There are many folks trying to make a difference in downtown Las Vegas and I've met quite a few since moving here nearly three years ago. I recently sat down with Joy Hoover, Founder of The Cupcake Girls, a non-profit that brings non-judgmental support, consistent caring, community resources, peace, love, and cupcakes to women in the adult entertainment industry.
PS: What is this Cupcake Girls thing? Is this a bakery? Is it for adult entertainers. Is it a porn bakery?
JH: As much as the words "porn bakery" might light up all kinds of pleasure centers in people's brains, unfortunately that's not what we are. What we do is bring non-judgmental support, consistent caring, community resources, peace, love and cupcakes to adult entertainers.
When we first approach women in the adult industry, we offer something that might brighten their day: a pink, sparkly cupcake. The cupcakes are meant as a connection piece, or a way to start a conversation. Our goal is to form the relationships that allow us to be of assistance. It all begins with our visits to women in strip clubs, porn conventions, and brothels with bright pink boxes of cupcakes.
PS: You go into strip clubs, porn conventions, and brothels with cupcakes? What is the typical reaction to that?
JH: It's really exciting because over the past four years we've created a community within the adult industry in Las Vegas, and increasingly in Portland, Oregon -which has more strip clubs per capita than any other city, including Las Vegas. And now our cupcakes are well known, to the point that when they see us coming, the bouncers or managers are over their ear-pieces, saying: "Cupcakes are here, cupcakes are here." And we can hear the women from inside saying "Our Cupcake Girls are here!!"They are excited to see us every month! Most clubs bring us into the back room where the girls are getting ready. We help with hair and makeup and we get talking about how things are going that month, and how their kids have grown or how their day is going, or whatever they want to talk about at the moment. And it evolves from there.
Sometimes, entertainers don't know who we are or what we do. We give them our business card which has our website and phone number on it. We let them know we are a non-profit support and resource system for adult entertainers. We say, "If you need a doctor or dentist, or you need a coffee date or just want to talk...whatever you need, we are here for you!" They usually say, "What? You have what for us? That is so crazy!" And then if they have a need we might hear "Oh, I need a dentist so bad!" Or "I'd love to come to your spa day, it sounds amazing." We have also been able to support other employees of the strip clubs and their families with resources including house moms, bouncers, owners, and managers. We have made ourselves available to everyone working in the sex industry and we feel privileged to offer this support!
PS: What kind of needs do you see? How do you provide community services and help?
JH: The number one request we fulfill is probably peer support. To sit with one of our volunteers, have a coffee together and have someone there to hear them, without judgement. We have had a huge number of those requests, 554 in 2013, in Las Vegas and Portland combined. Other key requests we fulfill are connecting adult entertainers to doctors and dentists and therapists, who offer pro bono assistance. Between Las Vegas and Portland, we logged 59 professional sessions-legal, dental and medical-for industry women for free or significantly reduced costs last year. We have taken on 27 resume building and career development efforts last year, and 126 instances of providing mental health assistance-including therapy offered through partners or facilitating drug and alcohol dependence assistance. We offer Coffee and Cupcakes support groups in Las Vegas and soon in Portland which are facilitated by a licensed therapist. We also have several therapists that provide pro bono sessions in Las Vegas.
We do a lot of financial advisory sessions between both cities - 23 last year. Before going into the clubs, my perception was that women working in strip clubs, on adult films, or in brothels make a ton of money. But the reality is that some don't. Sometimes it's slow. Some women are college graduates and are fighting off a mountain of student loans. Some are not able to work because of an illness, a pregnancy, or other life circumstances.
Adult entertainers are independent contractors and pay the club for their time on stage. There are a lot of people they have to pay out. Some don't have bank accounts. Or some don't have credit, so they can't get a car. Or they are living in weekly hotels, which is expensive. But again, they don't have credit to get their own place. Not all women in the adult industry have money problems. Some are in a great financial position. But we find many who are struggling.
The more we've learned about the industry, the more we see unmet needs. We want to be available to meet whatever needs the women have, because these are valuable women, who are often marginalized unfairly.
PS: What brought your focus to this industry? Were you a stripper?
JH: I don't have any prior experience in the adult entertainment industry. In general my husband and I have always been drawn to people who are marginalized. It's close to our hearts. Coming to Las Vegas five years ago and seeing the city and experiencing some of the things we did, it really opened up our eyes to the adult industry and how big it is. Then doing research, we found there are 100,000 women working in the adult industry in Las Vegas alone! And then looking into it further, resources and support for them, there was very little where there wasn't an agenda -- if any at all.
