“But how should I address the invitations?” the young brunette across from me asked.
“Husband first, so ‘Mr and Mrs blank,’” advised the older woman next to her, and everyone nodded.
I blinked and made a note, tried not to look confused or judgmental. I was at a planning meeting for It’s a Cupcake Christmas!, a benefit for the Cupcake Girls. They talked about logistics, about raffle prizes, about how much money they wanted to raise, and I played with my mug of tea, not sure what to make of these nice ladies who bring cupcakes to strippers, all of whom were younger than me and married.
Their mission statement reads, “We exist to bring non-judgmental support, consistent caring, community resources and peace, love and cupcakes to women in the adult entertainment industry.”
It sounds simple, but I didn’t get it. That’s why I was there, because I didn’t know what to make of them. This was like a “behind the scenes with the Cupcake Girls!” deal, and we’d scheduled a real sit-down interview over tea the upcoming week and between the two of those I hoped to have a better grasp on what was up with them. In the meantime I wanted to make the most of my sneak peek into how they worked but I kept getting sidetracked by questions like “Who goes first on the invitation?” I didn’t even know people my age cared about such things outside of like, Gossip Girl.
The first time I heard of the Cupcake Girls I was really confused. “The Cupcake what?”
My friend tried to explain:
“They’re Christians, they bring cupcakes to the club and spread the message of the Lord.”
“They bring actual cupcakes?”
“I think sometimes they do hair and makeup too. But they’re trying to make church look less scary and win Christ followers.”
I couldn’t wait to meet these people.
Missionary outreach to sex workers is not as unusual as it may sound. I’d already met some sex industry missionaries in my years of stripping; one of my good friends tried to convert me by giving me Jesus Loves PornStars, a New Testament put out by xxxchurch, who translated it into stripperese for the benefit of a supposedly borderline illiterate population (sample: “So, since we’re out from under the old tyranny, does that mean we can live any old way we want? Since we’re free in the freedom of God, can we do anything that comes to mind? Hardly…As long as you did what you felt like doing, ignoring God, you didn’t have to bother with right thinking or right living, or right anything for that matter. But do you call that a free life? What did you get out of it? Nothing you’re proud of now. Where did it get you? A dead end.” [Romans 6:22 Jesus Loves PornStars].)
Cupcake activism sounded way more normal and less offensive in comparison. It turns out I’m not the only one to think so: Laura Lasky, the founder of cupcake missionary activism, worked with XXXChurch before moving on to found Solace in San Francisco in 20081. If you google “cupcake christians” you’ll find them all over the west and southwest states, bringing cupcakes to brothels and to strip clubs. While most have overtly missionary overtones, the Cupcake Girls are now very vocally a non-religious non-profit.
So I had questions. Like, was my friend right? Are they covertly missionary? Why else would they do this? Why strippers? Why not people more urgently in need of services and advocacy? What do they think of us? Do they think we need to be saved? Where do they get money for this? Does it come with strings attached? How do they understand the sex industry?
I didn’t get any revelatory answers. The Cupcake Girls—at least the Portland branch—are what they say they are: really well-intentioned people who want to support a marginalized and stigmatized population by providing them with local resources and a friendly space. They do this by acting as a bridge between strippers and service providers, whether that’s connecting a woman to low cost health services or more directly, through helping a dancer move, or helping with resume writing. Full disclosure: I even got my chance to call on them for help a month after our first interview: in the midst of moving, a hitherto unknown eviction started showing up on my credit report. I texted Amy (one of the volunteers I interviewed) to ask if she knew of any legal resources and she gave me the number to the Lewis and Clark legal clinic. The legal clinic was unable to help, but did give me the number to the courthouse, where they looked through the eviction records to tell me that ultimately, though it was ruining my credit, the case had been dismissed and I could pick up a copy of the dismissal to show to future landlords.
