When I first came out in print as a sex worker, it was pretty much decided by everyone that I was an idiot. That, or an opportunist and/or an attention whore—a fact one feminist blog called “disgusting.” In the comments sections of articles I have written, it is widely accepted that no one would pay to have sex with me and that I ought to shut the fuck up. I am frequently accused of making it all up. I’ve been insulted and undermined in every way and yet, amidst the hate mail, the most damaging criticism I’ve ever received came not from a New York Post reader or even a radical feminist (although I got hate mail from them, too) but from another advocate, a sex worker, someone I knew.
I hope you’re well. I read your Salon.com article. I appreciate that you’re sharing your story and advocating for sex workers’ rights. And I sympathize with your struggles.
I want to share a concern with you. In this article you make a statement about sex work, particularly prostitution being work that relies on dishonesty. In [an article published on Huffington Post] you similarly made a statement that the industry is “soul bankrupting.”
I can see how this may have been true for you, but it’s certainly not the case for all of us. For someone who is out of the business I can see how these statements would seem harmless. But for those of us still working, these are exactly the concepts that we’re trying hard to dismantle—the idea that we are somehow emotionally or intellectually compromised because we do this work.
I would never ask you not to speak your own truth. But I do think it would be helpful if these statements were framed in such a way that it’s clear this was only your experience, and not broad-sweeping truths about the business. Many of us come to this work honestly and operate from a place of truth and compassion. We deserve respect for this work. It’s problematic for an “expert” to portray us as liars with bankrupted souls. It’s especially hurtful when a colleague who presents herself as a dedicated advocate takes this stance.
I didn’t write back. I’ve never written about this issue, or this letter, although I’ve thought about it. A lot. Two years later, I still think about it. Every time I share my story, particularly the bad stuff, I think about it, and I feel a little afraid. These days, when I write, I still feel a little afraid, not that I might find another unflattering photo of myself on the cover of yet another newspaper under an even more insulting headline, but that, ironically, my writing might be construed as my doing a disservice to the very cause I’ve traded so much for. For that reason, I’m addressing this issue now.
The letter references an article I wrote on The Huffington Post in criticism of the censoring of Craigslist’s Adult Services section and in defense of the rights and dignity of sex workers. In that article I described my experience of selling sex online as “physically demanding, emotionally taxing and spiritually bankrupting” and went on to say that “I hope to never again make the choice to trade sex for cash even as I risk my current job and social standing to speak out for an individual’s right to do so.” The letter also references a line in a piece I wrote for Salon from a section where I discuss having to keep my job a secret and the pain that this caused.
As a result of publishing that piece on The Huffington Post, I was removed from the classroom and ultimately forced to resign from my position as an elementary school teacher, a job that I loved and that I had been working at for over three years, ever since retiring from sex work. The message was clear: if you have a history such as mine, and an opinion on sex work that differs from the common view, keep it to yourself, or else. Since losing my career I have dedicated myself to promoting the opposite of that message: that everyone, particularly people who’ve been historically rendered invisible, have the human right to be seen as well as heard, and that true social change comes about by listening without judgement or condescension to the communities we purportedly seek to help. It is my firm belief that the sex workers’ rights movement depends on sex workers sharing their first-person experiences, whether they’re good, bad and ambivalent. Creating a climate of honesty and tolerance begins with us.
I know the letter I have reprinted here is not particularly stinging criticism. Still, it stung. I know the tone of this post has turned incredibly defensive. That is because I have spent over a decade of my life—ever since I first stepped off stage—defending myself and the right to share my experience as it was and not how others would prefer me to present it.
James Baldwin writes that “of traditional attitudes, there are only two—For, or Against.” He goes on: “I, personally, find it difficult to say which attitude caused me the most pain.” Baldwin was speaking in 1955 as a “negro” of the “negro experience,” but as a former sex worker, I can relate. Since first stripping off my clothes for money, I have struggled to make sense of myself and my experience within the confines of society’s limited sexual imagination. Speaking for myself meant straining to somehow fit my experiences and my opinions of my own experience—at times, it felt, of my very self—into one of two dichotomous positions. Early on in my activist career, I became “pro-sex industry,” even when being so meant denying aspects of myself, my relationship to myself, and aspects of my experience that were undeniably consequential, even more so precisely because they were refused accurate assessment.
It was only after publishing that now infamous article on The Huffington Post that I realize you can be “anti-industry” and still pro-sex worker. I’m not anti-industry per se, but given where it took me, I am certainly anti-sex industry for me, and I wish the pain of my experience on no one. Only by admitting the pain of that experience was I able to acknowledge that I had made a choice—something abolitionist feminists tell us constantly we are incapable of doing—and to make a different choice, a choice that was right for me, and leave sex work for good.
Of course, mine is not every sex worker’s experience. I qualify it plenty. You can only pepper a 1200 word essay with “in my experience” and “for me” so many times before your editor begins to cut that out.
Today, I write for Salon, Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, The Frisky, The Gloss, xoJane, and elsewhere. Though not exclusively, I write about sex work a lot. When I tell my story, I speak on behalf of myself. When I speak of the existence of stories like mine, I speak on behalf of our community. When I admit that some sex workers have negative experiences like mine, I’m not being a “bad ally” (as I have also been called). I’m not being an “ally” at all. Given that I sold sex in one way or another, on and off, for nearly a decade, I qualify as a member of the sex worker community, even though I don’t sell sex today. I will stop being a member of your community and become an ally when it stops being true that “once a prostitute, always a whore.”
It is my hope that the more people share their personal experiences, the more society will be able to recognize such experiences as individual, and sex workers as individuals, not as some sort of monolithic group that is either empowered or oppressed. The fact is I was emotionally compromised, if not by the work that I did, than by the way that work is looked upon in our society. If this wasn’t your experience, don’t call me a liar; consider yourself lucky.
Melissa Petro is a freelance writer and former sex worker living in New York City. She writes for Salon, Daily Beast, Huffington Post, xoJane and elsewhere. Though not exclusively, she writes about sex work a lot. She holds an MFA from The New School, a Masters in Education from Fordham University and a BA from Antioch College. If you ask the NY Post, she is an Idiot Prosti-Teacher who looks like a dog and ought to shut the fuck up.