Kayla Moilanen has been curious about strip clubs since she was a little girl. Long before she understood what happened inside these buildings, she thought about how the people inside must feel.
“As a kid, I didn’t even know what a strip club was," Kayla said. "I just knew that not so great things happened inside. I felt like people were in darkness. They have no windows. A building with no windows has no light.”
She started regularly visiting these windowless places less than 20 years later.
Kayla is beautiful – the kind of beautiful one notices right away. With long, blonde hair and a killer smile, she looks like she would be at home in an ornate dress, showing off her shoes on a Fiesta float headed down Broadway. But when she opens her mouth, she doesn’t talk about the next debutant party. Instead, she talks about the women she has come to know that work at strip clubs.
She meets them through Lavish, a nonprofit ministry she founded in 2011. The ministry is devoted to restoring women and families affected by the sex industry. Lavish builds bridges to the often-troubled women in strip clubs by showering them with gifts, offering long-term friendships, and connecting them with resources to thrive. Lavish volunteers refer to the dancers as "pearls," communicating their inherent worth and value.
For the most part, Lavish is a welcome presence in the clubs. So far it has received permission to visit about half of the businesses that operate in and around San Antonio. Managers who run the clubs will sometimes express appreciation for their consistent, positive presence. Some of the women who work in the industry are understandably skeptical and stand-offish, Kayla said, but after multiple visits they often soften their stance and look forward to their visits.
Other "pearls" like Cynthia Dominguez immediately welcome Lavish.
Dominguez remembers the first time she met Kayla in the dressing room of the strip club where she was working.
“I was getting ready for my shift," she recalled. "Kayla ended up making her way to the back, and I was happy to see her. I almost felt like (I was) stranded on a desert island, and it was like a ship came to rescue me. That was how I felt. ... It was like the ship had come in to take us home. And I was totally blessed by her coming there. It really changed my life that there were people out there who would go the ends of the earth to reach whoever they can."
Dominguez was molested by a family member as a child. When she spoke out, the adults in her family did not believe or protect her.
“I kind of learned indirectly that my body is just an object and anybody can do whatever they want and no one is going to do anything about it anyways,” she said.
She became very promiscuous at a young age and started regularly looking at pornography in middle school.
“I was a love-starved kid. I don’t feel like I got the love and attention that I wanted from my parents," she said. "So I saw that sex was a way to get attention from anybody so that started my path of destruction.”
At the age of 15 or 16, she sold her body for the first time. She then started as a cocktail waitress at a club and ended up dancing in order to make more money. Her life has been riddled with addiction, violence, anger, homelessness, and abusive relationships.
Dominguez is now out of the sex industry and regularly attends "Pearl Night," Lavish's support group that meets twice a month. "I didn’t feel ever once uncomfortable with the ladies when I would go to Pearl night," she added. "They made me feel like we had known each other forever.”
The welcome that Kayla extends to these "pearls" stems from her own past struggles with sexuality and abuse.
Kayla grew up with loving parents in a stable environment. Her childhood was filled with memories of making up dances to Britney Spears, having a crush on Justin Timberlake, adding to her POG collection, eating lots of macaroni and cheese, and floating down the Frio River.
Her first encounter with sexuality came when a relative sexually abused her at the age of 12. In an attempt to reclaim a sense of control and power, she said she became increasingly promiscuous. Her teenage sexual encounters — ones in which she had a say and a voice — were, in part, an attempt to “overwrite” the sexual abuse of her past that made her feel powerless. She was searching for love, she said, and thought she could get it by offering up her body. In her early teens, she got hooked on pornography and engaged in risky sexual behavior all while carefully concealing it from her parents. She admits that she could have easily become a victim of sex trafficking.
“Pride and shame kind of covered (me)," she said, recalling some of the darkest moments of her life. "And then you just have layers of that; layers of pain that can’t be released in a healthy way until it’s dealt with from the inside.”
When she was 17, she reached a crisis point. Kayla was raped by a co-worker. Less than a month later she discovered she was pregnant. An entire community – her family, church, and public service organizations – rallied to support her during her pregnancy and early days as a young mom. Her sister’s friends gave her maternity clothes to wear. Her parents provided her with a place to live and food to eat. They helped with middle-of-the-night feedings as she healed from a C-section delivery. Her church hosted a baby shower in her honor. One woman gave her a hand-knitted blanket.
Kayla also relied on social services like Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and Medicaid for a couple years. Child Care Services through the City of San Antonio helped cover some of the cost of childcare so she could work and go to school.
The Rape Crisis Center provided her with individual counseling that allowed her to begin to mentally process the trauma she had experienced. She connected with other women with similar stories in group settings. It was here that she was encouraged to find her voice through poetry. One of Kayla’s professors at UTSA, Linda Pritchett, encouraged her to tell her story through writing and pursue her calling.
As the benefactor of such life-giving community, Kayla was motivated to extend a similar type of love to other women in need. She directed that love toward places of sexual darkness by repurposing her abuse and rape. She began to befriend women dancing in strip clubs.
Between 66-90% of women in the sex industry were sexually abused as children according to a 2012 report published in the Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience journal. Of course, not every woman in the industry was abused as a child, but the connection between early abuse and the sex industry is well documented. Whether they are aware of it or not, Kayla said, these women are navigating through the powerful effects of their abuse and need friendship and support. Because they are so accustomed to having things asked of them, they rarely get to enjoy relationships where others are genuinely seeking their company without underlying motives.
Many women have a need to dull their minds with alcohol and drugs in order to work. Addiction is rampant in the industry. The women in the clubs often feel the need to compete with one another to get more attention and make more money. Because they sleep while most people are spending time developing relationships with family members and coworkers, these dancers feel isolated in an alternate, nocturnal existence.
“A lot of these women are isolated. They are kind of the black sheep of the family because of what they do or they don’t have any family at all," she said. "They may have grown up in the system, in foster care, or maybe mom and dad died or they don’t have family that they can really rely on. They don’t have the ties that tether a lot of people to hope and to things that are positive.”
According to interviews conducted in 2003 in nine countries, including the U.S., 89% of women in the sex industry said they want to escape, but had no other means of survival, according to a study published by The Journal of Trauma Practice. In short, women in the sex industry, which includes stripping and prostitution, often feel "trapped."
For Lavish's outreach nights, Kayla and women from all over San Antonio prepare small, quality gifts like beauty products, hand-stamped journals, and tasty food to give to the women working in the clubs. After packing the gifts and praying, they load up in a van and visit strip clubs. They head to the dressing room to pass out the gifts and ask the women how they are doing. Along with the individual gifts, the women from Lavish post handmade notes of encouragement on bulletin boards in the clubs.
Each gift includes an invitation to "Pearl Night" that meets twice a month at a local nonprofit. (For security reasons, that location will go unnamed.) Here, the pearls enjoy a home cooked meal in a welcoming place, have an opportunity to get to know other women in the industry, meet mentors from the community, and participate in guided discussions.
Essentially, Lavish helps these women reach their goals: whether that is helping them go back to school; find counseling, medical attention, and medical benefits; or learn to make a budget. These resources, though, are never the main event. The primary focus is relationships. With words and action, the Lavish team communicates to these women that they are loved, valued, and purposed.
“We believe that when someone is loved, equipped with knowledge and equipped with community and support, they can begin to thrive," Kayla said.
After having been around the ministry of Lavish for several years, women like Cynthia Dominguez understand that they aren’t just giving out hair products or notes or home cooked meals. Lavish is offering thoughtful community, the type of community that we all need for survival.
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*Top image: Kayla Moilanen, founder of Lavish. Photo by Rachel Chaney.