Studying Down: Thoughts on Sex Work, Steinem, and Self-Representation

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Commentary Sexuality

Studying Down: Thoughts on Sex Work, Steinem, and Self-Representation

Stigma Shame and Sexuality Series

Some people perceive all women’s participation in the sex industry as a product of coercion. For me, this couldn’t have felt less true. Though circumstances had been a factor, the first time I stripped was no act of desperation. I made a choice.

This post is by Melissa Petro, and is part of Tsk Tsk: Stigma, Shame, and Sexuality, a series hosted by Gender Across Borders and cross-posted with Rewire in partnership with Ipas.

I did not read Gloria Steinem’s article “I was a Playboy Bunny” in Women’s Studies 101, and as much as I would like to say that her ethnographic research inspired my own, this isn’t true. My research began the second semester of my second year at Antioch College. Prior to calling it “research,” it was just plain work.

At nineteen years old, I found myself in Oaxaca, Mexico, living as a student abroad. Three weeks into my trip—out of cash, my credit card having hit its limit—the solution seemed obvious. I became a sex worker, starting as a stripper at a club called La Trampa. I stripped on and off through college, sometimes thinking of it as research, sometimes— more honestly—not.

My junior year, I traveled to Europe where I interviewed prostitutes and other sex workers about their lives and professions. At twenty-seven years old, after a five year hiatus, I returned to the industry for a brief stint, this time as a call girl on Craigslist. Like Gloria Steinem, I consider myself a researcher, a writer, and a feminist. Unlike Gloria, when it came to researching sex work, as much as I would have wanted to have believed it then, I wasn’t “studying down.”

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For some, sex work is about survival. They do it because they have to. While this may be true for some, some people perceive all women’s participation in the sex industry as a product of coercion. For me, this couldn’t have felt less true. Though circumstances had been a factor, the first time I stripped was no act of desperation. I made a choice.

Coming home from Mexico, I thought about all the reasons, besides money, I preferred my newfound occupation. Of all the jobs I’d had, stripping was by far and in many ways the best. It had the best uniform. I could make my own hours. And then there was the money. I preferred a job that so-called decent women wouldn’t even consider, I found myself thinking.

In Europe, while the other kids were out drinking and dancing, I transcribed my tapes in the evenings in the hostel, playing and rewinding the microcassettes. Speaking to other women about their lives and professions as sex workers began a process that went on for nearly a decade.

The sex workers I met and interviewed were regular women, their lives in all ways normal, despite what some might think. For many sex workers, including myself, it was “what some might think” that made our lives most difficult. The idea that sex workers are deviant, and  that our occupations are associated with drug use, sexually transmitted disease, mental illness, trafficking, and victimization is a lens through which all sex workers are seen and, I’d venture to say, through which we begin to see ourselves.

As my research revealed, sex workers employed various ways of distancing themselves from the stigmatized identity imposed upon them by their professions. Had I the courage to recognize them then, I could have seen examples of this in my own life. Sometime after my first night working at La Trampa, I called home from a pay phone across the street from my apartment. I told my mom I’d found a job babysitting. I talked on and on about how much it paid. I mean really, mom, it’s unbelievable. I took funny things that had happened in the club and I changed the setting. I made things up. Like so many women I had interviewed, when it came to those who loved me, I lied.

My mom, at the time, worked as a secretary at a racetrack. When I 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. Hanging up the phone that day, I pictured my mother in her polyester uniform, a name-tag pinned to her breast: Patricia. My mom liked my stories. She was proud of me. I never even considered telling her the truth.

Back at Antioch, I described my experiences in Mexico as “participant observational research.” On campus, I made no secret I had stripped. I wore it like a badge. On a campus that was sixty percent gay, I had stood out as ‘the straight girl.’ My first year, I was taught that my being heterosexual, not to mention white, was a privilege—but I had never in my life felt privileged. Finally, I thought, I had something about me that made me different, interesting. I had become a sex worker, the very term a political one. I argued that women’s participation in the sex industry was transgressive. Sex work had the potential of subverting the very paradigms it seemed to reinforce. More accurately, for me, sex work was a way to financial freedom, and that was empowering.

