The craigslist ad sounded mad sketchy. It wasn’t clear what the job was, but they wanted girls who were “slim, attractive, and personable… who are able to utilize their charm and femininity.” I was all of those things and more.
I wanted to think they were looking for girls just to pour drinks and flirt with guys and look sexy, but it was easy to tell there was probably more to it.
The ad also said the pay was good: “Up to $1,000 a night.” It seemed like a good opportunity.Also, I was feeling angry.
I was a Bais Yakov girl, full on. Nineteen years old, I could quote Rambam and Mishneh Brurah like the best of them. I had spent my whole life doing what was right, my sins limited to violating curfew in seminary and indulging an occasional bit of lashon hara.Over the past year, however, I’d become disillusioned. It began with a bad breakup.
The boy I was shidduch-dating, so perfect in every way and whom I was certain I was going to marry, had turned out to be a disappointment. He hadn’t asked for much, but we were taught that holding hands was as bad as having sex, and in my head, it was all yeherag ve’al ya’avor.
The two adult mentors I turned to for advice made me feel like a slut for even thinking about it. When it ended, I blamed it all on being shomer.
This job, whatever it was, would be the perfect fuck you. To my teachers. To my parents. To my rabbis. To all who led me to believe that my happiness lay in their endless rules. I wanted now to be reckless, to search for temptation and give in to it.
I would be a bad girl, and I would be bad all the way. Strip-club bad, not making-out-with-sketchy-YU-guy bad. If by their phony standards I was a slut, then bring it, I thought, and get me a one-way ticket to slutsville.
It was a classy-looking nightclub, and I stood with a group of a dozen girls who had replied to the ad. They were all the same type: pretty college girls who figured it was an easy, harmless way to make money. I wondered if any of them had, like me, never touched a boy.The main room was like a regular bar. There were lots of girls in very revealing short dresses being chatted up by Wall Street executive types.
Every now and then, a couple would go off into the next room. Through a large open door, I could see several couches bathed in the soft glow of dim lighting. That was, apparently, where the action was.
The manager, a man with a nice suit, a long ponytail, and really creepy eyes, described the job. In businesslike fashion, he spoke of the job’s sheer awesomeness, how empowering it was to girls, how much money a girl could make, how satisfied a girl could be. Also, he said, just in case we hadn’t figured it out, the job was to give lap dances. I wasn’t sure what a lap dance was, but I got the basic idea.
I was pretty sure we were expected to do them topless, but the man said nothing about that, and so I hoped I wouldn’t have to.The girl at the bar, Tanya, soon cleared up any such doubt. “Helllloooo, sunshine,” she said with a mock-scornful tone when I asked if topless was part of the job description. “What do you think these guys are paying for?”
Tanya was a goth-looking, pale, stick-thin thing. I told her she looked like Jennifer Connelly—a good way to make friends is to give compliments.
I was trying to get some tips before heading off to find a customer. I told her it was my first night, that I came from a very religious background, and that I’d never done anything like this.Tanya laughed. “Honey,” she said, “I’m from Utah. Been in Manhattan since I was 19—seven years. My folks have no idea what I do here.”
She suggested I get a Long Island Iced Tea. “Fastest way to get buzzed.” To pay for it: “Go kiss up to Rob.” Rob was the pony-tail manager guy, who, Tanya claimed, was happy to buy you a drink as long as you hid your underage wristband. “Just bat those long eyelashes at him.”“You teaching her to beg?” Rob shouted to Tanya. But he seemed pleased, and grabbed my ass and gave me a friendly hug.
“So,” I said to Tanya, sipping my drink. I felt foolish and silly and like the crazy child I was, and I just blurted it out: “What exactly is a lap dance?”Tanya gave a shrill laugh, then a brisk wave with the back of her hand. “A lap dance is whatever you want it to be. And I can tell,” she added, “you’re a little actress. You’ve totally got this whole sexy act going on.”
I bet she’s right, I thought. I am a little actress, and I bet I can pull this off. I slipped off the stool, gave Tanya a wave, and set out to find my first client.
I can do this, I said to myself. Screw Bais Yaakov. Screw my parents. Screw that boy I thought I would one day marry. It’s my life, and for once, I am going to do whatever the hell I want.I remember a conversation with a frum boy, sometime after my breakup. We talked about the concept of shomer, and all the pressures that came with it.
At one point, the boy remarked casually, “You know, that stuff is all made up. There’s nothing in the Torah that really says you can’t touch boys.”
That didn’t make sense, but he insisted it was true.“There is nothing in the Torah about tznius either,” he said.
How was that possible?“It’s about the men,” he said. “They’re the ones obligated not to gaze, to avoid places of immodesty. It’s the man who must look away, not the woman who must cover up.”
I did not know what to make of this. I had imagined a posuk somewhere: Beware not to violate the laws of tznius, otherwise Hashem, your God, will smite you as he smote the Egyptians.
I had imagined pages and pages of gemara about the evils of uncovered knees and visible collarbones. I imagined an entire volume of Shulchan Aruch about the thickness of stockings.None of that existed, the boy said.
Boys knew things that girls didn’t, and so I began to look things up. It didn’t take long for me to realize just how ignorant I was. We were taught to accept unquestioningly. I had spent 19 years of my life reminding myself of what God wanted of me, and it turned out, it wasn’t all that clear that God cared, and most of it was only about helping men with their obligations.I felt cheated. I had been so strong and determined, and now I was left with a terrible empty feeling.
