All across the country, the sex industry is thriving. Pornography, strip clubs and brothels have become a booming business.

All across the country, the sex industry is thriving. Pornography, strip clubs and brothels have become a booming business.

Lured by hopes of attention and cash, many women have found themselves trapped in a system that on the surface seems completely voluntary. Under the surface, however, it’s anything but.

Lured by hopes of attention and cash, many women have found themselves trapped in a system that on the surface seems completely voluntary. Under the surface, however, it’s anything but.

The Cupcake Girls have chosen to love these women – not to save them, not to “fix” them, but to love them. And through this love, they are showing those trapped in the sex industry that there is another way to live.

The Cupcake Girls have chosen to love these women – not to save them, not to “fix” them, but to love them. And through this love, they are showing those trapped in the sex industry that there is another way to live.

Unconditional love in the most unlikely of places

by Brooke Hartman
Photos by Jeff Hartman

This might be a hard read—it’s a hard write.

I haven’t met many sex workers, but when I have, the circumstances haven’t been good. For several years I worked in the Emergency Department at a major trauma center downtown, and part of my job was to handle the sexual assault cases.

The term ‘sexual assault’ plucks an empathic string in most, and when an 11-year-old kid or a 20-year-old college student or a 55-year-old mother of three came in, most everyone would move heaven and earth to provide immediate and compassionate care. But if the woman’s story began at the Classy Chassy (a local strip club) or the Flying J truck stop at I-65 known for cab-side prostitution, snickers and eye rolls and amused glances between professionals were plentiful behind closed doors.

Vegas Vickie, who used to adorn the entrance to a strip club on Fremont Street

Vegas Vickie, who used to adorn the entrance to a strip club on Fremont Street

Few knew how to empathetically interpret sexual assault in the context of consensual sex work. The details of a sex worker’s lifestyle frequently pushed her into the fringes of empathetic care, and most people simply could not relate.

While the workers at this center were trained well and practiced with integrity and compassion—while my own friends and family meant no harm as they cracked all the jokes mentioned in the previous story, teasing us about our assignment—the laughs and elbow nudges and eye rolls put us all at risk of accepting a dangerous underlying assumption: that some lives matter less than others. That some people are less deserving of compassion than others. That a subset of the population is laughable.

Though I’m pretty familiar (and sometimes even more at ease) with those who live in the fray, my mental image of a sex worker before I embedded with the Cupcake Girls was the strung-out, mumbling and stumbling Classy Chassy lady. Either that, or the ones front-lining shows on the Vegas strip and rolling in wads of cash, or the lady in the first season of West Wing who was simply paying for law school. These extremes were my framework as I arrived in Las Vegas to learn how the Cupcake Girls live in relationship with sex workers.

Maybe that’s why I didn’t recognize my new friend right off the bat. She rushed into the office with another volunteer, and they quickly closed themselves in the conference room with books and notebooks.

She wore jeans and a cute blazer, flashed a bright smile that warmed me instantly, and hugged everyone she passed. Who was this? I wanted to know her. I assumed she was a beloved Cupcake Girls volunteer as I watch the way everyone greeted one another.

But she wasn’t a volunteer. She was a former industry worker.

The founder of Cupcake Girls explained that this woman was studying for a health certificate program. That’s why she was in the conference room with her volunteer tutor of eight months.

I got the chance to meet her the following week at the Coffee and Cupcakes support group. My heart grew 10 sizes as I threw my (previously unknown) bias out the window in anticipation. I had been there only fifteen minutes and already I wanted the camaraderie I saw around me. The warmth and acceptance. The authenticity. I wanted in.

Coffee and cupcakes

Coffee and cupcakes… an awesome combo

Coffee and cupcakes… an awesome combo

Since I have a background in counseling, I was invited to attend the weekly Coffee and Cupcakes support groups during the month I spent with the Cupcake Girls.

During this time, women from the industry gather for—you might have guessed—coffee and cupcakes. It’s a non-directed open group time to allow the women and volunteers to talk, ask questions, build relationships, and offer support to one another.

Had I met the girl at work or church or something, we’d have been fast friends. She was smart, articulate, a natural encourager, warm, kind, and honest. She laughed graciously at my jokes, was generous with her affirmations of others in the room, and her eyes sparkled with life.

In a million years, I’d never have guessed she struggles with grammar and spelling, that she never finished school and rents books and audio CDs from the library to help her grasp professional speech and social etiquette. She was gorgeous, and her steady pursuit of personal growth could break your heart with its sincerity.

I asked my friend after group one Sunday how she got involved with the Cupcake Girls. Although she was nervous, she was willing to share, wanting to express how instrumental the Cupcake Girls had been in her life. She also had fledging hopes of being truly known and understood by a community whose first impulse had always been to shame girls like her: the faith community.