But in conversations about sex work, I spoke in the third person, too afraid to draw conclusions about myself. Whether it was the money or the attention, for the first time in my life I felt secure. In the club, if not in the real world, I was sexually desired. I felt in control. I felt valuable. In classroom discussions, I had become useful, quick to offer a unique and provocative point of view. Never in my working class life had I felt so seen. My research became my graduating thesis and was subsequently published in “Research on Sex Work” and in the anthology “Sex Work Matters: Exploring Money, Power and Intimacy in the Sex Industry.”Still, as much as I had hoped my interviewees could speak for me, I would not be satisfied until I had learned to speak for myself. Years later, I pursued an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from The New School, where my research began to take the form of memoir.

Only in writing my own story was I able to see its whole truth. My experience as a writer and activist is similar to my experience as a sex worker. Although initially empowering, everything I gained was not without consequence.

Last year, September 2010, I was removed from my job as a public school teacher for publishing an article on the Huffington Postin criticism of the censoring of the adult services section of Craigslist. I had wanted to make the point that some women, like I had, choose to sell sex, and that the conflation of consensual sex work with abusive sex trafficking does all individuals engaging in commercial sex– be they victims or otherwise– a disservice. Having done so before, though never for a site as visible as theHuffington Post, I thought nothing of speaking first-person and publishing under my name. Though I knew there was a risk for backlash, I assumed such speech was constitutionally protected, believing then– as I do today– that its political import outweighed any distraction it had the potential to cause the community within which I worked. As much as I underestimated the distraction my writing created, I overestimated the institutions I had assumed would defend its political importance, starting with the institution of feminism.

In response to my speaking candidly about my experiences and without a psuedonym, I was called a ‘moron’ and a ‘disgrace.’ My behavior was characterized as reckless and selfish, my mindset described as ‘depraved.’ From the way I was characterized, it was the act of representing myself that people found most offensive. One feminist blog called my apparent vying for attention ‘disgusting.’ Female reporters took issue with my bio, demanding to know how I could refer to myself as a feminist. An ex-whore attention whore? It was too much. A sleaze and a blabbermouth and an idiot but a feminist?

Feminism, as I see it, is a movement that fights for the rights and equality of women and while that definition is expanding to include individuals across a gender spectrum, it has always at least purported to include all women. Black and white, rich and poor, virginal or professional and everything in between, it is a feminist belief that whatever our experience, our experience is meaningful. The act of telling that story is a feminist act.

“Stories from each other’s lives,” Gloria Steinem once said, “are our best textbooks. Every social justice movement I know of has come out of people sitting in small groups, telling their life stories, and discovering that people have shared similar experiences.”  Whereas sex workers are largely excluded from conversations about their own lives, thus alienating them from the category of feminism, in my eyes there is no woman more imperfect—and, thus, more feminist—than the unrepentant whore.

Considering the pain I caused myself, this past year I often wondered what I could have done differently. In the end, I realize I could not have done anything differently but to have said or done nothing at all. As Rebecca Traister put it recently in a NY Times article on contemporary feminist activism: “The standard response to any public attempt by a woman to upend expectations of consent, passivity and silence – whether she does it calmly or hurredly, in court or in fiction… – is still that she is a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.” For sex workers engaging in the media, this is particularly true. We are talked about ad nausea but not allowed to speak. When we do, no matter what we say or how we say it, it is bound to come out wrong. I say, speak anyway.

Today, one year later, I have no regrets—not about my past, not about speaking out. I am thirty one years old, no longer a child. As the product of all my choices and experiences, I am entirely comfortable with the woman I’ve become. I am a daughter, a sister, a girlfriend. I am somebody who is loved. I am a former sex worker. I am still, and will always be, a teacher. Today my life is filled with opportunity because I have the imagination to believe this, and though not without consequence, this is all because I worked in the sex industry— not in spite of it. A victim of poverty, a victim of sexism, a victim of stigma and discrimination— a victim of my own poor judgment, at times, perhaps— but a victim of sex work, I was not.

Melissa Petro has written for The Huffington PostDaily Beast, Salon, and elsewhere. She is a regular contributor at xojane and this month’s guest blogger at Bitch Magazine, where she authors a column on representations of sex work in the media. She teaches creative writing at Lehman College, Gotham Writers Workshop, and Red Umbrella, an organization that empowers sex workers to represent themselves. She holds a BA from Antioch College, an MFA from the New School and a Masters in Education from Fordham University.  Contact [email protected].