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I Was a Dancer, Until Israel's State Prosecutor Decided I’m an Escort

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Items left behind at the Pussycat Club, February 2020
Items left behind at the Pussycat Club, February 2020 Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

I never thought I would find myself at the forefront of a social struggle but it happened last week, when I was suddenly left without a source of livelihood. Former State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan decided a few months before his retirement that a lap dance, a standard dance in a strip club, could be interpreted as an act of prostitution and therefore clubs must close. Now his directive has reached the last three strip clubs in Tel Aviv, which were shut down by the police.

Bibi went gunning for his only real rival

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The reason for the closure, as detailed in the injunction notices stuck on the doors, is that these places “serve for the commission of the offense of maintaining a premises for the sake of prostitution.” (It is important to note that prostitution is legal in Israel, but maintaining premises for the purposes of soliciting is prohibited.) The state prosecutor surrendered to the demands of the women’s organizations and exercised extra authority to decide what is permitted and what is prohibited – without pausing to define specifically just what act of prostitution was occurring on the premises.

The police's vice squad summoned the dancers to give testimony. We were asked, among other things, awkward and irrelevant questions such as, “Do you work when you have your period?” Or, “What is your bank account number?” The investigation is still ongoing and meanwhile, we – the women and other employees – have been left with nothing, with no prior warning and no ability to prepare financially for such a situation.

The state attorney’s directive, for which the women’s organization’s are paving the way, is patronizing in an intolerable way. Forcing me to be what I’m not – this is violence. My colleagues and I are not escort girls, we are not survivors or victims of sexual abuse. We don’t want to be invisible, nor do we want to be the victims of your demonization. We are human beings and, believe it or not, we are also capable of deciding what is best for us.

Tel Aviv's Pussycat strip club, in 2018.Credit: Moti Milrod

I assume that, in their campaign to shut down the strip clubs, the women’s organizations were trying to say that a strip club opens the door to crime and prostitution. And I say to them: You’ve got it backward. By closing down the clubs, you’ve left many women with just one option. The clubs were a safe place in which no sexual act – full or partial – takes place. A place where girls dance peacefully. Until now, that is.

There is no connection between lap dancing and prostitution. A woman who wants to work in a discreet apartment or independently (as is her full right) won’t want to work in a strip club, where every dance is a physical and mental effort, for which she receives just 25 shekels. And to a customer who suggests that I be with him after my shift is over, I say: If I wanted to be an escort girl, you wouldn’t have met me here.

And the truth is that we don’t just dance: Ours is a complex profession that blends thinking and emotion, and demands patience. You have to give a warm feeling to an aging widower or divorce advice to a 25-year-old who married at 17. Speak to a guy who broke up with his girlfriend and is missing affection or someone who will listen to him, or to a person who’s looking to talk and receive a caress from a beautiful and attentive woman. All this can happen within a few minutes.

The place hosts people of all kinds: Arabs and Jews, religious and non-religious, soldiers, older men, lonely bachelors, married men, men who have a girlfriend and men who’ve never had a girlfriend, regular folks alongside celebrities, guys who are kind of nuts and guys who are normal. It’s a challenging job that can be very rewarding for someone who knows how to work more with her mind than with her body.

The moral coercion here knows no bounds: How can you prohibit an erotic dancer from being an erotic dancer? Why am I expected to train for a new profession as part of my “rehabilitation”? Is it conceivable that a journalist would be banned from ever writing again? Of course not. Like someone who writes and misses it if he can’t do it, we miss dancing every day (we are also planning to put on a fundraiser soon to raise the 70,000 shekels we need to petition the High Court of Justice against closure of the strip clubs).

I see myself as a normative person, a decent and caring citizen. And an absolutely law-abiding one: I have never used drugs, and I never drank alcohol during a shift. However, as is the case with many other women, finding a livelihood has become a battle for me. When I waited tables while I was in school, my tips were taken from me and I was paid minimum wage at the end of the month. By working as a stripper, I was able to put myself through school, but when I graduated, I couldn’t find work in my field of study.

Women working at the GoGo strip club demonstrating against its closure, February 10, 2020. Credit: Ilan Assayag

Why is it so hard for a person with a master’s degree to earn a living in Israel in 2020? Why are my women classmates having such a hard time supporting themselves? I was lucky – I’m attractive, I love the stage and dance, and the art of seduction. I’m good at it. The hardest part for me was the concealment it involves, because society judges me harshly.

Now, women’s organizations have come and reinforced the stigma about me. Now it turns out it’s also possible to fire me without due compensation. The aid the women’s organizations are offering to someone who’s been left without a regular source of income includes food baskets, furniture and clothing. How they’ve misunderstood who their target audience is! We, who became accustomed to a certain standard of living, who took loans to finance a car or an apartment, do not need food baskets. But who is going to pay our bills?

Meanwhile, everyone is trying to profit at our expense: The Social Space, at Kikar Atarim, is offering guided tours at the site of the Pussycat club (35 shekels per person). Via earphones, a woman’s voice is heard guiding visitors – including my friends and me this time – to rooms full of personal objects left behind by dancers who left in a rush and didn’t return to take them: shoes, costumes, makeup. We’ve returned to our destroyed home and our things are being exploited in the most cynical way possible right before our eyes. My friends and I began to cry.

Tel Aviv's Baby Dolls strip club closed under an administrative order, February 10, 2020. Credit: Ilan Assayag

The woman in the earphones, who knows nothing about our lives, leads us to a room we had never seen, where there’s a bed that was used by the janitor at night. “Do you think that the soap in the shower or the body cream on the dresser were able to remove the smells of fantasy? What about the smells of old age, humiliation, shame, silence?” the voice asks. The lie is infuriating and repulsive, but the agenda of Alit Kreiz, the artist who created the tour, is more accepted than the truth.

To MKs Merav Michaeli and Tamar Zandberg, former MK Michal Rozin, former State Attorney Shay Nitzan and leaders of Israeli women’s organizations: Stop building a political career at our expense and misleading the public. Yes, a lap dance is a seductive erotic dance, but it has as much in common with prostitution as the desire to help us has with your ambitions to get ahead while we pay the price for it. You’ve left us with nothing. Granted, my workplace isn’t perfect. I don’t have rights there either. But if you really care about us, then regulate the industry and its work conditions. Don’t join the list of exploiters – that’s not the kind of help we need. Don’t decide for us what we can and can’t do, and don’t deprive us of freedom of occupation: We want to continue working in the profession that we chose – and that is our right.

The writer worked as an erotic dancer.

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