The H-Word: "Dancing Saved my Life"

Melissa Petro
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lit candles on a cake

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.

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20 Comments Have Been Posted

Beautifully written, thank

Beautifully written, thank you so much.

This is so beautiful, a

This is so beautiful, a completely real and honest look at life. Thank you for sharing!

goosebumps.....all over.

goosebumps.....all over.

My father started raping me

My father started raping me and my two sisters from an early age. My younger sister ran away at 14, but me and my twin stayed. We found out she died at age 15 a few months later and we didn't leave home (and stop getting raped) until we was 17.

You could say letting my father continue to rape me and my sister saved our lives if you choose to look at sexual exploitation from a "could have been worse" view instead of the "could have been better" one that I prefer. What greater purpose it serves to frame the situation that when men are sexually exploiting children I can't understand.

Underaged prostitution,

Underaged prostitution, stripping and child sexual exploitation are serious crimes and illegal. Every single adult in this story failed this child and/or committed a crime.

This story broke my heart and enraged me. I was in street prostitution when I was underaged. It almost *destroyed* my life, until I was able to get out and gain the clarity to see that what I thought was love, affection and care was in reality systematic abuse and exploitation - a symptom of my oppression, not a solution or a salve.

Call me cynical, but I also fear that in publishing this story some kind of agenda is being pushed, ie. that 'the sex industry' can be a legitimate answer to child abuse, poverty and other social disadvantage - as opposed to say, taking care of, fighting for and actually giving a shit about vulnerable children. So much for 'consenting adults'.


I think you are taking this too far. Agenda? A legitimate answer to child abuse, etc.? No. I don't think she means to say that it's okay to be an underaged dancer, but really she simply needed to get out of that situation of the lack-luster, uncaring foster system. She turned to dancing. I think she's simply telling her story .

Agenda is the perfect word,

Agenda is the perfect word, thank you.

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When more of your sponsors come from the sex industry than from any other source, pursuing a pimp friendly, pro-john editorial agenda like Bitch Magazine has done makes good business sense.

I'm so over lesser of two evils stunted thinking it's not funny.

A dildo store is not the sex

A dildo store is not the sex industry. Selling dildos online does not make you a sex worker. That's just delusional. Billions of women own vibrators who have never had anything to do with prostitution. I've never heard anything crazier in my life!

Holyshit, you deleted my post

Holyshit, you deleted my post declaring that selling pornography and Playboy and Hustler brand sex toys is profiting from the sex industry.

Thanks goddess for screen shots, and damn to hell the patriarchal pheminism that made me take the screen shot on the fear exactly this sort of "1984" dissent cleansing would happen.

One more holyshit, because HOLYSHIT you deleted my post about the products on sale by your sex industry advertisers! That screen shot is totally coming out next time Bitch pro-prostitution feminist #876 defends the absolute philosophical sanctity of freedom of speech. Don't dream it, be it.

Not the reason.

Hi Llea,

We deleted your previous post because you called other commenters in this thread "knee-jerk feminists" who are "crazy." That goes against our policy, so your comment was deleted. It has nothing to do with your assertions that we're profiting from the sex industry, though in fact that is entirely beside the point of this post (and it should go without saying that partnering with a feminist-friendly sex toy store on a website is not the same as, say, dancing at a topless bar).

Perhaps you weren't reading

Perhaps you weren't reading close enough to realize I was mirroring rasputin's comment "That's just delusional...I've never heard anything crazier in my life!" when I wrote that.

Turning my generic comment (and why not just delete what offended you and leave the rest?) into some kind of personal attack on anyone specific is mighty specious.

Not that I believe rasputin's comment was a personal attack, but by your own flimsy logic you should have deleted the comment calling my assertion "delusional" and "crazy", right?

The fact of Bitch's sex industry partnerships will be beside the point of this post when the bloody ads are not displayed RIGHT BESIDE this post.

I'll remember that "knee-jerk feminists" is a phrase Bitch HQ finds so terribly misogynistic, oppressive, and beyond the pale that it required the entire post be completely eliminated. So disgusting is this odious phrase that "Knee-Jerk Feminists" is probably the next hot series of porn films where women are spit on, slapped, choked, punched and then thrown out of the van now that "A Cum Sucking Whore Named..." has gone stale in it's triple digit new releases.

And once it's money-making porno Bitch will defend it as free speech.

Kind of wondered

"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."