I spoke with Bri, the director of the Portland Cupcake Girls, and Amy, their Chief of Communications, in November. The following is edited and condensed from the in-person interview and follow up questions via email that include answers from Nadia, a former stripper who volunteers with the Cupcake Girls.
I was looking at the website and I saw the Vegas [Cupcake] Girls have so much going on. Is that your goal, to have a halfway house and educational resources?
Bri: Yeah, definitely. They don’t have all those things now; they have a Women’s Resource Center, so that is their office and resource center in one. They also have support groups, weekly support groups, which we call Coffee and Cupcakes cause they’re not necessarily like, support groups, just like a time where women from the industry can come talk about whatever’s going on.
Amy: And they’re also almost two and a half years older than us, so we keep thinking, all right, you know, in two years, we’re gonna do this.
How do you get the resources together for dental [services], do you partner with people, like Outside In [a local clinic/shelter for homeless youth specifically but also homeless and uninsured adults]?
Amy: We partner with doctors, dentists, lawyers, we reach out to people constantly; if there’s a need that comes up when we’re in the club and if someone’s saying—we had something happen where a girl commented on our Facebook, she was like ‘hey, my teeth are killing me, I really need to go to the dentist,’ and we were able to reach out to [Oregon Health Sciences University], whom we partnered with, and they were able to help her at a very discounted rate, to not only take care of both of her teeth but also give her porcelain crowns and she said it was under $100.
…And then really practical people’s resources too, Northwest Children’s Outreach just reached out to us and they were able to provide us with a brand new, absolutely free breast pump for one of our girls who needed a breast pump, and diapers for the family that’s taking care of the baby and like all this just really practical stuff too. So we’re able to help on different levels.
That’s nice, because I never really think of dentists or doctors as… altruistic.
Bri: And some people too, back on just the individual people, they just want to do something. Like me, I’m a hairstylist and before I was volunteering I was like, ‘how can I do something where I’m using my skill to volunteer, give back, or do something good?’ We just had a counselor donate five sessions at a very discounted rate. Her being a counselor, she’s like, she wanted something where she could use her skills to help others. So there’s that too. People wanting to volunteer, maybe they don’t have money, but they have their time.
So how did you each get involved with the Cupcake Girls? How did you hear about it and then how did you get involved? Were you in Vegas?
Bri: So, I heard about it probably three years ago, and I actually heard about it through my parents. They were in Vegas, that’s where it started obviously, and they had met Joy and Phil, the couple that founded it, and came back and told me about it and were raving about them: ‘You would love Joy and Phil, this is what they do–’
How did they meet, just socially, were they at a strip club–?
Bri: Um, they, no. They were actually, they heard Joy speak, and I don’t know where, it was at some conference then in Las Vegas and they heard Joy speak at it. My parents were actually down there with their church, they lived in Utah, they were down with their church doing something, like with other people, and. I don’t know. Wound up hearing Joy speak at something down there. And then so they told me about it and I was like, ‘That’s awesome! but, I’m up here and that’s down there.’ And then exactly two years ago when Cupcake Girls started here I heard, from my parents again, that were kind of still connected, just through people, to Joy and Phil, and they said Cupcake Girls was in Portland. And I said ‘Really? that’s amazing,’ because I had been, like a few months prior I had been like, ‘Okay, I need to volunteer,’ cause I never had before, I didn’t grow up volunteering, I just didn’t. I’m like, ‘I need to be.’ And the more I looked at different opportunities, I was like, ‘Ehhhh,’ I mean there’s good stuff happening, but nothing like, really just grabbed me. Until I heard the Cupcake Girls were here and I was immediately like, ‘Okay, that’s what I’m supposed to be doing.’ And then also cause I am a hair stylist, just knowing that–cause typically, I know we haven’t done this at [your club] but typically we do hair and–
I know, somebody corrected me on Instagram [saying the Cupcake Girls do more than distribute cupcakes] and I was like ‘Ohh, I’m sorry,’ I sounded snide, ‘We only get cupcakes.’
