Mayfield: Strippers, strip club owners deserve equity under state law

Feb 9, 2024, 8:16 AM | Updated: Mar 25, 2024, 1:43 pm


Andrea, no last name given, who works as a stripper in Seattle area clubs, poses for a portrait at her apartment, Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024, in Seattle. Andrea is among those fighting for bills to pass in the state Legislature that would expand statewide protections to workers, like having a security guard at each club, keypad codes to enter dressing rooms and de-escalation training. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)

(AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)

The ballet dancers show up and execute the evening’s performances, thrilling the crowd.  The patrons are appreciative and enthusiastic.  But after it’s over, an aggressive audience member breaks through the crush to corner a dancer.  The dancer is scared and calls for help.  The employees at the venue have never been trained in how to respond.  The venue has no security.  Other patrons turn their heads and walk away.

It’s hard to imagine this scenario happening in 2024.  Not with sexual harassment training so widespread.  Not with security at nearly every venue these days.

And yet, if we change one word in the above scenario, it becomes all too common in our state. Dancers say this, and worse, it happens to them routinely.  What’s the word?

Strike “ballet” from the description.

Now, shift the picture in your mind to a club where dancers have removed most of their clothing.

It’s a strip club.  Does your empathy and outrage for the dancer in danger change?

It shouldn’t.

Related news: 2 adult entertainment bills could influence change in lewd laws governing state bars

Stripping in this state is a completely legal performance.  It’s a completely legal job.  You may not consider it high art in the same way that many consider ballet such art, but that doesn’t mean both jobs don’t deserve safety and dignity.

Yet, in our laws, we treat these two performers differently.

In Washington, strippers are generally only able to work as independent contractors.  In most situations, they are required to pay rent to the club owners each day they work.  A dancer performs for hours and pays the club $150 for the ability to do that.  The stripper, in turn, makes only the tips they are given.  If a patron refuses to pay, security is not required to help.  If a patron tries to touch or harass a dancer the other club employees are not required to be trained to stop it.

Whether you personally want to visit strip clubs or even approve of them at all, they do legally exist and fellow humans work there.  Those fellow humans deserve the same protections offered at other jobs and venues.

In turn, the club owners deserve the opportunity to run a profitable business.  Today, those clubs cannot serve alcohol.  That means the main revenue source is the dancers.  This leads us back to the rent each dancer must pay.  That’s how owners can make any money.  Under this system, owners often feel they have no choice but to charge dancers each time they work or otherwise. How can those owners keep the lights on and hope to make any money?  It certainly isn’t in selling energy drinks or diet sodas.

And how can those dancers truly be ensured of making any money if they rely only on tips?  Give the club its rent and keep what’s left?  What about nights where they get less money in tips than they must pay the club?  They work and still owe someone money for it?

It’s a broken system on every level.  It needs reform.  It needs modern regulation and modern protections.  It needs equity for club owners and for dancers.

It is why the Washington State Senate just passed SB 6105, the so-called Strippers Bill of Rights.  It offers needed protections for dancers while also allowing club owners to obtain liquor licenses…and make a fair living themselves by selling alcohol in the same way a dance club or a college bar can.

It’s not a perfect bill, but it’s a genuine start.  The bill’s future, though, remains in the hands of the House and the governor.  It’s unclear whether there will be enough political courage to stand up for such a maligned group and industry, yet I hope there will be.  I hope there can be.

If we can all still agree on anything in this divided state, I hope that it is that other humans deserve some level of basic safety and some ability to make a legal living.  If our government isn’t doing what it can to support those two things for its residents, then this system is even more broken than I thought.

Travis Mayfield often fills in as host of Seattle’s Morning News.

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