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The Washington state legislature is taking up a so-called 'Strippers Bill of Rights'

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Washington State Legislature is considering a bill that advocates call a Strippers' Bill of Rights. It's been championed by adult dancing activists who say Washington has archaic laws around strip clubs. From member station KUOW in Seattle, Monica Nickelsburg reports.

MONICA NICKELSBURG, BYLINE: By the time Madison Zack-Wu was 18, she says she was living on her own and supporting herself. Stripping became her path to financial independence, but she quickly started to notice problems in the clubs where she worked.

MADISON ZACK-WU: Management encouraging me to work with customers that were known to be harmful and violent even, and there was definitely a pressure to dance with them.

NICKELSBURG: Kasey Champion, another longtime Washington dancer who has since retired, says there were other problems, too. It's standard for clubs to charge strippers house fees to use the stage, but Champion says that the fees in Washington were more than double those in the other states where she worked, like Oregon and Nevada.

KASEY CHAMPION: I paid about $185 a day. Now that was regardless of if I made money, so If I showed up that day and didn't have any just cash in my pocket and I didn't make any money, then I could put my debt down.

NICKELSBURG: She says dancers she knew sometimes racked up thousands of dollars of debt to the club. Both Madison Zack-Wu and Kasey Champion are now activists with the organization Strippers Are Workers. The group is pushing for a bill that would do things like limit the fees clubs can charge dancers, require a security guard to be on duty and mandate sexual harassment training for all club employees. But the bill could do something else as well - pave the way to legalize alcohol in Washington strip clubs where it's currently banned. To illustrate why that's an issue, Zack-Wu and Champion take me to a strip club in Seattle...

UNIDENTIFIED EMCEE: Put your hands together for trouble...

NICKELSBURG: ...Where a bartender slings sodas while a dancer undresses on stage.

UNIDENTIFIED BARTENDER: What you guys want to drink?

NICKELSBURG: Can I have some type of diet cola?

UNIDENTIFIED BARTENDER: I got Diet Coke.

NICKELSBURG: That'll do. You have Coca-Cola?

UNIDENTIFIED BARTENDER: Coca-Cola.

NICKELSBURG: Washington is the only state in the country with a complete ban on alcohol in strip clubs, according to the bill's sponsor and industry experts. The prohibition dates back to a 1970s rule that bans alcohol sales in the presence of nudity. In this strip club on a Friday night, there are only two customers in the audience. Zack-Wu and Champion say that's partly because there's no drink service here.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Laughter).

NICKELSBURG: At a bar next door, which is full of customers, Zack-Wu says that without revenue from alcohol, charging fees to dancers is one of the only ways clubs can make money.

ZACK-WU: Without any customer volume and without any food or drink or entertainment to sell, we are the commodity.

NICKELSBURG: Twenty Washington state senators voted against the bill before it went to the House, but none of them wanted to elaborate on their position. We also reached out to the owners of Washington's major strip clubs, but none were willing to comment. Isaac Kastama, a lobbyist representing five club owner groups, also declined to comment. In public testimony, he said club owners had some reservations about how realistic the training and security requirements in the bill were but that they were broadly supportive of its goals.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ISAAC KASTAMA: Most states have figured out ways to do this that, I think, have better outcomes than we have in Washington, so we remain optimistic.

NICKELSBURG: Ariela Moscowitz says if this bill passes, it could turn one of the most conservative states for stripping into one of the most progressive. She's communications director at the national advocacy organization Decriminalize Sex Work.

ARIELA MOSCOWITZ: I feel pretty confident in saying Washington probably has some of the harshest restrictions, and they don't necessarily do anything to improve the health or safety of those working there or those visiting the establishment.

NICKELSBURG: The rule that makes it impossible for strip clubs to serve alcohol is the same one that sparked controversy last month when law enforcement officers warned managers at queer bars in Seattle about violations of the rule, like a bartender's exposed nipple. LGBTQ rights advocates have supported the new bill in public testimony. For NPR News, I'm Monica Nickelsburg in Seattle.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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