Not Safe For Work


Today, I realize the truth — that it is not sex work that society fears is dangerous, but sex workers.

I recently had the experience at my job of being warned by a colleague that other coworkers have begun Googling me. The concern is that I’m an elementary school teacher (teaching art/creative writing at a public school in the South Bronx) as well as a writer, and my writing– at least that which has been published and is therefore “Google-able”– is primarily about my experiences as a sex worker, which occurred some time prior to my becoming a teacher.

Since becoming a teacher I have known– hoped, even– that this would be a conversation I’d someday be compelled to have, and while I’ve done nothing at work to encourage such controversy, as a writer and an activist, not to mention former stripper, I’ve never been one to shy away from publicity. I welcome this debate in particular, not only because it explores issues of freedom of speech and the rights of workers to live self-determined lives outside of the workplace, but because, ultimately, here is another opportunity to call into the light the persistent and erroneous insinuation that once a prostitute always a whore– not “whore” in the pro-industry reclamative sense of the word but in its opposite, everything society has told me I am from the moment I first bared my breasts at a tit club, if not before.

For me, the question always returns to the question I asked myself at nineteen on the verge of that precipice, standing with a man I’d met only recently, talking for me to a fat man I’d only just met, presumably the owner of the club, in a language that I didn’t speak. At the end of some discussion he turned to me and asked, in Spanish, something to the effect of: is this what you want to do are you sure? At the time I thought, yes. Definitely. Why not?

I became a sex worker while living as a student abroad in Oaxaca, Mexico, starting as a stripper in an all-nude club appropriately named La Trampa— translated: the ‘tramp’ or, the ‘trap or snare.’ I began writing of my experiences in my mid-twenties and am currently at work on a memoir. Prior to becoming a writer, as an undergraduate I conducted ethnographic research in the US and across Europe, interviewing women from various aspects of the industry about themselves and their work, including how they reconciled their personal identities with the identity imposed upon them by their job.(The findings of my research has since been published in the recently released collection, Sex Work Matters: Power and Intimacy in the Sex Industry (Zed).

While all occupations require a certain amount of role playing and, consequentially, a necessary distancing of one’s self in the after-work hours from the person implied by their title, no job title comes home with you like that of ‘stripper’, ‘dominatrix,’ ‘porn star’ or ‘prostitute.’ The sex work industry is, in the minds of most— even, I believe, those of us who advocate for the rights of its existence— inextricably linked with deviance. Associated with drug abuse, mental illness, sexually transmitted disease, violence and victimization, to be labeled a “prostitute,” is, particularly for a woman, is to be cast as the lowest of the low. The very word a pejorative, women who engage in sex for money do so fearing both humiliation and prosecution. They are threatened by other women, by the men who pay them and by the authorities alike.

It calls to mind a quote from an interview I conducted with a Dutch woman named Anna, who’d worked as a call girl in Berlin. When asked about her first time, she said, “It was great. The next day I was going to the store and I was buying everything I needed. My refrigerator was empty.” She said again, “It was great. Butter and bread and milk and cheese. But then,” she said, “I got a sort of shock. Oh, I thought, now you are a prostitute. You did it once, and so now you will be it forever—it doesn’t matter if you do it once or twice or three times—a prostitute is a prostitute.”

When I first took a job as stripper, I had no sense that my decision to do so would have any real, far reaching effects on my life. To the contrary, I found in sex work a solution to very nearly all my problems at the time. No longer homesick or lonely, my new job not only remedied the un-belonging I’d experienced as a foreigner, but— as a product of a broken, working-class household, the first in her family to go to college, let alone study abroad– through sex work I discovered in myself a seemingly unending source of power and autonomy relating but not only having to do with my newfound ability to make money, and lots of it, anywhere in the world. And yet, my decision to strip naked for cash was consequential, less for my experiences in that dusty Mexican strip club— which were somewhat benign relative to what one might imagine— and more for “what some might imagine”— for, from that day forward, forever being seen and seeing myself through the lens of stigma attached to being a sex worker.

Moral arguments aside, the most common argument for the prohibition of sex work is that such work is a danger to the individuals involved, but research on sex work confirms what anecdotal evidence has long-time suggested, that neither traffickers nor pimps nor drugs nor disease but the stigmatized and criminalized nature of sex work is the greatest contributing factor making the industry dangerous.

Over a decade and three degrees later, I see how and why, in my experience, the solution became a problem of its own. Today, I realize the truth — that it is not sex work that society fears is dangerous, but sex workers in and of themselves. To many, I am dangerous. There is something wrong with me to have been capable of doing – freely and upon my own volition – something that any intelligent, decent woman would apparently never even consider doing. This something that is wrong with me, this logic clearly implies, is something that was there prior to my becoming a sex worker—something that which will remain forever.

Something that, for some, disqualifies me, still today, from working with children.

I suppose I could be fired, but for what exactly? For the act of having bared my breasts for money or for fact that I just admitted it in this article or for the fact that I make a habit of admitting it by reading details of my experience in dimly lit nightclubs for whomever will listen. What, exactly, crosses the line and becomes “conduct unbecoming of a professional”?

And just what, maybe you are wondering, does she mean by “sex worker”? She admits that she stripped but did she…

Does it matter?

This article is not—not yet, at least— in defense of my job. I also realize it is a not a question of whether an individual can, at one time, have been a sex worker and, today, be a teacher. The reality is that a person can, as I have served at my current position competently for a nearly three years. For me, it is a question of whether society is ready to adapt their schema to accommodate our reality.

It would be better, I suspect, if I were ashamed.

In an off the record conversation, a sympathetic administrator kindly asked if I couldn’t publish under a pseudonym. I wish, for her sake, I could. But for sake of the rights and integrity of myself and every other man or woman who makes or has made choices similar to mine, and then tries to make sense of these choices, I cannot. I learned along the way that “you are only as sick as your secrets.” My writing and performing my work has been my salvation. I wrote myself out of the hell of secrecy and into the body of the woman I am today, capable of making meaning of myself and my experience— more than qualified to manage a classroom and teach kids about art but also, like anyone else, to be more than just my job.

Melissa Petro has written for Salon, Daily Beast, Huffington Post and elsewhere. She is a regular contributor at xoJane. More from this author →