Last week a girlfriend told me about a group in San Antonio that’s looking for female mentors to help young women who are exotic dancers. Our conversation reminded me of a dancer I met in my 20’s. I wrote this piece soon after. Since most of us will never meet an exotic dancer, I thought you might find her story interesting, insightful… and sad… and because not all of us had ideal childhoods… It might make you think about how she wound up in this position but you didn’t?
The naked blonde undulating down the runway oozes with sexuality in a dance she does five times a night, six nights a week, and her skin looks smooth and creamy under the lights. The men who watch her are all alike. Cash registers who dispense twenty dollar bills.
The blonde stops in front of an overweight man in a plaid shirt and shakes her breasts in his face. His money clip is on the table.
Like hungry indigents, peering through restaurant windows, the customer’s mouths are slack-jawed, their eyes fixed on her naked body. The music is purposefully loud, pulsating in rhythm with their libidos. The car salesman and the college professor want the same thing. They’ll start with a little of the soft blonde with the pouty lips, then a handful of the brunette in the red fuck me shoes, and they’ll save the baby doll with the zonked-out eyes for the main course. She’ll be scrambled and fried and over easy.
The blonde finishes her dance and leaves the stage, her hands clutching a wad of Ben Franklins… The only man in the room who interests her. Backstage she puts on a pair of panties and a lavender silk kimono, then comes out front for the men to buy her a drink, a lap dance, or if they’re lucky, a hand-job in the bathroom.
Instead of finding the college professor, she stops in front of me and leans into my ear.
“Excuse me,” she says. “Most of the women who come here, don’t make eye contact. You’re different.” She is careful to keep her kimono wrapped, and there is no hint of a sexual come-on. “Have you been here before?” she asks.
I shake my head no and tell her I’m with some friends. Up-close I can tell she’s younger than I first thought, and her eyes are layered in a glittery robin’s egg blue; her lips outlined in black like a retaining wall meant to hold in the shocking pink of her lips… among other things.
A little girl playing dress up slut.
Prostitute Barbies come in different guises. I’ve met some dressed in Calvin Klein who are married to investment bankers, while others wear their best Walmart outfit and hit on insurance salesmen they meet on a cruise. They all have the same goal. Their sexuality is a means of getting a wedding ring or an address change up the fiscal ladder.
The blonde asks me what I do for a living, and I think about how easily she shifts gears. A moment ago she was spreading her legs for the guy in the horn-rimmed glasses. I tell her I’m a writer and a photographer.
“Do you like girls?” she asks. Her question is straight forward. Her eyes stare directly into mine.
I know what she means, and I shake my head no.
“That’s OK,” she says. “Call me sometime.” She slips a folded piece of paper into my hand and then heads back toward the dressing room.
Every man in the place is staring at me with surprise or resentment. The blonde must have known she’d just blown her next round of tips with this audience.
On the paper was a phone number and the name, Sherrie, written in a girlish hand. A small circle floated like a balloon over the “i” in her name. Something about her made me want to know more like how, or maybe why, does a girl become an exotic dancer? Why hadn’t I or any of my girlfriends chosen that route? The next day I called her number.
Her voice sounded tired. No lilt to her hello. It didn’t take long to realize Sherrie wanted someone to listen to her. Someone to notice there was a person behind the bump and grind.
I learned we’d both started life with needy, self-absorbed mothers and abusive fathers who died when we were young. While mine had doled out spankings and emotional abuse, hers had a predilection for young girls, especially his own.
Her standard line to the faceless string of men who watched her dance was that she was earning money to put herself through college. She was smart enough to go to college, but instead, she was a high school dropout, a real life blowup doll who moaned and moved on cue. Her textbooks had taught her men weren’t to be trusted, and any act of sex was an expression of love.
At 19, Sherrie was worn-out and old. A clock face with no hands, no way of distinguishing one day from the next, ticking away the sordid nights, sleeping till mid-afternoon, and breakfast was cold pizza and orange juice left on the counter since yesterday.
Never mind the gin had separated and settled to the bottom of the glass.
The next day I went to her apartment, a rundown building not far from the club where she danced. She looked nothing like the dancer I met two nights before. Gone were the blue eyelids and pouty lips, and she was wearing jeans and a T-shirt; a smaller, more vulnerable version of her stage persona.
Two other young women in pajamas sat on an aqua, 50’s style sofa and held hands while they watched TV. Duplicates from the same faded copier machine as Sherrie’s. All three had long since forgotten how to blush; their innocence dried and withered as a discarded peach; their soft insides stolen by predators who left nothing but the pit.
Sherrie wanted a burger so I waited while she got her bag. A silver lamé satchel that held everything of any significance to her: a hairbrush, some clothes, a stuffed animal, a makeup kit and a small wallet.
As we ate she asked questions about my life until she realized our similarities ended when I’d gone to college and found a safe place to fall.
“Where does your mother live?” I asked. “Have you thought about going home?”
“Houston, but I haven’t talked to her in a couple of years. She wouldn’t approve.” Sherrie shimmied her shoulders the way she did for the men in the club and provocatively ran her tongue around the inside of her open mouth. “Besides, I don’t have enough money to get home.”
