It was Sunday night at the club where I dance, near the end of my shift, when my friend and bartender introduced me to five of her childhood friends. They were all male of course; she’s such a tomboy that I wouldn’t expect anything else. I politely did my rounds, shook hands and made introductions. Hello, Wes, friend since kindergarten. Hi, Brian, friend since sixth grade. How is Arizona? Welcome to Portland, Oregon. My bartender pulled me aside quickly and whispered in my ear how she had brought them here to see me dance. “I told them all, ‘You’re gonna fall in love with this girl Elle.’” I was flattered and thanked her and squeezed her hand as I continued onto the small stage.
The rack was full. There were three young women who looked like newbies, the owner and his date, and the bartender’s male friends at the end of the row. Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs” began.
I’ve danced to that song dozens of times, and I allowed the beat and lyrics to direct my movements and maintained eye contact with each member of my audience as the dancing would allow. The truth is, I was exhausted. Money had been horrible that evening and I was simply relieved to be nearly finished for the night.
The second song was The Black Keys’ “Everlasting Light”. The thump-thump swoosh of the beat is uplifting and cool, and I was planning to ride out the next three minutes, as I had a hundred times before. Strippers who dance to a hundred songs a week know that each one can’t always be special. Moving to the center of the stage, I prepared to make my grand finale leap onto the center pole. Nude except for my two inch heels, I felt for the bars above my head to steady myself before jumping from the stage. Suddenly, I felt a crumpled, single dollar being shoved up my vagina.
Steadying myself, I turned and dropped to my knees to face my violator. It was one of the Arizona boys. He wore a huge grin on his face. The music was still thumping, I had missed my cue, but in my mind the room was silent. My face twitching, my bare ass still feeling the paper inside it, I pushed my face into his.
“Don’t you ever. Ever. Don’t you ever fucking do that, ever again.”
I pushed my finger hard into his soft chest, below his sternum, where I know it hurts; and continued in my deepest voice. “I’m serious. I could have fallen.”
The smile left his face as he realized I was serious. I felt my mouth twitching. It took everything I had to not jab his throat, cup my hand to his ear to burst his ear drums, chop him in the throat, tackle him to the ground, and break his elbows. I train for physical confrontation. I do not, however, train for conflict resolution when my boss is sitting two seats away.
At that moment, the bartender came over to throw money on the stage and leaned in to see what was going on. I told her, “This fucking guy shoved a dollar bill up inside me.”
I saw the look of horror on her face, and she began to berate him. The damage done, I had to finish my song. I took a deep breath and exhaled, a smile on my face, examining my audience as I swing around the pole, light as a feather. The owner and his date were still in conversation. I doubt they saw a thing. The three young newbies still wore the same smiles as before. They probably didn’t understand the gravity of what they just witnessed.
When my song was over, I collected my money, thanking only one side of the stage. The bartender was still yelling at the perpetrator. I tried not to stomp down the stairs to our dressing room while biting the insides of my cheeks to hold back tears. I cried to my coworkers, dressed, wiped my face, counted my tip-out and climbed the stairs.
As I approached the top, I hear the perpetrator speak. “If she didn’t want it then she wouldn’t have put it in my face.”
I couldn’t help myself. I dropped my suitcase to the floor and charged over to this man. This behemoth in a baseball cap had no idea what he had done to me. Facing him, I poked him hard in the stomach with my extended fingers—an unwelcome touch I’m sure. “You motherfucker. Don’t you ever touch me again, you fucking bastard.” He took two steps back and his friends circled around us, but no one pulled me aside. I was ready to fight him. I spend time on the mat with men stronger, bigger and better instructed than this lard-ass, and I was prepared to take him down. I wanted to. I hadn’t felt that kind of anger in years.
Suddenly, the DJ, bouncer and bartender-friend were behind me, asking me to Stop Stop, Go Downstairs. I had a brief moment of clarity and turned hard on my heel and retreated to the back of the room.
Bartender-friend approached me as I was leaving. She couldn’t stop apologizing. I told her it wasn’t her fault, but she insisted, “No, I brought them here.” She teared up and hugged me. She really felt responsible. I grabbed her arms, held them at her sides, and looked into her eyes.
“It’s not your fault. It’s his fault. You didn’t make him DO what he did. That was his choice. Not yours.”
I cried driving home that night. I felt good for facing my attacker. Most women don’t ever get that chance. Yes, I wasn’t raped, but I felt assaulted. It wasn’t the first time and perhaps will not be the last.
I slept heavily that night, and awoke in the morning nestled in my boyfriend’s armpit. I breathed him in deeply, stretched back on my knees and thought. In the light of our bedroom, I said “I think I just figured out SlutWalk.”
Last year, Canadian Constable Michael Sanguinetti summed up an entire viewpoint of victimization at a conference. “Women can avoid being raped by not dressing like sluts.” What did my perpetrator say? “If she didn’t want it she wouldn’t have put it in my face.”
SlutWalk won’t change much. Men who rape are still going to need to dominate and harm their victims. Men and women who disregard the rights of others because of the perception they have of those people aren’t going to stop believing that those people deserve it. Let’s face it, SlutWalk isn’t going to prevent victims from being created.
But it will create unity among survivors which have already been through it. SlutWalk means unity. It means I’m going to walk among women and men who have been there, who refuse to be silenced any longer. Who will confront the truth, even if they never have the opportunity to confront their attacker.
I’ll be there.