Artwork by Art AI Gallery
"Remember when I told you I did coke with George W. Bush?" says my friend, who is somewhere between the age of seventy and a hundred and fifty. His dyed jet-black hair doesn't match his beard, which is a crystal gray trailing his eyebrows and his chin. His hands are decorated with many fat rings, in which I lack the expertise to know if they're plausible karats or predictable plastic. He dresses in sweatpants at our dinner at an upscale Midwestern seafood restaurant. We agree the food is mediocre.
At dinner, he also says things like, "Oh, I will never forget about the time they took me to the Pentagon," and, "I played for the Bob Dylan band."
I have tried to check all of this out, but speaking with a 150-year-old man is incredibly difficult, as he doesn't have a Twitter account, and there is no blue checkmark displayed around his head as a way for me to know whether these Tweet-like thoughts are anything real. Do I care? Probably not. At one point I was telling everyone, including him, that I was in contact with aliens.
"You millennials always have to have things on the Internet for things to be REAL," he says. This is true. He clearly disobeys every law of character vetting during this Facebook era, so I pick him up as a curious companion. I have never met anyone this way. Ever since I started hallucinating and believing aliens were infiltrating the 2016 election, I have grown bored with the standard personality. Timothy, I'll call him, begs to be digested.
We met at a strip club. The Penthouse, they call it, where my former friends used to work as dancers, as they call them.
We both have come a long way since we first met each other. Timothy said to me once that he comes to the clubs to fill an empty void and to cope with his numerous friends dying from drug addictions and overdoses. I was spending time there to escape my childhood traumas, expressing themselves in sleepless hours frightened by nightmares that would keep me up at night. The clubs were a perfect distraction for our tormented, lonely selves. In the beginning, Timothy would speak in rambles, telling stories through fragments similar to word salads seen in schizophrenia. I was newly off of my antipsychotic medications, with re-emergent symptoms overflowing and dictating my life. We both lived in fantasies. But at this dinner, both of us can speak in complete sentences now. No longer does my friend stare and point in circles at pictures floating before his eyes, and neither do I call him asking if someone is trying to kill me while I scream on the phone about the CIA trying to implant spy technology in my apartment after I have a Bumble date. "I felt as if, had I stayed at your place that one night, there was no telling what you were going to do to me," he said. "You seem to be in a much better state now."
Our mutual loves are free sexual expression and naturally occurring turmoil. I used to go to the clubs because it made me feel raw and real. We pay money for people to expose themselves to us in any form: books, movies, pornography, and the clubs. I am surely always the only woman there. The only clothed woman there, the only young clothed woman, and the only young clothed woman who carries a notebook and a pen. I am not necessarily taking notes on erotic dancing, but I am a writer. Some have libraries. I have a strip club.
I wrote my first nonfiction narrative about this environment. Timothy and I exchange our awes for the beauty of the freedom to pursue sexuality. He tells me how the eras have changed in the decades he has been alive. "It used to be more genuine and pure. You could see love in the eyes of these girls. Now you have girls like Mia (my ex-friend), who are so bent over about getting back at these men and get upset if they don't make thousands of dollars each weekend."
He goes on, "Have I told you about this girl? I have to tell you about her," and he pulls out his phone where he swipes ten times on different angles of the same 25-year-old girl. A third of the pictures are full nudes, and the other half are car selfies and what you would imagine an innocent girl with a baby and babyface would post on Facebook for her friends and family. She is just one of many of the girls he has spoken to me about. Like his other anecdotes, I don't bother trying to fact check.
"There was this one girl who was 19, I met at the club, and she just gravitated towards me. I didn't pay her any money or nothing. Then she took me back to her place, which was like a big fancy Catholic apartment at the city university, and then—" he pauses to look around before he lowers his voice "—can I be frank with you?" and waits for my consent. I nod, and he continues in a lower voice. "She starts going down on me! Can you believe it?"
I can believe it. There is no reason for him to lie. He doesn't try to impress me. I have my concerns for these young girls who hook up with him, but they are not my friends. I don't have a maternal instinct for Timothy, either. Though I do think he can come off strong, he is not disrespectful. I am unsure if it can even be possible, given his demeanor towards young women, but so far I have noticed he has not tried to press boundaries with me, so I stick around to hear these stories.
