LAS VEGAS — Joy Hoover’s research tells her this disturbing fact about Sin City: More than 100,000 sex workers ply their trade here, from the legal brothels in nearby Nye County to the city’s illicit call girls as well as some of the back-room exotic dancers in the galaxy of strip clubs.
The 27-year-old Michigan native knows every one of them needs a little boost to their self-esteem. So her nonprofit reaches out to the women of this often-wanton place with a support network that includes counseling, heath referrals and, perhaps most important,a listening ear.
The game plan also includes this unlikely circuit: Each month, Hoover and her volunteers visit more than a dozen men’s clubs to give the women a little something: a cupcake.
For Hoover, a devout Christian, and her so-called Cupcake Girls volunteers, it’s more than just a sweet snack. It’s meant to show women in the shadows that people care about them.
The Los Angeles Times recently talked with Hoover about her mission.
Q: So how did your contact with this subculture come about?
A: My husband and I came to Las Vegas 4 1 / 2 years ago on vacation and that’s when we first heard about the adult industry here; the sex trafficking and adult entertainers. We’ve always felt connected to marginalized people and we definitely saw a need here.
We found out that a group called theXXXChurch was doing work here. They visited brothels and once did a makeover to the room where the girls were living … in Ely, Nev., so the women would have nicer beds to sleep in and painted walls.
Q: So this group eventually invited you out to help them. What happened then?
A: At first I did the makeup for women at the big adult entertainment convention here, to support them in that way. Just to get here, we’d sold all our belongings back home in Michigan. We sold everything we haveowned. It comes from our faith. We both feel we have a strong faith.
Q: What gave you the idea for the cupcakes?
A: The XXXChurch had originally done the cupcake rounds at dance clubs, so we’d go with them. After a few months, they switched gears and went to work with the porn industry and people addicted to porn. I was just starting to connect with some of these women in the clubs, building relationships with them through the cupcakes, so I wanted to continue that.
But the plan was not to start our own nonprofit. We did our homework about the needs of these women, how we could support them even better. That’s when I saw a UNLV study that estimated there were 100,000 sex workers in Las Vegas. And from what I’ve seen, at least 60 percent of the women I’ve contacted in strip clubs are mothers.
Q: Describe the mission of Cupcake Girls? How many volunteers do you have? Are any of them former or current sex workers?
A: Our mission is to bring consistently caring, non-judgmental support and community resources to women in the adult entertainment industry. Two years ago, we opened operations in Portland, which is a top city for sex trafficking and has the most number of strip clubs per capita than any city in the U.S. Between the two cities we have 100 volunteers. I’d say about 10 percent of them have worked in the adult entertainment industry.
Each month, we visit 17 men’s clubs in Las Vegas and 10 in Portland. The thing is to be consistent. There is no consistency in the adult entertainment industry. We bring the exact same types of cupcakes to the same women, delivered by the same volunteers, so they can count on us and know we'll be back. We learn of their specific needs over time.
Q: Describe your first visit to a strip club? What did you see?
A: My first trip was to Pussycats in Las Vegas. It’s one of the smaller clubs. I went with two girls and we brought a box of cupcakes and walked in the front door. When we came in the girls’ eyes lit up. They were familiar with our mission.
There weren’t any customers at the time so we just sat around, opened the box and talked. I got to know them and their stories and their children, their week, their month, even though I’d never met them before.I was super nervous, but within a few minutes I was completely at ease. I knew I wanted to come back.
Q: What was the reaction of the management and male patrons?
A: Many of the men want our cupcakes. But the managers have not always been so welcoming. Some of them, and the house mothers, give us the third-degree. One general manager wouldn’t even let us in. So we gave the cupcakes to the bouncers and asked them to give them to the girls. After a few months, the general manager came out and gave us a big hug. She said, ‘My staff is mad at me because I won’t let you in, so I’m letting you in.’ Now she’s one of our biggest advocates.
Q: Does your experience with strip clubs make you like men less?
A: At first, it was challenging for me just to see what went on there. I didn’t have any experience with strip clubs. So, day in and day out, I saw and heard some the things that male patrons did and said to these women. Some of it was disrespectful. It was challenging for me to know that many of these women are angry toward men. But then I realized this: If I’m judging men, then I’m doing to others what we’re so against. We all have a story and the men deserve to be heard as well.
Q: Do you think dancers despise the men they perform for?
A: No. I don’t think they despise them. Some women are distrusting toward men and have the view that there aren’t a lot of good men in the world. But they don’t hate them.
Q: Describe some of the women you have met through this outreach?
A: We have been working with a woman in her 50s who is from out of the country who is trying to save money for a house and help her daughter with college. We know a younger woman who was in an abusive relationship and raped.
Others are budding businesswomen who got into adult entertainment to pay for college. Now they want to start their own businesses. But there are sad stories. Like the woman who was locked in a closet as a child, beginning when she was 3. She grew up being taught that her body was for men, to be sexualized.
Q: Not all of these women are heroines, right? Some have criminal records; others are addicted to drugs. There was a recent news story about New York City dancers drugging wealthy patrons and stealing their money. It’s just hard to broad-brush this ilk of society as all victims, right?
A: We don’t treat these women as victims. No one wants to be a charity case. We’re not here to save these girls. Our mission to empower them be the healthiest version of themselves; whether they want to be a mother or daughter or stay in adult entertainment, with a house and a car and a healthy schedule for their children.
Q: Could you ever see yourself in this line of work?
A: I would say no. The women I meet all tell me that this is a really tough line of work. You have to be mentally stable and really not emotionally invested. You have to separate yourself. It’s also hard to have a romantic relationship. I’ve been happily married for almost nine years. I’m very emotionally connected to people. I don’t think I could separate myself.
Q: Why do you think strip clubs exist?
A: Adult entertainment is a multibillion-dollar business. People have needs, whether it’s loneliness or sexual or some erotic fantasy. And wherever there are needs, there are people who make money from it.
Q: What have you learned about women or men through this endeavor?
A: I’ve learned that everyone has a story and that we all deserve to be loved and cared for. Everyone needs to be heard. People make their choices for different reason and you can’t judge them. You have to love people for who they are, not what they do. We’re all more alike than we’d ever want to believe.