Getting Dancers from Poles to Pulpits
MICHEL MARTIN, Host:
I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, you get to tell us more. It's our weekly backtalk segment, your response to a story we brought you about a father meeting his teenage daughter for the first time.
But first, when Lia Scholl graduated from the seminary in the year 2000, most of her classmates went on to preach from traditional pulpits in churches. But Scholl took a different path. She began a ministry for exotic dancers. It's called Star Light Ministries, and since 2001 it's expanded both in size and scope. Now she and a team of mainly women volunteers offer services, even financial planning to exotic dancers. Lia Scholl joins us in the studio here in Washington.
Welcome, thanks for speaking with us.
LIA SCHOLL: Hi, thanks very much for having me.
MARTIN: How did you start? I mean, was it the kind of thing where - did you - did you dream it up one day and say this is what I meant to do?
SCHOLL: I had actually trained to work with a welfare to work program and had investigated being a chaplain to prison, didn't really fit with me, and then someone said to me, how would you like to train to go visit strip clubs? So I went in to the strip club and I - as I was sitting there that first day it just sort of settled in with me. This is it. This is what I'm supposed to be doing.
MARTIN: So is that how you work? You visit the strip clubs?
SCHOLL: We visit the strip clubs, usually in teams of two or three people. We take gifts to the women, we are there to answer questions, to pray with them, to talk with them, and we try to build relationships. We visit regularly once a month so that they can come to us. And when they need something specific, we try to help with that.
MARTIN: So you're based in Richmond, Virginia?
SCHOLL: I live in Richmond.
MARTIN: And is that where you do most of your work?
SCHOLL: We have teams that visit in Washington D.C. and Richmond, Virginia and Atlanta and also in Birmingham, Alabama. I provide training for other organizations that want to do this same sort of work. And like in Atlanta right now I'm training about a hundred people to do the same sort of ministries, so...
MARTIN: So what do you do? You walk in and introduce yourself? Do you wear your clerical collar?
SCHOLL: No, no, no.
MARTIN: Do you carry a Bible?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SCHOLL: No, actually, I just wear jeans and I walk in and I usually tell the bouncer who I am and why I'm there. Sometimes they'll send us to the dressing room and we'll meet with the dancers there, sometimes we'll take a table in the club and sit and the dancers can come over and approach us.
MARTIN: How do the club owners react to your presence? Because I've actually have done some reporting in strip clubs and, you know, outsiders are not always a welcome presence. If you're not there to spend money or to, you know, to participate in the experience, they're not always interested in having you. That's been my experience...
MARTIN: So how are you treated?
SCHOLL: Our goal is to not impact the economics of the club. And so they don't seem to mind us all that much. A happy dancer makes more money, and if she has seen from one who've made her day better, then she might make more money in the club that day. They're pretty welcoming once they get to know us. At first they give us suspicious looks. They expect that we're going to judgmental of the dancers and of them and of the clientele. And when they find out that we're not, then they go, oh, we're really glad that you're here.
MARTIN: What do you say?
SCHOLL: Most of the time a dancer will come over to me and say, I don't like what I'm doing, don't judge me for what I'm doing, and I respond with, I don't judge you for what you're doing. I think you're great. I think that you're, you know, you're here, and I'm just really glad to see you.
MARTIN: Why don't you judge what they're doing? I mean, at the end of the day, isn't your ministry rooted in the concept that this is a something from which these women need to be saved?
SCHOLL: These are young women who are 18 to 24 years of age. Many of them believe that because they've made the decision to be exotic dancers, they've ruined their life, that they don't deserve another chance. And I don't believe that that's true of anybody. Everybody deserves a second chance.
We are not trying to get the women to quit working in the strip clubs. They will quit working in the strip clubs when it's time for them to quit working in strip clubs.
