For many years I worked helping those who were marginalized in some manner. Street workers, homeless youth, those struggling with mental illness and substance abuse. People who were battling to maintain housing and employment for whatever reason.
At one point I opened a shop that I named ‘Burlesque’ in honour of those I wished to help. I had found a gap in the system. Over and over I heard middle class, established people complain that ‘they’ should get a job, and so on.
The problem, I would continually argue, is simply that it is very difficult to get a job without a phone number or proper address. It is even more difficult to get a job if your only work experience is in prostitution or stripping.
I found many women through my work who were in their mid, or even late twenties, that had never held a ‘regular’ job. Hoping to fill a gap, I hired only women (and a few men) who lacked previous ‘work’ experience primarily due to their experience ‘in the industry’.
Women (and men) who wanted to make significant changes in their life, but were actually fundamentally unable.
Other services existed, through the government, but most of them had requirements that ‘my girls’ just couldn’t comply with. For one, many of them continued to work at their sex trade jobs until the alternative situation worked out – not something our government programs accepted.
I felt it wasn’t my decision, and for many – it was necessary – with mouths to feed and rents to pay.
A few of them struggled with substance abuse, an issue not tolerated in any of the government programs in Ontario at the time. Instead of removing them from ‘the program’, I helped them get treatment and allowed them to continue to be a part of the group, and the support we gave each other.
I wrote references and recommendations, and helped a few open their own businesses (a pet shop and a furniture store), and used my connections to get some involved in the (legitimate!) film industry.
Of course it wasn’t all success. Some of them chose to remain in their state and may still be there. And fewer still had no choice.
My biggest lesson on judgement came from this time.
JUDGE NOT LEST YE BE JUDGED (Matthew 7:1)
There was a girl, whose stage name was ‘Champagne’. She was very young, perhaps 20 at the time. She had already been working in the strip club for many years.
When it came out that I was helping get some girls out of the business, she asked me if I had some time to speak.
When we sat down, she told me a story that literally broke my heart. One I had no solution for. A story that still haunts me today.
Champagne started dancing before she became legal age. She spoke with a lisp and did not pronounce or finish her words properly. Though she was blessed with decent looks, it seemed she had missed out on a few other important traits necessary for success in this life.
Champagne was not ‘smart’. She was my first lesson on ‘we are not all the same’. And not just in the manner of education. She was clearly playing the game of life with an intellectual handicap.
Sweet as can be, with the look of a 14-year-old and the intelligence to match, naïve and easily manipulated – over and over Champagne found herself in prostitution situations – each time wondering how it happened, and how her life got ‘here’.
Her father was solidly not in the picture (my memory says dead – but I can’t be 100% sure), and with four much younger siblings and a sick mother on disability (a paltry amount), the family financial responsibility fell entirely into Champagnes lap.
After telling me her story, and how much it cost her to run her family every month, she asked me if I saw a way out for her.
I asked her to give me the night to research and think about it, and after doing so (and spending a few hours crying), it was very clear to me that there was no solution for Champagne.
Other than that her brothers would eventually age and get their own lives and jobs. Other than reporting them to Social Services and having the family broken up – exactly what she was trying to avoid.
Indeed she was doing what she had to do for the well being of her family – at her own sacrifice. And the industry does require a huge sacrifice of self. Of dreams and of soul. For most women, it is not easy to recover from the detriment of life in the sex trade industry.
So I told Champagne what I had discovered, and that I respected her for her soul sucking labour. I told her that I would use her story as an example of loyalty, love, perseverance and fortitude – and as a lesson on judgement.
Truly you cannot judge someones life or actions until you have ‘walked a mile in their shoes’. I have learned it is better to leave judgement to our Higher Power and the self.
No one judges our ‘wrong doings’ better than our self.