The week of March 27, 2016

How I came to embrace my past as a sex worker

By Melissa Petro

In 2010, after it became headline news that I had previously worked as a stripper and a prostitute, I fought for and ultimately lost my career as a public school teacher. In essays and op-eds, I had argued that sex work was my past. It wasn’t something I was necessarily proud of, but I wasn’t ashamed either. It was simply a fact of my life I refused to deny.

I could have had a fresh start, people said, if only I’d stayed quiet. But could I, really?

Creation, including self-creation, relies on revelation. Writing—and sharing that writing—can be cathartic: Acknowledging the truth of ourselves that we might prefer to keep hidden can loosen the psychological grip that secrets have upon us. By sharing with a supportive listener, we can create or restore a social bond.

A nonsupportive listener, on the other hand, can provoke the opposite of healing. Telling one’s truth can damage or destroy relationships, especially if the listener perceives your confession as a threat. And some of our narratives just may threaten the whole social order. According to psychologist Judith Herman, in order for society to function as it does, certain narratives are promoted while others are suppressed. As a result, people with underrepresented stories are often purposely misunderstood, misrepresented, and treated in an unfairly harsh way.

Over the years, I’ve gotten countless letters from people whose lives, like mine, were disrupted or destroyed after they were outed or outed themselves as having worked in the sex industry. A former political aide who lost his career after being outed as a rent boy by his hometown newspaper. A dominatrix denied housing because of her online persona. A mother of a 2-year-old afraid of losing custody if the baby’s father uses her sex-work past against her. Just last week, I received a Facebook message from another woman who lost her job as a teacher when it was discovered she moonlighted as a burlesque performer.

I’ve gotten countless letters from people whose lives, like mine, were destroyed for their connections to the sex industry.

I write them back and let them know I understand.

Marginalized people often become sex workers as a way of gaining power, so it’s a cruel irony that that there are no legal protections against discrimination, should our occupations—or our pasts—be revealed. Current and former sex workers risk losing their housing or being refused service by landlords, property owners, and co-op boards. We can lose custody of our children. We’re often unable to transition to other work, or, if we do, potentially lose our new careers, sometimes in very public and humiliating ways.

After the “hooker teacher” headlines, neighbors literally crossed the street to avoid me. In couples therapy, it was seriously suggested I change my name and move to a new town. My writing had been a source of insight and pride. Now, essays I had written and published for relatively friendly audiences made me the target of ridicule. I was four years sober; the experience triggered a whole lot of old trauma, threatening my recovery.

Initially, I floundered, not knowing how I’d survive. Even before the decision was final, I knew I needed a new job. I applied for work in early childhood education, honestly confused when employers didn’t follow up on my résumé. It was probably for the better; in my first interview I was asked why I’d left my last job, and I burst into tears. Slowly, I came to accept that I was never going to work as a teacher again. Even in the nonprofit sector, the potential for negative press had made me a liability.

I was an emotional wreck. For seemingly endless weeks, I collected unemployment and fought feelings of worthlessness.

Eventually, I gave up looking for traditional employment. Had I any less privilege, I would have certainly returned to selling sex, a job I loathed. Instead, I accepted a part-time job teaching writing to adults—and then another gig, and then another, this time working with at-risk kids. I found funding so that volunteer work could begin to pay. All the while, I kept writing. In personal essays, I owned my infamy, rather than running from it. Slowly, slowly, I carved out a new career.

Telling the whole story in the first five minutes of meeting someone made me look like a narcissist or like I hadn’t come to terms with my past.

I decided it was best to be forthright, though I knew I needed a strategy for dealing with my complicated past. When I started dating online, I quickly learned that front-loading was not the way to go. Telling the whole story in the first five minutes of meeting someone made me look like a narcissist or like I hadn’t come to terms with my past, which—let’s be honest—I hadn’t. Eventually, I figured out that I didn’t need to give every guy I chatted with on OkCupid my last name. Instead of going into gory detail, I told my potential suitors I was a writer and that I would rather they get to know me from me, instead of from my work.

Withholding information reminded me of a time when I had kept my past a secret. Before becoming a teacher, when I worked in the sex industry, I lied to family and friends about what I did for cash. Few people knew the details of my life; keeping secrets and compartmentalizing my life had been sickening. Twelve-step recovery, along with writing workshops, was how I’d gotten healthy: by learning to tell the truth.

At first I felt torn. These days, I know that when I fail to mention the very worst thing that ever happened to me (being outed), which necessitates that I also reveal a very complicated time of my life (when I sold sex), it’s not because I’ve got something to “hide.” I have told the story countless times. Thanks to years of constant confessions, I no longer feel the same need to confess.

In the end, I learned that everybody’s got something. Everyone carries something that’s better to wait until a fourth date to mention. Sometimes, we keep that something under wraps because we’re ashamed. We don’t want to be judged, or have to deal with people’s prejudices. We want a fresh start, and so we keep it to ourselves. And this may work, for a while. But you can’t stay silent forever.

Melissa Petro is a freelance writer and writing instructor living in New York City. She has written for Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, New York Magazine, Pacific Standard and elsewhere. Follow her at @melissapetro

Illustration via Bruno Moraes