I live a block off 82nd Avenue in Portland, Oregon. It's not the part of town you see on the Portlandia TV show. Instead of a trendy, free-range hipster paradise, 82nd—the ironically named "Avenue of Roses"—is a miles-long cement stretch of by-the-hour motels, B-grade strip clubs, and peeling houses that advertise "lingerie modeling" and "exotic massage." Streetwalkers are discreet, since the cops have been cracking down as of late. They stand at the edge of the streetlights late on the weekends, wary.
It all makes me a little uncomfortable. You see, 82nd is the margins of my society—but it's that place I always talk about Jesus going.
'The Stripper Whisperer'
They call Joy Hoover "The Stripper Whisperer." A girl from small-town Michigan, she has no personal past with the sex industry (even though she chuckles in a TEDx video that her stylish hair might make people confuse her with a stripper). It's a fitting nickname.
She's the founder and president of The Cupcake Girls, a non-profit support system for women in the adult entertainment industry. The group is made up of volunteer women who make friends at strip clubs, brothels, porn conventions, and anywhere else they can connect with women in sex work. They have around 100 volunteers, from 18-year-olds to women in their 50s, and from a wide variety of backgrounds: chefs, marketing directors, fundraisers, counselors, stylists, massage therapists, and more.
They build friendships through coffee dates, birthday parties, baby showers, through doing hair and makeup, pampering the girls at free spa days. They meet them as equals, and share "life, love, and an occasional cupcake."
Underneath its playful veneer, the organization has a robust network to support the many girls in need. They connect sex workers with therapists, financial advisors, lawyers, and any other practical resources they might need. They're headquartered in Las Vegas, with a second team in Portland, Oregon—two cities with national reputations for their large sex industries.
Joy and her husband vacationed one year in Vegas and were overwhelmed by the need of the city's sex workers. Forget the myth of stripping or other sex work as glamorous and exciting. The reality for most girls is bleak. Their lives are frequently characterized by abuse and broken relationships. Profound sexual trauma is commonplace. They feel alienated from "square" society, and many have no place to turn in tough circumstances. For some, even paying rent is a challenge.
I'd heard about the Cupcake Girls through Amy, an old schoolmate and chief of communications for their Portland team. Her Facebook updates intrigued me: pictures of smiling girls out for spa days, groups of women holding boxes packed with bright pink cupcakes.
Hands and feet
I called Joy to learn more. She's energetic when you get her talking about her work; bubbly and laughing one minute, serious the next.
"Sex workers are often marginalized by others, especially Christians" she told me. "The message they hear from society is that they are dirty and useless; not worthy of love or support. They often feel judged and unworthy of friendship from people in the 'square' world. We try to bridge that gap; helping them feel humanized, and helping those outside understand that these women are just like us: mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, friends."