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Cupcake Girls sweeten life for Portland's sex workers, but some are frosty about it


PHOTO COURTESY: LISA ROSS - Cupcake Girls volunteers Hannah, Grace and Jamie prepare to take signature pink cupcakes to strip club workers on a Saturday night.When Grace calls from her third strip club of the night, she and Ava had been having an easy time of it.

Two previous clubs had been surprisingly quiet — considering it’s a week before Christmas. This club has maybe five customers scattered around the main room. But it’s not quiet — not in back.

A few minutes earlier, Grace and Ava, outreach volunteers for the Cupcake Girls, had walked in and handed their box of a dozen pink cupcakes to a bartender. That helped get them a pass to the dressing room where seven young dancers — none familiar to Grace or Ava — were packed in tight, fussing with bows and straps.

One dancer took Grace aside. “Talk to my friend,” the dancer said. “She’s one of the other women working tonight. Please.”

Which is what Grace and Ava did, because that is precisely why teams of Cupcake Girls go from club to club one Saturday each month. The Cupcake Girls are volunteer women seeking to help people in the sex industry.

The second dancer, the friend, walked outside with Grace and Ava . . . and crumpled. Literally. Grace is used to dealing with distraught women. She’s experienced at this and she’s a hairdresser by day, so women telling her their troubles and breaking down in tears is a regular occurrence in her life. But this young dancer, she later will say, somehow was different.

The bawling young dancer is huddled on the ground, back against a brick wall, telling Grace and Ava that she’s walked the streets two nights in a row and she just can’t do it for a third. Her wallet was stolen. She’s exhausted. Grace and Ava both wonder if the

dancer had been getting high in the bathroom a few minutes ago (a large percentage of the sex workers who have needed help have had addiction problems), but neither is certain.

The rest of the dancer’s story also sounds vaguely familiar — she hasn’t eaten all day and came to Oregon from the Midwest six months ago. She has a boyfriend who walks the streets with her. She says she was a foster child. The Portland Cupcake Girls have helped more than 460 sex workers in their four years of existence and about three out of four were victims of severe childhood trauma, ranging from foster care to sex abuse.

The young dancer doesn’t say how old she is but Grace and Ava agree she’s in her early twenties. At one point the dancer says she doesn’t have a cell phone so she won’t be able to stay in touch.

Grace calls the Cupcake Girls’ Lloyd District office where director Amy-Marie Merrell is coordinating the evening’s action. She asks for approval of one night’s rent so she can put the dancer up in a hotel or motel room.

But Merrell, back in the office, knows something Grace doesn’t know. December is drawing to a close and the Cupcake Girls’ grant money for the month has run out. There is no money for a hotel room tonight.

Moments after their brief conversation Merrell’s cell phone pings with a text. Grace wants to pay for the hotel room out of her own pocket. Merrell calls Grace.

“Grace, you’re not supposed to do that,” she says.

Stigmatized industry

PHOTO COURTESY: LISA ROSS - Cupcake Girls volunteer Eva prepares cupcakes to be taken to the dressing rooms.The sex industry is founded on activities long stigmatized by society, and that stigma infects every aspect of its operation, according to a number of people in the industry.

Sex workers are not treated as workers in other industries; stripping is legal but the state does not enforce a minimum wage, for instance. Customers are not viewed through the “always right” lens that other industries’ customers enjoy. Even those trying to help are viewed with suspicion and mistrust. In Portland, a number of strippers have objected to the Cupcake Girls. All in all, sex has become an industry that most of society finds easier to ignore than concern itself with.

Merrell, a production coordinator with a Portland advertising firm, says she decided to help open the Portland Cupcake Girls after watching a prostitute getting beaten up in downtown Portland while a security guard observing from a nearby store refused to get involved.

But tonight, Grace just wants to find this young woman a place to sleep.

Sin City to Stumptown

The Portland Cupcake Girls, a branch of the first Cupcake Girls in Las Vegas, were founded in 2011.

A number of organizations have historically existed to rescue women and men who might be working in the sex industry against their will. Some are affiliated with religious organizations. Merrell says the Portland Cupcake Girls are nothing like that —they exist to help sex workers with whatever the workers might need.

Count prostitutes, porn actors, escorts and phone sex operators among the women and men the Girls have helped. Merrell is quick to add that many sex workers have no need of their services. She says one client recently told her that if it were not for stripping, she would have killed herself by now. “She’s so empowered by it,” Merrell says.

The Portland Girls have provided sex workers with financial help and housing assistance. Many strippers, working only for tips, don’t pay taxes on much of their income. More than a few have approached the Cupcake Girls desperate for tax advice — and the Girls have an accountant among the volunteers they have assembled.

Typically, the Cupcake Girls enter a club with the owner’s permission, cupcakes in hand, and make their way to the dressing room, where they often help dancers with costumes, hair and makeup. The intent is to develop relationships and eventually learn who might need help.

