How the Cupcake Girls are bringing love and compassion to the US sex industry
By Brooke Hartman
Photos by Jeff Hartman
You should have seen the faces of people around us when we announced we would be going to Las Vegas. Having spent the first half of the year in Rwanda and Cambodia and Nepal—all developing countries—everyone belly-laughed when we said we would now be writing about injustice in Las Vegas. They laughed even harder when we explained that our partnering organization hands out cupcakes to women in the sex industry.
Do strippers even eat cupcakes?
I bet Jeff will need to do some “extra research” right? (Elbow nudge) Riiiight?
How’d you guys manage that? Maybe I should “fight injustice” more, too. Wink!
And my favorite: Hey, we’ve been thinking about you guys all year… would this be a good time to come out and visit?
Well. I mean, that’s not really an injustice, is it?
Hey, strippers make a ton of cash. They’re doing just fine.
I have no interest in Las Vegas—I just couldn’t be around that all the time.
You guys really want to spend a month there?
This is how we collectively view Las Vegas: a giant playground of elbow-nudging sin and/or a deservedly God-forsaken city. We assume Vegas is synonymous with evil. We assume we either need to stay out of it or bring Jesus to it. But here’s the secret:
Jesus is already there. God has not surrendered Las Vegas to anyone.
I was anxious to figure out, though, why a non-religious organization would live out the tenets of love and compassion toward sex workers without naming the God from whom those things flow. And if not for God, then why were they doing it?
My husband Jeff and I arrived in Las Vegas ready to cupcake our way through the city. I didn’t know exactly what this would entail for us, but I knew a few basic things about the Cupcake Girls.
I knew they were explicitly non-religious. But I also knew several of the founding members were people of faith. I knew they visited strip clubs and brothels to deliver adorable pink cupcakes and to assist with any needs the women might have through their expansive resource network of doctors and dentists, tutors and financial advisors, support groups and counselors. And I knew they assisted with hair and makeup at, like, porn conventions.
I didn’t totally understand how it would all work, and I was on the verge of sweating bullets in fear of discovering they didn’t actually align with our values or mission at World Next Door. But I was prepared to eat a lot of cupcakes, regardless.
Love without agenda
Aside from a brief hello with the founder and volunteer staff, our first encounter with the organization was at new volunteer orientation. Imagine our surprise to see that one of the attendees was the manager of a big strip club in town, no doubt advocating for the legitimacy of sex work, and that on the other side of the room sat an evangelical lady who asked questions like, “So isn’t the ultimate goal to get them out [of the industry]?”
We watched as Joy Hoover, the founder, walked the line between the two extreme perspectives, equally maintaining the dignity and self-determination of women of the industry and finding common ground with people of faith. She remained steadfast and clear to the entire spectrum of people filling the room that night. “We provide non-judgmental support, consistent caring and resources for women in the entertainment industry. We do not evangelize. We do not reform. We do not yank women out. We do relationship.”
“Our core value is to love without agenda.”
I had previously only been aware of the cupcaking, which they do not call cupcaking, by the way. They call this group the Meet-Up team. Meet-up girls go into a designated club or brothel once a month and connect with girls through food, hair and makeup, and then maintain a relationship with those specific women outside the club. The cupcaking, I understood, was not the point. It was simply the gateway to the point: meeting-up.
Their strategy? Listed simply in black-and-white on my orientation packet for Christians and club managers alike were seven tasks: Give cupcakes, listen to stories, build trusting relationships, connect outside the workplace, meet tangible needs, connect to support, connect to a positive community.
This all looked good on paper, but I wondered how it actually played out in real life—and again, interpreting all of it through my lens as a Christ-follower writing for a faith-based magazine about a non-Christian organization, I wondered where I might find the intersection of faith and sex work.
JH-10496 The long, dusty road the Cupcake Girls must take to visit Nye County, one of the only counties in the US where brothels are legal.
Our very first endeavor with the Cupcake Girls took us through the dusty Mojave Desert, around the back of the mountains that surround Las Vegas, into Nye County, the home of all the brothels that Cupcake Girls visit. We were very close to Death Valley, which is the lowest and hottest point in the United States and sits ironically close to Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the lower United States. The proximity of these extremes struck me as ironic, and I wondered if, like the landscape, the lowest and highest possible limits of who we really are, what we are capable of, can exist in the same relative space. I wondered if the highest and lowest possible limits of the human experience could be shaped by environments we’re not totally in charge of, and I wondered if it was possible, no matter our depth or height, to stand in awe of our collective existence. Does each one of us have value simply because we are?
