Pete Gamlen

Occasionally—say, on summer nights when the rooftop bars and sidewalk patios are hot enough to cook on—all you want to do is sit in the air-conditioning, drink an icy cold vodka tonic, and look at some titties and ass.

Well, if you live in Seattle, good luck with that, because you cannot legally purchase alcohol at strip clubs in Washington State. You can look, but you can't drink, and this law, according to a number of exotic dancers I spoke to, makes their jobs harder, less lucrative, and more dangerous.

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"People say if you allow drinking, the men are going to act crazy, and so this is a way of protecting the girls," said Angelique, a Seattle native who has been an exotic dancer since 1994. "But men show up drunk and act crazy anyway. It doesn't protect us."

This was echoed by Aubrey, another longtime dancer in Seattle. "Not serving alcohol doesn't mean drunk people don't come in," she said. "At the clubs I've worked at, they allow drunk guys to come in from the bars across the street, so we are still dealing with them regardless." If clubs were selling alcohol, she added, at least they'd be able to cut customers off.

Both Angelique and Aubrey have worked in clubs across the United States, and they say that Seattle is one of the most difficult and least lucrative cities to be a stripper, in no small part thanks to the statewide ban on alcohol sales. In other cities and states, strip clubs make the bulk of their money from the sale of booze. In Seattle, clubs make their money off the dancers themselves, who have to pay for the privilege of working. And those house fees are not cheap: At Deja Vu, a chain with a near-monopoly in the downtown Seattle area, dancers are charged $120 to $180 a night—and if they don't make that money, the club will charge them back rent.

The lack of alcohol also changes the vibe. "Tourists and bachelor parties might come in, but when they realize they can't get a drink, they leave," Aubrey said. Unlike in, say, Portland—where strip clubs are allowed to serve booze and food, and where female customers and co-ed groups aren't an uncommon sight—Seattle strip clubs tend to attract mostly men on their own.

"I hate to say this, but you attract more perverts," Angelique said. "More people looking for extras. You effectively cancel out the casual night-out-with-the-boys customers."

Shiara, a former dancer who has worked at 30 different clubs in seven states, said the same. "There is a huge, dramatic difference in clubs that serve alcohol and clubs that don't. The pressure to do things you're not comfortable with is way higher. When you tell customers you don't serve booze, they say, 'Well, what do you serve?'" The implication is that without booze, the dancers themselves are on the menu.

Some dancers are trying to change this. Angelique, Aubrey, and Shiara are part of a coalition of dancers who worked with lawmakers and the labor rights group Working Washington this spring to pass a law to enhance protections for dancers. In addition to mandating panic buttons in private rooms, the law will also require trainings for dancers on their rights and allow clubs to keep blacklists of bad customers.

The bill, which Governor Jay Inslee signed into law in May, will also establish an adult entertainer advisory committee within the Office of Labor Standards, half of which will be made up of dancers. It may well have been the first law in the state made for exotic dancers by exotic dancers themselves. But while this bill easily passed through the legislature, when it comes to allowing alcohol in strip clubs, lawmakers have been notably unwilling to pick up this fight. Most of them don't even know the law exists.

"The representatives were astonished to know that we can't even serve beer and wine," Angelique told me. She said she also spoke with several members of the Seattle City Council and they were also unaware. "They were unwilling to take up our cause," she said. "None of the council wanted to be associated with stripping."

Still, the prohibition on alcohol isn't bad for everyone in the business. "It absolutely benefits club owners," Angelique told me. "If they sell alcohol, the liquor control board gets involved, and there will be more oversight. They do not want oversight."

Allowing alcohol sales would also lead to more competition. "There are some clubs that have done exploratory studies about opening here, but they won't do it because of the ban on alcohol," Angelique said. This allows established companies like Deja Vu to maintain control in the area.

Deja Vu did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but clubs do have a history of being politically active when it benefits them. In 2005, for instance, Seattle passed a law requiring dancers to stay a minimum of four feet away from customers. This was, clearly, bad for business (no one wants to use binoculars at a strip club), and so club owners mobilized to get a referendum overturning the law on the ballot. It worked. The next year, Seattle voters opted to overturn the rule, and the referendum campaign was funded by the strip clubs themselves.

Not long ago, even in alcohol-free Seattle, dancers could make a decent living. Shiara, who retired from dancing in 2016, made so much money that she invested in real estate and now owns rental properties around the city. But those earning days are over.

The industry is gradually dying, in part because men have plenty of other options to interact with naked women. There are porn delivery devices in their pockets. There are cam girls they can speak to from the comfort of their home. There are hookup apps and online dating. And with all these other avenues—and without alcohol to entice more customers—the audience is just drying up.

The ratio of customers to dancers is now unsustainable, dancers say, and it is increasingly competitive over the few customers left. Without alcohol sales as a revenue for the clubs, they're making their money on the backs of the women who work for them.

"Most of the girls working now are on Medicaid," Angelique said. "The industry in Seattle is not going to make it if we don't at least introduce beer and wine. It's not the 1990s anymore. It's not that entertaining to come sit in a dark room and drink overpriced soda and get a girl in your lap. Customers tell me all the time: 'The clubs here are boring.' They have failed to innovate, and they have failed to recognize that the industry is changing."

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And yet, the industry could change. It has done it before. And with the success of the stripper protection bill, dancers have demonstrated their ability to make policy changes themselves. They fought for their rights, and they won.

But for this to happen again—for antiquated, counterproductive laws like the alcohol ban to be overturned—they're going to need lawmakers, both locally and statewide, who are willing to stand up for the right to both look at titties and drink.