In tonight’s crews going to clubs, Grace is partnered with Ava, a middle-class mom with four children. Another of tonight’s volunteers is a social worker. A fourth once worked as a stripper. A fifth is in her third year of law school.

PHOTO COURTESY: LISA ROSS - Server Karli Hebisen chats with a customer at Stars Cabaret in Tualatin.

Contractors, not employees

In 2014, the Cupcake Girls came under attack from a significant number of Portland sex workers. An angry online petition titled “Stop Stigmatizing Sex Workers” eventually was signed by 78 supporters. The petition page claimed “many local sex workers are irate and offended” by the Cupcake Girls and insisted “we don’t need your help.”

Elle Stanger is one of the Portland strippers who signed that petition. Stanger has lobbied in Salem for sex worker rights — a difficult task. The state Supreme Court’s interpretation of sex clubs as constitutionally protected bastions of free speech has helped strip clubs large and small to proliferate here. That proliferation, insiders say, has led to an industry too large and informal to easily regulate.

The industry is legal, though hardly regulated. Strippers are considered independent contractors so they work only for tips and usually pay the club a part of their earnings. Government investigations into working conditions are rare. Some strippers have talked of unionizing or pushing the state for some sort of licensing of clubs, or to require strippers be covered by the state minimum wage, but Stanger says that sort of regulation might hurt strippers more than help.

“Employee status would give us less control as entertainers,” Stanger says. “If clubs were suddenly forced to pay wages, it would close most of them. The ones that survived would almost absolutely take the funds from our tips by increasing their house fees or enacting quotas.”

The phrase sex worker covers wide ground, Stanger says. There are strippers like her — college graduate, independent, making more money dancing than she could in most other fields. There are also local strippers who make little money and are taken advantage of in their workplace by greedy owners and abusive managers.

Stanger pushed for a bill passed last session by the legislature that will establish a hotline for anonymous reports of workplace abuse and harassment.

Stanger says she was among the most critical of the Cupcake Girls when she learned about them. She wrote a “pretty scathing” social media piece about the Girls, which led to a meeting with the Cupcake Girls leadership. Stanger’s initial outrage, and the followup, provide a lesson in just how difficult it is to navigate politics and personalities when the never absent unspoken subtext is sex, and more specifically, sex for sale.

Initially, Stanger says, she thought the idea of volunteers coming into her workplace — the dressing room at a strip club — was “patronizing.” She thought the Girls were presumptuous in assuming everyone in the sex industry might need help.

Now, Stanger says, “It was really more about how they were presenting their message.” She sits on a Cupcake Girls advisory board and she praises the work of the Girls. But the controversy, she says, is rooted in the makeup of the Portland sex industry.

Portland’s sex industry is unique, Stanger says. Many Portland dancers are strong feminists who are very concerned about the image of the industry. But many of those same sex workers are strong-willed in other ways as well. That partially explains the outrage directed against the Cupcake Girls, Stanger says.

“It’s an incredibly competitive industry,” Stanger says. “Lately, it’s been a fractured industry where you have infighting between little cliques of girls that only stem from interpersonal conflicts and has nothing to do with the industry at all. There’s a culture of mean girls bullying that just carries over to women in their 30s or 40s.”

Stanger says many of the sex workers like her — self-sufficient and in the sex business out of choice — feel threatened by those who struggle.

“It’s almost like it becomes a class issue,” Stanger says. “When we hear people talk abut drug-addicted strippers who need help, some of these (successful) women hold themselves on a pedestal where they don’t want to be viewed in that category.”

But the real responsibility for the stigma burdening sex workers, Stanger says, is society at large. “The abuse of sex workers is more normalized and accepted by the mainstream,” she says. “It’s the patriarchy thing. It’s women who show their bodies for money. It’s a lot easier for any kind of nefarious goings on to exist if people think that’s normal.”

Stanger says she loves her work. She recognizes that abuse takes place at some clubs. She’s appreciative that the Cupcake Girls have been able to provide help to many sex workers who need it.

But not everybody has come over to the Cupcake Girls’ side. “Our backstage spaces...are sacred,” says Jennifer Heineman, a University of Nevada Las Vegas sociologist who has worked as a stripper and written about the sex industry. “Organizations such as these can often feel voyeuristic and entitled. I don’t want cupcakes or a makeover. I want money. I want to send my kid to a good school. And I want human rights.”

But there’s that stigma getting in the way of those human rights, according to Heineman. “The sex industry is different than most,” she says. “It exists at the intersection of capitalism and patriarchy, illuminating our cultural inconsistencies regarding sex, particularly how uncomfortable we are as a culture with sexually and financially independent women.”

That discomfort may be more apparent in Portland than in Las Vegas. In Las Vegas, Merrell says, the Cupcake Girls sponsor a popular annual spa day where sex workers are treated to makeovers and massages. Merrell says it took one spa day here for the Cupcake Girls to realize the criticism outweighed the appreciation. The Portland spa day for sex workers was changed to a wellness day featuring free acupuncture, mindful breathing classes and yoga.

