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Friday, March 18, 2011

I Am A Treasure: Rescuing One Stripper at a Time

Gloria Lee

Friday. 6:30 pm. Getting situated.

Volunteers slowly sprinkle in to the meeting room at Oasis Church for the preparations for their big outreach night. As the punctual girls begin setting up chairs into a circle, Jenn walks in with a drenched umbrella in one hand and a dripping guitar case in the other. “Sorry I’m late you guys. It’s pouring out there!” The group looks at her with gentle, understanding eyes, reassuring her that she’s being given a hall pass this time. Waiting to start their prep session, the girls chat on the side about the traffic that ensued because of the wretched rain. Harmony Dust, the founder of the Treasures Out of Darkness, the first non-profit organization in the Los Angeles area dedicated to supporting women in the sex industry, is among the last to walk in. All cacophony of side conversation stops and all the eyes are locked onto Harmony as she sits down, cuing the group to begin what was going to be a long night of driving on a specific route to 11 of LA’s 200+ strip clubs, passing out pink gifts bags filled with lip gloss and perfume, as well as the message: “You are loved, valued, and purposed” to strippers. The 7-year-old faith-based organization, in full operation by over 30 committed volunteers, encourages women a way out of the industry through faith.

Harmony Star Dust (the first two names were given by her eccentric mother; Dust is her husband’s last name): A name with the possibilities of being a flower child or even a porn star. As a matter of fact, from 1996 to 1998, the 17-year-old Harmony began dancing naked on table tops for men who waved dollar bills in at her feet for four nights a week. She lived a double life with two separate identities. During the day, she was Harmony, a full-time college student studying psychology while working part-time as a nursery school teacher, reading and playing with kids. At night, she was Monique, a female entertainer for lonely men that had too much cash in their pockets.

At the time of her parents’ divorce, her mother had a cocaine habit and her father moved to Chicago, giving her plenty of freedom and little familial structure and obligations. Besides missing a strong male role model in her life, Harmony struggled with sexual abuse by the people around her, adults and peers whom she trusted. In her biography, Scars and Stilettos, Harmony recalls a memory from when she was five or six years old, being molested by two women who “inviting her over for a sleepover”. As she grew older, Harmony began to receive unwanted attention from men around her neighborhood in Venice. There was one man who “would rub his hand up and down [her] leg, or lean in and try to kiss [her]”. Admittedly, she reveals that she became desensitized to her sexuality, “I wore tank tops. I was probably unintentionally acting kind of sexy. Children who’ve been abused become ‘sexualized’—they behave in a sexual way. But I hated myself for attracting slimy people. I felt such shame, I wanted to kill myself.” During junior high, her boyfriend raped her repeatedly and would boast about it to his friends at school. This eventually led her to expulsion, turning her life of a straight-A student upside down.

During high school, Harmony became hypnotically infatuated with a childhood friend, Derrick, after having sex with him because she lost a bet. Because of Derrick, she ran away from home, moving in with him and supporting his endeavors with the money she was making from her full-time job at a local coffee shop. Within a year was $35,000 in credit card debt with car payments and rent and Derrick’s “emergencies”. “No matter how much I worked, I couldn’t catch up,” she says. “It was an anxiety-producing, tumbling, out-of-control feeling.” Even when her boyfriend began dating other women while they were still living together, she couldn’t break up with him. “This won’t make sense to a healthy person, but I didn’t think I could get anyone better,” she says. “It’s not like I’d had great male-female relationships modeled to me.”

After confiding in Evan, a classmate, about her financial troubles, he informed her of a job that allowed her to earn up to $1000 a night by dancing with her clothes off in front of strangers. Hesitant but desperate for the cash flow, she made Evan take her to her audition where she shed her clothes and took the stage to Prince’s “Purple Rain”. Still reluctant, she sought advice from her respected psychology teacher, who responded to her dilemma with, “Well, it’s not like you’d have to put it on your resume.” Thus, Monique was born.

The first couple of weeks were tough: starting off in a profession she knew nothing about, with strippers of all ages working the poles with techniques she quickly aspired to learn. Weeks of practice and blistering feet and burns from sliding on the poles, Harmony was one of the top-earning strippers at the “Central Lounge” strip club, located not far from the Los Angeles International Airport. After two months into her double life, she recognized a familiar face walk in through the doors: Dr. Stevenson. The night she had consulted him, he’d asked her nonchalantly, “What club are you thinking of working at?” Never thinking her intelligent, respectable professor would ever show up to make a commodity out of his A student, devastation ran through her body. This wasn’t the first time she’d been betrayed by a man. And it wouldn’t be the last.

6:43 pm. Worship.

With Jenn’s strumming on the guitar, the girls begin to sing songs of praise to, what looked like from the outside, the air. But inside, in their souls, they were singing to God, exalting that their Savior was “worthy of honor and glory” and was “worthy of all [their] praise”.

