Guest blogger Elona Washington founded Project IANAH, which stands for ‘I Am Not A Ho’ and serves on the speaker's bureau for RAINN (Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network). Through both avenues, she shares her story, offers prevention tips, and speaks out against "slut" shaming. Divorced since December 2014, Elona also contributes to the blog Single and Happy Online and serves on the board for The Black Girls’ Corner.
Sometimes, it’s the casual friend who marks the most important paths in your life. At least, it was for me. Candance and I never spoke regularly although we vacationed together several times a year. And whenever Linkin Park came into town, we made sure to go. We did the occasional shopping where once she schooled me on the difference between a duvet and a comforter (and I’m forever thankful for that). So when we hung out and guys asked what we did for a living, we joked, "she's the 'T' and I’m the 'A'" at The House Strip Club.
Yes, we were strippers. And while we could never call every girl a friend, there was an undeniable bond deeper than just walking around conversing in our birthday suits. That life was raw, exotic, and bare. There was little shame in what we did or with whom. We were straight forward and upfront and it taught us to expose ourselves without feeling the hurt or embarrassment other women may feel. So one day, when we happened to speak about the trauma that bound us: being robbed at gunpoint, the sexual abuse of our past, or how we were raped and beaten months ago by a customer, it was shared very matter-of-factly. No holds barred. What I did notice, though, was that Candance never shared her story with us.
A few years after our candid discussion, our lives took very different turns. I got married, relocated to Texas and focused on my family. Candance danced a few more years until she eventually retired. As Facebook friends, we were able to keep tabs on each other and would periodically comment on each other’s posts. Over the years, I noticed we both began to grow spiritually and it brought me comfort to know that she was further removed from our old lifestyle.
A few years later, when my sorority celebrated its centennial in my hometown, I posted my excitement about coming home and attending the events. Candance commented she wanted to hang with me but my first thought was, "How would it look if I have an ex-stripper tag along? How was I going to introduce her to my sorority sisters? Where would I say we met?" While I remained in contact with my former coworkers via social media, I didn’t spend any real time with them. As a wife, I made new friends, stay-at-home moms and FORTUNE 500 managers whose pasts looked nothing like mine. While I may have told a few of them my story, they never judged me. Instead, they always encouraged me to speak out to help others. But, because of my embarrassment and fear of being criticized by my sorority sisters, I blew her off.
It was a decision I will forever regret. A few months after my sorority event, I began to notice Candance’s posts were once again laden with cynicism, bitterness, and profanity. I reached out to see if there was anything I could do to help. She responded politely but declined to discuss what was going on in her life.
While I understood why she didn’t want to discuss it with me, I grew frustrated. I was really praying she’d find a way to conquer her demons and live a healthy, positive life. But that never happened. Mid-November 2013, a friend called to tell me that Candance had been murdered. She was at a strip club celebrating her friend’s birthday when she got into an argument with a male patron. When the evening was over, she got into the backseat of a car when the man hopped in after her. He pulled out a knife, stabbed her several times in the chest, and fled the scene. Candance somehow managed to get out of the car, but when she attempted to walk for help she fell face down, unconscious. At a local hospital, she was pronounced dead a few hours later.
The weeks following her death, I was clinically depressed. The guilt over "slut" shaming my friend was overwhelming. When I stopped dancing, I had promised myself I’d never judge another woman in my position and had made a conscious decision to remain in touch with the women I used to work with. But I failed my friend. I constantly wonder if she’d still be alive today had we hung out that summer. I had assumed my sorority sisters would have rejected her, but now I believe I also underestimated them.
My guilt over Candance’s death sparked new life in me. I’ve become even more dedicated to telling my story, the whole story. I want to give women who remain silent and struggle to overcome their demons the courage to speak out and seek help. I’m going to be the example for young girls and women who’ve been sexually abused, "slut" shamed, and emotionally abused. My experiences and Candance’s death will not be in vain.