The money's good but the guilt is worse. It takes a love of both tough and tender to rescue exotic dancers from a life of sexual degradation. by Frederica Matthews-Green
Marie is talking about the first time her daddy took her to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. She was 8 years old. He rented her out as a prostitute.
It's a rainy afternoon in Dallas, and the living room is dark and quiet, save for the distant rush of trucks down the highway. Marie's golden-red hair swings at her shoulders as she speaks, and her face is open, her deep brown eyes unguarded. This in itself is a substantial victory, given her story. Her father began molesting her, she says, at about age 6 or 7.
'When I grew up I wanted to feel in control, like I was somebody. I had voids I couldn't fill any other way," Marie says.
She found ready money in sexually oriented businesses (SOBs). The work also gave her independence and security. She progressed easily from topless dancing to nude dancing.
"I had a hard heart," she says. "It didn't make any difference to me."
The rain spatters down on the walkway outside. Across the room, Laurie Hughes listens and strokes a cat with a long plumed tail. Hughes is the founder of Hosea's Hope, a Carrollton, Texas-based organization that helps women escape SOBs.
Hosea, of course, was the Old Testament prophet who married a prostitute at God's command and continued to love her and welcome her home despite repeated infidelities. Hughes has heard Marie's story before; plenty of times, from plenty of women. After all, she's an ex-dancer, and it's her story, too.
Even so, Hughes listens intently as Marie recalls her rise from dancer to "escort" - an expensive call girl with a few regular clients. Marie enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle, but she was an emotional wreck. She started seeing a counselor. A Christian counselor.
'I don't want to hear anything about the Lord," Marie told him. She agreed to visit his church "as long as they don't stare at me or try to cast something out of me."
That's when Marie's heart began to change.
"It wasn't really the counseling that got me out of the business," she says, "but a conviction in my heart about what I was doing. By myself, just one person, I was feeding six or seven men's sex addictions each week, and ruining their marriages....That was wrong."
Marie started to skip appointments with clients, then whittled her list down to one regular customer, then found the strength to quit entirely. That strength was wobbly at times. It was about this time that she met Laurie Hughes and, with her support, endured some ups and downs.
"I was white-knuckling it for a long time," Marie says. "You want to go back out because that's easier than dealing with your problems. One thought leads to another, and pretty soon you're painting your nails and shopping at the lingerie store."
Hughes laughs. "Marie would call and say,' I've been out shopping,' and I'd say, 'Do I need to come over and look at [what you bought]?"
Unlike most sex workers she's counseled, Hughes was sexually abused as a child. Yet her dad's infidelities - and her parents' eventual divorce-wounded her, and by age 16 she was "always looking for the next wild thing." When a friend mentioned she was working as a topless dancer, Hughes' response was, "I want to do that!"
Hughes lived a double life: college student by day (she has a degree in physical therapy) and exotic dancer by night. She and her mother remained close, though Mom continually warned her daughter about the perils of her chosen profession.
Hughes recognized the truth in her mother's words, but the money was too good to give up. She anesthetized her conscience with drink and drugs. She found the experience depressing, defiling and "pukey."
As well as hypocritical.
"I'd see the men and know they had wives who loved them," she says. "My dad cheated on my mom and left her, and here I am taking off my clothes for married men."
The older women...are to teach what is good, and so train the young women...to be sensible, chaste, domestic, [and] kind. (Titus 2:3-5, RSV)
Motherly love both tough and tender is a natural approach to healing ex-dancers. Across the nation, at least a dozen ministries have sprung up, most led by women who offer a combination of firmness and warmth.
Styles vary with the women leading the groups, yet in most ministries, the process is similar. Women coming for help are evaluated carefully, so neither energy nor funds are wasted on con artists. Each woman is assigned a mentor, and her progress is closely observed. She must forsake extramarital sex, along with alcohol and drugs (some organizations require random drug testing). She follows a program for healing, a program encompassing Christian principles and basic life skills, individually with her mentor and in regular teaching and discussion groups. She's also encouraged to attend a Bible study.
Women who insist on breaking the rules, or who even behave ungratefully or disruptively, are asked to leave the program until they're ready to comply.
To those who follow the rules, ministries offer (directly or by referral) a long menu of services: personal and professional counseling, help returning to school, job training, job placement, clothing appropriate for the workplace, medical care, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, child care assistance and legal aid.