We try to support them as they do it. I don't think that it's the best place for a woman to work, but I understand the frustration in having the bill collectors call, of not being able to feed your kids, or Christmas coming and not being able to buy them any gifts, and that sort of thing. And I understand that economically sometimes this is necessary to going to do something that doesn't seem like it's such a great idea.
MARTIN: You said that these women made the choice to do this. Is it your view that indeed they have chosen?
SCHOLL: Probably choice is a bad choice of words. When it comes to economics, do I choose to feed my kids, do I choose to take my clothes off? If those are my options, I think I'd go with feeding my kids. There are women there who don't believe that they can do anything else. That's the only thing that they're good at and understand and can make a living at.
One of the things we I try to remind them is that with education, with support, they can find other kinds of jobs. Lily Burana, who's written a book called "Strip City," sort of calls it the ass versus McDonald's syndrome. She says that McDonald's doesn't know what it does for the stripping industry because everybody says, well, it could be worse. I could be working at McDonald's making 7.50 an hour and smelling like grease every day. That's the option the women seem to think that they have. They can work for minimum wage, or they can work and make actually a good living.
MARTIN: Is it a good living?
SCHOLL: It can be actually really good money. It can be as much as a midlevel executive. I know dancers who make over a hundred thousand dollars a year in Birmingham at small clubs. On the other hand, it can be pretty bad. I mean, I talked to a dancer the other day who had made $6 that night, not even enough to pay for the cab to and from work. And she's in a large market in a club that makes good money. But every dancer has to pay to come in and dance at the club. It's usually - it can go...
MARTIN: Wait a minute, they're paying...
SCHOLL: They are.
MARTIN: ...to do this?
SCHOLL: They are. They are independent contractors and in order to come in and work in a club, the club owner will require generally that you pay a stage fee. That can be anywhere from 20 to a hundred dollars in a night. Then you have generally a quota of how many lap dances you have to do and you have to pay a percentage of that quota to the club. And usually they have to tip the bartender, they have to tip the DJ, they have to tip security, all those sorts of folks. And all that is before they make any money.
MARTIN: It sounds like indentured servitude. It sounds like, you know, the kind of farming system that arose after slavery.
MARTIN: Which is that I will give you the fee, and I'll give you the, you know, a place to live and in exchange I get to take your profits. So then the question arises, might, forgive me, your time be better spent getting legislation passed to outlaw those kinds of practices, those kinds of business practices?
SCHOLL: I think in some way it might be good, but that's not what I'm called to do. I'm called to build relationships with the dancers and to love the dancers. And I hope somebody is working on that, but that's not my - my gig.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Lia Scholl. Her outreach group, Star Light Ministries, ministers to exotic dancers.
Theologically, how do you see your work?
SCHOLL: I absolutely hate the whole idea of love the sinner and hate the sin. Because I don't believe that you can hate the sin and love the sinner at the same time, because I think that that's a value judgment when you say I hate your sin. But it's odd. It's sex and it's religion all mixed in together, and so people are really nervous when you put those two things together.
But for me it's threefold. One is that we're all created in the image of God. Two is that God doesn't make any junk and doesn't throw anybody away for making mistakes. And three, that we all are put here with a purpose, and these women all have a purpose and helping them in some way realize that purpose I think is why we're here.
MARTIN: The thing that interests me about the whole world of exotic dancing and - you know, having interviewed exotic dancers or people who work in the porn industry, for example...
MARTIN: ...on the one hand, many times they'll defend it. They'll say this is my right, I like it, and this what I want to do. This is something I like. Other people may like stamp collecting or, you know, fighting fires for a living, this is what I like. I like taking my clothes off for money.
MARTIN: On the other hand, many of these women will also share a story of abuse; many of them will say that they come from households where they were sexually abused. How do you reconcile those things? How do you - what do you with that? I mean, first of all, is that true? In your experience, are many of the women in this industry coming from an experience of abuse?
