In the wake of the Craigslist “adult services” crackdown earlier this month, we’ve seen a renewed focus, not on prostitution per se but on sex workers, the people who (many claim) used Craigslist to work autonomously, without the influence of coercive middlemen. One of the women who spoke out about what used to be called the “erotic services” section of Craigslist was Melissa Petro, a Bronx elementary school teacher who spent a few months during grad school as an amateur sex worker. After writing candidly about her experiences in an article published earlier this summer, Petro has been reassigned to administrative duties, in a move that is clearly linked to discomfort with her sexual past.
Petro, who has been teaching for three years with apparent success, defended Craigslist’s “adult services” in a piece for the Huffington Post a few weeks ago, writing, “The simple fact is that people do have sex for money — many different kinds of people for many different reasons, people as varied as those looking to buy concert tickets, sell a collectible or adopt a pet — and these people will continue to.”
Her path, she writes, was simple: “bored and curious, and sexually uninhibited,” she ventured into amateur sex work on Craigslist and left it a few months later after discovering that she found it “physically demanding, emotionally taxing and spiritually bankrupting.” This was after working for several months as a stripper in Mexico, which evolved into ethnographic research about sex work in Europe.
Her ability to think clearly and honestly about the experience is admirable, and her candor is nothing short of brave, especially considering the reactions that both pieces have received. Parents, predictably, are upset. “I don’t want nobody that used to do that to be around my kid,” said one woman, whose son is in third grade. “People like that should not be allowed to be anywhere near children.” Other parents claimed concern over Petro’s ability to be a good role model.
In her earlier piece, Petro intelligently articulates the knotty issue at hand: “It is not sex work that society fears is dangerous, but sex workers in and of themselves…It would be better, I suspect, if I were ashamed.”
But the fact is that she’s not ashamed, nor should she be. The openness and reflectiveness with which she tackles her past illustrates the fundamental truth, which is that no one is their job, and regardless of one’s personal stance on sex work, the people who participate are not fundamentally polluted by the exchange of sex for money. And if deep-seated social anxieties about sex workers cost Petro her job, it’s just as wrong as any other kind of discrimination.
Photo from Flickr.