In that realization, I remembered something I read recently in Greg Boyle’s book Tattoos on the Heart that reflects the Cupcake Girls exact stance: “We seek a compassion that can stand in awe at what the [prostitutes, sex workers] have to carry rather than stand in judgment of how they carry it.”
I didn’t know how or why sex workers became sex workers. But could I look past the brothel and realize the woman standing in front of me has value simply because she’s been created in the image of God? Could I believe she was wholly good and fully lovable? Could I worship Christ as he lives in her, unaltered by the fact that she may not have discovered him there yet? Could I accept that in reality I am not morally superior, more good, more loved, or any closer to God than any of the people we would visit that day?
As we left the city and drove into the desert, I didn’t know the answer to these questions.
That afternoon, we drove 12 hours door-to-door to four different brothels. I kept waiting for the moment someone would slip up and reveal her real purpose—to “save” women. But it simply never happened. Each one stood firm in the organization’s approach to love without agenda, seeing their own reflections in the faces of women they had purposed to serve, and to stand in oneness with them. Not just serving them, but situating themselves right next to prostitutes in hopes that sex workers become a little less disposable to the world.
We first pulled up to a tiny purple trailer, a brothel in the middle of the desert staffed by 50 year-old end-of-the-road women and owned by an elderly couple in their 80s. We spent hours at an old alien-themed truck-stop brothel where women are free to come and go, and another hour at a fancier but stricter one where women are only allowed to leave on Tuesdays, and another hour at a stucco building in the middle of nowhere—all of these legal and (mostly) voluntary.
I watched as the volunteers hung out in kitchens and lounges, curling hair, painting toenails, eating cupcakes and listening to stories about families and holidays and kids and pets. They fielded questions as they always do about their intentions and what they were after, but the volunteers smiled and hugged and shrugged. “We’re just here to hang out,” they said. They were creating kinship with prostitutes, and in doing so, ultimately serving a God who sometimes comes to us disguised as ourselves.
My eyes were saucer-wide as I sat in the parking lot of each brothel, watching people come in and out, listening to volunteers share about their experiences inside. There had been tears and hugs and indifference and mistrust and excitement. The volunteers took turns sharing their highs and their lows, exposing us to the empathy and authentic love each volunteer has for the women they visit.
Through this time of sharing, I began to understand the slow work of the Cupcake Girls. For example, that little purple trailer in the middle of the desert. The brothel owners and women tentatively welcomed the cupcakes that day, but eyed the volunteers with skepticism and mistrust despite months of visits, and did not invite the Cupcake Girls to stick around for long. The drop-off lasted less than 20 minutes, yet every volunteer said it was worth the multi-hour drive.
This is what got me. The Cupcake Girls drove for hours and hours through the desert to get to that purple little trailer, to knock on a door where actual love had not yet arrived, knowing they would likely not be invited inside, but would continue to return month after month anyway.
Although the Cupcake Girls don’t name him, in doing this they imitate a God, who in his extravagant love, would drive hours and hours through the desert just to arrive at us.
While I didn’t get to go into the brothels that day, I thought maybe I’d be invited to actually go into the strip clubs the following day. We had, after all, been there almost a week, and I am (throat clears) a social worker.
It didn’t happen. The point of all of this cupcaking is to build relationships, and bringing an eager social-worker-turned-photojournalist into the clubs just to see what happens, outside the context of relationship, sort of turns it into a side-show. Plus, you have to serve on another Cupcake Girls committee for 90 days first, which I hadn’t done. I guess “Eating Cupcakes” is not one of their other service areas, anyway. Blast!
But Jeff and I rode along, dropping off volunteers and collecting them again as we shuttled from club to club. We watched people do drugs in parking lots and tried our best to look uninterested while staring intently as they snorted lines of coke and measured some kind of liquid into beakers.
(Yes, this happened.)
In the car between visits we learned how the Cupcake Girls work.
They knock on the door to a strip club with a box of cupcakes. Sometimes they’re invited inside—not to the club part, but to the behind-the-scenes part where the women hang out to get ready. Along the way, they pass cupcakes out to bouncers and doormen and valet guys and bartenders and DJs until, as you might imagine, they become widely welcomed, and almost everyone looks forward to their visits. Because, really. Who doesn’t love a good cupcake?