Bri: No, we’re just not allowed in your dressing room.
Amy: I’m glad you said that though, because now we’re like, we need to bring them special cupcakes. We totally need to.
Bri: We do. So, in some of our clubs we actually go and hang out in the dressing room, which is awesome because then you get more of that one on one time. And so doing hair for girls in the clubs just sounded like really fun and like a way that I could use what I can do. And so I pretty much started volunteering immediately, and just started off going in to clubs once a month and slowly started doing more and more, and here I am today.
Amy: I’ve always kind of volunteered, my dad was really passionate about giving back and using your life as a way to like, take care of other people and not just take care of yourself. So I remember being five and walking around with a napkin and trying to get people to sign up to give things to the homeless, you know, it’s just always been where I’ve been at, mentally.
And I started a non-profit in Eugene, just giving back to homeless teens and then I moved to Portland for a job and left that behind and just felt like something was missing from my life and was talking with a couple of my friends and my friend Sunya had gone to school with a girl who was volunteering with the Cupcake Girls and she was like ‘This would be such a great fit for you, I really think this would be something that you’d like,’ and then she ended up going to the Justice Conference , where the Cupcake Girls were at. And she was like, ‘Amy, no, you need to go,’ and I was like, ‘I don’t know, this maybe will be good,’ and then I went and I was like [urgently] ‘this is it’ and I’ve been going ever since.
What’s the Justice Conference?
Amy: It’s this massive thing, I think it’s like 500 different non-profits or something, that are, over a three day period, given time to talk about who they are and what they do, whether it would be having a table or actually speaking in front. It’s just a way to motivate non-profits to keep doing what they’re doing and pull people in to get involved.
[To quote from the Justice Conference site: “The Justice Conference has grown to become one of the largest international gatherings on social and biblical justice. The vision of the conference is to reach tens of thousands of people over the next decade through an annual gathering that educates, inspires and connects a generation to a shared concern for the vulnerable and oppressed.”]
Is [Cupcake Girls’] mission still faith-based, or was it to begin with?
Bri: It is not—we’re a non-religious non-profit. I don’t know technically what it was in the beginning, I don’t think it was anything? For over a year we’ve been registered [as] a non-religious non-profit.
When did you first get involved, and did you immediately get involved or did you mull it over for a while? I know strip clubs can seem like these kinda weird/intimidating spaces.
Amy: When I joined Cupcake Girls, I JOINED. I was at every meeting, I wanted to be involved in every discussion, and I was PUMPED. I wanted to know everything inside and out. When I joined the meet-up team—the team of 5 girls that goes into the clubs and offers free hair, makeup, lashes, and cupcakes—I had NEVER been into a strip club in my life. I was a little nervous, but I was mostly nervous that I wasn’t cool enough haha! That first night was a blast though and I was hooked.
Nadia: I heard about Cupcake Girls through a community event, and it was actually perfect because for some time I had a desire to volunteer. I was a dancer a few years ago and because of what I went through, I knew I wanted to work with women and girls. Not that every girl in the club has a tragic story or a hard life, but when I was dancing I was in a bad spot and I wanted to be there for these women in a way no one was there for me.
Do you have interactions with customers when you visit the clubs? Do they ever come up and want to know what’s going on?
Bri: Yes, sometimes. They usually just want our cupcakes and we tell them they are only for the girls working but if they really want one they can pay $20. No one has ever paid up, haha.
Amy: We respect that we’re walking into a business and we treat it as such.
We have mostly no interaction with the customers. The clubs are a place of business and we have a job to do as well. We come in, offer free services, free cupcakes, and we leave. We take what the girls are doing in the clubs very seriously. It is how they are making their money, and we do our best to not interfere with that.
A lot of dancers, myself included, believed that you focused on active, missionary-style outreach; as well as a rescue mission. Where do you think that comes from? How does faith inform your volunteer work, if it does?
