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  • Writer's pictureJessika Brust

Unlike a Stripper

Updated: Mar 14, 2020

Our cover band's future was on rocky ground. They had just hired me in the spring, filmed a promo video in the summer, and began to pick up momentum with bookings -- and then it slowly began to implode by the fall. The deterioration seemed to start when I finally settled into my new life and began to feel like one of the guys in the band.

Shortly after I began working for them in early 2011, I was evicted from my house when my roommate decided to steal a guy that I'd started dating (click here for that story). My band, and the entourage of heavily involved significant others, were very sympathetic, to the extent that I was truly touched. They barely knew me, but listened to me vent and cry, shared information of apartments they knew going up for rent, and when the time came, many of them helped me move furniture. They understood a 20-something girl's heartache, especially when "her man abandoned her," as they'd say. And they knew exactly what to do.

But what those ladies couldn't understand was why I remained single for so long afterwards. I went on one date with a breathtakingly gorgeous bartender from one of our gigs -- but he lost interest for no apparent reason, and that was that. I started going around with a bass player that worked for another band -- but that ended when he decided to get back together with his ex. So there went that. In all actuality, it had barely been five months since the heartbreak that lead to my eviction, and by my dating standards, I was quite busy. But it didn't inspire confidence in the ladies that I hadn't managed to throw myself into a full-blown serious relationship yet. And apparently I was too much of a threat.

In my new house, I was settling in nicely with my new housemates who were, thus far, drama free. I was still hanging with my old friends whom I hadn't lost in the drama surrounding the eviction, and I was feeling more comfortable with those who were new in my life. My depression was beginning to lift, and the band's significant others couldn't make sense of it because I hadn't found a new man.

Suspicions grew. Gradually the clump of scowling band girlfriends who stood at the edge of the stage nearest to me became thicker and thicker with each gig. My bandmates would do all sorts of silly, bro-y things for showmanship, like leaning into each other's backs when taking a solo, or shouting words of encouragement like "Get it!" and "Yeah, bro!" when someone played something particularly hot. They engaged me in all these games equally, and truly I loved it -- but I also couldn't turn them down. I had to be able to hang. Rejecting someone when they ask for support during a performance looks very bad. Consider how Madonna reacted when Brittney Spears and Christina Aquilera came at her for a good snog while performing during the MTV VMA's in 2003. No, it wasn't planned. But it was a gesture made for the sake of the performance, and rejecting your teammate's impulse in front of a live audience kills the show and makes you look like a tool. Thankfully, no one was kissing me. No one was even hugging me, or touching me with their hands, for that matter (except the weird keytar player, but that's an uninteresting side story of a single man harboring an unrequited crush). We were bro-ing out, plain and simple, and our crowds loved it. And we were equal opportunity bro-ers who didn't discriminate for gender, race, sexuality, or creed.

Apparently the hordes of girlfriends, fiancées, and wives thought that, as the only girl in the band, I should conduct myself differently. I was too eager, in their eyes, to be leaning back-to-back with "their man". I was "obviously" crushing as I turned to the bass player to double his lines on the fiddle when I otherwise would be standing there like a bump on a log during a particular musical passage. The women pressed closer together and crowded me more each night. Slowly their friendships, which were initially warm and personable, became frosty. I couldn't understand. The only element that had changed was the level of trust between myself and the others in the band.

One weekend, we were playing a show at a mafia-owned oyster bar, which was guaranteed to be packed. It was a hot and sticky venue, but I wore jeans to be modest. I didn't (and still don't) need North Carolina mafia rednecks trying to catch a glimpse of my panties while on an elevated stage. I safety-pinned my bra into a halter top so I'd stay covered, but ventilated.

Sound check had just ended and the first set began with our usual opener "Fly Like an Eagle". After three or four songs in, our frontman called my tune "Hit Me With Your Best Shot". The crowd had been slow to respond to him, so we decided to try another approach.

A short, nondescript guy left his table when I began rockin', and wandered onto the dance floor, staring and shouting, "Yeah, yeah, yeah!"