Once inside, just like at the brothels, they talk about kids and pets and vacations; they talk about how hard it was to get to the club that night from all the flooding or traffic; they compare the best ways to apply perfume and lashes. They offer help with hair and makeup while the women get ready. And sometimes they just sit and eat cupcakes together.
At the strip clubs, just like in the brothels, The Cupcake Girls field a million questions with a smile and a laugh:
“Are you guys lesbians?”
“Are you cosmetology students?”
“Do you take tips?”
Funny, but a steely reflection of the assumption in this business that nothing is free. You can’t even get a picture with Hello Kitty or Darth Vader on the corner without the expectation of a tip. There is always an agenda. Everything is a trick. Freedom is an illusion.
So, in walks a group of trendy-looking women with cupcakes and a bag full of products, and of course suspicion abounds.
“We’re not lesbians.”
“We’re not cosmetology students.”
“We don’t take tips.”
“We’re just here to love on ya,” they say. “We offer support to women in the industry.”
But it’s the last question that really breaks my heart, and it’s the moment I truly understood why the Cupcake Girls registered as a non-religious organization:
“Are you those Christians?”
Which Christians could they be talking about? The ones who picketed clubs last week, or the ones who threw tracts inside? The ones who dropped off beanie babies and Bibles with a church invite inside? The ones who condemned the city with those giant billboards on I-15 explaining how their lust is dragging them down to hell?
Are they talking about those Christians who want to save them, but don’t know their names or how many kids they have or what options they had to choose from? Or maybe the ones who stay on the other side of the giant invisible wall that separates them from this area of town, except for when they pour in to feed the homeless or something at Christmas. Those Christians?
Maybe they’re talking about those Christians who don’t know what to do with sex workers. The ones who easily say, “Jesus loves you” from a distance, but never consider saying, “I love you” right up close.
I might be one of those Christians, I thought, who doesn’t know what to do with the sex workers. Honestly, I had never even considered them before. I had only recently considered the hungry and the homeless and the poor, the vulnerable kids and women in far away places, the oppressed and disabled. The marginalized.
Do you know what marginalized means? I looked it up when I got home. It means the powerless or unimportant people within a society or group. Confined to the outer limits of social standing. Pushing people to the edge of society by not allowing them a place within it.
Could it be that those Christians are the ones accidentally marginalizing sex workers?
It’s easier to say, “Jesus loves you” instead of “I love you,” Joy Contreras, the Director of Cupcake Care, told us. “To separate ourselves in that way—offering third party love instead first person love. But when we say, ‘I love you,’ God is glorified, Christian or not.”
So, “No,” the Cupcake Girls say. “We are not those Christians. We’re a non-religious organization”— and they are.
Because here’s the thing. If you are a Christ-follower, you don’t have to go into full-time ministry or label your work “Christian.” You don’t have to be a Christian something-or-other. If you are a Christ-follower, no matter what your job is, you are already in full-time ministry. So no, I agree, they’re not those Christians. They’re these Christ-followers living out their core values in authentic relationships for a non-Christian organization.
They’re the ones who love you right here in this club. They’re the ones who know your name and how many kids you have. They’re the ones making deposits of love without anyone even knowing. And they’re the ones walking out into the margins to do it.
So. Back to how it all works.
After they drop the cupcakes off and visit for a while—or in some cases, drop the cupcakes off for weeks and months until they’re finally invited in—they leave the women with this: “If you need anything, call me!” And then they hand over their phone numbers.
Their actual phone numbers.
Each Meet-up Girl can build an intentional relationship with up to five industry women. This means they’ll continue to go to that specific club and maintain ongoing relationship with those specific women each visit. And each week they’ll reach out to the women individually outside the club, offering a kind thought like: “Hey, just thinking about you—hope you’re having a good week, usually following up with: Let me know if you need anything!”
Eventually, someone does need something. Moving assistance. A bed. Tutoring. A dental crown. And the meet-up girl does everything in her power to provide those tangible needs through the Cupcake Girls’ resource network. This network is made up of doctors, dentists, lawyers, financial counselors, educational tutors, moving trucks, federal aid assistance, counselors, etc.
The moment of follow-through is the moment the rubber meets the road, the moment when the industry woman realizes the meet-up girl is for real. They actually do care. Providing for a physical need widens the relational door a little bit and deepens the trust. We watched this happen during our first week in town, as Jeff was able to help one of the meet-up girls put together a bed for a single-mom’s 12 year-old. And yeah, the Christian meet-up girl from the non-Christian organization said, “I love you,” as they hugged before we left.
