CA: Unveiled, unyielding and unashamed

Alumnae tap into own experiences to help sex workers seeking to leave or improve industry

Under the stage name Monique, Harmony Dust would dance naked on tables for leering men who would pay her $20 a song and who often tried to touch her.

But Dust was feisty: She demanded her respect, even if others weren’t so keen on granting it.

“The first time that someone touched me after I told them not to, all of the rage inside of me that had been pent up inside of me for all of those years came out, and I picked my stiletto up and beat him in the head and knocked him off the chair,” Dust said.

Now, the UCLA alumna is happily married and pregnant, and she runs Treasures, a support group she started four years ago to aid women in the sex industry.

But she wasn’t always so lucky.

“I come from a background of sexual abuse and rape, and really found myself looking to others for the value in myself, namely men,” Dust said, adding that the abusive relationship she was in only added to her dwindling self-esteem.

At 19 years old, Dust was the sole supporter of her older boyfriend, who had racked up about $35,000 in debt. With her hope crumbling, Dust listened to the advice of a friend who suggested that she become a stripper – they made a lot of money, after all.

Haunted by the idea, Dust pitched the possibility to a psychology professor, who did not work at UCLA, whom she respected and trusted.

“I kind of hoped that he would say, ‘Don’t do that, you’re worth more – you have a career in front of you.’ But instead he said, ‘You don’t have to put it on your resume, I don’t see a problem with it.’” Dust said.

She was mortified when he showed up at the club a couple weeks later, promptly requesting a table dance.

“I didn’t really have a lot of hope in men at that time in my life, but here was someone whom I really put on a pedestal. … It kind of destroyed my faith in the male species,” Dust said.

Dust lived without hope for three years, attending class in glasses and a sweatshirt during the day to make sure she wasn’t recognized.

“I didn’t want to be seen as attractive,” Dust said, adding that the day hours gave her time to study.

But when night came around, she would pack up her stilettos and expect to make between $500 and $1,000 dollars winding her body around a pole.

Dust applied her study ethic to her work – she continually challenged herself to get through the night by raising her personal goals.

“I didn’t enjoy stripping very much, so I had to find ways to make it tolerable, and one of those ways was to challenge myself personally,” Dust said.

She recalled how clumsy she was when she first stumbled half-naked into the red lights to Prince’s “Purple Rain.”

“I was going from pole to pole, trying to make sure I didn’t fall on my face,” Dust said. “I thought for sure they were going to say, ‘Oh forget it, she’s like this awkward 19-year-old.’”

But instead, the manager offered her the job on the spot.

From then on, Dust used the time after her shift to practice her pole work, enlisting the help of fellow dancers to help her practice her moves.

By the time she quit three years later, Dust was one of the top earners at the club.

“At first, I felt kind of empowered. … I thought, ‘All of these years, I’ve been objectified. All of these years, I’ve had people looking at me and treating me like an object, and now I’m getting paid for it.’ … But as time went on, I just started feeling more and more out of control. All I have is money to show for it at the end of the shift,” Dust said.

So when she heard Prince’s “Purple Rain,” blasting over the loud speakers once again, she knew it was time to go.

But Mariko Passion, a self-described “urban geisha,” UCLA alumna and sex-worker activist, said she sees sex work in a more positive, not to mention empowering, way.

As the founder of the UCLA chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project and a paid escort, Passion said she uses her sexual experiences with her clients as a form of therapy.

“I have always been very proud of who I am and what I do. It helps me to really come into touch with my sexuality,” Passion said.

She said that some of the perks included when working in the sex industry include travel opportunities, flexible hours and, of course, good pay.

During the day, Passion devotes her time to running the project, focusing on major issues surrounding the sex-worker community, such as AIDS prevention, business and the ambitious plan to decriminalize prostitution.

“We should wield all profits from the usage of our bodies. We should get residuals, just like everybody else, but there’s nobody who’s really teaching the business aspect of this,” Passion says, citing what she calls the “whore’s religion” of bodily self-ownership.

Passion started the project in Southern California while she was a graduate student at UCLA. Now that she’s graduated, the program has expanded, taking money from the state to test sex workers for AIDS.

“A lot of people think that if you take away everything from sex workers, they’ll just go away,” Passion said.

Mina Zhi, another member of the program and a paid dominatrix, said she agrees.

“I don’t think that a lot of sex workers are knowledgeable that they have rights,” Zhi said.

She says that her work is a form of treatment for her clients, many of whom have psychological issues with female dominance.

“People get really emotional around me and cry. … If someone has a lot of emotional baggage, I let them get it all out.” Zhi said.

Among the fetish services that she’s provided: tickling fetishes, stocking fetishes, shaving fetishes and even pie fetishes.

Zhi recalls standing in stilettos while aiming a banana cream pie at a certain client, while shaving her armpits for another.

“Most of these clients are very lonely. … They can’t live out their fantasies on a daily basis,” Zhi said.

Zhi, who chooses her own clients, said she feels that sex work has empowered her.

“Some people just want the company of a woman,” she said.

She said the project serves as a place for her to network, for others who share the same type of passion for sex work. It’s not a place for “transitioning,” but for accepting sex work as a legitimate and respectable trade.

But for those who just want to get out of the X-rated lifestyle, Harmony Dust has been a beacon of hope to those not fortunate enough to help themselves.

Armed with a slew of volunteers and a barrage of goody bags, she’ll hit dozens of clubs in one night, spreading one simple message: “You are loved, and we are here to support you.”

http://www.dailybruin.com/news/2008/may/23/unveiled-unyielding-and-unashamed/

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