Bri: The Cupcake Girls is not a faith-based organization. We are not trying to get girls out of the industry. I don’t know where those opinions come from, other than there not being any other organizations like us that I know about, with no agenda. We are simply here to care for and love on women! We do complimentary [sic] hair and makeup in most of the clubs we visit. We give birthday gifts, and bring gifts in on some holidays.
Nadia: I myself am a Christian, but it’s not my mission to be a missionary. There are religious organizations that go into the clubs, but we are not affiliated with them. For me the reason I am a part of Cupcake Girls is because they’re not here to save/ take anyone out of the industry, but to empower these girls and women and to really reiterate to them that they are amazing, beautiful, smart people worth everything. I know from personal experience that it’s an industry that takes a lot [out of you] and sometimes you are marginalized because of judgmental uninformed attitudes.
I was googling you guys and found this post. This paragraph gave me pause:
Joy coolly said to the guy, “Oh really? Yeah, maybe. Hey, do me a favor. The next time you’re at the strip club, take a look back at the bar. You’ll see all these big dudes sitting there. You might as well walk up to those guys and give them your money, because that’s where all your money is going. You didn’t just fund her law school or pay for her nails. You just helped sell her to him. You just helped her stay in bondage to that guy, and the more money he gets, the more incentive he has to continue to exploit her. So keep giving him the big bills, buddy.”
Bri: I think we all agree that this should not have been in the article and we are going to ask to have it taken out. This was said by a volunteer in Las Vegas [Joy Contreras, not to be confused with Joy Hoover—ed]* who had a daughter that was trafficked, so she said these things coming from a totally different place than most. I apologize for this offending anyone, that was not the intention.
Amy: This article makes it seem like The Cupcake Girls is made up of people from one religious background and this is just not the case. Our volunteers are a beautiful eclectic mix of people from all walks of life and backgrounds.
One coworker described you guys as “house moms.” Would you say that’s an accurate description of what you’re going for?
Amy: Someone once called us HR for dancers and that has really stuck with me.
At my job I have really great insurance and a really great HR team. I was feeling depressed a few winters ago and I went to HR and asked them what was covered on our insurance. They printed me out a really nice list of people I could see, and followed up with me to see if I was able to see them. They wanted to make sure I was ok.
That’s how I see The Cupcake Girls [in relation] to the adult entertainment industry. We’re here for you if and when you need us. If you don’t feel like you have a need that’s TOTALLY fine! Take a cupcake and some free lashes! If you DO need something let’s sit down and talk about how we can assist you!
Nadia: Personal[ly], I really have no experience with House Moms, but as long as the girls feel we are there for them and feel supported by us and know that we are there with no condition just to love on them with no judgment. That is what is really important to me. I want the girls to know that we don’t want/ expect anything from them, we are just there to empower them in their lives, whether it be them feeling great about dancing and loving their lives or [whether] they choose another path.
What could a dancer who wanted help from you with career counseling, health care, or legal services expect?
Bri: If a dancer wanted to get in touch with us they can call, text, email or go to our website. We then like to schedule a meeting so we can get a better idea of how we can help, and so we can find out if there is one specific need or many. If there are many we usually prioritize and try to get things started as soon as possible. Sometimes waiting for an appointment with one of our resources can take a few weeks if it’s not urgent. Some things are a process that would take a few meetings, like building a resume. If there is an urgent need we will work our hardest to get that need met, even if it’s not a connection we have made yet.
What are some success stories you’ve had with helping women in the industry in Portland? Full disclosure here, Amy was super helpful in getting me the number of the Lewis & Clark legal clinic when it turned out a former landlord started eviction paperwork after I moved out; so I’ve also availed myself of your services!