When all of her friends at the club would dance to fast, upbeat songs, Harmony chose to dance to the somber voices of Sade, Celine Dion, and Rickie Lee Jones, whose lyrics were “the soundtrack to [Harmony’s] life, comforting and familiar. She recalls the lyrics to Rickie’s “Croolsville”, “‘It’s OK. It’s not that bad. It’s OK. It’s not that bad,’ Rickie crooned, over and over again…trying to convince herself, just as I was. It was that bad. For both of us…in that song, in that moment. It always had been. My hurt was deep and hidden, being a straight-A student with a California smile. I could feel an ever-present, crushing heaviness around me heart, like iron, restricting flow and freedom.” For Harmony, quitting was never an option. There had not been any girl of whom she knew of that successfully left the stripping world, into an abundant, purposeful life. And also, there were always Derrick’s financial emergencies binding her to stripping.

7:09 pm. Prayer.

A list of prayer requests collected through the organizations various support groups and online resources were read by Stephanie, with each of the 9 volunteers taking a request and being the prayer ambassador for the woman behind the request for the rest of the group. “We don’t do anything unless there is prayer that goes along with our actions,” says Harmony. The girls took turns, praying for victims of rape, a woman that have successfully left the industry and seeking support, a woman who was going to get tested for hepatitis the following week, emotional healing…

In the spring of 1998, Harmony began attending the Oasis Christian Center in Los Angeles, where she began to “discover [her] value, and to embrace the concept of forgiveness, which is so powerful. [She] forgave [herself] for things [she] did wrong, and [she] forgave the people who’d hurt [her].” Introduced to her by Tanya, a friend from dance class, church was the first she’d ever encountered true love and care from people other than her mother.

One night in the fall of the same year, she walked into work on a regular night. But for the first time, she noticed her nakedness. Her tipping point was reached when Prince’s “Purple Rain” came on. “I flashed back to the memory of me as an awkward 19-year-old girl who, thinking she had no options, decided to work as an exotic dancer for two months”, Harmony remembers. There she was. Standing in her nakedness, in her stilettos, holding onto a pole to keep her balance almost 3 years later. In that moment, she realized that it was time to stop. The song didn’t even end when Harmony packed up her stuff and retired from the industry. For good.

Today, the 32-year-old Harmony lives with her husband and 1½-year-old baby girl. After holding a Master’s Degree in Social Welfare from UCLA in 2005, she began to work full-time as a case manager for the Los Angeles County Department of Child and Family Services. As Treasures began to steadily grow, Harmony quit her manager position and now dedicates her time to the expansion of the organization as well as to her family, both nuclear and church family.

7:26 pm. Check-in.

Sitting in a circle, each of the 9 members goes around sharing the highs and lows of their weeks. The girls update each other about the positive events, like being able to share about Treasures with a girl who struggles with stripping, and also about other events that aren’t as elated: getting a flat tire. One of the volunteers shares her testimony with the group as she recalls the hard past she had to endure to get to where she is now.

Similar to Harmony, Elizabeth (26), a current volunteer and intern of Treasures, made herself a commodity for money, believing it was the only way to get her through college and live the rich, lavish lifestyles her friends had. Raised by a single mother in a low-income household, she wanted more than she could afford. At age 11, she was raped by her older brother, which left her confused about her sexuality. In her 2nd year of college, she engaged in a relationship with a sugar daddy, an older man that was financially generous to beautiful younger woman. Within the span of 5 years, she went through 3 different sugar daddies, different bi-sexual relationships, and countless parties and clubs. Having had so little control over her childhood, she “wanted to take control of [her] life as a college student as [she] sought after [her] own personal gains.” In the beginning of 2009, Elizabeth was at a point of desperation, calling psychics—seeking help in every which way possible. Out of options, she turned to church in hopes of finding a way out. “In October of that year, I heard Harmony’s story and was able to talk to her. She has had a lot to do with my own healing and being able to late go of my past”, says Elizabeth.

7:48 pm. Organization updates and information.

Treasures expands with the emergence of non-profit organizations around the country with the sole purpose of sharing the love and care of their Heavenly Father with girls in the sex-industry.

More women are employed by the sex industry now than at any other time in history. Between 66% and 90% of these women were sexually abused as children. Compared with the general population, women in this industry experience higher rates of substance abuse issues, rape and violent assault, STDs, domestic violence, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. They face many issues that affect their physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being; Yet, they are a largely unreached population, and many feel desperately isolated and alone. 89% of women in the sex industry said they wanted to escape, but had no other means for survival. With support groups and care teams at the ready, Harmony and the Treasures crew do everything in their power to increase the rate of turn-arounds. Training groups and organization from all across the country, the Treasures vision for showing women in this industry that they are “loved, valued, and purposed” spreads like wild fire, helping more and more women.

8:16 pm. Closing prayer.

Elizabeth offers to pray for the group and for a blessing over their adventure to the 11 strip clubs later.

8:24 pm. Departure.

The girls get up to put away the chairs, arranging the room as they had found it earlier. Some rush to the restroom, knowing that it was going to be a long night. Others talk amongst themselves. Not long after establishing Jenn as the driver of the 14-seater van, Harmony reveals that no one has the keys to the closet where the gift bags are kept. A time for confessions, another volunteer, one in charge of the map indicating the route they were to take, admits that she forgot to print it out. Having no route and no gift bags, this night’s outreach seemed to have fallen apart within 30 seconds after weeks of planning. Quickly, the girls gather together for a quick prayer session and leave the stress up to God, knowing that He would provide for them a way.