Income from dancing is immediate and plentiful, and to walk away from ready money often requires financial assistance. Ex-dancers typically have few marketable skills and no idea how to dress or present themselves for a traditional job. Depending on the woman's situation, becoming self-sufficient might take six months to a year.
When the topic is ministry to SOB workers, the recognized mother of the movement is Carolyn McKenzie of Memphis, Tenn. McKenzie, 53, has raised four sons, is a public health nurse, served the military during Vietnam and is generally immune to intimidation.
McKenzie's mission began in 1991 when she heard a radio ad inviting girls to a local strip club for a contest. She phoned the station's other advertisers, and the strip club's ads soon disappeared. But she didn't stop there.
She wanted to know more about her city's sex industry, so she did some digging at the local branch of the state Health Department. McKenzie arranged for an undercover escort from the district attorney's office and paid a visit to several Memphis sex shops, documenting the unsanitary conditions she found.
'There were used condoms and broken needles on the floor,' she recalled. "I was so angry that the public Health Department wasn't doing its job. Customers could pick up AIDS or other diseases and then go home to their unsuspecting wives."
Other Memphis citizens joined McKenzie in her efforts, and in 1992 they founded Citizens for Community Values. Among CCV's initial successes was passage of a municipal law that outlawed doors on peep show cubicles in an effort to discourage sexual activity.
George Kuykendall, CCV's executive director, refers to McKenzie as a pit bull, but the first dancer she assisted, Sendy, remembered her as "bubbly." McKenzie's tough love is dispensed with hugs and affection, and a sold-out trust in God.
'If you'll promise not to ever go back to dancing," McKenzie told Sendy the first time they met, "I'll see what I can do to pay your bills." Over the years, McKenzie has said the same thing to many girls: "You probably don't even believe in God, but if you give me permission to go to Him, we'll ask Him to meet your needs."
Since beginning with Sendy in 1994, CCV has helped 45 women and two men quit working in sexually oriented businesses; only three have returned. Today, CCV is taking a leap forward in professionalism. Carol Wiley, a longtime CCV mentor, is working with three Ph.D.-level Christian counselors on a pair of manuals to help others set up ministry to SOB workers in their cities.
One manual will focus on recruiting and training mentors, with a special emphasis on preventing burnout. The second will cover the mental health care protocols of women who leave SOBs. Wiley's title-"director of victim assistance"-indicates a key element of that care.
"Every woman I've worked with has come from a dysfunctional family and suffered abuse as a child," she says. "They learn early that life is a struggle for survival and make choices based on that, not on the love and grace of God. My heart breaks for them."
Carolyn McKenzie's work has inspired and supported similar ministries around the country (see list on page 21). All began in recent years, a sudden groundswell in the fight against sexual degradation.
Amy Dupree, founder of the Dallas-based ministry Amy's Friends, entered the sex industry at 18, determined to reach the top. Her goal was the pages of Playboy. The same energy Dupree devoted to that dream she now invests in her ministry, which has grown swiftly and with professional style.
Donors have supplied Amy's Friends with computers and business machines, plus a sunny office in a downtown Dallas business tower. Dupree speaks across the country, and Amy's Friends has helped some 40 women leave SOBs since its debut in April 1998. Only four have returned.
Dupree knows from experience the lure of so-called "gentlemen's clubs." Women often begin as waitresses, and managers encourage the prettier ones to try out as dancers, where the pay is better. Not the salary, mind you-dancers aren't paid by the club at all. In fact, dancers must give tips to the bartender, the DJ and the dressing room "house mom" each night before leaving (called the "tip out").
It's all worth it to the dancer, though, who can earn up to $500 per night. She makes money two ways. First, she can dance for two songs on one of the club's several stages, stripping in the process. Stage time is strictly rationed to allow as many women as possible to perform, and Laurie Hughes estimates that "500 women a night in Dallas are going across the stage."
Customers will tip their favorite dancers as much as $5 or $10, and as she performs, a dancer watches closely for a likely target. When her stage time is over, she will head to the table of the most generous patron and chat with him, flatter him, pretend to like him.
"That's called the hustle," Dupree says.
The performer is trying to sell a private dance for $20 or $30. As soon as it's finished, she moves on to another mark.
'I had a quota of $100 per hour, and my regular customers knew it," Dupree says; if they didn't cough up, she'd move on. Dupree climbed the ladder to the rank of "featured dancer" and toured the country, enjoying a luxurious lifestyle and six-figure income, along the way undergoing a $12,000 worth of plastic surgery.