I used to talk with his friend, who claims he was a manager at these clubs before a new line of leadership took his place. He is somewhere in the same age range as Timothy, but perhaps a bit younger. Perhaps he is in his late 60s. He tells me of the time when he had to rescue a dancer from a heroin drug addiction and made her quit cold turkey as she sobered up in his house, where he housed her for months until she became clean.
He says things like, "You know how to get the man into the back room?"
And I answer, "How."
"This is how." And he takes my head and neck and whispers with wet words, "Oh, baby. You have the most beautiful eyes. You wanna take this back there."
"Okay... so the real money is in the private dances."
"Yes. You make his dick hard, you win. That's how you get him. He thinks with his dick."
"Ah, I see." I don't bother to think anything of this worldly advice I am getting from this first rate institutional strip club in Sauget, Illinois.
"Look me in the eye."
I look at him.
"Don't you ever, ever dare let anybody disrespect you. You do not deserve that. You do not deserve what happened to you."
"Um." And I do not have words. I frankly was not expecting a therapy session in the middle of Penthouse, but it is intriguing enough for me to stay, so I listen some more and entertain the ideas.
"Don't keep it in, either. It will eat you inside."
"It already has. How did you know?"
"Well, most women who come here have some kind of baggage. They come here seeking change."
"Yes. And if you ever don't like a man's cum and its taste, tell him to drink pineapple juice before you taste it. It will make it taste so sweet." (I also check this on the Internet for clarification.)
He says other things, like, "A woman's vagina is as long from her vulva to her belly button," and, "Don't lead with your pussy or your heart. That will get you in trouble. Get the men's dicks to rise."
I say, "Gee... wow, thanks."
Naturally, I wonder why my social circle consists of elderly men and strippers. I marvel and excel in the 21st century obsession with self-psychoanalysis, and peg key experiences that shaped my life and how they formed me.
First, there was the rape. People wince when I say it. But it is merely a fact, something I cannot change and something I did not deserve to own in my collection of life experiences. It happened when I was five, and it was done by a relative who was almost 30 years my senior. The memories come and go, and I get confused on who actually did what when, so I mostly don't talk about it. There were cries for help, there was bloodshed on the bathroom tub, there was the shower drowning out my cries, there was the abandonment of being left to clean oneself up. There was the wretched pain that came with lying on the bathroom floor for minutes, frozen in an immobile state.
In the present, there are questions. Who found me? Did they scold me? Was I blamed? Why do I remember these feelings as a set of memories involving government childhood torture experimentation, where my schizoaffective research led me to Project MKUltra, a CIA operation investigating mind control? Why did my paranoias lead me to believe I was once a childhood sex slave kept in a cellar at the local hospital where I was born? Why did it make me email the editor in chief of the local newspaper to gather whether or not she knew of torture reports involved in that hospital? Why did I become obsessed with people following me, men from Bumble I let into my apartment implanting spy technology in my kitchen, and why did it just suddenly all go away?
The psychosis I had from recovering from childhood rape was torturous, of course. I came out of a nine-month-long medication abstinent state diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and kept the diagnosis of PTSD I acquired when I was 16. During this time was when I collected my sex worker friends, and the elderly men.
My friend who was a dancer at the club was a friend from late middle school all the way through high school. She had started dancing when she was 18, I learned. Suddenly the Facebook pictures of her working at the Titled Kilt—a Hooter's equivalent of female-only servers, but the uniforms in short shirts that tied at the chest leaving all the midriff to show—made sense. I do not know what makes one go into sex work, but I know she and I shared some commonality of trauma, and that perhaps it might be trauma draws one to the unstable work of the noncturnal environment, as Timothy's friend says.
She introduced me to her friends, and soon enough I moved into her apartment building and spent the early mornings at five AM in the parking lot of gas stations hot boxing until it was time for them to go to bed at seven. Mania being one of my symptoms of schizoaffective disorder, I shared their waking and sleep hours, or sometimes no sleep hours at all.
Mia would invite me to the clubs. I learned how the clubs operated by being myself. I did not have to strip down and get on stage to be respected, although I did entertain that idea one night when I was invited to dance on stage to an empty room alongside my friend. Instead, I found the environment revealing. All my life, I never found the same things cool that others did. Jocks and cheerleaders in high school did not impress me. I was attracted to schizophrenia-prone hipsters, artists, and musicians. And in college, in the club scene, I now found these dancers the epitome of cool. They embodied the independence I so desperately wanted with their bodies. They seemed like they exhibited ownership of their bodies, whereas I was prone to panic attacks and whiplash of my intimacy the minute a man grew close to me. These women were in the clubs specifically to manipulate men for money. And they got it. I wanted that. If I couldn't do it, I at least wanted to be in the circle.
