So you might have heard about this. An all-nude club in Dallas employed a twelve-year-old runaway as a dancer for about two weeks last November. The story was in the Dallas Morning News, and all over the internet, for those of us who follow adult biz news.
The girl told police she was given shelter by a 27-year-old dancer and her boyfriend. Dancer and boyfriend took the 12-year-old to Diamonds Cabaret, where she told managers she was 19. She got the job despite having no I.D. and despite claiming to have forgotten the year she was born. On her first day she made $100.
That's not a lot of money for a stripper, but it is a lot for a 12-year-old. Her mother told reporters that the girl had "the body of a 20-year-old."
I don't know what was going on at that little girl's house, or why she ran away. Everything in the world seems wrong with a sixth-grader naked in a Dallas strip club, but I can't tell you for sure that she was worse off there than at home. I mean, I sure hope so.
I think about myself at twelve, with breasts like lumps of unkneaded dough, puffy child's face and birds-nest hair. Paisley jumpsuits and neon socks. (It was the 80's.) I think of how I barely knew my body. It was unmapped terrain, a vast continent I had not begun to push into.
That year, sixth-grade, I had a fierce, sudden desire to shove my classmate David Wilkiss into a corner by the gym doors and kiss him on the mouth. Later, I thought about that urge and felt sick. Grown men were out of my stratosphere. My prinicipal stopped me in the hall one day to give me a compliment about something or other and I burst into tears because he was so tall I had to crane my neck up to see his face, and that made me scared.
I would not even start masturbating for another year. The first time I found one of my father's magazines on top of the bathroom cabinet I read it cover for cover and then went out and hid in the wood behind the house for the rest of the day, grieving for the weakness of humanity and the evils of the flesh.
I do not know if that 12-year-old in Dallas was anything like my 12-year-old self. Some of my friends by 12 were having sex, doing drugs, going to nightclubs with grown men and women. I can't say for sure if they were a different kind of 12-year-old than me, matured somehow by experience, or if they merely carried the magic thinking and fuzzy logic of childhood into a strange, grown-up world.
I don't know what that girl had seen or felt or thought or done before she ran away. I know a lot more about what her life was like after. I can say for sure that the club was dark, and that it smelled of damp carpet and upholstery saturated with 15 years-worth of cigarette smoke and sour bodily excretions, and blizted over with a hundred cheap body sprays supposed to smell like vanilla and tropical flowers. I know that the customers sat against the wall -- heavy-lidded, impassive, impenetrable. I know the other girls walked past her in a sweep of sheer fabric and high-heels and straight-ahead stares.
I hope she wasn't scared. The adult world is scary enough when you're a kid -- with its rules you didn't make, its ambiguous impulses -- scary enough even with all your clothes on. Strip clubs are pretty rotten places to be scared. There is less sympathy than irritation. Less pity than unwillingness to see. No one will sit you down, cover your poor nakedness with blanket, give you something to eat and drink, protect you like children need and deserve to be protected. reassure you of the decency of the world and most of the people in it. Make anybody uncomfortable with your big eyes and your unripe legs and your basic ignorance about the world and they will stare right through you as though they could erase you with an act of will. So I hope she wasn't scared.
I was scared the first time I danced, at almost twice her age. I was scared to death. After my first day I went home and cried for no reason I could have explained to anybody. The weakness of humanity again, maybe, and this time I was a part of what I grieved for.
If being naked in a dark room full of ambiguous strangers was anything near as scary for her at 12 as it was for me at 23, then I don't know what was happening to her at home. Because somehow or other, she preferred the club. A hundred dollars is a lot of money when you're twelve. Jobs of any kind are pretty hard to get.I hope she's better off wherever she is now. I hope she'll grow up big and strong and well-adjusted. I hope stripping wasn't the best option she had. If it was, then all us who made the rules of this game, all of us who could extend our sympathy and do not, all of us who could help and instead pretend not to see, all of us are either going to hell or already there.