A grassroots bill started by Washington strippers may have been catalyzed by the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), the recent federal legislation notorious for screwing over the best porn on the internet and harming our sex workers.
The bill, HB 1756, strives to improve working conditions for strippers in Washington by implementing mandatory trainings, establishing an adult entertainer advisory committee, putting panic buttons in VIP rooms, and making a blacklist for abusive patrons. It's working its way through the Washington State Senate currently.
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Savannah Sly, a sex worker and community organizer with Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) Seattle, believes the organizing started after FOSTA/SESTA were signed into law in April 2018.
The first substantial impact post-FOSTA/SESTA was that Backpage, the most well-known online advertising venue for sex workers, was shut down. That sent shockwaves throughout the sex worker community. It also impacted their clients.
"The unintended consequence of that is that there are displaced sex workers and clients who are looking for a place to connect," Sly told the Senate Labor & Commerce Committee on Monday. "I believe that one reason that this organizing effort started about nine months ago was that things came to a head in the clubs."
Backpage closed. Then other internet spaces for sex work like certain subreddits (r/Escorts, r/Male Escorts, r/Hookers, etc.), Craigslist personal ads, and more disappeared. It forced sex work offline and back onto the streets, in many cases.
Sly believes former sex work clients, without the spaces they used to frequent, are making their way into strip clubs.
"I think that clients are coming into clubs with mismatched expectations—maybe they’re looking for a different kind of provider in the clubs," Sly said. "What we’re seeing is an uptick in violence across the sex trade since the passing of these bills, largely because it further criminalizes communication. When expectations are mismatched in this kind of an arena that can be a cause for anger and that can be a cause for harm to be done."
The tenets of the bill could minimize this violence with mandatory trainings and added safety precautions like putting panic buttons in VIP rooms.
"Sex workers across the board, including dancers, are targets for violence from bad actors. They target sex workers because we need this know-your-rights training," Sly said, referencing one of the provisions of the bill. "They know we’re unlikely to call the police—sometimes we’re discouraged from calling the police when we’re working for management—and due to stigma we may be unlikely to tell the people closest to us because they may not know that we are sex workers on the side or for our job."
The clubs in Washington, like Deja Vu Showgirls, which owns 8 out of 13 clubs in the state, support the bill. But, they're wishy-washy when it comes to creating a blacklist of unruly or abusive customers.
"Our only concern is constitutionality," Winter Finck, a regional supervisor at Deja Vu Showgirls told The Stranger in early March. Finck told the committee on Monday that "privacy is extremely important to us for all entertainers and guests."
To Sly and the other dancers who spoke to the committee, the blacklist is crucial.
"I want to support this blacklist provision and the panic buttons not because the sex trade is inherently violent but because we are targets for danger," Sly said, "and there’s this disproportionate tension happening in clubs right now."
The bill will be heard and voted on by every senator once it gets out of the Senate Labor & Commerce Committee. Senator Rebecca Saldaña, who sponsored the companion bill, SB 5724, is working with stakeholders and Chair Karen Keiser to get the bill ready for that vote.
"I feel hopeful about the bill’s progress because it got strong bipartisan support out of the House, and it is about improving the safety of workers whose voices are often not heard in Olympia," Saldaña told The Stranger in an email.