An elementary school teacher has been reassigned for publicly revealing her past as a stripper and prostitute. Does this confirm her claim that society is afraid of sex workers?
Melissa Petro — whom Kevin Fasick and Yoav Goen of the Post tastefully call "the tattooed former hooker and stripper" — has been teaching at PS 70 in the Bronx for three years, with apparent success. She's also been open about her history. In a June essay for The Rumpus, she wrote, "I realize the truth - that it is not sex work that society fears is dangerous, but sex workers." She also explained her need to speak out about sex work, despite what her coworkers might think. And in a Huffington Post article earlier this month, she criticized Craigslist for shutting down its "adult services" section, and revealed that she'd use the site to facilitate a brief career as a prostitute. It was this revelation that apparently caused her school to remove her from the classroom and put her on administrative duty "pending an investigation."
Parents, predictably, are outraged. Grace Ventura, the mother of a third grader, says, "I don't want nobody that used to do that to be around my kid. People like that should not be allowed to be anywhere near children." Fellow parent Yocelyn Quezada adds, "She's not a good role model. I do not want my daughters to find out about this, and I do not want my daughters to be around that kind of person." The idea that contact with a sex worker, current or former, might somehow contaminate children — or, the implication goes, turn them into sex workers some day — echoes certain homophobic arguments. How many times have we heard that gay people shouldn't be around children because they will "recruit" them?
Petro's essay for The Rumpus recalls this parallel too. She writes,
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.
It would be easy to criticize Petro for being reckless, for revealing information she probably knew could jeopardize her job. But a few years ago — and still, in some places — simply being open about your sexual orientation can get you fired. Most of us would agree that being able to live openly as a gay person is a fundamental right — why doesn't living openly at the former sex worker deserve the same protection? Obviously, the two aren't the same — except in so far as they reveal our culture's deep anxieties about how other people fuck. These anxieties could cost Petro her job — and no matter what you think about sex work's complicated politics, this is unjust.
Image via NY Post