For months, Andrea studied for her master’s degree in library sciences between dancing naked at clubs in Seattle. But then she was sexually assaulted at work and slapped by a customer — and nobody stepped in to help.
Now, she and hundreds of other strippers in Washington state are fighting for statewide protections that would be the most comprehensive in the U.S., according to advocates.
“We shouldn’t be verbally abused for just doing our job and existing,” said Andrea, who has seen a DJ at one club harass dancers if they don’t tip him enough. She avoids the club if he’s there, said the 24-year-old, who would only use her first name. The Associated Press does not identify people who say they have been sexually assaulted.
Known as the “strippers’ bill of rights,” proposals being considered in the Legislature would require a security guard at each club, keypad codes to enter dressing rooms, training for employees on preventing sexual harassment, and procedures if a customer is violent. It would also require training on how to de-escalate conflict between dancers, employees and customers, and signs stating that dancers are not required to hand over tips.
“It is a legal, licensed business operation in the state of Washington, so the people who work there deserve our attention and our respect and the protections that every other Washington worker gets,” said Democratic Rep. Amy Walen, who sponsored the House bill. The Senate is considering a similar bill.
The bills are the culmination of six years of advocacy work by Strippers Are Workers, a dancer-led organization in Washington, in response to wide regulation gaps for strippers at the 11 clubs across the state, said Madison Zack-Wu, its campaign manager.
But those regulation gaps extend beyond Washington. And during those six years of work by Strippers Are Workers, only one other state added worker protections for adult entertainers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 2019, Illinois started requiring that adult entertainment establishments, along with other businesses, have a written sexual harassment policy. That same year, Washington added a few initial regulations, including panic buttons and blacklists for customers.
The list by NCSL doesn’t include bills focused on age minimums or human trafficking, a criminal industry whose victims are often recruited to work in U.S. strip clubs, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. These bills rarely address workplace protections like the ones in Washington, said Landon Jacquinot, an NCSL policy associate.
There have also been efforts at the local level, including a bar in Los Angeles and a strip club in Portland, Oregon, where dancers voted to unionize. And, in a 2014 decision with statewide implications, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled that dancers at one Las Vegas club are employees, and are entitled to minimum wage and other protections.
But Zack-Wu said many strippers don’t want to become full-time employees. “This job is all about flexibility and trying to make it your own,” she said. The bills in Washington would apply to all strippers, no matter their employment status.
A similar bill in Washington stalled last year after concerns were raised over it allowing alcohol in strip clubs. The bills being considered in both chambers don’t include that section and, with more than two dozen sponsors combined, have a better chance of making it to the governor’s desk in the Democratic-controlled Legislature.
Most dancers in Washington are independent contractors, and they can be blacklisted if they report abuse or exploitation by managers, said Zack-Wu. Customers pay the dancers, who then have to pay club fees every shift, which could be as much as $200.
The proposed House measure would cap club fees at $150 or 30% of the amount they made during their shift — whichever is less — while barring clubs from carrying over unpaid fees from previous shifts.
In late 2022, Eva Bhagwandin had just given a man three lap dances at a club in Seattle only to have his card declined, the 28-year-old said. He became aggressive, yelling that he already paid. The manager didn’t step in and there was no security guard, so she and a waitress had to get him and his screaming friends out of the club. She was never paid the $140 she was owed, but still had to pay $200 to the club.
Afterward, she learned that another dancer had experienced something similar two days before with the same men.
“The lack of security and training and the lack of support between the management to the dancers, creates this culture where customers know that they can come in and not pay, they can come in and assault dancers, and they can come in and pretty much do whatever they want,” she said.
But Zack-Wu said there is concern that adding these protections without also adding revenue from alcohol sales could result in businesses, which have struggled since the pandemic, shutting down.
“We don’t want clubs to shut down now or in the future because that will just put everyone out of work and then put them in even riskier or more dire situations,” she said.
Republican lawmakers said they support protecting employees in this industry, but it’s challenging to know the best way to regulate it.
“We also want to make sure that we’re doing this correctly and striking the right balance for, not just the workers, but communities and neighborhoods as well,” said House Minority Leader Drew Stokesbary, a Republican.
Andrea, the dancer in Seattle, received her degree in November and wants to work in a library while continuing to dance. But she hopes soon there will be added protections.
“It’s not the easiest place for us to be sometimes but, you know, a lot of people persevere because we love the job,” she said. “But with all these protections in place, it would really help a lot.”