My life is filled with bizarre and brave tales. For 10 years I took off my clothes for men in bars. It was just one of those things I always knew I would end up doing. I did it because I had a huge chip on my shoulder about self-image. I did it for the financial independence. I did it because people expected it of me, the loud one in school, the wild one, the abused child (by way of a neighbour with a penchant for very young things.)
Stripping gave me a power I'd never imagined. Anonymity and fame, all in one name: Jezebel.
I think I'm the only dancer I know who never tried cocaine. I didn't drink, I rarely smoked. I felt losing control would be deadly. I never sold myself. I wore gowns. It was my hours, my choice of bars, my destiny, and I got paid to hear how desirable I was at every table. It was fun at first. But burlesque was never going to make a comeback in the strip bars, no matter how hard I lobbied with my jazz music and chaste ways.
No matter how I conducted myself, good manners and morals and all, this is a job where you never get promoted. As the industry became more about satisfaction and less about titillation, lap dancing muscled its way in and muscled me out. I was fired and relieved.
It was for the best. After a decade, I just couldn't get it up for the masses any more. I'd become very good at the table dance and the one-liner, but my chip had fallen off. My parents like to think I "got it out of my system." I like to think I earned back bits of myself.
Two divorces, two CD releases and one child later, I thought I was home free of dodging questions about my personal life and the look I'd got when I mentioned my stripping.
I knew that look, but I'd become selective about disclosure. My stories were party tricks.
Ryerson continuing education seemed like a good idea, with creative writing courses and a slew of impressive teachers. Life stories in Room 108. I was writing about my career as a stripper, sticking my neck out to an audience that probably didn't live in my artistic and forgiving world. We had to read our work aloud to the class. I steadied myself for the look and felt strong enough to take the chance. I had good stories.
I knew from the moment he sat down next to me when there were plenty of other seats in the room that he was going to be trouble. Mr. X, about 6-foot-2 and in his 60s. He told me he was a retired gynecologist and then launched into a filthy joke. A description of a woman's first orgasm was the punchline.
I was floored. I didn't laugh. By the second class, I moved seats across the room from Mr. X. He sometimes made comments about my writing that had little to do with the content, compliments about my body. He'd raise his eyebrow, in a nudge-nudge, wink-wink sort of way, just enough to make me wary. I avoided him in the hallways, the classroom, refused to make eye contact.
The day it happened, I didn't have my guard up. I didn't live that way any more. The class was gathering after a break. While I crouched down to talk to another student who sat in his chair, Mr. X came up behind me and scooped his hand down the back of my pants. He reached down and slid it in. With my waistband gaping just enough, he managed to get in quite far.
Having just told the court how far, in graphic detail, I'll let you imagine the rest. Let's just say far. Private places now, secret places my lover knows. They have not been in public view for a decade, and I've managed to own them again. His hand was so cold, it seemed to take an hour for the impression on my skin to fade. It burned, along with remnants of my old shame.
I should have decked him as I stood there shouting at him. There were no knights in shining armour. But it struck me later: Why didn't anyone come to my aid? What did they think I was yelling about?
The police were wonderful. They had a name for this kind of thing: sexual assault. They'd come light years from the police force I remembered when I was followed home by a mysterious black car and chased down the shortcut alleyway near my home. Then, I'd been told that my T-shirt and shorts were too much, too cute, too inviting.
This time I felt heard, so I pressed charges and decided to take him to court. I'd been warned that he'd do no time and get no more than a slap on the wrist. But I wanted my day there. I wanted him to get slapped, since I suspected a lifetime of practice lay behind his actions.
But in court that day, the valuable witnesses, those I'd begged the officers to find and subpoena, weren't there for me. There was an overtone, a feeling, and I knew where it came from. This was an interesting day for my supposed allies. A retired stripper surely has some issues, is a little unstable, a little wild . I knew if I'd written about canoeing or my daughter or some such thing, I would not be here today.
My witnesses didn't remember X's inappropriate comments or his reading aloud his story with repeated references to his penis shoehorned in for what I thought was shock effect, and the uncomfortable collective silence that followed. It had all evaporated, along with the incident itself, in the 11 months this took to grind its way through the courts. He was made to seem normal.
The Crown attorney was a tired woman who told me flat out that "no one cared." She encouraged me to expect the worst. I shouldn't get my hopes up, she said. And though she predicted what tack the defence would take, she didn't bother to gather the tools needed for the day. She made no forceful or even logical cross-examination. She showed no precise measurement and diagram of the room that was so much in question.
He didn't have to squeeze by me. There was plenty of room.
He didn't need to warn me with a hand that he was near, clutching his hot coffee, as the defence said.
He didn't reach for my shoulder in a concerned and friendly gesture to avoid bumping into me. My shoulder, my head: they're a good 3 feet higher than my rear end.
I forgot that I'm not a normal citizen. It's a luxury to be believed and vindicated in these matters when you've had a life like mine, and especially when I trot out these tales. I told myself, "Get over it. What's the big deal? Just move on." Hadn't I been naked in bars all those years? But you see, here's the funny thing: I was groped only twice in my 10-year career as a table-dancing stripper.
When you're conditioned to expect it the moment your stilettos hit the carpet downstairs, on any working night, your whole outlook changes. The bouncers in those bars took care of those people back in the days before lap dancing. Justice there was simple, clear and immediate.
In court, standing for what seemed like hours in my little box next to the judge, a woman, wearing my conservative flats and trousers, my hair pulled back, I spouted my facts. I was a candidate for justice, wasn't I?
But I was not applauded for looking out for my own well-being by being wary of him and changing seats to protect myself. I was made to seem an ageist, a bitter stripper who had it in for an old man from the beginning. I watched a woman judge and a woman Crown attorney half-heartedly search for ways to call the defence attorney on his shots and let slide things that made my blood boil.
I watched as Mr. X was transformed into a weary, loving family man who was bewildered by the whole thing. I wasn't allowed to speak unless spoken to. Mr. X was able to ramble on about his accomplishments, his life and his all-important medical career. No one ever asked me what kind of degrees I hold, what I've achieved.
He got away with it. In the end, it was Jezebel's justice. Thrown to the dogs. I cried despite my tough past. I cried like a regular woman. Mostly, I cried because I wasn't bitter enough not to. And I walked away thanking the gods I wasn't raped.