by Furry Girl

07.24.13

"Famous" former sex worker Melissa Petro has thrust herself back into the media again this week, and seeing her re-tell her tale of woe with increasing levels of dramatic self-pity hits a nerve for me.  It also reminded me of the serious need for a project that I've been meaning to announce as I transition out of sex work myself.

I must preface this post by declaring that self-pity is utterly repugnant to me, in part because it's the chief byproduct of white, over-educated, first world ennui, and in part because it's about denying that one has agency in their lives.  The amount of options and privileges one has is irritatingly proportional to the amount of time one spends whining about one's life.  I was volunteering in rural West Africa last summer, interacting with people who didn't have the greatest options, but I recall not one iota of self-pity from any of them.  Self-pity disgusts me, which is why I recoil so strongly when I see it.

For those of you who don't remember Melissa Petro - and you're in the vast majority of Americans, since she's not actually all that famous - she was a public school teacher in New York City who was fired for coming out as a former sex worker.  She wrote a piece in The Huffington Post (one of the most popular web sites online) about her experiences as a prostitute (her choice of term) during grad school, and then reacted in exasperated shock that there are people who don't want an ex-prostitute working with children.  Petro was briefly a local scandal as her story spun out of her control in tabloids, and "hooker teacher" headlines appeared in gossip rags that published photos of her without her permission.  The situation sucked, it was unfair, and being a (former) sex worker shouldn't mean that can't be trusted to be around kids.  On this we can all agree.

Since her little scandal in three years ago, Petro has been on a pity tour of writing essays for seemingly any web site that will publish her, each iteration of her story gets more and more sad and self-pitying, all the while reinforcing The Big Lie told by visible ex sex workers like herself: that sex work is something from which one can never move on.  This lie reinforces so many stigmas, stokes the fires of so much shame and uncertainty for sex workers thinking about leaving the industry, and sends this horrible, cruel, completely inaccurate message to current sex workers: you can never escape a naughty past, you are doomed!  Doomed for life!  Forever tainted and shunned!

That's fucking bullshit.

I am so sick of the Petro and others like her acting like their choice to wallow publicly in self-pity is the only option for former sex workers.  Petro is just an upscale, liberal version of anti-porn ex-porn star Shelley Lubben, but rather than overtly attack the sex industry and campaign against it, Petro is far more insidious.  She isn't calling for the end of the sex industry, or for further criminalization of sex workers.  She's "one of the good guys."  She just wants sex workers to know that there's no hope of ever living a normal life again, and that it will cause your life to spiral out of control and destroy your soul.  And for this, Petro is a hero to white, feminist, educated (former) sex workers who also plan to stay firmly rooted in their pasts.

I refuse to give Melissa Petro the pity she craves.   After all, she was the one who purposefully sought out attention from the press, and did so under her legal name.  As much as I deeply, angrily disagree with social stigmas against having done sex work, the fact remains that we live in a world where they exist.  If you work with kids (and there are doubtless many teachers out there with sex work pasts), and you value keeping that job, you don't run to the media with your story about being proud of having been a law-breaking, cash-for-sex prostitute.  Is this Madonna/whore dynamic fair?  Not at all, but sometimes, it's not about shame, it's about discretion.

Call me wacky, but if I desperately wanted to escape the fate of being known as a former sex worker, I'd probably stop writing articles about how I used to be a sex worker for major media outlets.

So, with the announcement of disgraced prostitute-patronising politician Elliot Spitzer getting back into politics, Petro has flagged down the media again and reminded them that she exists.  She published a piece this week about how unfair it is that "we" "allow" men to move on with their lives after a sex scandal, but that women "like her" aren't "allowed" to move on.  Allowed by who?  It's a laughable premise.  Petro has spent three years hollering and waving her arms wildly at anyone who will listen so she can tell them that while she is a former sex worker, she doesn't want to be thought of as a former sex worker.  Those are not the actions of someone who's trying to turn a new leaf.

The reason Spitzer is successfully moving on from his past is because he's moving on from his past.  He hasn't spent several years penning sob-story op-eds about how sad he is that he was caught being a client of an escort service.  Spitzer did what people do when they actually want to move forward in their lives, and that's to move forward.  It's not sexist oppression, it's not the patriarchy, it's not even whorephobia.  Petro actively refuses to move on with her life, and actively tries to become better-known as a "famous" former sex worker, and then blames society, sexism, and sex work for the fact that she apparently has no life skills other than self-pity and seeking out media attention.  I've followed her story from the sidelines, and even I don't think I would recognize her if I had a casual interaction with her.  She's not so famous that she has no choice but to not move on, she doesn't have so recognizable a face that she can't walk down the street without attracting throngs of attention.  (As someone who has spent 10 years making a living in porn precisely by getting my photos seen by as many people as possible, I hardly ever get recognized in public.)

At the end of the day, Melissa Petro is only person who thinks that Melissa Petro will never be able to move on from her titillating past.  And that's her problem, it's certainly not emblematic of the experiences of all sex workers.

There are a ton of sex workers out there, and the vast, vast majority bow out quietly, without press releases or book deals.  Sex work is a rather transient occupation, one that a person may do during college, or during a period of unemployment, or until they age out of their part of the industry.  Most people don't stay in it for life, yet somehow, we forget that sex workers don't die or disappear upon retirement, they move on.  You interact with retired sex workers every day of your life, you just don't know it because they choose to not make it the focus of everything they do for the rest of their lives.  Despite the big lie pushed by former sex workers like Petro, you're not actually branded with "whore" on your forehead as you collect a final paycheck and clock out for the last time. (The exceptions are sex workers with criminal convictions, of course.  Those really do stay with you life and hurt your abilities to get jobs and housing.  But thankfully, most sex workers come out without any baggage that comes up in a credit report or search of court records.)

What I'm annoyed with is not just Petro's latest cries for attention, but the fact that within sex worker activisty and blogging circles, the only visible former sex workers are white, educated, middle/upperclass women who are now trying to make careers out of talking about how they used to be sex workers.  They may not want to be held as representative former sex workers, but they're all we have, so they become the de facto standard.

It's a sad catch-22: the only visible former sex workers are people who want to be known for being former sex workers.  If you're an isolated sex worker without a lot of friends or community support, you don't have anyone to talk to about the process of leaving the sex industry for something else.  There are no good role models for retiring sex workers who don't want to be memoirists, naughty media personalities, or work for sex work-related NGOs.  Which means there are no easy-to-find role models for the 99.999% of sex workers who will one day start a truly new chapter in their lives.  Sure, if you want to write the 62,958th book about how you used to be a stripper in college, there are tons of people to look up to.  I regularly see former sex worker-led workshops advertised to teach you how you can fulfill your dreams of writing about your experiences as a sex worker, but what if you don't want a book deal?  (Or, what do you do when the whopping $3000 you got for that precious book deal is all gone?)  What if you don't want to be famous as a former sex worker?  Where are the people for you to turn to?  Where's your support group and success stories?

And that's exactly the gaping void I want to address with the final project I want to do as a part of the sex workers' rights movement, and as I transition out of the industry myself.  I want to create a resource for people leaving sex work for a life that isn't all about how they used to be a sex worker.  Stay tuned!





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