It was a risk, but she bravely put it all on the table as we sat across from each other and shared our stories that Sunday over coffee.

Getting started

My friend described her parents’ divorce when she was young, her hard-working but unavailable father, her post-divorce alcoholic mother, and the solace she found in her group of friends in northern Utah. These friends became her family. She’d always dreamt of modeling as a young teen and discovered an Internet modeling job that turned out to be soft-core porn—so she got out of that quickly. But she moved on to a strip club with her girlfriends, making large amounts of money quickly.

As the only income-producing child of an alcoholic mom, she was both free to do what she wanted and saddled with the financial responsibility of managing the household, paying rent and utilities.

She’d always wanted to move out of state, so when she met a pimp who offered to fly her to Atlanta for work, she decided to try it. “He told me he had girls there—a whole business—and he could set me up with my own business,” she said. She had also sort of fallen in love with him, and the arrangement sounded like a good way to meet both relational and financial needs.

The Las Vegas strip glowing brightly

The Las Vegas strip glowing brightly

To join the business, she explained with a sad sigh, she had to prove her trustworthiness by cutting ties with friends and family and turning all her money over each day. The pimp promised to ship all her belongings from Utah to Atlanta for a house she would eventually earn, but the moving truck never arrived. She found herself in Atlanta with no money, no home, and no belongings, totally dependent on the pimp she would only see twice in two years. Once she joined the business, all dealings happened through another lady who turned out to be the pimp’s “Top Girl”, the mother to his kids and the woman who ran the business.

My friend took a deep breath and went on to describe how she was put up in a hotel room six days a week, working 16 hours a day—willingly, she thought, because of what the business had promised her: dental work that needed to be done, breast implants, her own house, and a car. She had one day off per week, and the pimp furnished a house for her to use during those 24 hours. The catch? She had to pay $1500 a month to use it, and that fee was taken out of the money she never saw but supposedly earned. Her quota was $4000 per day, and she never took home a penny of it. They had warned her up front that some of the clients were friends of the pimp and would tell if she stole any of it.

On the Sundays she was allowed to go to the house, she developed an eating disorder. She wasn’t allowed to travel anywhere alone, even on her days off, so the Top Girl would pick her up to go to the store, get her food and drop her back off at home, where my friend would binge and purge all night.

“I was so lonely and isolated. I wasn’t able to save any money, and the only area of my life I could control was my Sunday night food habit.” she said. “But they told me it would just be three months. Then another three months. Then another three months until I had my own business. I never had my own business.”

Almost all of my friend’s time was spent serving clients in a hotel room.

Almost all of my friend’s time was spent serving clients in a hotel room.

She tried to call her dad one day, she explained, and when they found out (because somehow they always found out), they delayed the dental work for eight more months. Although she was increasingly unhappy, she determined to just hang on until she could get her tooth fixed, buy a car, and earn her driver’s license—all things she needed to be able to move on.

My friend shook her head as we talked, remembering those moments, and seemed to be looking back in time as if deciding how much to share with me.

“I got stressed out because they would give me so much work back-to-back, and the majority were dangerous. They wouldn’t leave, or they’d throw me on the ground and become abusive, or they’d take my money and throw my phone.  Guys were married, or had experienced abuse, and they wanted me to do hideous things to them. It was so damaging having to put on an act or play the role. I was like, what in the world am I doing? I asked God constantly to forgive me, because I didn’t know how I got there. But I knew it just wasn’t right.”

Getting out

“Finally,” she said, “I remember reading a newspaper article on sex trafficking of children, and how pimps would lock them in a room and force them to do prostitution.”

She began to see clearly for the first time.

“I thought, Oh my gosh, this is me.”

My friend showed the article to the Top Girl and said, I’m experiencing this right now! But the girl just dismissed it. The more my friend thought about it, though, the more she realized they’d been manipulating her from the beginning. She went with the Top Girl everywhere. They never introduced my friend to anyone else in the entire city of Atlanta. She couldn’t even talk to her family members living there. They had to know where she was every minute, and she had to text her whereabouts at all hours.

I sat in shock and concern as I processed what my friend had just disclosed.

She didn’t realize she was a sex slave until she read an article on human trafficking. She had been working for the promise of money, not actual money.

How could this have happened? I mean, how had she not known?

My friend and I at the Cupcake Girls office

My friend and I at the Cupcake Girls office

At that moment two things struck me. The first is how easily an unsafe situation can distort into something reasonable—especially for a woman inside the sex industry. Never protected, always exploited… It’s not hard to see that we look at the world through very different lenses.

The second was this: attention and cash are as strong and confining as any physical chain or deadbolt—only they’re more deceptive. A chain and deadbolt look like a chain and deadbolt, but attention and cash look a lot like success. Not all women are trapped by locks and pimps and drugs. Some women are working to support a family, or to travel, or to start a business. If my friend had made it, though, she’d have made it, and that’s what kept her enslaved.