But I knew, being a survivor of rape, I could never handle being sexualized on stage, mostly naked, for men to grab my ass and throw dollar bills at me. The objectification of the scene was much too intense. I entertained my daydreams and fantasies about what the strip club industry was like without ever really having to participate either by economic pressure or short circumstances. At home, I had a father who loved me and supported me. He would back me financially. These women had children to feed and abusive men to escape from. I was the privileged half-white girl rolling in with her tight turtlenecks and slim jeans with a notebook and a pen. I was surely an insult, if not a laughing mockery of the women who worked these clubs for their life earnings.
My relationship with men as a raped girl is complicated. When I was 24, the troubles continued after the strip club scene when I became stabilized on medications, shortly after I graduated college, and took a job as a research technician at a premiere institution in the local area. I was not even five months into the job before I realized I was having trouble. Being a research technician in a neuroscience laboratory meant you had to sit in a tiny control room with two to three people as your study participant lay under the MRI machine sometimes for up to three hours. Oftentimes, I was trapped in this four foot by eight foot room with two other boys. I say trapped, because that's how it very much felt. I told my female coworker, who at the time expressed her condolences and empathy for my struggles and urged me to tell our principal investigator, the head of the lab and technically our boss.
So I told him. He began talking me out of my job. He said he was worried this would continue to get worse and asked me to consider leaving without penalty. I said I had dealt with this my whole life, and if I could request accommodations like scanning with only female coworkers, I could slowly improve. About two weeks later I was fired on the basis that I would not be capable of catching up to the required responsibilities of my job duties.
It is no wonder women seek other women for support in their personal and professional lives. Raped girls do not get rewarded by male dominated industries, like the STEM fields. Raped girls get attention from elderly "creeps," according to my younger sister, who care not for taking the virginities of adult teenagers. Raped girls get asked by their younger sisters, "Why do you always hang out with creepy men?"
I could never befriend an elder man whose identity was rooted in his stability as a professor scientist, even if he was the father of two girls similar to my age. First, the social normality of his lifestyle and profession would prohibit it. Instead, they would likely use women like me to complain. In fact, on our interview he complained about his daughter contacting him so much that he wondered out loud, "You would think she would stop doing that at this age." I told him he should be so lucky to have a daughter who still wants to contact him and make him a part of her life.
But the club men liked to see someone like me. Said previous club owner complimented my clothes, saying, "You're the classiest woman I have ever seen step into this club." In my mind, I thought, surely he must have not spent a lot of time outside of these clubs, for a lot of society was decorated with classy women. Twenty minutes down the road you could spend a night at the Ritz Carlton in the cigar lounge where the sexual industry may be filled with high priced escorts and sugar daddies with hair plugs—but classier, nonetheless—and likely mixed with serious minded, innocent professionals whose knowledge of class extends back to their stable upbringings and affluent inheritances.
I made it out of that culture intact, without any drug addictions, or dead-end paths of men manipulating me for my money and sex. Instead, I drew inspiration from the clubs and took my growth in sexuality on Instagram, where surprisingly I lucked out.
Some people say Instagram is the notorious soft-core pornography website for young girls. From actual sex workers with onlyfans accounts to Suicide Girls pages, viewers can find young girls posing nearly naked if not fully naked and censored on these pages. I knew of a few girls in high school who sported the traumatized offspring of alcoholics persona, and being a "Raped Girl," I had the trauma to whisk me into this path as well.
I began taking selfies. But I made them my own. I took naked selfies where I was clearly unclothed but with little enough light to hide the erotic zones or enough editing to clear any violation of Instagram's nudity policies. I took selfies of me naked in every setting: eating, crying, in the bathtub, showering, on my balcony, in front of a window in Cinque Terre, on beds in strangers' hotels and my own home. I even took it a step further, and was hired as a nude art model for a local university's undergraduate figure art class. I had a desirable body. I was slim from avoiding food and being in my 20s. But the naked selfie trick enticed artists all over the area, and almost overnight I received invitations to model and perform nude in music videos from some of the most known artists in the area.
"Just be the sad girl in a bathtub," said the videographer to me while on shoot for one music video.
I replied, "That's easy, because that's what I do every day."