SCHOLL: I don't like to generalize in that way. I think everybody wants to go into a club and say there's got to be something wrong with them in order to - for them to have done this. I don't know if that's necessarily across the board true. But I look at - like I can tell you a specific situation.
A young woman I was working with had been raped as a very small child and also abused by a neighborhood teenager when she was like nine or 10. And when she started dancing, for her it was liberating to be the one to decide when she got to take her clothes off. That was a point of liberation for her. And it stayed with her for probably the first six or eight months that she worked in the clubs.
But what I've noticed just from knowing these women is that the first six or eight months are really fun. It's, you know, hey, you get to go in, you get to take your clothes off for men, you get to get all this attention, you make lots of money and you get to drink on the job, all that sort of thing.
And then at about six or eight months the job satisfaction goes down. Drug and alcohol abuse go up. The times that they spend crying before they go to work, that goes up. I don't know what causes that moment, but somewhere around six or eight months, it's no longer fun. And the bills get higher and the pay actually goes down after six or eight months because when you're new, it's all really great and shiny and then it's, you know, it just kind of goes down from there.
And what happens during that time too is women all go in with the set of boundaries. And because of the drug and alcohol abuse, the boundaries move just a little bit. So they find themselves doing things that initially they didn't think they were going to do.
One friend who sort of woke up from a fog one day and was out in a parking lot with a client, giving him a (bleep) - and she had had very specific rules. She would lap dance but she wouldn't touch the client, and then she'd gotten to the touching part. And then she would touch the client but she wouldn't touch his genitals and that sort of thing. And so here she was, you know, one day just sort of like, oh my gosh, I have gone further than I ever wanted to go. And at that point she was like, well, I've done it this one time, so it doesn't really matter if I do it again. And when she kind of like - she doesn't work in clubs anymore. And when she kind of came out of that, she just was like, that was something - somewhere I never wanted to go and never wanted to find myself in.
And so she's done a lot of work with counseling to kind of come back and forgive herself for those sorts of things that she had done. And so part of it is, so what happens next? It's not like you can sit down and write a resume out for all the strip clubs that you've worked at. So what - where do you go from here? And you've moved those boundaries to the point where you think it's not worth even having any boundaries, so you end up in porn, or you end up doing prostitution, or working on the streets, or wherever you do. And we try to provide options for that so that that's not where they end up.
MARTIN: What are the options you can provide, given, as you pointed out, there is the stigma?
SCHOLL: If you're filling out your resume and you don't know what kind of job skills you have, you know, we have counselors and stuff that will do pro bono work for us. They can do resume writing and things like that. And I tell dancers all the time, you know, they saying I'm not living with any skills. It's like, boy, you have the best skill ever. You can read people. I mean, most exotic dancers can - a client can walk into the club and she'll know how much he's going to spend that day. She can read people. They also read our teams. I mean, they walk in and if there's any judgment at all, those women know. And so they have transferable jobs skills. So we help them identify what those transferable job skills are.
And then we also, having known the women and been friends with them, we provide references, you know. I mean, there are some people in what - what one of my dancer friends calls the outside world who know you and who trusts and know that you're trustworthy, and have resources like - you know, we all know someone and can say, hey, I have this friend, and can even give the perspective employers the idea that, hey, she was a dancer but it's okay. You can go into a job where they never knew, and if anybody finds out, it can be really...
MARTIN: You sort of provided bridge or a trusted advocate...
MARTIN: ...to the outside world. And what about you? How long do you think you can do this work? Many people who touch other people's pain burn out.
SCHOLL: I don't really worry about burn out with this population because it's not just the bad. You do see the bad, but you see all the good too. You see how smart young women are and how vibrant they are and what their lives can be. And you see them achieving those things on a regular basis. And it's like, wow, you know, this is cool.
MARTIN: Lia Scholl is the founder and the director of Star Light Ministries. It's an outreach to exotic dancers. She joined us here in the studios in Washington.
SCHOLL: Thank you.