When my friend realized what was happening, she wanted out.

“I started reaching out to people and asking how to get out,” she said. “I would text the Top Girl that I was home, but really I would be on the Internet searching for help and support, trying to find a place to stay back in Utah or Las Vegas. I started saving money. I opened up a separate account at the bank on the corner, and I would run from the hotel to the bank on fake smoke breaks to deposit money and sprint back. If I got a thousand dollar appointment, I would only claim $400 and put the extra money into the separate account. I was always afraid they were watching me.”

She discovered, however, that she didn’t know anything but the entertainment industry. Although she’d always wanted to become some kind of health professional, she didn’t know how to speak professionally or carry herself socially around people who weren’t clients. She smiled when she described how the people in the hotel were her friends because she’d been there so long. She shared how they taught her the basics of managing herself professionally while she was there.

I just wanted to hug my friend. I found myself standing in awe of what she had to carry rather than in judgment of how she carried it. How would I have fared in her situation?

When my friend had about two thousand dollars saved, she reached out to her family in Atlanta. They helped her pack her stuff up, and on the day her rent was due for her 1-day-per-week apartment, she quit.

“They tried so hard to keep me,” my friend explained, shaking her head. “[My pimp] said he was sorry, and that he should have been nicer. He promised I’d have all of him if I came back and offered to move me to another state. He appealed to all my weaknesses, and I almost gave in. I wanted to be part of a family. He promised that. I wanted a relationship and friends. He promised that. I wanted a certain lifestyle. He promised that. You know what they do?” my friend asked.

I didn’t know.

“They find your weakness and then don’t deliver,” she said.

Las Vegas, where my friend sought to begin a new life

Las Vegas, where my friend sought to begin a new life

My friend didn’t just drive away that day. When she realized how much they’d been manipulating her, she put a tip out to the Atlanta police and emailed all the news stations—and then she never looked back. She arrived in Las Vegas and walked right into one of the biggest clubs in the city where she knew some friends were performing and hustled hard, as she put it. She was hired immediately as a dancer. To her, this felt like freedom and success—she was earning her own money and building a community of relationships as she’d always known them.

The cupcake encounter

During her first week in the club, she looked down and saw a little flyer with a pink cupcake on it. She picked it up and read the invitation to a Tiffany Spa Day hosted by the Cupcake Girls.

The Cupcake Girls are ruthlessly committed to love and acceptance… and cupcakes!

The Cupcake Girls are ruthlessly committed to love and acceptance… and cupcakes!

“The moment I met them, I knew this was exactly where I needed to be. They were such good people. They were doing our hair and makeup, and they were so beautiful and so nice. I looked at them and thought, this is who I want to surround myself with.”

“So I pursued them,” my friend said. “I did everything I could to be around them. I went to every event and took advantage of every service—especially the tutoring and individual counseling. They mentioned they were doing this Sunday women’s support group thing, and I didn’t even care what it was. I wanted to go. I’ve been going every Sunday since, for a whole year!”

My friend explained that she didn’t go into the spa event or support groups thinking she was going to quit dancing. She thought she was happy with her life, but the more time she spent with the Cupcake Girls volunteers, the more she began to understand she was more than just a dollar sign. She discovered after watching the Cupcake Girls interact with each other and their husbands and friends that her own relationships weren’t really friendships—they were business transactions.

My friend was desperate for real relationships now that she knew what they looked like.

“I wanted genuine friends. I wanted to honor and respect myself. I want a real companion who’s not just rich and wealthy. I still have faith that one day I’ll have a real relationship. Hearing the Cupcake Girls say not all men are like that is refreshing. They’re role models for what’s possible, you know? And the life they have is the life I want.”

And here’s the thing. The thing that sets the Cupcake Girls apart from anyone else in the industry:

“They don’t expect anything in return.”

I smiled. This is unheard of in the sex industry.

No strings attached

My friend is now six months out of the industry—not because the Cupcake Girls encouraged her to leave, but because they opened her eyes to what was possible. They helped her achieve her own goals of loving relationships that are genuine and compassionate with no strings attached. They didn’t judge her, but instead asked what she wanted to do in life—become a health professional—and guided her through her online courses, testing and certificates with a tutor.

My friend (left) with some of the Cupcake Girls volunteers.

My friend (left) with some of the Cupcake Girls volunteers.

“We meet once a week to study for my certification exam,” she said. “But I can always reach out to her, like a friend. She meets me at the gym sometimes. We did a marathon together and she was there with me at the gym running right next to me!”

Now, though, even as my friend works hard and earns success at a career she’s proud of, she fights the voices in her head. They call her back when her car payment is due and her bank account balance is low.

