Lets get some panic buttons in here, ladies!
Let's get some panic buttons in here, ladies! Igor Sinkov/Getty Images

Amber didn’t feel safe in the VIP rooms. They’re dark, there’s loud music playing, and they’re walled off for privacy. If something were to happen—she shuddered to think about a man sexually assaulting her or trying to kill her. If he had his hands around her neck, strangling her, no one would know.

When she brought it up to club management, they assured her there were cameras back there, that she was safe. Amber believed this was a lie. She had just been back there.

“I thought ‘Wow you’re lying to my face, you think I’m stupid, and you don’t really care about us at all,’” Amber told The Stranger. “So, that kind of flipped something in my head.”

Amber has been an exotic dancer for 13 years. This year, she and a group of other dancers took their complaints to Olympia. Together, with the help of Working Washington, a grassroots bill they created to improve the working conditions of exotic dancers has made its way successfully through the House and, as of last week, is on its way to the Senate.

What's in the bill?

House Bill 1756 and Senate Bill 5724 will implement mandatory trainings for exotic dancers meant to educate them about their rights as workers and how they should be treated.

“When you start dancing, nobody trains you,” Amber said, “there’s no information. Well, there’s more now because of the internet." But, that's information dancers have to seek out on their own. "Nobody tells you anything. Nobody tells you 'management can’t do that.'"

What Amber and other dancers are trying to create with this bill are resources for dancers. Mandatory trainings, like what food service workers go through to get food worker cards, will equip them with knowledge. The bill will establish an adult entertainer advisory committee with the Department of Labor and Standards. Half of that committee will be made up of dancers, with the intention that all the rules made going forward will be made in the best interest of dancers. The bill will also require panic buttons in various club rooms such as the private VIP rooms.

According to Amber, after her conversation with management at her club, they installed cameras in the VIP rooms. But, Amber claims no one sits there watching them.

“That’s why in this bill we specifically asked for panic buttons that would make a flashy light or a loud sound," Amber explained, "so if something truly bad was happening we could get security’s attention."

Winter Finck, a regional supervisor at Deja Vu Showgirls, told The Stranger that many of their rooms are equipped with cameras, but whether the private rooms have cameras depends on where they're located in the building. "But we do have someone who walks around every song," Finck said. "In an area that is a bit more private, there is never a point of total isolation."

🎶 Today I am still just a bill 🎶
🎶 Today I am still just a bill 🎶 on its way to the Washington State Senate Lester Black

The bill also seeks to create standards for clubs to follow when they encounter unruly or abusive patrons. If passed, clubs would have to keep a list of offenders and ban them from the club for three years. That would likely ban those patrons from most clubs in Seattle and across Washington, too.

Finck is in favor of not allowing any nefarious offenders into Deja Vu's clubs. However, she's concerned about a blacklist.

"Our only concern is constitutionality," Finck said. "My question has always been about any type of due process."

A Seattle strip club bottleneck

These safety problems are indicative of a strained and restricted industry in Washington state.

Seattle has a, uh, complicated past when it comes to strip clubs. In case you're unfamiliar, our liberal bastion of a city is highly puritanical about sex and nudity. Back in the day, there was a 15-year ban on creating new strip clubs that started in 1988. That created a virtual monopoly in the strip club business, something that's shaped how the industry operates in Seattle to this day.

From an old Stranger report (we are the place for strip club news):

The result of the sustained moratorium has been a gradual stifling of the adult-entertainment industry as clubs across the city have shut their doors. In 2003, Seattle—a city of 550,000 people—has just three strip clubs where women perform.

The majority of the clubs operating at that time were subsidiaries of Deja Vu, the club founded and run on Lake City Boulevard in 1985 by a man named Harry Mohney (for comedy's sake, let's all assume his last name is pronounced the way I hope it's pronounced). His co-founder was Roger Forbes, the Showbox guy.

"That workforce has always been independent contractors," Senator Rebecca Saldaña told The Stranger, "and they want to remain that way. It seems like the company takes it pretty close to infringing on workers' rights as independent contractors and business owners."

According to Amber, Deja Vu sets schedules for a lot of dancers and tells them when they can take breaks, suggesting the company treats dancers as employees and not independent contractors.

Finck says this isn't the case, and that Deja Vu only asks that dancers inform them when they're going on break, for safety reasons. She says there is some scheduling but dancers can negotiate their schedules themselves. Saldaña has heard otherwise. "It doesn’t seem like there’s much negotiation going on," Saldaña said. "As an independent contractor, you can set up your conditions for employment. When women have asked for more security, asked for clean bathrooms, it feels like it’s take it or leave it."

Deja Vu has very little competition in the city and it’s been the dominant player since that morality crackdown in the '80s. That makes it so dancers have to accept the conditions in the workplace or face not being able to work.

“There are a couple of other clubs in Seattle,” Amber said, “but they’re in the less desirable parts of town, less business. They’re not really competitors, all the main best clubs are Deja Vu. That’s a problem because if you get fired from one you can’t work anywhere in the state basically. You don’t have any options.”

“It’s a kind of captive workforce,” Saldaña said, “It makes it hard then for them to be independent."

Still, Finck says that Deja Vu fully supports the bill. "I can speak for myself and the management teams within the clubs that we do care about the entertainers and do definitely prioritize safety," she said.

Affirming bipartisan support

Saldaña said that this is an issue that has bipartisan support. There's currently more vocal support for it in the House where the bill passed through last week. The votes were 95-3. Now, it heads to the Senate.

Hearing the progress of the bill made Amber cry. She broke into tears talking about it over the phone.

"We as dancers often times feel like nobody cares about us, our jobs are very marginalized and stigmatized and to ask for something from Legislators and have it be like 'yeah you guys deserve that' is very affirming," Amber said, "Sorry I’m crying right now." She cleared her throat and continued.

"It really meant a lot to me that I had a voice. I’ve been a dancer for a long time and I might not continue with this career but I might make a difference for other women in my industry," Amber continued. "That’s the most important thing for me, that other women coming into this industry have a safe workplace, that 18-year-old girls getting into this business know their rights so they're not taken advantage of."