A few Democrats in the State House killed a bill to legalize the sale of alcohol in Washington strip clubs, leaving people working in the adult entertainment industry vulnerable to exploitative club practices and bad working conditions exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The death of the legislation means Washington will retain its status as the only state not to have some form of alcohol service in clubs, though some lawmakers say they’ll make another effort next year. 

Senate Bill 5614 allowed the sale of alcohol at clubs, but it also added protections for dancers and eliminated many predatory club fees. The state Senate passed the bill 40-8 with bipartisan support, and the House labor committee recommended the bill pass as well. The proposal hit a wall in the Regulated Substances and Gaming Committee, where lawmakers declined to give it a hearing before a key deadline.

Madison Zack-Wu is the campaign manager for Strippers are Workers, a grassroots organization of dancers from across Washington who began advocating at the Legislature for improvements in the adult entertainment industry in 2019. Watching the bill stall in the second House committee was frustrating, she said.

“We were doing so well and people were so supportive and then all of a sudden it took a very weird turn very quickly,” Zack-Wu said. 

The Holdouts

One factor in the death of the bill is that the Regulated Substance and Gaming Committee wasn’t the most productive this session, said State Sen. Rebecca Saldaña (D-Seattle), who sponsored Senate Bill 5614. The committee had two co-chairs, which isn’t the norm. 

Another factor to consider is some legislators, especially in the House, feel the state has become far too lenient around alcohol overall, Saldaña added. 

Regulated Substance and Gaming Committee Co-Chair Rep. Sharon Wylie (D-Vancouver) said she had trouble understanding how alcohol would improve club safety. Then again, Wylie and committee Co-Chair Rep. Shelley Kloba (D-Kirkland) didn’t hold a hearing on the bill, where Zack-Wu and other dancers might have explained the connection between alcohol sales and a safer environment. 

Washington clubs are more predatory, Zack-Wu argues, because dancers alone generate all the revenue for clubs. For example, to protect their bottom lines, some club owners charge dancers a $20 fee to leave the dance floor.

Moreover, the bill used proceeds from alcohol sales to pay for the added protections for dancers and the elimination of many predatory club fees. "If dancers thought the industry would change and be healthy without allowing those sales, they wouldn’t be asking for it," Zack-Wu said.

Offering booze also gives patrons other reasons to visit clubs besides exclusively seeking out a sexual interaction, which improves the atmosphere, according to a 2020 report by the Adult Entertainer Advisory Committee. Dancers notice the difference in Oregon clubs versus Washington ones. Clubs down south charge dancers lower fees to dance, and they have a more social environment, which translates to a safer environment.

Protecting Dancers from Themselves 

Zack-Wu said she tried to engage with the House Regulated Substances and Gaming Committee on the issue. She sent multiple emails to both chairs. Kloba arranged to meet with her, but she missed the meeting and Zack-Wu instead met with one of her staff. She never heard back from Wylie.

Strippers are Workers is a grassroots organization primarily made up of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ dancers in Washington. “We are easy to ignore,” Zack-Wu said.

Wylie said she didn’t ignore the dancers. She scheduled a courtesy hearing for the bill after the committee deadline for action passed. 

She added that the committee didn’t have time to hold a hearing on the bill this session because it came too late, and she wanted to make sure to speak with all the stakeholders. Overall, establishing a new liquor license is a complex piece of law, she said. 

Wylie also expressed concern about human trafficking and strip clubs. Though, she didn’t explain how alcohol would exacerbate the issue. 

Another lawmaker on the committee, Rep. Tina Orwall (D-Des Moines) appeared to have concerns about human trafficking in clubs as well. She arranged a big meeting for prosecutors, representatives, Strippers are Workers, and Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking (BEST). The meeting was ultimately canceled. Orwall did not agree to an interview for this article.

Zack-Wu expressed frustration over the idea of having another group act as the only authority on sex trafficking in the adult entertainment industry when her group of organized dancers were sitting at the table, too. 

She said lawmakers have a lot of audacity to assume she doesn’t also represent people who have experienced sex trafficking. Strippers are Workers spent the past five years on a grassroots organization campaign, talking to hundreds of dancers, she added. The organizers are experts on the real ways harm manifests in this industry, which is why they wanted this bill.

Wylie acknowledged she may have biases affecting how she views strip clubs. She said she’d try to ignore those in the interest of having a transparent discussion about all the concerns coming up regarding SB 5614.

“But it didn’t help that they accidentally legalized prostitution,” Wylie added. 

The bill did, at one point, include language that decriminalized some forms of prostitution, Saldaña said. The Senate wanted to prevent undue policing of dancers. However, lawmakers in the House labor committee fixed the language before it headed to Wylie’s committee.

The way the legislative process works is you start with the people most impacted, and then more people see the law and voice their thoughts, Saldaña said. Once people saw the amendment fixing the section of the bill that inadvertently legalized prostitution, they calmed down. But then you lose some momentum, she said.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Legislature didn’t offer the adult entertainment industry as much financial relief as it did with other sectors in the service and hospitality arena, Saldaña said. By excluding them, the industry became even less safe. Alcohol sales would have helped the industry become more viable, she added. 

People have varying levels of experience when it comes to the topic of sex work, Saldaña said. She wants to keep educating her fellow lawmakers about the industry and work on a clear path in the House next session. In the meantime, she thinks the Senate may be able to squeeze into the budget some financial relief for dancers.