“I still battle with old weaknesses—sugar daddies and money. It’s like an addiction, and the sex industry will always have that pull. It’s hard because that’s all I was familiar with: money, looks and flirting. But that’s not who I want to be anymore, and I know it’s not worth my dignity and integrity. I’m more than just a money symbol now.”

Wow. Can you imagine if these were the voices we fought every day? I fight voices of insignificance and insecurity and ingratitude, and the ones calling me toward the pastry counter, and the ones burrowing holes of bitterness in my heart. We’re all just making our way through the world fighting different voices and trying hard to choose truth.

I asked my friend what one thing she would like everyone or anyone—specifically the faith-based audience—to know about her.

“That we’re human, too. I believe in God, too,” she said. “Men and money make me feel successful, and I’m just trying to figure everything out. When I was at my lowest point,” she said earnestly, “I began to pray and plead for God to show me a way out. And he did.”

Ouch. Not laughable at all, actually. Heart wrenching.

Qualifying love

My friend (left) with Joy Hoover, the founder of Cupcake Girls.

My friend (left) with Joy Hoover, the founder of Cupcake Girls.

Jeff and I met women in all stages in Las Vegas— young and old, pockets-lined and dirt poor, proud and satisfied, discouraged and discontented and fearful. We met mothers living double lives, and runaway teenagers posing as adults, and women living the exact life they want, and women who are on, like, plan E.

As we processed each story and shared our experience with others, we kept running into to the same questions:

Was she trafficked?

Is she allowed to leave?

Was she abused?

Is she on drugs?

Wait. Was she forced to be on drugs? Did they addict her?

Could she leave if she wanted to?

Does she make a lot of money?

We mulled each answer around a little trying to understand. Trying to understand her choices against our own, maybe? Trying to figure out our level of empathy? Determining whether or not we could see any part of ourselves in her?

And then I had an awful thought: What if we ask these types of questions because our compassion is qualified by the answers? What if we measure the lifestyle against the injustice to determine what type of love this person gets from us?

Does she get arms-length love? Praying-from-afar love? Is she eligible for the minimal qualifying Jesus-loves-you-because-Jesus-loves-everybody love? Or does she get full-on, big, wet, sloppy kiss I love you love? Does she get a one-armed hug, or both arms with an extra squeeze?

It’s much easier, I think, to feel compassion toward an abused 14 year old who ran away and got locked in a hotel room for 2 years; or a coke-addicted prostitute feeding an addiction that was forced onto her; or a young woman intercepted at a Nepali border station who thought she was on her way to a better life in India. I’d love those women with both arms, probably, drowning them in compassion.

If she was vulnerable and exploited, I’m all in. That’s not fair, I think. It wasn’t her fault.

But what if the woman goes into the sex industry with both eyes open, like my new friend? What if she falls in love with a pimp and runs off with him to Atlanta? What if she can make more money at the strip clubs than she can selling her art projects or her chocolates and she just really likes bringing home $600-$4000 per night? What if she’s supporting a family or working for travel money or funding a business start up?

What if it’s totally her fault?

What then? What type of love, empathy or compassion does she—my new friend—get from me?

My friend (left) celebrating her birthday with the Cupcake Girls.

My friend (left) celebrating her birthday with the Cupcake Girls.

Because her struggles are different than mine, I’d have easily sized her up on my vulnerability/exploitation scale, plugged her in to my compassion equation, and offered her a love, of like, 3 up front. Now? After spending time with her and getting to know who she is? I would climb across the table and give her a real, true, both arms, wet and sloppy with a big kiss and hug love. I would give her a love of 10. Because she deserves that from me. She is worthy of that from me.

And if I’m modeling my love after Christ, I’d have to ask myself this question: Did my friend become increasingly more favorable, or did I just discover over time that she’s always been wholly favorable?

She’s always been wholly favorable, of course. We’ve all always been wholly favorable—made in the image of God with innate value no matter what. And it’s only through the blood of Christ any of us have sanctification.

Even you.

Even me.

Even sex workers.

Even if they haven’t discovered him there yet, right inside them.

So my measure of love toward sex workers can’t be the circumstance they find themselves in, but in how much I value each person to begin with. And my world can no longer be divided into us and them.

It can only be us.

Oh! I almost forgot to tell you my friend’s name—the name she assigned herself as she drove away from Atlanta just over a year ago. The name she used as she stumbled into a new life she had no way of imagining for herself. The name she claims in spite of snickers and eye rolls and elbow jabs as she pushes her way through the fray, through the margins, into the world you and I live in: Justice.

Her name is Justice. And she’s using her story to help others. She wants them to know, as the Cupcake Girls taught her, that they are loved and cared for unconditionally.

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