Bri: I’ve personally helped girls rebuild their resumes who have wanted to get a second job; connected girls to a financial advisor who has helped them with money management; helped a girl who was in an accident get in to see a chiropractor; delivered a car seat to a mother in need; brought cupcakes to a kid’s class for her birthday; and helped get Christmas gifts for a family with many kids who didn’t have the funds to buy gifts.
Amy: We have connected a girl to discounted counseling, through which she was able to be diagnosed with schizophrenia and receive medication, all at discounted costs. We got a phone call from a girl at 12:30am who’d just heard that her boyfriend was hospitalized while she was at work. We picked her up and took her to the hospital and that entire weekend kept checking in on her, sitting with her in the waiting room, buying her food, and whatever else she needed to make sure she knew she was supported. We were able to help a girl who was making as little as 7 dollars a day prove her income and receive government assistance.
Nadia: A story that really stuck out to me was a girl I met last year. We had met a couple times and I had helped her look for another job and just hung out and listened to her. She texted me and said she was three months clean and sober and living back with her mom. She then proceeded to thank me for being there for her, listening, and just giving her support and advice. I struggled with substance abuse in the past, so I knew what a huge step that was for her and it was so awesome knowing that I was there to encourage her.
I want to appreciate and acknowledge good intentions, the impulse to make the world a better and kinder place in whatever way possible. But it’s complicated because I do feel that the trendiness of strippers in the early 21st century has a lot to do with this enthusiastic charity work: We’re very in right now and we’re also safe (indoors) and by and large easy to access and interact with.
In her Ted Talk, Cupcake Girls founder Joy Hoover (like Lasky, an XXXChurch alum) comes across as patronizing and clueless, confusing problems of poverty and access (poor dental health, precarious housing), problems endemic in marginalized communities, and rates of sexual assault against women in the United States, with problems inherent to the sex industry. Volunteers post glowing stories about her sticking it to the man, telling strip club customers that they’re contributing to our oppression and exploitation. I happen to believe that strippers are financially exploited—through stage fees and other payouts—but I’m not sure she’s helping us any by telling random customers that by giving us money they’re keeping us exploited and in bondage, rather than, um, simply compensating us for our labor. What does she suggest as an alternative? (Besides supporting Cupcake Girls.)
Surely we would expect more nuance and understanding from the self-proclaimed “stripper whisperer”? She must understand that some of the money does actually go to us, and that most of us are acting on our own agency—perhaps we don’t enjoy that mythical “empowerment” everybody talks about, but we definitely actively choose to participate in the sex industry. Then again, maybe she really doesn’t get it. She does refer to herself as “the stripper whisperer.” If this is the head of the organization, the founder, how much nuance and understanding can we expect from the rest of the organization? There appears to be a disconnect between Hoover and her volunteers, the women who come into the club to try and offer support to a stigmatized population. But without more transparency and frank discussion of the ways in which Hoover’s vision—and more than that, the national conversation around sex work—might be limited or wrong, it’s hard to tell how much more sex worker positive the volunteers themselves are than their leader is.
On one level I think the Portland Cupcake Girls are exactly what they seem to be: a bunch of stripper and cupcake-loving Christians who focus their passionate activism on strip clubs. It’s sort of refreshing in contrast to the furious and limited conversation around trafficking limiting so much sex work activism. On another, I still have all these questions that I don’t know how to get answers to: Why strippers? Is it how transgressive and cool we are, without the dirty illegal status of full service workers? When I think about people who need outreach, who need help getting access to resources, who might need food, I think of survival sex workers, I think of street sex workers. Without trying to construct a bullshit hierarchy, I think it’s fair to say that strippers are pretty privileged. We’re marginalized and financially exploited, but we don’t face the same level of stigma and discrimination that many other sex workers do. It feels weird and disingenuous to be pouring this much energy into this kind of activism for a population that is by and large doing okay.
