I worked in the social service sector because I wanted to be seen as good, so it’s pretty ironic that I started working in the sex industry to pay for it.
My need to be seen as good—to be selfless, rather than selfish—was instilled in me by my mother. My mother, Patricia Petro, worked as a secretary at a racetrack. When I first went away to college, she took a second job in retail to help cover the costs. She worked at a supplement store in a strip mall, peddling diet pills to girls I’d gone to high school with. Knowing my mom, they’d ask how I was doing and my mom would launch in, bragging about how I’d gone away to a private college and now I was in Mexico, volunteering at a charity helping the poor.
It was thanks to my mother that I had gone to college in the first place. My mother took me on campus visits and sat next to me in admissions office, watching hungrily as they handed me the glossy brochures. When I decided on the school I wanted to go to, no matter the cost, my mother made it her mission to see that I entered every high school essay contest and applied for every merit-based scholarship that I could. With my mother’s help, I paid for my entire first year of college with scholarships and other merit-based aid.
It was probably in one of those glossy brochures that I first heard Horace Mann, the founder of my alma mater, Antioch College, famously quoted as saying, “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” As an impressionable first year student, I took these words to heart. I dutifully spent the summer between my first and second years volunteering at a domestic violence shelter in Cleveland.
That summer, my mom and I shared her worn-down Mazda: I’d drop her off early at the racetrack for work and then drive into the city, into a neighborhood I’d know only from the view out my car windows, rolled up. I would leave East 77th Street quickly, at the end of every workday. I was on the cusp of adulthood but not quite an adult, and the freedom of that summer was exciting; the world it suggested was also deeply sad.
At the shelter, I worked as an assistant to the children’s advocate. I held the babies and watched the older children on the playground from the porch while the women had “group,” a peer-led therapy. Outside with the children, I imagined what went on inside. I thought of my own mother, and came to understand that my parents’ marriage had its own forms of violence, and that violence came in different forms. But I fought any recognition of sameness to the people I worked with. I wanted to do good, and at this age, that meant holding myself separate.
I was 19. Just one year prior—around the same time I received my acceptance letter—my father had walked out on my mom. I felt that I was abandoning her, too, by going to school. I feared that I was selfish, no matter how hard I tried to be the opposite. And I didn’t want to be. So, never mind that I couldn’t afford the trip, I journeyed to Oaxaca, Mexico the following spring to work as a volunteer at a preschool for indigenous street kids. I was more or less useless: I didn’t speak Spanish, let alone Zepotec, the indigenous language spoken by the kids I supposedly taught. It was my first experience as voluntourism—long before I knew the word, or what it meant: that it’s possible to see the fulfillment of volunteers as more important than what they bring to the communities they visit.
Voluntourism draws on the idea that intentions are action—that good people matter more than good work. Voluntourists are part of a long line of middle-class white people entering communities with which they’re culturally unfamiliar and seizing ownership of that community’s narratives for their own gain. In #InstagrammingAfrica: The Narcissism of Global Voluntourism, Lauren Kascak describes how, as a medical student volunteering in Africa, she cast herself as a hero in a story about the suffering other, offering photos of her white body encircled by the brown children supposedly in need.
Kascak cites a study by Sayantani Dasgupta on narrative humility, which urges medical professionals to decentralize themselves and their assumptions when gathering other people’s stories. Dasgupta says we begin to do this by acknowledging that patient’s stories are not objects to comprehend or master, but rather dynamic entities as rich and complicated as our own. To do “good” work, the author says, we must remain open to ambiguity and contradiction, while engaging in constant self-evaluation and self-critique about our own role in the story.
In a 2012 article called The White Savior Industrial Complex, Teju Cole leveraged a similar critique. Whereas Cole commends those with what he described as an “internal ethical urge that demands... each of us serve justice as much as he or she can,” he cautions such individuals to keep in mind that, in most contexts, the narratives of those we are trying to help are more complicated than we may initially presume. Most conflicts, he writes, are “intricate and intensely local.” There are rarely convenient villains. Social ills tend not to be reducible to slogans or solved with simple demands.
In 2014, The Onion published an article called “6-Day Visit to Rural African Village Completely Changes Woman’s Facebook Profile Picture.” When I read it—when I read Kascak and Cole—I understood that I had been just this type of voluntourist when I went to Mexico. Philanthropic work was less about doing good work as it was the desire to be seen in a positive light. It was a way for me to live up to Horace Mann’s command: to embody the good in humanity, to be benevolent, compassionate, and selfless, to doing work that was worthy and prestigious, respectable and for the social good. I could say I was serving others, rather than myself.
