going to be more likely to commit acts of violence.”

The new law takes these types of circumstances into consideration and will limit the fees club owners are allowed to charge dancers; the new rate will be capped at $150, or 30% of what they make per shift (whichever is less). It’s a big win for the workers on stage, but the most dramatic change they’ll see is at the bar. Legalizing alcohol in clubs is a huge step, one that caused some consternation among the more conservative members of the state legislature. 

As a public health person, there isn’t evidence anywhere that shows expanding alcohol, and alcohol use, helps people. It actually is damaging, as a general rule. … That’s what all the research says about it, so that’s my perspective,” House Speaker Laurie Jinkins said at the time.

Last year, [conservative Democrats] opposing it could be looped up in this thing about, like, Oh, strippers are kind of like dumb and young, and they don’t know what’s best for themselves, and we shouldn’t be putting alcohol in those clubs,’” Zack-Wu explains. It may have been an easy position for lawmakers to take in 2023, but early this year, everything seemed to change after news broke of a series of raids on gay bars in Capitol Hill, one of Seattle’s historically queer neighborhoods. During the last weekend in January, police entered several establishments without warning to conduct inspections, photographed customers without consent, and handed out lewd conduct” violations, citing patrons’ clothing choices (in one example, a male bartender’s nipple was exposed). 

The local queer community was understandably outraged, and Zack-Wu saw a parallel — as well as an opportunity to build up Strippers Are Workers’ existing relationships with other queer nightlife workers and community members. 

I scrambled to do stronger coalition building with folks and really demonstrate that those raids are a version of what strippers have been experiencing here in Washington for literally fucking decades,” she explains, noting that many strippers are queer themselves. And that this is something that we’ve been fighting for in our bill, the fundamental framework of bodily autonomy and removing regulations that are based on this idea that nonconforming people are somehow more risky or less responsible, and they need to be controlled and policed.”

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As public support began to gather behind the bill, formerly reticent lawmakers started changing their minds — or at least their votes. House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, who is also a member of the Washington State Legislature LGBTQ Caucus, initially spoke critically about the proposed law’s liquor provisions. As the News Tribune reported, advocates were unsure about whether the speaker would allow the bill to move to a floor vote — but appeared to shift her position after the bill received a wellspring of support from queer communities. 

When I spoke with Zack-Wu earlier this year, she made it clear that funding for the campaign was running out and this current legislative session was the group’s last hope of getting the bill passed, but that she wasn’t going down without a fight. By identifying a common cause and expressing solidarity with the broader queer communities, the Strippers Are Workers organizers were finally able to shift the political winds in their bill’s favor. As The Stranger reported, LGBTQ Caucus member and Senate Floor Leader Jamie Pedersen named SB 6105 during a raucous public Liquor and Cannabis Board meeting following the Capitol Hill raids, promising that the bill would repeal the lewd conduct” regulation (WAC 31411050) from the Washington Administrative Code. (Pedersen is listed as a secondary sponsor on the bill, and submitted the amendment to do just that).

If you don’t think that these primarily male gay clubs should be subjected to the same sort of policing, if you’re against that, you can’t be against strip clubs getting alcohol too,” Zack-Wu explains, outlining the double standard that strippers face. There is a lot of hypocrisy in the stance that primarily gay men should be allowed to choose how much they wear or don’t wear in alcohol-serving venues and to do sexual erotic performance, like go-go and drag, to feel comfortable with that, but then not feel comfortable with primarily femme strippers who are also queer to do the same thing. .… That’s just patriarchy up and down.”

“I do think that stripping is the right initial step to full sex worker rights, and porn too, because they are a slightly legal version of sex work."

Now that Inslee has signed SB 6105 into law, Zack-Wu and her fellow worker-organizers at Strippers Are Workers can breathe a quick sigh of relief while they wait to see what happens next. According to Zack-Wu, there are still months of rule making from the Liquor and Cannabis Board to go and the biggest changes probably won’t go into effect until sometime in 2025. But a win is a win – and it’s one that wouldn’t have happened without her. She’s hoping to take at least a little bit of time off before jumping into the next struggle, but Zack-Wu sees the Strippers’ Bill of Rights as a step towards something bigger.

I do think that stripping is the right initial step to full sex worker rights, and porn too, because they are a slightly legal version of sex work, and so I could see a national policy that does create fundamental protections for porn stars and strippers that is actually created by them, because we don’t have that — the foundation of most of our sex work regulations is criminalization and policing and anti-trafficking,” she says. 

I do think that collectively there needs to be more of a national push for a more radical and revolutionary way of establishing labor rights, because, you know, it is 2024,” she says. It’s time to do things differently.”

Kim Kelly is a freelance journalist and author based in Philadelphia, PA. She is a labor writer for In These Times, a labor columnist at Teen Vogue and Fast Company, and regularly contributes to many other publications. Her first book, FIGHT LIKE HELL: The Untold History of American Labor, is now available from One Signal/​Simon & Schuster. Follow her on Twitter at @grimkim and subscribe to her newsletter, Salvo, here.

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