The Las Vegas Cupcake Girls, Merrell says, have never encountered organized criticism. “They’d never have a petition. There, they are in love with Cupcake Girls,” she says.

Getting too close

But tonight, petitions and criticism aren’t Merrell’s problem. One young stripper who says she has nowhere to sleep is the problem.

Back at the office, waiting for another text or call from Grace, Merrell bemoans the fact that the Cupcake Girls have run out of grant money for the month. But the bigger issue, she says, is maintaining standards.

Merrell has known Grace for five years. Grace, and many of the other volunteers, if allowed, will open their own wallets and homes, Merrell says. Long run, that will work against the goals of the Cupcake Girls. The rule is, volunteers can’t spend their own money.

“It’s going to happen and happen and happen,” Merrell says. “I don’t want a burnt out volunteer...These are such emotionally charged situations, if we’re not careful we could go broke.”

Merrell is holding her own one-year old daughter in her left arm while walking around the office and furiously texting with her right hand. She texts the Cupcake Girls care manager in Las Vegas. She says she’s too close to Grace, so maybe the manager could talk to Grace.

Michelle, the care manager, says she’d like to know why Grace is so emotionally involved with this particular dancer. But Grace isn’t answering her phone. Merrell calls Ava, Grace’s partner tonight, and learns that Grace is still talking to the dancer, for whom she just bought a pack of cigarettes.

Thirty minutes later, Grace and Ava show up at Cupcake Girls headquarters. After being told she could not put the woman up for the night, Grace and Ava prevailed upon the stripper’s friend to let her stay with her overnight. The stripper agreed to meet with Cupcake Girls’ client advocate tomorrow to get long-term help.

As Grace and Eva debrief, it starts to become clear that even Grace had doubts about the story the stripper was telling.

The phone she claimed to have lost? Before leaving, Grace and Ava see her take a phone out of her pocket and start talking. She agreed to stay with her co-worker tonight, but told Grace that first she needed to find her boyfriend. Before they left, Grace and Ava saw her walking up Division Street, away from the club.

Grace and Ava agree that probably the stripper won’t stay with her friend tonight, and probably the stripper won’t show up at tomorrow’s meeting. Probably, drugs were a bigger part of the picture than they wanted to believe at the time, they agree over chips and popcorn in the Cupcake Girls office.

“My gut says she’ll get high,” Grace says.

But possibly, Merrell says, she will contact the Cupcake Girls at some future date, because she will be ready for help, and she will remember the pink cupcakes and the sympathetic faces she saw tonight.

“It’s all her timing and her choice,” Merrell says.

From cuffs to canning, with help

PHOTO COURTESY; DANYELLE CALCAGO - Danyelle Calcago, left, was able to put behind her the life of a dominatrix with help from Cupcake Girls volunteer Grace, here helping Calcago -- who is starting a canning business -- in the kitchen.Danyelle Calcago wanted to leave the sex industry, and she knew she needed help. Calcago had worked as a professional dominatrix for 15 years — first through escort services and more recently freelance, via the Internet.

What Calcago says she needed was the equivalent of an Alcoholics Anonymous support group for her addiction. She was, she says, addicted to the lifestyle and mindset of a successful sex worker.

For years, Calcago had led a double life. She was raising a daughter who was unaware that when mommy left home in the van with the special suitcase, she was leaving to earn money in the world of BDSM — shorthand for bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism.

It wasn’t just the money and short working hours she was addicted to, Calcago says, and it certainly wasn’t the sex. More precisely, it was a sense of control.

“Dancing and escorting has a sense of empowerment,” she says. “You can go out on any given day and make money from men.”

That sense was what Calcago, 40, says she needed to leave behind. She started in Kansas City, Mo., with an organization of former sex workers who provided emotional support. When she moved back to Portland to take care of an ill grandmother more than two years ago, a sex worker friend told her the Cupcake Girls might be able to offer the help she needed.

Since then, Calcago has met with Cupcake Girls Amy-Marie Merrell and Grace about once a month to talk out her struggle. Grace has even gone to Calcago’s grandmother’s house to help her can produce. The Cupcake Girls have introduced her to a businessman wiling to help her start a community cannery she’s calling Portland Preserves.

The Cupcake Girls, Calcago says, were willing to help on her terms. She needed, among other things, a new set of friends.

“Being in that industry, a lot of the time you surround yourself in circles that are not very positive,” Calcago says. “With the Cupcake Girls, they will branch out and assist you in pretty much anything you are going through.”

But Calcago says merely by their existence the Cupcake Girls, encouraging sex workers to consider if they might need help, are defying an unwritten code that governs sex industry workers. “You don’t talk about getting out,” she says.

Many sex workers are doing well on their own terms, Calcago says, but many suffer from stress disorders, addiction and low self-esteem. Those workers have become adept at not confronting the reality of their situations. “They are so mentally conditioned to, ‘This is how life is supposed to be,’” Calcago says.