Dancing Around the Issue: Washington Lawmakers Grapple with State Regulation of Adult Entertainment

By: Matt Williamson

When people think of Washington many things quickly come to mind: Apples, Planes, Rain, Grunge, Twilight; all understandable. Restrictive alcohol laws though? Not so much. 

Despite this, Washington maintains a near-total prohibition on any alcohol service in adult entertainment clubs–making it one of only a few states to do so

This year, a group of exotic entertainment advocates, working with state lawmakers, aimed to change this. The group helped introduce, and has lobbied for, the passage of SB 5614: A bill designed to reverse restrictions on alcohol service and allow strip clubs to apply for liquor licenses

While this might seem like a fairly humble goal, the policy change would represent a massive shift in the landscape of adult entertainment in Washington. Alongside the reversal of the alcohol restrictions, SB 5614 also contains a series of potentially hugely impactful provisions aimed at providing a safer, fairer, and more stable working environment for exotic dancers across the state. 

Why Alcohol Matters

To understand why the seemingly small change could mean so much to Washington-based dancers, one first has to understand the secondary effects this restriction creates.

Washington’s restriction on alcohol service in strip clubs stems not from statute, but administrative rules. The restrictions, enshrined in WAC 314-11-050, were established by the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board, and prohibit the sale of alcohol in any establishment where certain types of activity take place. Because the restricting activities include stripping, a fairly essential element of strip clubs, the rule establishes a de facto exclusion on alcohol sales in strip clubs. 

What this creates is a major economic problem that club owners and management must combat. Without alcohol sales, these clubs are cut off from a huge source of revenue, and must turn to other means to extract money from patrons and staff alike

This is the landscape that has produced one of the most hated aspects of exotic dancing in Washington: Dancer fees. Rather than paying them, many clubs actually charge dancers a fee to perform, arguing that they will earn money through tips, and that the fees are required to be able to maintain the club’s business viability. Naturally, this contributes to the financial instability of the profession, as dancers often encounter shifts where they make little to no money, and are nonetheless forced to pay for the opportunity. 

It’s not just the economics either. Many dancers argue that the lack of alcohol sales in Washington clubs robs these establishments of the ability to create a social or entertaining environment and restricts them to a customer base exclusively seeking a sexual experience. Dancers have noted that Washington clubs have a distinctly sexually-focused vibe, as opposed to Oregon clubs, where alcohol is served and the environment tends to be more akin to a bar. 

Moreover, the added revenue from alcohol sales presents advocates with an opportunity to invest in protections for exotic dancers that have long been missing from the industry. SB 5416 includes provisions requiring better security in clubs, mandatory training for dancers including on financial security planning, and prohibitions on predatory club fees and penalties. 

Legislative Struggles

Despite significant support from groups like Strippers are Workers, which has championed the bill, it sadly seems as though SB 5416 is unlikely to pass the state legislature this year. 

However, advocates can take at least some solace in the nature of its demise: SB 5416 has not failed to receive enough votes at any of the crucial steps in the legislative process, but instead ran afoul of the greatest obstacle any piece of Washington legislation ever faces–the absurdly compacted legislative schedule.

Washington has a part-time legislature, which means that Legislators in the House and Senate only meet for between 3 and 4 months a year. When considered in light of the thousands of bills that are introduced every year, and the numerous procedural steps each must traverse, the massive scale of the scheduling problem quickly comes into focus. 

When SB 5416 passed the Senate in early March, it seemed to have serious momentum, receiving significant bipartisan support in that chamber and quickly being placed on the agenda of the House Committee on Labor & Workplace Standards. 

But sadly, things quickly seemed to fizzle as some notes of opposition arose in the House, and the crush of bills began to overwhelm policy committees. Now, as the cutoff for bills advancing out of House policy committees has passed, and the bill remains with the Regulated Substances & Gaming Committee, it seems all but doomed.


This seems an unworthy end for a bill that seeks to strike at the heart of a serious issue for thousands of working Washingtonians. Exotic dancers deserve so much better than the often predatory working environments they encounter in Washington clubs, and it is clear that repealing our state’s misguided alcohol restrictions could go a long way towards addressing the underlying causes of these conditions and providing dancers with the support and protection they need. Hopefully, advocates and their allies will get another shot at passing this legislation soon, and next time legislators will find the time to seriously consider and pass it.

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