Where are the panic buttons?
Where are the panic buttons? IGOR SINKOV/GETTY IMAGES

Progress in Washington strip clubs is coming. Slowly. But will it be enough?

Last year, strippers (also called dancers) organized with Working Washington to get their concerns about the industry—a highly regulated mess that has created a virtual monopoly in the state—heard by legislators.

That manifested in a bill that accomplished four main things: putting panic buttons in VIP rooms, implementing a customer blacklist for bad actors, creating a mandatory training for dancers to complete, and establishing an adult entertainer advisory committee.

The bill was enacted last summer. While clubs are required to make changes, the laws are still going through the rule-making process with Washington State Labor & Industries and many clubs are waiting until those rules are finalized to implement blacklists and panic buttons. L&I cannot do an inspection unless a complaint has been filed, according to Rep. Tina Orwall, who sponsored the bill last year.

Progress may not be tangible until this summer. And even the road to that progress is difficult for dancers who see these improvements, while necessary, as merely scratching the surface in an industry that many are desperate to change in bigger, more sweeping ways.

There has only been one rule-making meeting so far. But there have been several meetings with the adult entertainment advisory committee. Eight current or former dancers make up the committee. (However, most don’t show up at the monthly meetings.)

“A lot of the dancers who are on the advisory committee are afraid to go in person to the meetings,” Jane, a dancer in downtown Seattle told me. Jane isn’t her real name. “They don’t want management to see them there and retaliate against them, myself included.”

Jane hasn’t been to any meetings physically, but she’s called in anonymously, an option L&I provided when concerns about retaliation were made, L&I spokesperson Frank Ameduri told me. The audio quality is often too terrible to even contribute meaningfully, Jane said. Ameduri said that L&I is working to improve this.

When Jane spoke out about workplace issues last year the club retaliated in sneaky ways. According to Orwall, at least one dancer was fired for organizing last year.

“Legally they’re not allowed to retaliate,” Jane explained. The way they do it is by finding another reason to fire a dancer, she explained. Oftentimes, that’s through back rent.

Every night, a dancer has to pay the club house rent. In Seattle, that’s already pretty expensive, from $120 to $180 depending on the club and how many nights a dancer is scheduled to work. If a dancer doesn’t make enough to pay off the house rent, they basically get an IOU from the club, an amount that the manager on duty sets seemingly arbitrarily.

Having too much back rent is an easy excuse to fire a dancer.

“They’ll try to make sure they rack up a lot of back rent and are in debt to the club,” Jane said. “I have had more back rent in the past year than I have ever had in my nearly 15-year career of dancing.”

Not all clubs use back rent, according to Frank Colacurcio Jr. (Yes, that Frank Colacurcio Jr.), who—though banned from running strip clubs in Washington—is a consultant for Kittens Cabaret. He told me, through interruptions when he would yell at his GPS to quit "yapping" at him, that he thought "it should be up to every business on how they run their business."

“I’m a little concerned [about retaliation],” Orwall told me. She has been to a number of the advisory committee meetings and confirmed that "there hasn’t been a huge number of people actually in the room" and only a small number of dancers were present. “I don’t want them to feel like they can’t speak.”

Shira Cole has been out of the dancing business for three years. She uses that freedom to advocate loudly for what dancers need.

“I do understand that retaliation threat,” Cole told me, “I understand completely. Back when I was working, I couldn’t even talk to anybody about [these issues], I was so afraid that I would get fired. Everyone organizing who still works is really brave.”

Back rent is an industry-wide issue. Cole would like to make it illegal. She would also like to change restrictive zoning laws and end prohibition in clubs across the state (it is illegal to consume alcohol in Washington strip clubs.). But, one thing at a time. And currently, that’s getting clubs and dancers, alike, to agree on rules around these laws and getting the adult advisory committee to come up with the mandatory training for dancers.

“The training has to be done by July so they haven’t really allotted any other time for other issues,” Cole said. The training will incorporate a crash course in financial independence, being an independent contractor, dealing with workplace harassment, and more. “I keep saying that I’d like to talk about other issues, but there’s not enough time,” Cole said. They only meet once a month for three to four hours.

She tries to make it to every meeting. Last month, she was the only dancer who showed up in person. Granted, it was on a snow day for Seattle Public Schools and most dancers couldn’t find childcare, Cole said.

Cole was one of the original dancers who took her complaints and vision for change to the Seattle City Council around two years ago. Former Councilmember Mike O’Brien referred her to Working Washington which jumpstarted this whole thing.

There’s still quite a road ahead. They haven’t even decided which panic buttons to use (Cole and Jane both want a button that triggers flashing lights) or where to place the buttons. According to Jane, in the months after the bill was passed, she spent a night consoling a 19-year-old dancer who had been assaulted in a VIP room. She was frustrated. Hadn't they made the inroads to prevent this?

"These club managers dragging their feet and acting like we have to do this the right way is literally causing harm to people," she said.

One of the main sticking points for the clubs is the customer blacklist that would ban bad acting customers. Jane said that the clubs are worried they’ll get sued by customers. Colacurcio Jr. said it's about "the question of what are the customer's rights" and there "has got to be some sort of fairness in everything."

“First of all,” Jane told me, “I think if someone is blacklisted from a club they would be embarrassed to sue the club—most of our customers are married men. I doubt they want to out themselves as having been in a strip club and having been accused of bad behavior.”

Mostly, she wants the clubs to believe women. If a dancer speaks out, in Jane's opinion, it's serious.

"Dancers tolerate a lot of bad behavior," Jane said. "It takes a lot for them to say, 'This guy is out of line,' because we’re trying to make money. I'm not going to accuse every doofus who slaps my ass because I’m trying to make a profit."

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If it’s so bad that she reports it, Jane said, it's "because I’ve been hurt or I’m scared."

For Jane, she would feel much more comfortable advocating for herself and her fellow dancers by saying these kinds of things in meetings if she knew there would be no professional ramifications.

The next meeting is on Monday, February 10 at 1:30 p.m. in L&I’s Tukwila offices.