An ongoing stream of men filed up and down the narrow, spiral staircase that ran like an artery, straight through the center of the “illegal”, 9-story mega brothel in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Different genres of music blared from each of the small rooms on either side of the staircase, creating a cacophony of noise.
Men shuffled along in what felt like a ritualistic rhythm, pausing on each level just long enough to survey their options before selecting a woman (or a girl) to spend the next 15 minutes with. I wore my baggiest jeans, messiest bun and largest t-shirt to avoid their stares; still, I felt their stealing eyes linger on me before bouncing to the next woman. For the equivalent of $12 USD, a portion of which the woman would have to pay to the brothel, a man could have the girl of his choice.
Before we arrived, our friends Tim and Becky at Solidarity were told that they would never be allowed to enter the brothels in that city… that it had never been done and was simply impossible. Since we believe in a God with whom ALL things are possible, we didn’t let the negative reports stop us. Tim went to the brothel earlier that day, with a signature Treasures gift bag in hand, to see if he could get permission to come back with more gifts for the women working there. Not only were we given an invitation to return, but many of the women were eager to talk to us.
On the first floor, we spent some time with a woman I will call “Paula”. Her eyes were deep brown and strikingly present. Somehow, they were clear of the waxed gaze I have come to recognize in so many women working in the sex industry, the same one I used to wear. There were times that I found myself so drawn in by her as she shared a part of her story with us, I forgot we couldn’t speak the same language. Alas, it was our new friend and gifted translator, Tachi, who made communication possible.
Paula, like many of the women we encountered, came to work in the brothel for the World Cup. Despite having job as a bookkeeper, she still had trouble making ends meet and was in desperate need of money.
As we talked to Paula, we sat beside a row of tiny, makeshift rooms with plastic accordion doors. Each time a door opened, I caught a glimpse of the dingy twin mattresses inside. If I didn’t know I was in a brothel, I might have thought I was in a hospital in a 3rd world country.
In the short time we were with Paula, one of her “co-workers” went in and out of one of the plastic doors with three different men. I suddenly found myself thankful for the blaring music and everything it muffled out.
Paula told us that she only planned to work in the brothel for 20 more days. I remember saying something similar when I first began working in the strip club. “I will only be here a month”, I assured my co-workers. Only I hope this is true for Paula. Actually, my prayer is that she will be able to leave sooner… before she loses the sober, present look in her eyes. Before too much is given and taken.
Later that week, thanks to our friends at Solidarity and an amazing group of translators, the Treasures team had the incredible honor of training over 60 men and women in outreach and care to women in the sex industry and victims of trafficking.
Some of the people we trained already have their “boots on the ground” and are invested in this work in neighboring areas. They are pioneering this work in their communities and told me that they are hungry for wisdom and strategy. I know how they feel and I am thrilled that we will get to build partnerships and learn from each other! One woman asked me if I would mind if she translated all of the videos on the Treasures website into Portuguese so she can share them with the people she reaches and serves. Ummm, can you say “WIN, WIN”!?
I have a dream in my heart to be a part of seeing a sex industry outreach in EVERY SINGLE CITY ON THE PLANET where the commercial sex industry is happening. I actually have a 95-page Word document with the name and address of every strip club on the globe and have every intention of seeing them reached. To date we have helped launch and train over 70 outreaches on 5 continents, but we have only scratched the surface!
I have had a lot of questions for God about “how” this vision will be accomplished in its entirety. At the top of this list are questions like, “What about the language barriers?” and “Will what we are learning here in the States, translate to other cultures?”
Having the Treasures Training Manual translated into Portuguese was an answer to the first question and to our prayers! Spending time with Paula and the other women in the brothel and on the streets was also an encouragement to me. While our language and culture may be different, it is clear to me that there is a common thread between us. I am sure that there will be nuances and variances from culture to culture, but I love seeing that much of the “how” and “why” of outreach and care is working across contexts.
This is only the beginning!
PS. I want to extend a HUGE thank you to everyone who gave, prayed, and encouraged us as we prepared for this trip! We couldn’t have done it without you!
Harmony Dust founded Treasures in 2003 while completing a Master’s in Social Welfare at UCLA. To date, she has trained outreach leaders that have gone on to establish more than 97 sex industry outreaches on 5 continents. She has been featured in various media sources, including Glamour Magazine, The Dr. Drew Show, and The Tyra Banks Show. She is a sought after speaker and her memoir, Scars & Stilettos, gives an account of the journey of going from working in strip clubs, to leading an organization that reaches women in the sex industry on a global scale.
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