The first time I went to a strip club I was eight. Dad started managing it the year before and took my sister and me for a day of babysitting. We walked into a cold dark bar, like a movie theatre during the day. It smelled like Windex and stale smoke. He let us dance on the dance floor to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack with the disco lights on, but once the club opened we were shuffled upstairs to the manager’s office. We caught a glimpse of the naked women dancing on stage, holding the pole and swinging around. Dad called them girls. They were adult women to me and had beautiful bodies, all different shapes. I was excited and wanted to see more. I was ashamed yet aroused. My sister and I watched the surveillance videos even though we were told not to. I saw men sitting down around the stage, tucking dollar bills into the dancers’ costumes. The dancers opened their legs wide, swinging their stilettos in the air. I tried to look away but couldn’t. They seemed so happy.
Mom was not and took took us to church every Sunday. There was a lot of whispering in the kitchen. She disapproved of Dad’s job and the clubs. I asked Dad why it was so easy for the girls to take their clothes off in front of strange men, “They make good money, that’s why.” Sometimes I’d practice dancing in my bedroom to my Grease soundtrack. Once, when my parents were gone, I blasted “Funky Town” on the radio and danced all over the family sofa, pretending to strip with a drink in my hand. My mom saw that I spilled V-8 on the couch and my parents grounded me.
We didn’t tell anyone at school or on the block what Dad did.
I felt important having such a large secret at such a young age. I visited the strip club several times with Dad, getting more courageous every time, pretending all the nakedness didn’t bother me. Pretty soon it didn’t. Kids at school or on the block started playing doctor and bragging about it — I was already the expert. I’d find Dad’s Playboys and Penthouses in the trash and we’d all flip through them – carefully examining every photo. The women were mostly naked and bent over in strange ways, with one or two men behind them. And again the women seemed happy. By ten years old, I felt numb to sex. I had none of the curiosities my friends did. I kissed a couple of boys on the block and let them grope me in the bushes on hot summer nights when we played hide-and-seek. I didn’t get it but liked the control I had over them. I knew enough about sex – that it was dirty, secretive and a business.
Dad started making decent money so Mom decided to send us to an all-girls Catholic school, “You’ll get a better education,” she told me. I’m talking nuns, church, plaid skirts and rulers. Not being Catholic, I was intrigued by their religion – the rules, the prayers, the strict rituals. I sat in the back of religion class and listened to Sister Josella talk about creation and sex and how God only wants humans to have sex for procreation in marriage, otherwise it was a sin. I will never forget that nun’s words to us, “Never sit on a man’s lap unless there is a thick phone book between the two of you.” The strippers never did that.
I was fearful about anyone at school finding out about Dad’s business. I imagined myself being publicly stoned in my green plaid uniform, holding onto my pink rosary, sister Josella throwing a phone book at me saying “I told you so.” Dad thought it was funny and even donated large sums of money to the school. “If they only knew their Catholic school was partially funded by strip clubs,” he’d say.
In ninth grade my friends starting dating boys. They revelled in their Catholic school girl images. I was terrified because I’d been around the “adult entertainment” industry for a while now and had seen what girls did for and to men. Why were my friends so intrigued and why would they want to date boys? What was all this fuss about? I’d ask my friends for details but they thought I was weird.
In English class we were assigned to read Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Initially afraid of the name Shakespeare, I read the play cover to cover immediately. I was enthralled by the blooming romance between Orlando and Rosalinde, romping around the forest of Arden. Gaynemede discusses love with Orlando as he admits to carving Rosalinde’s name in the forest trees:
“But in good sooth, are you he that hangs the verses on the trees, wherein Rosalind is so admired?”
“I swear to thee youth, by the white hand of Rosalind, I am that he, that unfortunate he.”
“But are you so much in love as your rhymes speak?”
“Neither rhyme nor reason can express how much.”
I flipped each page eagerly anticipating the scene where Ganymede reveals himself to Orlando as being Rosalind. Love could be sweet, innocent and fun, and not smokey strip clubs, 70’s disco music and brass poles. The myth had finally been dispelled for me.
A year later, I’d had my fill of Catholic School and decided to transfer to the public high school. There were boys. They were cute. I had my first crush on a boy named Sean who reminded me of the character Ponyboy from the movie The Outsiders. I had those sexual feelings my girlfriends talked about but didn’t understand until now. There were butterflies in my stomach, and I wanted Sean to do things to me I used to think were dirty and hell bounding. I wanted him to carve my name in a tree, or at least on a school locker. Nothing ever happened between us, but it was the start of my understanding the feelings, emotional and physical, of love.