When you come from a working-class background, accessing basic social goods can seem unspeakably self-interested. Jason DeParle once observed for the NY Times that “the idea that education can be ‘selfish’—a belief largely alien among the upper-middle class—is one that poor students often confront, even if it remains unspoken.”
But education, that selfish thing, is what you need in order to look selfless.
I’ve spent most of my life balancing this kind of work—work that’s “prestigious,” that is vaguely noble in the eyes of the public—with work that pays my bills. I’ve been unconsciously attracted to the former and ashamed by the latter because, in my mind, survival—taken for granted by some—was not what anyone meant by “winning a victory for humanity.” When I lost my socially permissible if not prestigious career as a school teacher in 2010, this struggle was particularly acute. It was pride, and just enough privilege, that kept me from returning to sex work, that led me to skip meals as a result.
I didn’t want to return to the world of work that I’d known prior to college, the kind of work that’s stigmatized, belittled and maligned; the kind of work that—as with sex work—often renders you invisible at best, and at worst, invites ridicule and scorn. In high school, I worked in fast food. I worked in retail. I was a checkout girl at the grocery store. I stuffed envelopes after school. One summer, I even sold singing telegrams. I worked long hours for unreasonable bosses, all for very little pay. This work was mostly embarrassing, and not listed on my resume.
I learned instead to list the unpaid work I was being taught to consider valuable. Besides volunteering at the domestic violence shelter, I worked one summer as a rape crisis counselor. In London, I worked for a Somali women’s health organization that fought female genital mutilation. In New York City, I volunteered for an organization that served mostly Black and Latina economically disadvantaged girls.
As I moved from volunteering to writing—not quite altruistic, but activist, the way I tried to do it—I kept pretending I had a lot of class privilege I didn’t. I walked to writing workshops I taught for free because I couldn’t afford a MetroCard. I bought and returned clothes after I’d worn them in photo shoots and on TV. Whereas other privileges afforded me these opportunities—I’m educated, white, heteronormative and able-bodied—I never had class privilege, until all of a sudden, I did. Today I make about as much as I did as a public school teacher, writing and teaching writing. Besides my self-funded students I get paid modest grants to teach “underheard” writers— sex workers, drug users, homeless LGBTQ teens, victims of exploitation and abuse. In other words, I’m still engaging in “good” work— probably, admittedly, at least partly for a lot of the same reasons.
There isn’t anything wrong with wanting to help people. But, as Teju Cole says, there’s more to doing good work than simply “making a difference.” Done wrong, the difference you make can do more harm than good.
For me, in no situation is this more obvious than the “anti-trafficking” movement. I came of age as a woman with experiences in the sex trades. As a feminist, I was caught in the center of the debate and between two seemingly irreconcilable identities.
In an article called “Helping Women Who Sell Sex: The Construction of Benevolent Identities,” Laura Augustin documents the rise of the social worker and the roots of the “rescue movement.” During the development of industrial capitalism, Agustin contends, a class of women “willingly giving of their time and money” constructed for themselves a new occupational sphere and charitable identity.
Philanthropic work came to be seen as the appropriate form of paid employment for middle class white women—something that, prior to this period, hadn’t existed. The “social worker” identity formed in parallel and opposition to a second identity, the “incapable poor.” Specifically in the case of sex work, the “new abolitionist” or “anti-trafficker” situated herself opposite the “prostitute” or “fallen woman,” someone who needed to be rescued or controlled.
That acceptable middle-class jobs for women became dedicated to condemning and attempting to eradicate working-class women’s sources of income—even as both groups were engaged in the search for livelihoods and independence— is what Agustin calls a “central irony” of contemporary sex work politics. Sex workers are cast as the dependents, but it’s “anti-traffickers,” Agustin rightfully points out, who are dependent on “prostituted women.” They depend on sex workers for their identities, as well as their paychecks—for without subjects to rescue, they’d all be out of jobs.
It’s not that sex workers don’t need help. It’s that a lot of the help being offered is the opposite of helpful. Sex workers are asking for decriminalization—not “end demand” initiatives that criminalize customers and put sex workers further at risk. They want their jobs to be recognized as legitimate, not categorically dismissed as “rape.” Today’s sex workers—like many oppressed minorities—spend exorbitant time and energy undoing the harm done by our supposed saviors, counter-protesting and otherwise calling out ill-informed campaigns carried out in our names. The “debate” over women’s participation in the sex industry is what happens when helpers, “good people,” put themselves and their needs first.
