This series presents first-person stories from current and former sex workers across the US. The following is from Modesty, a former exotic dancer.
When I was a teenager, like 14, I took off from an abusive foster care situation (one of many) and I had to "make it" on my own. I had no ID, and no money. I danced at Billy's Topless and a place called The Baby Doll Lounge, until I was legal age to be on my own and to get a proper job. I never got drunk at work, I never did drugs, or slept with or dated clients. The older women looked out for me, big time.
In the foster care system, no one knows you, and no one cares to know you. I was moved constantly, from group home, to shelter, to detention center when there was no place else for them to put me, because no one adopts preteens or teens. All of my possessions fit into a plastic trash bag, and every week or two I bundled them up, and went to a new hell. Privileges were contingent upon earning points. You started with zero, and you needed three points to read a book, six to call a family member, and nine to leave the facility. If someone hit you, you lost two points. If you were too sick to scrub the dorm-like bathrooms with sixteen toilets, you lost six points. I was moved so much that I never earned enough points to watch TV in the day room. That was two points.
Dancing saved my life.
Viva had a BA in English. She turned me on to all the classic feminist writers. Marcella—whose father was a bookie—taught me fractions and percentages on my half-hour breaks. Becca was attending NYU for a Masters in Social Work. Lola went to the Cooper Union. When I had food poisoning, Joanie—a nursing student—came over to my apartment in the middle of the night. Thanks to dancing I had my own apartment in a good area. I had a sense of safety and stability, for the first time in my life.
I was a child, but I was safer in that environment than I was in foster care. Remaining in the foster system would have been the death of me. I went on to get real jobs. I went on to college—Smith, and St. John's for grad school. I became an educated woman, and a generally healthy soul. It feels like another life when I think about it. But I have GOOD memories.
I danced my last set the night before my eighteenth birthday. We had a huge party at the bar. Milton, the owner, showed up with a cake for me. It was frosted with an image of a bird flying towards the sun.