The exploration of my sexuality helped me. I gained control over my body. But it was not without risk. A different kind of male crossed social media platforms onto my Instagram who knew me from Facebook—a more argumentative, male-oriented playing field ripe with political debates and debacles—and found my Instagram and made snide comments at my nudity, insinuating I was naive and obviously out of my mind for exposing myself so much on the platform. I ignored these jabs and expressed how comfortable I was in the nude.
Instagram was a safe place to grow up, and it is true many girls take to Instagram to express their sexual maturity today. Worries from parents linger on all of the social media platforms, asking for advice about censoring and limiting hours on the sites. But, little do these parents, partners, male commentators, and legislators know, you cannot stop an innocent girl from becoming a sexual woman. She will do so anyway. Sexuality is a part of her identity, and in this society she must reconcile and integrate the identities thrown at the female form. Through art, we can discover, are we objects? Is my nudity always mine or for others to use? How much am I worth, monetarily, and how much will be paid for my corpse?
In society that throws directions at young women, telling us what to be and what not to be, people surely must realize it is up to a young woman to discover who she is and how she relates to her body.
Throughout exploring my sexuality, it has been painful to navigate healthy relationships with men one would consider more normal for my peer group. I have been lucky enough to choose potential dating partners who are more or less around my age, without any significant abuse problems or predatory behaviors. My love interests have been protective of me, pushing me to become strong and encouraging intellectual and emotional depth in addition to being sexually powerful.
But I still struggle. I am afraid. I am afraid of these men, no matter how much they cradle me into their arms or comfort me when I cry. In fact, I am more afraid of them after those acts, often rebelling and lashing out at them, finding reasons to be paranoid and untrusting of my partners. One partner I berated so much, he thought I was breaking up with him over and over again and subsequently left me for good. Another partner touched me so sensitively and made me swoon so that I felt so vulnerable with my feelings, and I responded harshly to kind words, blocking him on social media for months before agreeing to start dating, saying hurtful things to dismantle his ego. But the men I choose do not fall for these tricks. They stick up for themselves. But while they attempt to sluff through this mosaic of harsh behavioral patterns from me, they must protect themselves, and most cannot help me. They do not understand a mere fraction of what I am experiencing, them being men.
This relationship I have with men is undesirable at best. I do not like being so unstable when it comes to love. I would like to reciprocate love to a man when he gives it to me. I feel so uncomfortable around men, so much so that it physically pains me. It shocks my body. I feel a gaping hole at the core of my torso, my throat becomes airy, and I struggle to fight down the protective mechanisms in my head. I normally shroud myself in offensive humor or pretend insults do not hurt me. When I feel love, that cover is blown away and reveals an empty, vulnerable core. It feels unprotected, open. That person can get to me. Anything they do or say can knock me off of my composed self, and I become so erratic and clumsy in my emotions.
I think old men are safe, because they are familiar. I was raped by a 35-year-old. That 30-year age difference will always be imprinted on my relationships with men and sex. I befriend men well into their 90s, have sex with men well into their 50s, and date men who are around a decade older than I am.
As I've gotten older, my emotional flaws have become more apparent and pronounced. I compensate by attempting to be stronger. I seek computer science, neuroscience, and mathematics instead of psychology courses. I have adopted a masculine way of dealing with my emotions by immersing myself in work and professionalism instead of tenderness and vulnerability. I reject anything that makes me feel. My art has stifled because of it. I am less expressive than I used to be, less willing to be vulnerable on a page, much less naked on a camera. I do not want for others to see the sensitive self that was once me. I still have her, but she is hidden.
But what more is there to this world if not radical vulnerability? I can engage my intellect by solving problems and equations all day, but it is the art that gives me life.
I want to bare out my soul to a lover. I want one to know. I want one to know he makes my knees quake. I don't want to drive him away by being too intense. I am scared of losing control. I am scared of being free. I want to trust him. I want to cave into him. I want him to love me and laugh with me and trust me. I want to feel safe with him. I want to make art with him. I want to be strong with him. I don't want to lose control around him. I want to remain in power. If loving him takes away that power from me, I don't want anything to do with it, or him. But I do. How can I explain this to him? It is easier to accept a friendship with an odd societal outsider than to bare your soul to a potential serious significant other.
Timothy comforts me at dinner. Before we leave, he tells me, "You're crazy, but I love you anyway. I'm glad we are friends. I relate to you because I want to connect to a real human being. You show me your authentic self... and by the way. I am closer to a hundred and fifty," he says. "Put THAT in your essay."