These days, whenever I find myself thinking I know what’s best for someone else, I take a big step back and assess my motives. Some people get super defensive when it’s suggested they benefit from service work, but it’s a fact that we do. As it was recently articulated by blogger Michael Lee, the very need for service work and philanthropy comes out of capitalist and colonialist contexts, and it is often the case that people in positions of power within philanthropic industries historically either directly constructed much of the context of oppression and violence which necessitate service in the first place.
Recently, my partner and I went to Sri Lanka to interview citizens about their lives and experiences now and during the country’s 30-year civil war, which came to a brutal end with the defeat (some say genocide) of the Tamil ethnic minority in 2009. The trip was prompted by a September 2015 report by the UN calling for the Sri Lankan government to account for the unlawful killings, enforced disappearances and sexual violence perpetuated by the military against civilians, which persists to this day.
But within the context of Sri Lanka, the ethnic tensions that preceded emancipation were a direct consequence of Great Britain’s “divide and conquer” rule. I couldn’t help but see the irony of two Westerners coming in and demanding accountability. And yet there we were—a white Western woman and my partner, his half-Scottish and half-Sri Lankan body further complicating the narrative.
In war-wary Jaffna, we interviewed a woman whose husband had disappeared following his surrender at the end of the war. Her name is Ananthy Sasitharan and she is fighting to find out what happened to her husband, and on behalf of Tamil war widows. After telling us her story, I saw the appreciation in her eyes. It felt good to know I was going to promote the hell out of her story, just like she asked me to. Her story deserves to be told—and I have the privilege, platform and skills to tell it.
We did good work there. We also benefit from that work, as much if not more than the people we helped. I am benefiting personally from that good work at this very moment. Literally, with every article I write and sell I am profiting from another woman’s trauma and her country’s violent, not-so-distant past.
It would be easy to pretend differently—more comfortable to ignore the fact that the morning after the interview, my partner and I rewarded ourselves with breakfast at the Jetway Hotel, which I later found out is on a list of places to avoid if you’re at all interested in being an ethical tourist. After another day of work, we took time off on the beach. On similar beaches in the north and east, 40,000 Tamil civilians were rounded up and shelled by the Sri Lankan army, a war crime the government continues to deny. Part of our reason for going to Sri Lanka was to insist its leaders be held accountable. Another reason was to relax, eat “exotic” foods, and work on my tan.
It would be easy to pretend differently. To think of myself as some kind of CNN Hero and enjoy my role as the “charity worker” rather than the “charity case.” Certainly, it would make for a simpler story. It would also be fucking insulting to the people I’m purporting to help. And it wouldn’t be true.
As Parul Sehgal reminded us in a recent essay entitled Fighting Erasure, our identities and our privileges are not static but deeply contextual. Rather than flattening the narratives of others, might I suggest we begin, instead, by complicating our own? Want to start a knitting circle for “at risk” girls? In what ways are you, too, seeking empowerment? When you take a selfie with a “survivor,” what parts of your own story are begging to be seen?
It took some time to recognize how my own “charitable” work has been, at times, an overcompensation, and how, certainly in college, I was constructing an identity in opposition to and removed from the people I “helped.” In my eyes, the people I worked with were people like my family, people who were spoiled by stigma—victimized, drug-addicted, poor. Helping others, I could deny the violence in my own community and the victimization I had witnessed and experienced in my own lifetime. So long as I was putting band-aids on traumas experienced by others, I could deny my own trauma and continue to refuse help. I could remain ignorant to my privilege and the ways that I benefit from other people’s oppression.
Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with giving clothes to the thrift store. Just remember it doesn’t make you better than the people who wear them. It’s okay to work in a soup kitchen—but it’s no moral failing to sell insurance.
To some people, this is probably obvious. But for me, it’s been a struggle. I struggled to know that my job at the domestic violence shelter was no more or less noble than my mom’s work as a secretary at the racetrack—or her second job in retail, which she took on to put me through my first year of school, before I started selling sex.
I went to college because I didn’t want to end up like my mom, but I should be so lucky: my mother is a human being with qualities beyond her vulnerabilities and who, despite her markers of victimhood, is a woman worthy of respect. Today I know this, despite what I’ve been taught. I know that doing “good” work doesn’t necessarily make you a “good” person, and doing work that isn’t valued by society doesn’t make you ‘bad.’
Melissa Petro is a freelance writer and writing instructor living in New York City. She has written for Al Jazeera America, New Inquiry, Pacific Standard Magazine, Cosmopolitan and elsewhere. She was Finalist for the PEN Emerging Writer Prize in 2015. Follow her on Twitter.
Images via the Wellcome Collection