I wouldn't have started to learn about all of this, I wouldn't have even come to Las Vegas, except that I was asked by another organization-XXXChurch-to do hair and makeup for porn stars, dancers, and web-cammers at the Adult Video Network, the largest porn convention in the world hosted annually in Las Vegas. Each woman I met was very open. Within five minutes of spraying their hair or putting lipstick on them, they'd start telling me about their kids or talking about a client who was walking past their booth, or worried if their outfit change was cute. And it struck me how much we have in common, and how all of us women need to support each other. We need that affirmation from one another.
Then I started going into strip clubs, again for XXXChurch, and that's when I heard more of "I need a dentist," or "I need a doctor," or "I am an independent contractor and business is slow and I don't know how I'm going to get through the week."
At least two times a night we hear, even now: "You are here for US?" Or when we did the AVN show: "No one cares about porn girls." Or at the brothels, "No one cares about us, so why would you?"
PS: You were introduced to Las Vegas by a group called XXXChurch. Is The Cupcake Girls a religious organization?
JH: No we are not. The Cupcake Girls is a nonreligious, no-strings-attached organization.
For me personally, there was an evolution in my own journey, which led to how The Cupcake Girls mission came to be what it is today. After learning about the adult industry through my initial introduction to it, it became all the more clear to me that there was a great need for support without an agenda. No agenda to convert anyone, no agenda to rescue anyone. Love is the agenda. It is hard for people to understand that -I mean -what's the catch? But that's what we're here to do.
My husband and I moved out here because we had heard some of the compassionate things that XXXChurch was doing, rebuilding women's living quarters in brothels for instance, and they would bring cupcakes into strip clubs. That is what brought us here originally. And their work was tied to religion. As we got here, they as an organization switched gears, and they moved to L.A.
We had left everything and moved here to do this, and I felt we were here for a reason. And I had made some connections with the women and didn't want to leave and be yet another person in these women's lives that said, "I'll be here for you," and then leave because of hard times. That left us to ask ourselves, how can we get these needs met? I was 24 years old, had never started a non-profit, and didn't have barely two pennies to rub together.
As a starting point, people knew me from XXXChurch as the person who brought cupcakes. They even called me "The Cupcake Girl." But aside from that, we really stared with a blank sheet of paper to think about how to build an organization without any agenda except to support the women (and now men, too) who work in adult entertainment.
For one, I didn't want religion to be a barrier. I may have my own personal faith. But people in the industry come from a variety of faiths, or no faith. People who could come along side us to assist them might be religious, or might not be. Some people have had great experiences with a spiritual life, but others have had bad experiences with religion. I felt strongly that The Cupcake Girls should not have as its mission to go out and convert anyone. We filed as a nonreligious nonprofit. We're an organization built on support and resources rather than religion or politics.
So then who are we? Our volunteers come to us for a variety of reasons. One director had been an escort and had walked the streets for a few months, and knows the struggles and wants to help other women. Another is a former sex worker who has been out of the industry for 25 years and is also clean and sober, and thinks her experience could be of use. Some volunteers are drawn in by the simple idea that everyone needs support. For instance, one volunteer was bullied in high school and knows what it's like to have no support system. Others are professionals who simply like to use their skills -baking, social work, legal expertise -to help an underserved population.
So some of us come here because of our personal beliefs, others for our faith, still others from a sense of girl power. The unifying factor is that we believe everyone deserves love and support, and we care about adult entertainers.
Another thing I knew was that it was important for all of our volunteers to be highly trained. Volunteers from The Cupcake Girls aren't allowed to go into the clubs until they have worked in our organization in some other support capacity for 90 days. And they need to go through a background check and two days of training after that. The women we assist deserve that we bring excellence, and a high level of integrity.
Everything we provide to women in the adult industry is at their timing and their request. We have a volunteer who is a journalist. If an entertainer wanted to move towards a career in writing, that volunteer might mentor her. If an industry girl wanted to become a marathon runner, we have some volunteers who are runners, and they'd probably coach her along. If someone wanted to go to church or if someone wanted to go into a drug recovery program, we have people with those experiences who can help. That does not make us a journalism organization or a running group or a religious group or a drug recovery program. It just means we provide any support requested so that women in adult entertainment can set and reach their own goals, whatever those might be.
Some have likened us to an HR department for the adult entertainment industry. I like that, in some ways. But HR departments are not all love and cupcakes - they often handle firing for the companies where they work for instance. We help, when asked. We bring cupcakes. We hangout. We style hair and do makeup. We make sure that we show up with consistency. We offer friendship and we work really hard at this. It is easy to misunderstand, as I don't know any organization like it. I'm very proud of the work we've done. And we have so much to learn. I have so much to learn. We get called out on this -that we need to keep learning, that we don't know enough about the industry. That's a huge gift, to get called out. We need the women we assist to teach us how to better support them. We are ultimately accountable to them. We will continue to improve and professionalize our own efforts. I believe this effort is important because I've been told as much when we've shown up to offer assistance. As long as the people we assist tell us that, we will be here to support.