Everyone else in the restaurant was at least watching the band by this point, but weren't yet feeling the dance floor. All eyes were on me -- until Mr. Nondescript approached, now yelling, "Hey, hey, hey!"

The girlfriend gang apparently was still eating dinner, and felt satisfied with supervising from afar since their view was still unobstructed. No one else was near the band but him.

Mr. Nondescript wanted attention, so like an experienced front-person, I gave it to him. He became the object of Pat Benatar's lyrics, that real tough cookie with a long history, and he was loving it. Despite my attempts, no one else accepted the invitation to join us on the dance floor. Maybe they were just too sober, and Mr. Nondescript was the resident alcoholic sent to test the waters. He zigzagged back and forth between his seat and the bandstand, and came up to the stage to shake my hand. He beamed and hooted and hollered, then ran to get something from his table.

He returned all too soon, with something stuffed into his fist, and walked straight up to me.

Before I put another notch in my lipstick case...

He held his fist up, and I couldn't tell if he wanted me to take his hand. He kept trying to dodge the gesture, and I kept moving around because I couldn't figure out what he was going for.

Before I knew what hit me, in a split second he aggressively plunged his fist straight into my cleavage and deposited a wad of cash. Right there, with his hand in my tits, in front of a restaurant of over 150 patrons.

I was numb with shock. I turned around to hide the crumpled bills sticking out of my blouse, and saw my bandmates. One by one, every single musician turned away from me.

As if I had been asking for it all along and had no right to be upset? To provide me with a sense of privacy while I pulled the money out of my breasts? To save face in front of their girlfriends so it didn't look like they were going to defend the woman they believed was trying to "steal their man"? To avoid having to deal with the situation at all? Or did they simply just not see?

I didn't know what to do. My mental lights went out and I finished the song on autopilot. What do you do in that situation? In hindsight, I wish I'd called security over the PA to have him thrown out. Or maybe I should've gone to find the manager, and refused to play anymore until Mr. Nondescript was removed. At the very least, I wish I'd left. Unplugged my gear, changed out of my high heels, and walked out.

I am not a stripper -- a woman who knowingly chooses to let men creep on her for cash. (Yes, I'm fully aware of illegal sex trafficking, but for the sake of simplicity, let's save that for another discussion when we can devote to it our full attention.) I am a highly trained musician who's practiced my profession for my entire life to be capable of executing quality music performance. I didn't wake up one day in search of some side work and decide to sing rock-n-roll. I studied and practiced and performed recitals and trained in Austria; and while still studying classical, I sang a little pop to help with the rent. There is no touching involved with this (unless I'm in a show where the director has it choreographed and rehearsed). You can tip me, but kindly wrap it in a handshake -- not in sexual assault and public humiliation. You can lust after me all you want, but that's your problem. I dress up for my job, as my music professors advised me: out of respect for my craft, my colleagues, and those who paved the way before me. It's the dress code expected of my trade. Try showing up to board meetings as a CEO dressed in cargo shorts and a wife beater, and tell me how your career goes. In my profession, as in many others, you have to dress like you're somebody if you want to become something.

Dressed attractively or not, how dare anyone physically touch a woman without consent? How dare a room of almost 200 Southerners look away while a woman is blatantly violated in front of them, when a fundamental cornerstone of Southern culture is chivalry? How dare my colleagues not have my back because of their own domestic insecurities? How dare a group of women, insecure within themselves and their romances, act peacefully complicit to another woman being assaulted just because they believe her to be interested in "their man"?

To be clear, I don't blame anyone but Mr. Nondescript for what happened. But if we are to progress towards a more equal, safer world, we need to stop looking away, and start holding perpetrators accountable. It's not like they overheard their neighbors fighting through the window and were unsure of what they were witnessing -- they watched, with their own eyes, an assault committed on a victim who had no idea how to respond, and they did nothing. The victim also chose to do nothing. Instead, it should've been our call to action.

I finished the gig that night, for lack of any better ideas of how to deal with the situation. And I have no clue what happened to that extra, tainted cash.

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