And then I reprimand myself for being such a judgmental liberal. I believe that good intentions matter. Not for everything, and not indefinitely—Laura Lasky’s still-murky dealings with Solace and the trail of bad feelings she left in her wake are arguments against the feel-good bandaid of “But they mean well!” Still, I harken back to the eight levels of charity in Judaism. Even a mitzvah, a good deed, done publicly and for cool cred is still a mitzvah…just not a very good one. And it’s not like strippers don’t need resources or help with legwork getting to them. Maybe not all activism has to be centered around people with the most immediate need. Maybe some of it can be fun and involve pink frosting.
But we need to be careful. There’s an ambivalence present here in the emphasis on Cupcake Girls as a fun social activity that volunteers can do for themselves, as self improvement or because it makes them feel good. Of course it’s good to enjoy volunteer work: it’s free labor, done to benefit other people, and the burnout rate is high. It’s good to enjoy what you do, but not everything can be enjoyable. Some of the most necessary work that needs to happen around sex work is messy and frustrating. It tends to require in-depth knowledge of and familiarity with the people you want to support. And if volunteering is something you do for yourself, where does that position the ostensible object of your benevolent intentions? How long can you keep going if you start to receive the kind of hate that actual sex workers’ rights activists (and actual sex workers) get? If you’re doing charity work to feel good, how far can you take it? How much research do you do into the feelings, needs, legal problems, and issues of the population you’re attempting to serve? Who monitors your work? How do you ensure that the targeted population’s needs are being met? What if they express needs or desires you disagree with?
There’s a power imbalance when non-marginalized people work with marginalized communities, one that’s magnified when the communities are as scrutinized as sex workers are. It’s the same imbalance that allows sex workers to be seen as objects to be studied, while other groups (bankers, for example) pass by without scrutiny because they are so ostensibly “normal” (and moral). The complex lived realities of sex workers and the structural issues of sex work aren’t commonly understood, which explains Hoover’s confusion of problems of access—problems that are endemic to marginalized and stigmatized communities—with issues of abuse inherent to the sex industry. Objectification becomes a risk when the focus is moved from the subject in need of aid to the [good] feelings or emotions of the person proffering it.
It’s harsh to point out that someone’s best intentions may not be enough, or may not be what matters the most. I do actually think nothing but the best of the specific Cupcake Girls I’ve interacted with. I think they’re kind and full of good intentions, and uninterested in pushing a message about Christ’s love. They seem relatively innocuous, but I can’t resolve that with how cagey they were about Joy Hoover’s statements and about religion, and how they obfuscated the religious content of the Justice Conference and the Cupcake Girls themselves. I discussed my mixed feelings with some social worker friends of mine, who pointed out that irregularities or questionable statements are acceptable on a small, human scale, but they raise warning signs from the head of a growing organization with ambitions on a national scale. When local volunteers choose to affiliate with a national organization, they affiliate with the larger organization’s beliefs and politics, and they reinforce that choice when they don’t act as a voice of dissent within that organization. That’s my issue: as sweet as the individual volunteers were, I don’t trust Hoover and the framework she’s created, or her emphasis on dancers as pimped and trafficked. I think she’s ill-informed and invested in a narrative that doesn’t require her to become better informed—one that posits hair stylist Joy Hoover as just as knowledgeable about our lives, jobs, and realities as we are (if not more so, since we may be biased). There is good work that volunteers may be able to do within this framework–helping dancers move, connecting them with dental resources—but I don’t know about how this work will help these dancers in the long term and on a larger scale. If the Cupcake Girls were to familiarize themselves with structural issues facing sex workers and engage with and involve dancers further in their work, they’d have a better chance of creating meaningful change.
1. Solace SF closed in February after an internal audit into all of the organization’s activities; at the same time, Lasky filed for divorce and disappeared. Whether Solace did many of the things the website had claimed–whether it did much beyond deliver cupcakes, is open to question. In an interview with SF Weekly Lasky admitted “that roughly 70 percent of her time was spent on cupcake outreach.”↩
*editorial clarification made 05/12/14