Before sunrise on July 22, a young woman, Margarita, lost her life trying to protect the life of another woman. Margarita was a daughter, mother, and a friend to many. While sitting at a loud café, I asked friend Kayla Moilanen, about their friendship. There was an inexplicable calmness, as if every patron was giving Margarita a moment of silence.
“You know what I really remember? How much she loved her children,” Kayla said softly. “I was in the labor and delivery room with Margarita when she had her youngest child; she was so excited and the moment was beautiful.”
In February 2012, Kayla Moilanen founded the charity Lavish, with the mission to love, equip, and empower women in the sex industry. At Lavish, the women served are referred to as, “Pearls”.
Margarita was one of those Pearls. She was an exotic dancer who was lucky enough to stumble upon the Lavish website before her death. She reached out to Kayla for support but was sadly shot and killed while protecting a friend in a domestic violence situation.
Lavish Pearls are the women that are taken advantage of by the sex industry as strippers, prostitutes, or sex slaves controlled by a robust underground sex trade. These are women who desire community and can only find it with the people they are surrounded with in their work.
Despite the name of the charity, you won’t find fancy dinners for donors, schmoozing businessmen, side cheek kiss greetings, or buttering up in exchange for support. In fact, even to this day Kayla gets squeamish when people encourage her to take a small salary. Even though she works 40+ hours a week, her Pearls and their well being is most important part of the Lavish outreach.
According to Lavish, 89% of women in the industry reported wanting to leave, but remain in the industry for their survival.
A Silbert and Pine Study found that 70% of those interviewed credited childhood sexual abuse as an influence in their decision to turn to the most extreme side of sex work.
While many people in society feel comfortable putting the blame on women who are abused by the industry while simultaneously throwing money on a stage, here are just a few reasons why some women continue in this line of work:
A friend or family member is sick and they need fast money.
They are escaping an abusive home life.
They are suffering from addiction.
They were manipulated or conned by a “Romeo Pimp”, or someone who sends women to a club, then keeps/steals the money she earns.
However, nothing compares to what some women experience while inside the industry itself. Lavish reports that women abused by the sex industry experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder at levels equivalent to combat war veterans.
One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to care for women in this industry. When a woman reaches out to Lavish for support, organizers will assess that specific situation, pinpoint their largest issue, and build a plan that caters to each individual Pearl and helps them reach their dreams.
The women are then connected to two business partners (unnamed for privacy), that provide counselling and healing. Eventually, the women will join a weekly support group and dinner.
The Pearls that are committed to the first steps are then assigned a mentor to help them and give them strength where they need it. All mentors must pass an initial screening, multiple referral checks, program training, and a 90-day probationary period.
Lavish provides as much care as they possibly can while relying on partnerships and donations. According to Lavish’s research, it generally takes 2 years for a Pearl to commit to work with Lavish wholeheartedly. However, all women are responsible for their own transition with the Lavish team cheering them.
Lavish volunteers also seek to support them with fun monthly gifts, visits to their dressing rooms at work, and a soon to be launched Pearl dinner every Monday evening where the Pearls and volunteers can build friendships and a loving community.
Lavish does not always have an easy time accessing their Pearls during work hours. Many clubs have turned Lavish members away. However, the charity will always show support for the clubs that allow its members in to see the women. Lavish has developed positive relationships with some club managers who will greet its volunteers with hugs and thank them for their love and encouragement.
Lavish women often find themselves in an industry they can’t escape. However, with the help of a charity like Lavish, these women have the resources to find a new family and reach their dreams.
Back at the loud café, a huge, grateful smile on Kayla’s face brought her words to life in beautiful color.
“These girls are family now,” said Kayla.
For a few minutes Kayla scanned the room and then expressed a final thought.
“In most cases, the girls are braver than I am.”
There are a few things you can do to empower Lavish & the Pearls. Share their story and get the word out. Lavish is seeking more partners to help with general costs and a neutral, safe space.