I learned a lot by going to a strip club every week for over a year. So much about my view of people and faith changed because of what I saw there. I was no longer able to label strippers as throw aways because of their choices and I learned as much about my brokenness as they shared theirs. Instead of being disgusted by the women in the sex industry, I became more compassionate and more determined to get to know them and hear their stories. I say that not to reveal my deeply loving heart but to expose that if a judgmental and sheltered (by choice) person like me could become aware and eventually an activist then anyone could.
In the midst of going to the strip club, “sex trafficking” became a buzz word. Because I am a skeptic and refuse to jump on the newest and latest social justice train (because they are all equally important), I was not affected much by the new headlines about the industry. Wasn’t it just as serious before we started talking about it and wasn’t third world poverty still an important social issue? During this time I became more determined that I was not called to join a committee to talk about it or go to a banquet to acquire awareness. I felt like I knew enough about the tragedy to go out and do something about it so to the club we went.
All the clubs have their own unique atmospheres but there is one common theme- darkness.
Walking in the door I could feel the oppression. The greed and the lust. But mysteriously at the same time I felt the presence of God’s light in a mighty way. It was as if the room was begging for the light but rebuking it all at the same time.
Within the first hour I spent at a strip club, I began to see a calling….and it was just so simple. Love these women. Show them that there was hope and that they had options. Just BE PRESENT. Listening and encouraging. And for the next year that is what we did.
I did not go in to the club to shut the place down. I never was looking for illegal activity to bring in the police. That was not my job. I was there to look at women in the eye and tell them they were important and their lives mattered. From there I knew God would take care of the rest.
During the time we were going we had some amazing conversations with women about worth and value. We also talked about our families and our struggles. I did not only see their brokenness. I also saw my own….my insecurities that lead me to destructive behavior. It might not be taking off my clothes for money but I had my own pile of shattered pieces. Over the loud music, the lights and the pole, we had some sacred times sharing our hearts.
One of the women at the club intrigued me. Her name was Jasmine and everyone said that was her real name, not her stage name. There was a softness about her spirit and a humility that baffled me. Since we went during the day and she often worked nights I did not see her often but her name came up a lot with the women and it always seemed positive.
Here she is on her first day at the club.
Then a year ago, Jasmine (who is actually Ashley) showed up at my house, scared, broken and seeking advice. When she came in the door I immediately felt that all those years in the club had led me to this conversation. She wanted out of the industry and was willing to do what it would take. I have heard this story a lot so we set some goals to see if she was really serious.
She stayed at the club for several more months and was planning her exit strategy. What struck me about her was that she had a plan- cosmetology school, joining an in home business, and getting by on less cash flow. It really caught my attention that she was taking action to get where she wanted to be.
At the time she left the club, she was pregnant so getting a job was difficult. We spent time together brainstorming money making strategies. We started having yard sales and at 8 months pregnant she would be out in the blazing heat sorting clothes and making deals. She started collecting people’s yard sale leftovers and selling them in Facebook groups. She would walk across town to deliver something and it would be for $10. Soon people I know started to see her posts and donate more.
Then a realtor friend of mine let us go into homes she had on the market and sell what the previous owners did not take with them. Our first house Ashley helped me clean out was an all day endeavor and she insisted on helping. Her baby was 4 days old. Then the next house she got a cleaning job. They offered her $100. She said she would have done it for $20 because it was so much better than what she had to do at the club.
I saw a strength in her I knew I did not have. It was a fight in her to stay the course and integrate into a different way of life. Even though she had adapted for 8 years into the lifestyle in the club, she had come to the conclusion that she did not fit there and there had to be something more for her and her family. I watched as each week she got a little stronger and a little more comfortable in her own skin.
As I got to know her she told me her story. She was 19, working at Zaxby’s, with a 2 year old baby, living with her parents, and a friend from her childhood told her how she could make more money. She went to the club and as she looks back she not only appreciated the money but she said it “was fun.” Hanging out with the other women during day shift and drinking was a whole lot more intriguing than chicken tenders at $8 an hour. For a girl who struggled with anxiety and shame, she suddenly felt like “somebody.” The club became a “second home.” She did not have any friends outside the club so her social life revolved around the friends she made there and the excessive partying that took place each day and night.
The money was great in the beginning because she was the “new girl.” The older men are often drawn to young girls who could be their granddaughters. Sad but true. Meanwhile Ashley became an alcoholic and could not raise the 2 children she had so her parents stepped in and raised them. This lifestyle went on for the next 8 years.
Last year there was a shift in her. She decided she could not stomach it anymore and began to disconnect. She was pregnant but she could have stayed working there- she worked throughout her last pregnancy. “It is very dark. Dark world. It’s a whole other world inside those buildings and it starts to feel normal.” Then in February 2016 she walked out the door and has not gone back.
I always wonder what keeps her from going back when the cupboards are bare and the bills are due and she simply says, “I see there are better ways. I don’t want to live that lifestyle anymore. For the first time in my adult life I feel respected. When you work in a club, you never expect anyone to treat you nice because you feel so low about yourself.” Her favorite verse which is tattooed on her foot is
2 Corinthians 5:7 “For we live by faith, not by sight.”
Ashley often quoted “I am not an object” when she was working in the club but her job required her to be an object for someone else to take advantage of….. but now she says, “I don’t feel like an object anymore. When you are in that industry you are not a person. You are not a girl. Just an object.”
It has not been easy. She has humbled herself to get food from church pantries and sell other people’s throw away stuff to make enough to help pay the bills. She can’t spoil her children anymore or buy expensive make up. But she is doing it. One yard sale item at a time she is taking care of her children with the help of her boyfriend and parents, who are very supportive of her. After being in an industry that is all about money, sex and drugs she has discovered that giving back has a much bigger impact on her than anything else ever did. In the midst of her own struggle I have seen her become one of the most generous and giving people I know. She attributes it all to how God has changed her because she could not have done this on her own. He rescued her from darkness and brought her into light.
I have told Ashley several times that although I keep a healthy distance between me and the women I help, she is different. She and her family have moved from being a friend to someone I consider a part of my own family. Her tenacity and her endurance amaze me and I often think she is teaching me way more than I am her. People like Ashley change those of us who are willing to give them a chance. Our lives are richer because we see a strength that we have never known in ourselves. It is turning pain into purpose. Shifting from surviving to truly living. You can see it in her face, the way she carries herself, but most of all you can see it in her eyes. She has come alive again.