Not every dancer's path leads to prestige. Many move from simulated sex to the real thing. Some performers go for even bigger profits and become celebrities in the porn industry, but they are the exception. Less glamorous is the descending hierarchy: from escort to massage parlor worker to street prostitute.
To an outsider, one question stands out: If so many of these women were scarred by sexual abuse, why would they enter the sex business? If you were punched in the nose as a kid, would you say, "I want to find a career where I can be punched in the nose on a regular basis"?
Dupree explains: "They might think this is the job where they can get back at people for punching them in the nose. For me, it was a way to feel in control, to get back at the people who hurt me: my mother and the girls in high school who laughed at me."
But who really wields the power? Well, men aren't the ones standing naked on a stage.
"You think, 'They're not abusing me any more, now I'm abusing them,'" Dupree says. "But then it flips back and you realize, 'Wait a minute, I'm doing it to myself again. And this is my choice?"
Hughes offers other reasons why women enter the business, despite a life of sexual abuse. Some, Hughes says, think, "This is what made my father happy, when I had sex with him," or "This is the only way I can stop men from hurting me."
Few leave the business voluntarily. Dancers come to feel like they no longer fit in the outside world. The club becomes home and family. As Dupree says, when a dancer first comes to a ministry, she feels painfully aware of being different: "You walk into a room of normal women and feel ashamed. 'They all have longer skirts and bigger blouses than I do."
Quitting is also hindered by the tendency among dancers to rely on drugs and alcohol. Dupree got to the point where she would show up at the local convenience store every morning when it opened to buy her first 12-pack of the day.
"This little old 7-11 guy would reach over the top of the cash register every time and pat this little book. As I was walking out the door he'd say, 'I'm praying for you.' And I'd think, 'How can you be praying for me? You don't even know me.'
"One day I walked up to him and said, 'You know what? I don't need any more beer.' He handed me the book and said, 'This is what you're going to need for the rest of your life,' It was a New Testament."
Though Dupree wasn't yet ready to become a Christian, she thought about the incident every day.
'You don't need to go out and do huge things" to reach dancers, she now tells audiences. "Just tell 'em you're praying for 'em, and do it." Dupree finally left dancing when she became convinced of God's love, that her body was the temple of the Holy Spirit. One evening she walked into a club carrying her duffel bag of costumes. Inside, she saw girls in degrading positions and men groping at them, "using their bodies like a trash can."
Dupree dropped her bag and walked out. She's never looked back.
CCV's George Kuykendall says working with dancers and escorts is so difficult and unrewarding that it's often hard to attract counselors.
"When a young woman is traumatized, her emotional growth stops," Kuykendall says. "She might be a 37-year-old woman, but inside she's a 9-year-old girl. I've learned that a typical person who goes for counseling is already about 80 percent well, but that these dancers are only 20 percent well. The counselor has to go back with them to find where the emotional gap is and heal it."
Laurie Hughes says healing requires time and self-examination, and for her, repentance is the key. "You start on your knees" in prayer, she says.
Tammy Dahl of Out of Exile, a ministry to SOB workers in Orlando, Fla., says that in her experience, actually leaving the clubs was the easiest part.
"It's the garbage you collect from living in that dark world that you have the hard time dealing with," Dahl says, "and also dealing with the root of why you made the choice to dance in the first place."
There's a common thread running through dancers' stories: It's often an insight, leading to a pang of conscience, which causes a woman to leave the sex industry. She suddenly sees her clients as real human beings, not just gullible walking wallets.
One of Hughes' girls, Tania Tracy, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram she quit when she imagined her young son behaving like the groping men she danced for, when she recognized her own hypocrisy in fueling such behavior.
Echoes Dupree: "I started really looking at these guys, and I realized that they were in as much pain as I was.... What kind of lying does this guy go through when he goes home? Are his kids being fed?"
Some though not all, ministries to SOB workers also focuses on laws that regulate SOBs.
Kuykendall says CCV has four goals: to fight computer porn and encourage the use of filtering software, to educate the public about the need for zoning and health ordinances, to ensure that laws on the books are enforced, and to help the victims of sexually oriented businesses.
For Carolyn McKenzie, such action is a necessary complement to helping the dancers.
"While this ministry is important, it's equally important to clean up the industry that gets these girls started in the first place," she says. "The basis of the whole work, then and now, is 50-50 - to help the girls and to hold accountable the industry that brings them in."