Sometimes the need-filling turns into coffee dates outside the club, and then sometimes even weekly support group attendance and more—but even if it doesn’t, the authentic love and support are still there, week after week, right where the women are: in the club.
And do you know what kinds of calls that type of love and support leads to? The ones from club managers and family members and industry workers that go something like this: Hey, we have a girl who’s drunk and we need someone to come pick her up. Or, Hey, so-and-so committed suicide and we could really use some help with the other women. Or, Hey, this one overdosed. It would be really great if you guys could come to the hospital. Or, Hey, my sister is in jail. Could you guys help us figure this out? Or Hey, I’m in the hospital. My pimp tried to kill me.
The Cupcake Girls support each woman wherever she is – walking next to her in the industry or as she navigates her way out. They add value to each life knowing that the value will inform the woman’s choices. Because here’s the other thing: Jesus did not wait until we had everything together to love us unconditionally. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us, yes?
And so right there in the club, the Cupcake Girls love the women, simply because they’re lovable.
Also, we love God because he first loved us, right? Could we maybe love them first, too?
Vegas really needs that
After about four weeks with the Las Vegas Cupcake Girls, we packed our bags and headed north. Why? Well, let me first give some context.
Remember all those questions and comments I shared at the beginning? There was one more response we heard as we shared the work of the Cupcake Girls. “That’s great,” people said, nodding in agreement. “Vegas really needs that.”
And these are the ways we continue to draw the lines of us and them. They need that, we don’t. Two of my favorite authors Anne Lamott and Greg Boyle each write about how we have such overactive disapproval glands ourselves that we tend to create God in our own image. Here’s an indicator: if it turns out that God hates all the same people (cities?) you do, you might have created God in your own image.
In the spirit of self-disclosure, there are days when the God of my creation loves me unconditionally but sighs heavily and eye-rolls at the rest of the hopeless population, and other days when I am hiding behind rocks because the God of my creation thinks I’m the worst.
None of this is real.
It might come as a shock to you, as it did to us, that Vegas does not actually have the highest number of strip clubs per capita. In fact, Vegas has been on the list in recent years for the highest number of CHURCHES per capita!
Do you know who wins the strip club prize? Portland. Our beloved granola, peace loving, outdoorsy, beautiful, drizzly ol’ Portland, Oregon has the highest number of strip clubs per capita in the United States. Turns out Portland, with one strip club for every 9,500 residents blows Las Vegas’ strip club per 33,000 out of the water!
(I’ll give you a minute.)
Portland is where the Cupcake Girls have launched their second location. In the Tualatin Hills, we discovered, the Portland Cupcake Girls are chugging along adapting to Portlandia by offering vegan cupcakes. Why? Because the biggest strip club in the city is a vegan club, serving only vegan food and allowing strippers to shed only non-animal-based clothing.
Yeah. That’s real.
In the same way the Vegas girls do it, they visit several clubs each week to establish and maintain relationships with sex workers in Portland. Here’s the punch line: if Portland needs it, Denver probably needs it, and Cleveland, and Indianapolis, and Phoenix, and Tampa, and Peoria, and basically anywhere any person of any kind is marginalized and could use some grace. So, you know, everywhere.
Ruined and loved
I read recently that “If I were going to begin practicing the presence of God for the first time today, it would help to begin by admitting the three most terrible truths of our existence: that we are so ruined, and so loved, and in charge of so little.” (Anne Lamott)
This applies to the entire human race across the board – you and me and the sex workers. So ruined and so loved and in charge of so little.
It’s easy to look at the sex trade, though, and think that standing in solidarity with an individual worker would somehow be endorsing her behavior, and that God would never have that.
But that’s the God created in our own image, not the actual God. In the context of working with felons and ex-gang members, Father Boyle writes something that I claim now for all of us, “Where we stand, in all our mistakes and imperfection, is holy ground. It is where God has chosen to be intimate with us and not in any way but this.”
The Cupcake Girls, in their non-religious marginal work, are the hinge between sex work and faith. They don’t just love sex workers – it’s their joy to love sex workers. They find delight in it. And in doing so, they imitate the kind of God a person might want to believe in – carrying love and compassion outside the boundaries of religion.
And do you know the secret of this non-religious organization? Christian or not, God is right in the middle of it.
- Click here to see how you can become involved.