“What if I bought you a ticket?” The words were out of my mouth before I had a chance to think about them.
Sherrie looked shocked, touched and then suspicious as she considered my suggestion. “Why would you do that? What would you want me to do in return?” Her question spoke volumes and made me feel sorry for her lifestyle and grateful I’d had other options.
“Nothing,” I said, “Except give it an honest try with your mother. This is no kind of life for you. It won’t have a happy ending.”
Like a little girl who’d been told she could go out to play if she finished her broccoli, her eyes got big and she said, “When could I go?”
“Whenever you want,” I said.
One of her legs began swinging nervously back and forth across the other. “Now?”
I nodded and asked if she wanted to stop by and pickup anything from her apartment or tell her roommates goodbye.
She shook her head, patted the silver lamé bag and said, “They won’t miss me.”
It was the last time I saw Sherrie. I hugged her and watched this jaded little woman-child board a Southwest Airlines flight to Houston.
I’ve since wondered how many Sherries are out there, girls who confuse degrading sexual acts with affection? Maybe I’d been duped, and maybe there wasn’t a happy ending for her at home, but I hoped there would be. At least I didn’t have to think about her in that stagnant apartment with the other lost girls, or dancing for men who didn’t know she slept with a teddy bear and wanted to be a flight attendant.
What an amazing thing you did for that young girl. I wonder where she is today. I grew up alongside some of these women. Hell, I was one for a long time although I never danced professionally I just gave it away for free because my self-worth was that low. I lost my father when I was 15 and at that point, I gave up my straight A, college-bound life for that of a bar fly, drunk who wanted desperately to be loved and thought that having sex with someone meant they loved me. How wrong I was. I’m one of the lucky ones because after barely surviving the abuse of my first husband I met my husband. That was 28 years ago. He saved my life.
Rena, Your story makes me sad. Like so many other young girls, your self-esteem was abused and not nurtured and you set off, running from what did that to you and at the same time, looking for “a soft place to land.” Self-esteem is a fragile thing that when it’s not nurtured, we fall prey to all the wrong things… “Looking for love in all the wrong places… ” Thank God you met a good man who valued you! He very well may have saved your life. Thanks for being so courageous and sharing your story. xoxox, Brenda
Very good post Brenda, my sister adopted a baby girl who had FASD (fetal alcohol spectrum disorder) she raised her and gave her a good life. Later she married had twin babies. One day while she was at work her husband beat one of her infants to death… he is serving a life sentence… the other child has been adopted and is in a very nice home… next she married a wonderful man with a hefty income… it didn’t last long, despite her beauty, her dysfuntional mind was just too much even though she was quite the trophy wife. I do believe he loved her. The whole family did… she vanished for years and later we discovered she was a pole dancer. I do believe what Jesus said, prostitutes will make it to heaven over people who outwardly appear to be good but are not. Thank you for putting your perspective out there and I hope and pray my niece has people in her life such as yourself with a compassionate heart!
Oh, Lee! What a tragic story! I just answered Rena’s comment and talked about how so many young girls have fragile self-esteem… regardless of the cause. It occurred to me as I was writing my response that society rarely talks about young boys who’ve been abused and/or have self-esteem issues and what happens to them as they grow up. To make themselves bigger and tougher… in their own eyes… they become womanizers, abusers and monsters who beat defenseless babies to death. This is such a huge perpetual problem that’s passed down from parent to child, and it’s so difficult to stop. Talk about not seeing a happy ending… Thank you so much for sharing and adding to our conversation. xoxox, Brenda
If you’ve read my memoir, daddy du jour, you probably guessed my mother was like that young girl. For some reason she never felt the love she wanted from her father. She never did pole dancing but, she was a bar tender and some of the dives she worked in were full of truck drivers and construction workers who loved seeing her dance on the bar. As I got older, and became closer to my grandparents, she became very jealous of me. It made my teen years very uncomfortable. It wasn’t a fairy tale childhood but, surviving it all has made me ever more grateful for the life I’ve lived over the last 50 years.
Barbara, It’s a testament to your strength and innate sense of survival that you escaped that life, because it would have been so easy for you to be totally adrift, without an anchor, and be like your mother. While I didn’t have siblings to take care of, I role reversed with my mother who, like yours, was always jealous of me. Like you, thank God for my grandmother and my strength. You should be so proud of yourself!! xoxox, Brenda
So thankful you took the time to get to know her, and to help her. May the Lord bless you both!
Thank you, Beckye. Like me, she would be nearing 70… I hope God took good care of her. Love, Brenda
I, also, wonder how that story turned out. I don’t think you were taken – your life has given you an instinct that I, for example, would not have had. I think of a woman who I worked with long ago. She tried to escape her childhood, which included events that eventually drove her to self-destructive behavior. She tried her best to escape but in the end, she fell back into self destructive behavior. I also wonder what happened after she parted ways with our employer.
