Melissa Petro is a researcher, a writer, an educator – a person with years of experience underneath her belt and two master’s degrees to prove it. Yet, many might only be willing to write her off as just one thing – “the hooker teacher.” Petro’s work about her experiences as a former sex worker finally came to a head last summer when she wrote an article for The Huffington Post on Craigslist’s decision to remove adult services from its site, a decision, which from her own past experience, was worthy of criticizing. The ensuing fallout around Petro’s article, as well as her past, resulted in the loss of her job as an elementary school teacher and the branding of her, and seemingly any involved in sex work, as someone who should be ashamed of themselves. It wasn’t pretty.
But Petro hasn’t stopped speaking and her work continues to ask more questions, as well as just speaking her truth. “I would venture there are a considerable number of individuals like myself – free thinking, entrepreneurial human beings with choices and responsibilities – whose real-life experiences, not to mention sources of income – are being stifled by our so-called advocates.” Petro’s work has been featured on The Huffington Post, Daily Beast, Salon, Rumpus.net, xoJane, The Fix, and The Gloss. Her research has been published in Research on Sex Work and Sex Work Matters: Power and Intimacy in the Sex Industry (Zed). She is now running The H-Word, as part of Bitch Magazine’s guest blogger series, which interviews and covers first hand accounts of people involved or previously involved in sex work. Persephone Magazine, it’s a privilege to have her here, so please welcome Melissa Petro.
Persephone Magazine: How did you initially get started as a writer? What was the turning point in your work?
Melissa Petro: I was a researcher before I considered myself a writer. My 3rd year at Antioch College I conducted ethnographic research on the sex industry, interviewing prostitutes and other sex workers about their lives and professions. The semester before I had worked as a stripper in Mexico, where I was living as a student abroad. At that time, I was not ready to write first-person about the industry – I was unwilling to expose myself in that way – and yet I had a burning desire to make sense of my experience. Some years after graduating from Antioch, I went to the New School for Creative Nonfiction, where I began to turn my research into memoir. At the New School I was led to believe my story was unique, and interesting- and that I was entitled to tell it. It’s really not as unique as my peers at the New School presumed, but it is important – just as everyone’s story is important. And we are all entitled to speak our truth.
PM: I’ve been reading Audacia Ray’s Sex on The Internet, which talks a lot about the rise of Google-accessible culture and how you can now click a button and find out almost anything on a person. Has this affected your own work, and if so, how? What do you think this means for sex work, sexuality, expression, and the potential end of anonymity?
MP: Well, our “Google-accessible culture” cost me my career as a teacher – I think it’s safe to say that if I had continued publishing in obscure academic journals and literary magazines (as I had done for years prior to writing for the Rumpus and the Huffington Post), my writing and my day job would not have connected. Of course, one could argue that by publishing online, I invited that exposure. It’s more often the case that people are out there living their “private” lives as discreetly as possible, and they are found out and/or outed. As Audacia has written, it is increasingly difficult for people to hide or compartmentalize aspects of themselves and their lives. The possibility for the double life that so many current and former sex workers have enjoyed (and depended on) is ending. Society will either have to give people their privacy back or expand what it finds permissible. My guess is that what will happen is the latter. Maybe as more and more people are exposed as having “shocking” private lives and pasts, the shock value will diminish.
PM: There are so many misconceptions of sex work, ranging from the idea that all sex workers need to be “saved,” to the fetishization of sex work as an all-pleasure industry with little complications. What do you feel are the biggest misconceptions of sex work and sex workers? What are the things you think are most important that people know?
MP: The biggest misconception is that any one notion is the “real” perception of such a large and very diverse industry. These days most people are willing to concede that not all people who sell sex have been coerced into doing so, and that some have chosen to do it, but I think most people still believe that those who’ve chosen sex work are an insignificant minority, whereas I would challenge that. Activists are introducing the phrase “chosen by circumstances other than force” into the lexicon, which I believe describes most sex workers’ experience of coming to being. This language didn’t exist when I first began making sense of my experience, and so feminist theory on the matter led me to believe that since I did not consider myself a victim that had been forced into the industry, I had made a choice that was entirely empowered, and a personal choice that was not at all circumstantial – and that was confusing. Today, I understand that it was a constellation of factors that led me to start stripping, certain circumstances that encouraged me to remain in that industry for as long as I did, and then a whole new set of circumstances that led me to work as a prostitute years later. As I said recently in my column on Bitch, it’s a fallacy that sex workers make one choice. Sex workers make many choices, and the decision to remain in the industry is as complicated a choice as their reasons for trying it in the first place, if not more complicated.
PM: You attended Antioch, have master’s degrees in both Education and Creative Writing, and had your research and interviews on sex workers in Europe and the U.S. published in Research on Sex Work and Sex Work Matters: Power and Intimacy in the Sex Industry. What is the difference between the world of academia and its perceptions on sex work versus the actual lived experience?
MP: Well, for one we are real life human beings as opposed to just what we do for money. The existence of sex workers’ personal or private lives outside the workplace is largely ignored in research on sex work. In this way, academics continue to inadvertently objectify the very experiences it seeks to understand. Even sex worker memoirs revolve conspicuously around the individual’s time at work, rather than his/her life outside of work, or before or after this career. A prostitute does not go home and remain a prostitute no more than a chef outside of work remains a cook (even if she or he prepares food in her/his off hours). Individuals who sell sex are perceived by others as being defined entirely by their identity as sex workers whereas, in the real life, we go home after work to live our lives like any other human being. We are daughters and sons, partners, siblings, grand-kids, etc. We watch TV and go to the movies, we have pets and hobbies. Even when we are at work, we have interior lives having nothing to do with sex.
PM: You are now running The H-Word, as part of Bitch Magazine‘s guest blogger section. Can you talk about The H-Word, why you chose to do these interviews and what you hope readers take away from them?
MP: The H-Word is a series dedicated to evaluating, challenging, and re-presenting sex worker portrayals in the media from a feminist, pro-sex worker (though not necessarily pro-sex work) stance. In some pieces, I analyze media representations of the industry, but my favorite part of The H-Word is having created an opportunity for sex workers of all stripes to tell their stories: the good, the bad and the ambivalent. My hope is that whatever perceptions any given reader has of sex work or sex workers, there will be at least one story that challenges that readers’ perceptions. I am working hard to find diverse range of experiences. I know I’ve learned a lot through the process of conducting these interviews.
PM: What amazing work can we look forward from you in the future?
MP: I’ve recently started teaching creative writing to adults (as opposed to fifth graders!), and so far it’s been pretty rad. I want to teach other people to tell their stories and to celebrate the belief that, whatever our experience, that experience is important, we are all the experts of our own experience and we are all entitled to speaking our truth – and that no one can speak for another as well as we speak for ourselves. This spring, I’m excited to be teaching creative writing for Red Umbrella, an organization that empowers individuals with experience in the sex trade to represent themselves in the media.