Last week, the Oregonian's Kelly House wrote a story about sex trafficking and cupcakes.
The headline: "Strippers, prostitutes, porn workers look to Cupcake Girls for support, sweets"
The Cupcake Girls are trying to help strippers, prostitutes and porn workers. However, they're not stopping streetwalkers on 82nd Avenue or showing up on porn sets. Rather, they're going to Portland strip clubs. With cupcakes. And they don't tip.
Some strippers are offended by the group and the story. We received one very thoughtful letter from Zoee Garza, a recently retired dancer who writes that, "I am no Mary Magdalene."
Update: The Cupcake Girls publicist called to say the group does work with street walkers when invited, goes to the AVN trade show and does tip on bar tabs though they do not tip dancers.
"I am a very recently retired stripper in PDX. In clubs, it has become common to see a group of ‘Cupcake Girls’ sitting in a corner table. I have, not once, seen one of them tip a dancer. In a business establishment where it is made abundantly clear that entertainers work for tips only, these girls only offer cupcakes and a promise. The mission statement on the website for the non-profit organization, created by Joy Hoover, boasts that “Everyone needs, love, support and the occasional cupcake.” Something about them, however, has always made me weary.
I was bartending the last time that I saw a group of Cupcake Girls. They were advertising a free spa day for sex workers. I spoke briefly to a girl that I recognized. We attended the same rural, conservative Oregon high school. I voiced my apprehension; wouldn’t she, for example find it odd for a group of girls to march into her place of work, offering sugary treats and assumptions that she needed help doing her hair? She admitted that she would. She was relatively receptive to the rest of my questions. After a few minutes, I reminded her I was still at work and had to count my till. I told her that I did not have enough information and that my verdict was still out.
On August 3, 2014 Oregonian journalist Kelly House reviewed a spa event thrown by the Portland branch of The Cupcake Girls, operated by Bri McDonald. Upon reading the article I was very offended at the way Portland sex workers were represented in it. As I finished I felt patronized and I could not relate to the article. I also felt judged and that a whole group of people, sex workers, were being judged as one. Viewing one social group as homogeneous is dangerous and spreading stereotypes ultimately leads to boxing people into categories. This can lead to lack of compassion and is a threat to humanity.
The stereotype that I found most troubling is that sex workers are not loved. It seemed to be a through-line in the article. “We’re here to make them feel like somebody cares about them” said Shannon Balcer, owner of Venus Allure Salon and Spa “I don’t think they often get that recognition.” It seemed like Shannon was making an unfair presumption that these ladies were not cared about solely because they are adult entertainers.
I feel for anyone, in any occupation, that does not feel like they are loved. My point is that it is dangerous to suggest that a person cannot be loved because they work in the sex industry. Not only is it dangerous, it is a lie; many of us feel loved and are loved by mothers, sisters, husbands, wives, friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, fathers, brothers, children, puppies, lovers… It is judgmental to assume that being a sex worker and being loved are mutually exclusive. To perpetuate that myth is to add to a stigma and creating a victim out of someone who has not declared themselves a victim.
Hoover states in a video on her website that “In my experience, many women in the adult industry need peer support.” Joy, you are not my peer, you are continuously adamant about the fact that you have never been a stripper. The stripping community in Portland has gone on a long time without you and many of us have created our own emotional support systems. My friends in the industry love me and understand the trials and tribulations of the work.
Another myth the article seemed set on perpetuating is that all sex workers are in dire need of primping. House opens the article with a sentiment as such “A young woman leaned back in her chair…settling into a rare moment of pampering.” The stripping industry is one of image, entertainment and competition. As with many professionals, dancers make a point to have enough money to sustain their business. There is often money allotted for massages, pedicures and dye jobs. Similarly to other professional industries, there is a spectrum of talent and business savvy. Not all dancers can buy $200 heels. Not all dancers are hungry either, and if we were we would need some quinoa or a steak—not a cupcake.
I would like to help solve the human trafficking problem and I certainly think it horrendous when any abuse occurs against children. It is, however, a very different situation when adults mindfully choose to work in the sex industry.
Is there a way to help stop trafficking without stigmatizing legitimate sex work?
Is there a way to offer resources without offending and endangering people in the sex industry?
There was no mention of male sex workers in the article. While I do believe that more women in the world around me face safety challenges than men, I am fighting for tomorrow. I am fighting for a world where girls and boys, women and men can make clothing and occupational choices without gender bias.
I see the possibility that some of The Cupcake Girls are coming not from a place a malice but a place of misguided ignorance. I cannot help but feel like the organization has been steeped in patriarchal dogma. Upon further research, I easily came across an article written by Paul Pastor on christianitytoday.com about Joy Hoover and her Cupcake Girls.
“We hope other Christians are struck by the example of God’s love for those at the margins. After all, sex workers were disciples of Jesus. He was criticized for feasting with ‘the sinners,’” Joy goes on to say, “They’ve often been robbed of choices, manipulated.”
I see what Joy is doing as manipulation. There is nothing on her website that sites the organization as Christian, yet it seems to me that her ‘charity’ is deeply seeded with patriarchy and judgment. It makes sense that I felt like the group was being condescending.
In the video on her website Joy compares the women that she has helped through The Cupcake Girls to her unborn child, she goes on to refer to herself as “The Stripper Whisperer,” similar to the “Dog Whisperer.” In the article on christianitytoday.com she likens hanging out with women in a brothel to a slumber party. Never mind that these women were at work, and when you take time away from a person who is not making an hourly wage, you take away their money. Treating adult humans as children, pets or dolls is offensive and repugnant.
As a woman that took pride in my work that was glitzy, difficult, tiring, fun, sexual and at times more about person to person connection than I think outsiders realize, I was deeply offended by the spa event and its condescending under and over tones.
My experience as a stripper is certainly not THE sex worker experience. It is only my experience.
I am no Mary Magdalene. I am no victim and I need no savior. Nor am I The Holy Mother, with vows to celibacy in body and mind. There are many archetypes that live in my skin, my bones, my memories. I am virtue, I am vice, they are different sides of the same coin.
I would love to hear from more people, hear other sex workers’ unique experiences, hear from more Cupcake Girls, hear from the broader community. Let us humans work together to stop stigma and stereo-types so that we can be seen as the individuals we are."