A lot more began to fall apart. I soon discovered just how much of our lifestyle was made up by rabbis less than 100 years ago. They had declared everything ossur. Precaution against precaution, all to keep their utopia safe. I wouldn’t have minded if they were suggestions, but why were they upheld as laws?Did even my teachers know the truth? I wondered. What else was I lied to about, simply because they trusted a girl would never open a sefer to look things up on her own? Was anything at all really forbidden?
I set out to walk across the room, to find someone to talk to, and immediately felt the intoxicating rush from the men’s gazes all around. I was wearing a skimpy cocktail dress over lacy black lingerie, and had never been so exposed in public.
The feeling left me heady and slightly overwhelmed, almost as if I’d shot myself with some powerful substance. I felt invincible—men all around me, glancing, winking, beckoning, all of them willing to pay money just for me to take my shirt off.Every anxiety I’d ever felt about myself fell away. As a teenager, I had been a nerd and a bookworm and was always spewing random information just to show people I was smart and knowledgeable. In response, I got bullied for it and called names.
As an adolescent, I developed body image problems. I was the kind of girl who always thought I needed to lose weight. Or get a boob job. Or straighten my hair. Or get a complete face reconstruction.
I still remembered the words of a teenage friend, with whom I had shared about an upcoming visit with family friends who were not frum. I was excited, I told her. They had a son my age who I thought was cute, and so I was looking forward to it. My friend looked at me with a kind of pity mixed with disgust.
“Why would he bother looking at you? He’s not frum. He could have any girl in the world.”
I was 17, and I believed her. When I started shidduch-dating, I realized that guys thought I was attractive, but nothing like this. The attention now was dizzying. All these men, they wanted me, and all I had to do was look around and decide whom to pick.
He was a blond, blue eyed German. His taller, more portly friend had beckoned me over, but soon another girl was called, and we paired off. He was very polite, my German client, although I could barely hear what he was saying over the booming music. I did catch that he was in his 30s and worked in finance.He ordered a beer, and I got a Malibu Bay Breeze. Just as I took a sip of my drink he put his arm around me. It was like he was laying claim to his territory, and I felt a shiver of disgust. I had held so many notions about the sacredness of touch that when it came, so casually and from a stranger, I could only flinch. I pulled away just slightly and explained it was my first time. That I was nervous. Could we take it slow? Could we just talk for a bit first maybe?
That was fine, he said. He seemed gentle and kind, and his friend leaned in just then to tell me how lucky I was, I got such a nice guy for my first dance. Suddenly, all I wanted was for my first dance to be over. The guy was telling me about his life, about a recent trip he took, or something or other, but I couldn’t focus. I could see his lips moving, the expressions on his face, but I could hear no words.“Shall we go dance now?” I said.
For a second he looked surprised, then he stood up. “Sure.”I did my best catwalk strut across the room, while he held his arm around my waist. I think he felt smug knowing he got me, and it felt strangely satisfying.
The lap dance room was small, with a curtain separating us from the main room. There was a loveseat and two stools, the lighting casting a purplish haze over everything. The guy sat down, and I stood opposite him.How did I get here? I thought, as I began to gyrate my hips. Just a few months ago, I wouldn’t hold hands with my date. Just a few months ago I would go from friendly to fierce if my date so much as gave me the wrong look, and I thought he might kiss me.
Just a few months ago I was convinced that if I so much as allowed the touch of a hand on my arm, he wasn’t going to marry me. That’s what they had all said: Let him touch you, and he’ll never marry you. Give in and you’re as good as pre-chewed bubblegum.
And now I was about to do a striptease for a blond, German guy who didn’t even know my name. The strangest thing was that I was liking it. With each passing moment, I found myself sliding deeper into a trance-like state.
The music pumped from all around, the alcohol tingling my senses, and I felt as if possessed with some strange and foreign spirit, one that had come to liberate and empower me after so many years of being told to hide my body, suppress my desires, flee the male gaze that sought to soil my pure soul. With one fluid motion I slipped my sparkly cocktail dress off my shoulder and let it fall to the floor.
I could see the man’s lower lip hang limp. “Wow,” he mouthed, as I unhooked my bra and threw it to the side. I stood in front of him for a moment, then stepped towards him. He reached for me, and I leaned in, pressing my body against his. I could smell his cologne mixed vaguely with sweat, felt his erection against my leg, and I thought: Fuck you, God.There were other men, and more dances, and it all felt like good fun and good money too. And yet, this wasn’t me. Just a day earlier I had thought of myself as a typical Bais Yakov girl who was still shomer, who kept Shabbos and kosher and wore long skirts and demure tops.
Later that night I found myself in conversation with one of the security guys. He was a tall black man, who I imagined had seen it all. He was friendly, but kept himself aloof from the business in the club, claiming he had a long-term girlfriend, and he spoke of the club’s clientele with a touch of disdain.I needed to share about myself, to let someone into my private drama, and told him it was my first time, that I’m not really like this.
He looked unimpressed. “Every girl’s got her first time.”“You don’t understand,” I said. “I’m very religious.” It took some more explaining about my background, until he accepted that this was indeed unusual.
He then gave me a long silent look, as if unsure about something in his head. Finally, he asked: “So… what are you doing here then?”What was I doing there? I didn’t quite know how to explain it, to the security guard or even to myself, and went home that night wondering about his question.
In my mind, I had wanted to act out a revenge fantasy. To get back at someone: God, my parents, my teachers. But now that I had done it, I knew that it was not about them. I was just hurting over a boy, still hoping, wishing, pining for something that was not to be. Perhaps I had come to wash away my pain through the affections of strange men, but it hadn’t worked; it only reminded me of what I’d lost.And what I’d lost, I realized as the days and weeks passed, was a boy who wanted something that I wouldn’t give. Being shomer had nothing to do with it. Perhaps he just didn’t deserve me.