TACOMA, Wash. — There is one strip club in Pierce County, Washington. Just one.
And yet that one business — Dreamgirls at Fox’s, in a low-slung building tucked away next to gas stations and check-cashing businesses — is one of the most talked-about places in a county that houses the state’s third-largest city, an active volcano and more than 800,000 people.
The Dreamgirls exotic dancers have been in the headlines in the state for over a month, since a cowboy-hat-wearing civil engineer named David Van Vleet filed a public records request to see the business licenses of the women who work there. The records contain their legal names, among other details such as their dates of birth, stage names and physical descriptions. Van Vleet, a Christian, looked into television cameras and told reporters he simply wanted their names to pray for them. “I’m not somebody that’s going to harm the women,” he told KIRO-TV.
But their safety was exactly what concerned exotic dancers across Washington as the news spread. For Tracy, a dancer in Seattle, just north of Tacoma, who asked that her real name be withheld, the incident immediately reminded her of the licensing information she had to file with the local police department to legally dance at the club. “They take our fingerprints. Ask about any scars or identifying marks,” she said. “So if I get murdered, they can identify my body.”
It’s not irrational thinking. Washington serial killers Gary Ridgway and Robert Yates famously used the thick, lush state forests of Pierce County as dumping grounds for the bodies of sex workers from the 1970s to 1990s.
Though a judge issued a preliminary injunction that prevents Van Vleet from getting the Dreamgirls dancers’ licenses, it doesn’t completely remove the threat that their information could be released. The case will be revisited in mid-December.
“The fact of the matter is anybody who has your name can probably find out a lot about you,” said Gilbert Levy, attorney for the dancers. It’s why the women use stage names. “They have private lives,” he said. “Many of them are parents. Many of them dance because they can make a living and they don’t necessarily want their mom to know. A lot of them have straight jobs.”
Aside from privacy concerns, the Pierce County case opens up First Amendment and open records debates and questions of whether dancers should be considered independent contractors or employees. And the big question: Why do they need licenses at all?
In most Washington cities, licenses are required to be an adult entertainer to ensure they are 18 or older and legal residents. But licensing is “not very common” elsewhere in the United States, according to Angelina Spencer, president of the Association of Club Executives (ACE). Spencer said that in the few instances when club workers are required to be licensed, it’s up to individual cities to regulate. She points to Ft. Myers, Florida, and Asheville and Greensboro, North Carolina, as some of the only cities that require licenses for dancers.
“Anyone working in an adult club, regardless of job title, in Ft. Myers must obtain a license after going through a background check,” she said.
Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson said this isn’t the first time the public records for exotic dancers debate has been raised locally. Last year Robert Hill, a Tacoma prisoner with a history of stalking, made a similar records request.
Licenses were first required for dancers here in 1987, she said, after law enforcement “observed criminal activity happening.”
Melinda Chateauvert, author of Sex Workers Unite, noted that while licenses are intended to verify age, it also suggests dancers have gone through some kind of formal occupational training.
“When we license various occupations, we do so because we expect those people who are licensed to have a certain set of skills,” she said. “Do we license baristas? We don’t license gas station attendants who are working with flammable materials every single minute they are on the job. There is a question of what is the licensing really for.” Some wonder if increased requirements for exotic dancers are attempts to sway women from working in the industry.
While the idea of a job-training class to become a stripper sounds like a joke, there’s a chance it could become a reality in Pierce County. Earlier this month, the County Council voted to consider a proposal that would require classroom training for strippers.
“What the ordinance says is that they should require instructor-led classroom training and a computer video tutorial on human trafficking, domestic violence, sexual assault,” Anderson said. That would come as an additional cost to dancers, who front the costs for their licenses.
The proposed ordinance would also rack up costs for Tacoma’s only strip club. If passed, it would require Dreamgirls to erect 36-inch-high barriers to ensure a 10-foot space between dancers and patrons as well as the posting of 2-foot-by-3-foot signs inside and outside all doors that encourage patrons to report “prostitution, solicitation, sexual assault, human trafficking, drug use or sales or the presence of minors.”
As it is, Washington strip clubs can’t sell alcohol, and the Pierce ordinance would prevent new bars from being located within 1,000 feet of a strip club.
Chateauvert said dancers tend to be nomadic, and stripping often offers fast, easy, legal money. This isn’t a long-term career, she said, and licensing “creates a public record, and when even the most law-abiding citizens are prevented from getting jobs, clear credit checks, passports, visas, loans, apartments … because they have some undisclosed item in their public records — records that, mind you, cannot be challenged, changed or removed.”
“This leads to second-class citizenship,” she said, also calling it “institutional slut shaming.”
While dancers in cities across the country are forming unions and winning multimillion dollar lawsuits for unfair fees and wages, licensing is one issue that Chateauvert said is tough to organize around.
“The movement, such as it is, hasn’t coalesced around a particular position,” she said, “because the government bureaucracies that issue the licenses vary so widely.”
Theresa (also not her real name), a Seattle exotic dancer who volunteers with the local chapter of the Sex Worker Outreach Project, said that when issues like the Van Vleet case pop up, it makes dancers question the process of licensing. Yes, it’s legal. But it carries its own danger — that dancers will gravitate toward riskier but less traceable job opportunities.
“If I want to do legal work in a club, I have to put my information on record,” she said. “Or if I want to do illegal or gray-area sex work,” like dancing at an unlicensed club, “I will not have my information on public record.”