Alana, I just went on my instincts, which were to get her out of her situation. I was in my early ’20’s and I didn’t know of any resources or agencies I could call on. It all just happened so fast. We all know at least one Sherrie… a woman who’s bounced through a self-destructive life. It’s heartbreaking… Thanks so much for joining in the discussion. xoxox, Brenda
What a strong post and so powerfully written. Thank you for this glimpse of a life I passed by completely, and gratefully so.
Thank you, Sheila. Regardless of whether someone is successful beyond measure, or homeless and an addict of some kind, there’s always something that motivated or pushed them in that direction. I think it’s important for those of us on the outside looking in to consider that before we pass judgement, good or bad. xoxox, Brenda
I hope it worked out for her when she went back home. How many times have we ever considered doing something like that when times were tight. I never did but thought about it at times.
Rebecca, Most of us have managed to find our way through tough times on more than one occasion. Unfortunately those are when we’re more vulnerable and susceptible to people who take advantage of us. I hope Sherrie managed to find a better way of life and a fresh start. Thank you, xoxox, Brenda
You are so kind, you may very well have saved her life. I was a foster Mom for years and the mother of one of my foster loves was a dancer, a popular one. She got arrested for terroristic threats (threatening a store employee for not taking a defective treadmill back.)
This one had a crazy mother (she tried to get the baby) too.
I was required to bring the baby to prison to visit and when she got out of prison I babysat and helped her study while she went to dental hygienist school.
The smarter women who choose this life get out sooner than later because you are so right, it doesn’t end well.
Doreen, You’ve always been a caring angel for someone whose fallen on hard times! And none of your rescues have been easy ones. You make an insightful point about the smarter women get out sooner. I wish that was a guaranteed observation, but it’s not. The smartest woman I know was a madam… I keep thinking about hiring a private detective to see if he can tell me what happened to her. We were good friends. The last time I saw her… Oh boy! She’s a book unto herself. Like Sherrie, I hugged her and watched her board a flight to Miami. That was the last time I heard from her…. xoxox, Brenda
Your writing is consistently excellent and I am not surprised to learn you’re a pro. This one is a tour de force. I hope things worked out for her.
One day we drove through la Jonquera, near Spain’s border with France. Famous for bargain shopping. Also for prostitution. The roads there are lined with young girls. Many are victims of human trafficking, promised jobs cleaning houses or offices, only to find their passports confiscated and themselves put out for sale. Very young. A male friend was joking about it, and I attacked him–would he like it if one of his daughters ran away and got picked up by a pimp and forced to service strange men? Because that is the case for many of these girls. He shut up fast. Women are cheap, until you talk about one of theirs.
I went to a nightclub in Nairobi; it was years ago. At first it was hilarious. The show, just before Christmas, involved beautiful young dancers wearing little more than strategically placed tinsel, dancing off-tempo to Christmas tunes. I recall a comically mis-timed jump of a girl into the boy’s arm’s to the tune of “O Holy Night,” that ended in a heap. But then I realized that these beautiful young people probably were already infected with AIDS. They were the stars of their rural villages and had come to the big city to seek their fortunes, but had found only this. And despite all their current shine and promise would die unspeakably painful deaths far too early. And I just couldn’t laugh any more. I wanted to take them all home.
Some people participate in the sex industry willingly and whole-heartedly. To them, I say, You go, girl. But many do not; they are forced into it, exploited. And that is just wrong.
TOF, Thanks for the compliment. That’s a tragic story about the young people in Nairobi, and I imagine you were right about them being infected with AIDS. So tragic and wicked that they come for a better life and windup worse off than where they came from. I’ve seen that same story all my life in Mexico and Central America. People from the villages come to the big city and windup living in cardboard cities of filth, doing unspeakable things to stay alive. The same things continue to happen now as they come across the border to America. One of my favorite readers unsubscribed when I wrote something to this affect on a post I did about Guatemala. https://1010parkplace.com/guatemala-and-our-border-problems/ The comments on this post are a story unto themselves! I live in San Antonio, Texas. We’ve always been the first stop and the front lines for drug and human trafficking, and as a writer/journalist, I’ve had access to shocking circumstances and people… I’m writing about some of them in my memoir. It’s all so unbelievably sad! I appreciate your insightful addition, TOF. xoxox, Brenda
I HOPE SHE WENT HOME AND THE MOTHER TOOK HER BACK!
Elizabeth, I hope so as well but we’ll never know. Thanks! xoxox, Brenda
Wow. An amazing story, Brenda. And you’re awesome. I’d love to know what happened to her.
Thank you, Laurie! She just tugged at my heart strings, like a stray puppy… although I would have taken the puppy home. xoxox, Brenda
You are amazing Brenda, always have been!!! You helped her.
Hi Haralee, I hope I helped her, but I’ll never know. I could have sent her into another lion’s den, but the fact that she was ready to leave… that minute… told me it was probably a better choice than where she was. Thank you. xoxox, Brenda
Oh I do wonder the outcome of this incident. (Could make for a riveting short story.) You are a woman of action. Thank you for sending her home!
Mithra, I was only a few years older than she was, but I felt motherly… Like she needed help and guidance. xoxox, Brenda