8:47 pm. Starbucks run.

9:04 pm. Brey, Harmony’s assistant saves the day.

Pulling up in her yellow Volkswagon bug, Brey pulls out the key to the closet and holds a map of the night’s outreach route. Sighs of relief and shouts of “Hallelujah!” filled the lungs of the girls.

9:22 pm. Departure. For real this time.

As Jenn pulls out of the Oasis parking lot, with boxes of pink gift bags and 9 volunteers, Harmony reminds the girls, “When you meet the women, make eye contact; look at them for who they are. But don’t look below their faces—these girls get gawked at enough. Be short and sweet: ‘Hi! I have a gift for you.’ Once in a while they act jaded and skeptical, but sometimes they cry because someone is giving them a present…”

And so the night begins.

Although Treasures didn’t allow me to go with them on their outreach, the volunteers had many unique stories of their experiences to tell. The first time Lindsey went out to an outreach was last month and having never been exposed to the sex industry before, she was timid and her nervousness showed. “Growing up in a Christian home, I was never subject to see or hear anything about strippers or porn stars,” she says. “It was always a very taboo subject. There is an outreach every month, and I went on the one last month for the first time and to be honest, I really didn’t know what to expect. For starters, one girl is the designated driver and the rest of the team sits on the van while a couple of the girls go down to the strip clubs to present the gift bags, that are assembled usually the night before at church with around 10-15 girls packing more than 200 gift bags. We don’t want to bombard the club with a whole bunch of people walking in to give the girls things. They probably wouldn’t be as accepting.”

“It’s interesting,” Brey explains. “I think most people would be surprised to the positive responses that we always get. It’s amazing how well accepted we are, even in the clubs. I think it’s so foreign that most people just haven’t tried and they try to avoid. So most people just assume certain things, but in reality the reception is unreal. It’s amazing how people receive it. But at the other end, if there is any negative, I would say, there is some defensive from girls that are maybe in the industry—“What I’m doing isn’t wrong” or things like that. There have been some cases of that, but to be honest, that’s actually very rare. People in the church, there have been initial negative responses but it transformed after hearing Harmony speak once. It just totally transformed their way of thinking because the reason for that, if there is a negative response, the reason is that there is a lack of understanding. So once there is understanding, usually there’s no way to deny that this is an amazing thing. Or it’s striking someone’s heart in a way that makes them realize their own past and their own hurts, and it’s scary. So most, if there is a negative response, it’s usually from a lack of understanding, or fear. And it usually surfaces because it’s freeing—because another great thing about Harmony and her story and this ministry is that it opens up an opportunity to receive healing and freeing. Initially, maybe it strikes a tough cord in some people’s hearts, but when it does that, it also opens an avenue of freedom.

“A lot of the managers are actually very accepting of us. Because they know that the girls have so many problems and they don’t want to deal with them. They’re like, “Our girls need you. They need support.” But there was one housemom (the mother hen of all the girls that work at the strip club) who said, “We don’t want you to come back anymore.” And Harmony said, “Oh, okay. Well, why is that?” She’s like, “Well, whenever you comes, you get our girls thinking. And we don’t want our girls thinking.” Treasures will never communicate that they are trying to get girls out of the industry. “That is never our agenda. Our goal for what we are doing is solely to communicate to these women that they are loved, they valued, and they are purposed. Through that we leave the work for the Holy Spirit and God to do the rest of the work. It’s never about, “Let’s get you out of the industry”, but about communicating that which is unknown by them. So, most housemoms or managers think that’s great when we come in because we don’t come in with an agenda.”

Treasures Out of Darkness has reached out to hundreds, thousands of girls through their commitment to sharing their faith-based message to the strip clubs of LA. There are 24 girls’ testimonies posted on their website: Iamatreasure.com, which is only a small portion of the girls who are in the support groups provided by the organization. Ahnee is one of the girls who has been touched by this ministry: “I had just turned 21 two days prior, and I decided I’d go through with it and finally go dance to start paying my brother’s criminal defense attorney that was fighting to keep him from getting the death penalty. Time was running out, and the money needed to be paid. I told myself I’d make enough to pay the attorney and be out, but, as I learned, it’s never that easy. Six months into it, I had bought my first three-bedroom home. My brother’s life had been spared, yet he was sentenced to spend the remainder of his 19-year old life in a concrete jungle, housed as a level-four, maximum security prisoner. By this time, I was numb.

“I was hooked; the money was rolling in, and I had no one to answer to. The guilt and condemnation I felt and carried was so heavy. I turned away from the slightest thought of praying to the God I had always heard about and prayed to, never really knowing Him or understanding who He was or the love He had for me and the eternal salvation He would someday offer my soul.

“I am so grateful for the love and courage that Harmony had six years ago when I was fresh out of the dark lights and glitzy illusions. Her friendship has changed my life. She gave me hope in the love of real woman and real friendship, and TREASURES has been there for me when I have needed them most. Harmony is not just the founder of Treasures, she is my friend.”


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