I kinda wondered about this piece, so this bar owner knew he had an underage girl dancing and wasn't concerned about the huge legal problems he would face if found out? Something doesn't seem right here to me.

Anyway, thanks to everyone who shared their story.


The oner only knew it was my last day, not that it was my last day because I had turned 18.

I agree. Many feminist media

I agree. Many feminist media outlets are really into portraying sex workers as having agency and being empowered by their "choice" to be a sex worker (when rarely is there much of a choice). I'm sure there are some sex workers out there who really are experiencing this, but none of them are children. When a sex worker is a child, he/she is being exploited, PERIOD. The key take-away from this story should NOT be that stripping is a viable option for a 14-year-old; it should be that our foster care system is horribly broken and in need of reform.

Damn straight. It's a messed

Damn straight.
It's a messed up system that need to be fixed. Children shouldn't be exploited in any way but especially sexually. The club owner was an a$$hole for hiring an underage GIRL (not lady, not women, girl as in child as in underage) to dance. It's sick that the sex work industry is something that most, if not all but a small percentiage of, people are forced into. It's sick that some women and girls don't have another choice out there for them. (Especially in this economy.) The foster care system and everything cousin to it needs to be fixed, now. And although I know that after posting this I will find petitions to sign and try to do something to help I hope that other people will do something too. In this I have no power, if anyone reading these threads has the power to change something, anything for the better, do it.

I chose to share this story

I chose to share this story because I believe it's an important, albeit controversial, perspective. Some may choose to label it a "false consciousness" but in the least we must acknowledge that this is a now-adult perspective on one's own experience. From what I know of the author, including what she's told us herself, she is a "generally healthy soul" in no need of intervention today. Imaging it was some 15 years earlier, listening to the positive way she describes her circumstances as a dancer compared to the circumstances she escaped would be absolutely necessary in rightly addressing her needs.

How we hear and react to first person narratives informs how we intervene and affect change. Meeting people where they're at and believing people to be the expert of their own experience is the cornerstone of harm reduction.

I like the way Modesty describes the women she works with. It reminds me that sex work is oftentimes "women's work"-- accordingly, sex work spaces are, by and large, women's spaces. I certainly did not experience the backrooms of the strips clubs I was in as any sort of feminist bootcamp, but perhaps they could be and sometimes are. I don't believe these women failed her, as one commentator suggested. I believe they helped her in the ways they knew how.

The Real Issue

The most obvious moral dilemma from this story is the fact that a minor was sexual exploited, even though it turned out to be the best option at the time. However the real issue I see from this story is the horrible reality for children in foster care. Serious work needs to be done to help improve the lives of children, especially preteens and teenagers, in the foster system. No child should ever be in the position where sexually exploiting themselves seems the only viable option. It is so great that exotic dancing ended up turning around this woman's life... But this seems like a rare exception and most don't get so lucky.

I believe this girl was one

I believe this girl was one of the lucky ones. Its not very common for a teenager to start dancing at such a young age and make it out of. Its hard to say no to all the horrible things like drugs and alcohol it can lead you to. This girl not only made it out of this horrible business but became a successful well-educated women. I believe what people should take from this story is that a girl was born into a very bad situation, had to make some hard choices at a young age but in the end found her way through it and overcame it. Sexual exploiting young girls though is very important issue and i believe one should not take this story as if tis promoting it. This story also makes me feel like something needs to be done about foster care and the system seems to very unfair.

The part of Modesty's story

The part of Modesty's story that I gravitate towards is the imagery she uses to end it: the Phoenix rising up, free. She has earned a Master's degree and in her own words is a "generally healthy soul."

However, most of the comments want to permanently tie Modesty to the age of fourteen; ignoring the fact that her life continues, successfully, after she left sex work. What I see in these comments is a desperate need for the forever-victim---frozen in the past, branded with the Scarlet letter H, and marked for life. So a past the author viewed as her way out of a deadly situation, becomes re-shaped by a dogmatic lens as a miserable, abusive time.

I think we all loose something when we are unwilling to engage in a complex conversation with a women who is sharing an important part of her life. Her point of view should matter. Her story should be her story to tell as she recollects. After all, context is everything.

"Be careful not to hide behind the research"

You said that to me at a sex work conference at the New School in April of 2006.

I became a stripper a month later.

I completed my master's thesis (and quoted you in it), in August of last year.

Your words have stuck with me, every shift I've worked.

Thank you.

(I've quoted you in my blog, as well, but it triggers the spam filter on here. Write me back and I'll share!)

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