Former Sex Worker Melissa Petro Defends Adult Ad Site Backpage.Com
Backpage.com, the advertising site owned by the Village Voice, is criticized for facilitating the exploitation of women and recently was described by Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times as “the biggest forum for sex trafficking of under-aged girls in the U.S.” Kristof and other high-profile types—everyone from CNN’s Amber Lyon to the now-defunct celebrity-activist duo Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore—are the loudest mouths in a campaign to shut the site down.
Whereas no one disputes that some individuals are led into the sex industry under false pretenses and remain in the industry due to violence or coercion, the truth is, not all people who engage in commercial sex have been misled into doing so or remain in the industry by force. People sell sex for lots of different reasons—and many of these people say the ads should stay up.
“The forces behind the censoring of Craigslist clearly know little of the real world. Now, they’re after Backpage. To assume that removing the Adult Services ads sections of our newspapers would magically eliminate the abuse of anyone is absurd. The fact is that there are people who post on Adult Services that are of legal age and independent. I should know—I am one of those women.”
These are the words of Maria, a 48-year-old hairdresser and artist who supplements her income selling sexual services to clients that she meets online. Maria was one of many eager to talk to me about how petitions to shut down adult classified sections on sites like Craigslist and Backpage affect real people working in the industry.
“If Backpage and the many other adult services sites were to be removed as an option for [men and women like me],” Maria said, “I fear we will be forced to the streets, where the most abuse occurs.”
“My income isn’t as steady as I like it to be, and in those months where I’m really tight, Backpage allows me to do this work as much or as little as I want—no commitments to anyone,” said Vivian, 25. “I don’t need an agency. I don’t need a pimp. I can just meet people on my own and stop as quickly as I started. If Backpage closes, I don’t know how I’ll do that. It’s not like closing Backpage will also get rid of my student debt.”
While some anti-trafficking activists believe all sex workers are beholden to traffickers and pimps, sex workers such as Maria and Vivian argue that they are beholden to demands no more excessive than what most working people struggle to meet. Sex workers use the money they earn to pay loan officers and landlords, grocery bills and car payments—to meet the same financial responsibilities as everyone else. For some, sex work is the best option given the choices they perceive as available to them. It is an option some women and men prefer over part-time, low-wage work that—in this economy in particular—is not always available.
Zoe, a “relatively young” single mother, says she struggles to make ends meet by soliciting clients on Backpage—what she describes as “hard work” due, she says, to the racial preference of her customers. (“My complexion is darker so I get less work or have to lower my rates in order to keep my bills paid,” she explains.) According to Zoe, she doesn’t make enough money to post on sites likes Eros.com, which can cost as much as $200 per ad.
Melissa Petro on why shutting down Backpage.com could hurt sex workers.
“To shut the adult section [of Backpage] down is to put me in extreme poverty,” said Zoe. “It puts me at risk of being homeless and hungry. I’ve never been a streetwalker, but to have to go to that as an option puts me at much greater risk of harm than having the control over who my clients are when I post on such sites.”
At 26 years old, I was working a dead-end desk job and could barely make ends meet when I started selling sexual services on the now-shuttered adult services section of Craigslist. Similar to Backpage.com, Craigslist—at that time—allowed me to write and post ads that could be up one minute and then down the next. This, according to Kate D’Adamo, a representative from Sex Workers Outreach Project of New York City (SWOP-NYC) is an important feature for people who may not identify as sex workers—“people who are just trying to make a little bit extra to cover their rent.”
I was in grad school at the time, earning a degree in creative nonfiction with aspirations of writing a book. Escorting meant I could have time to go to school, and write, and still pay my bills. As a call girl on Craigslist, I wrote my own ads and screened potential clients, making arrangements via email prior to meeting, negotiating what I was comfortable doing and for what price. I did it all on my own, all without a middleman and—best of all—I kept all the money I made for myself.
I did it for the money, and it was also true that I enjoyed the work—at least I did at first. Ultimately, I found myself not cut out for the job. Like many sex workers, I enjoyed the informal nature of sex work. But experts like D’Adamo remind us that such a status makes the sex industry that much more prone to exploitation. I personally lacked the sexual education and social networking skills that savvy sex-industry professionals rely on. Relying solely on oneself, and placing one’s trust and faith in the client is—I realize today—naive, at best. Condoms broke. People stiffed me. I suffered from the occupational hazards, and, unlike with most occupations, I had nowhere to turn. The rigors of the work were made all the worse by an outside world that simply did not understand, and was not inclined to attempt to understand, the real-life experiences of a prostitute.
Months later, I stopped selling sex, just as easily as I started. Unlike with a part-time, low-wage job, I had managed to save enough to take time off until I found a new career—a career I loved. I went back to school, this time earning a degree in childhood education while working as a public elementary-school teacher in the South Bronx.
In September 2010, I lost my job as a New York City public elementary-school teacher after publishing an article on the Huffington Post criticizing the censoring of the Adult Services section of Craigslist and defending the rights and dignity of sex workers. For coming forward about my history without pseudonym or apology, I was ridiculed in the national press, shamed by my former employer, and ultimately forced to resign from a career that I had loved. The message was clear: if you have a history such as mine, and an opinion on the matter that differs from the common view, keep it to yourself. Or else.
Since losing my job I have dedicated myself to promoting the opposite of that message—the message that everyone, particularly people who’ve been historically rendered invisible, have the human right to be seen as well as heard, and that true social change comes about by listening without judgment or condescension to the communities we purportedly seek to help. Had I wanted to keep doing it—or had I needed the money badly enough, as many people do—no one could have stopped me from selling sex, surely not the elimination of an advertising site. All that would have done is made my job harder.
In the Huffington Post article that cost me my career, I described my lifestyle as a prostitute as “physically demanding, emotionally taxing and spiritually bankrupting” and went on to say that, “I hope to never again make the choice to trade sex for cash even as I risk my current job and social standing to speak out for an individual’s right to do so.” That risk proved far more real than I expected. Still, today, I have no regrets. Few people are willing to sacrifice their professional and personal reputation to speak up about having been a prostitute, but those of us who do deserve to be heard.
“Sex workers have a very vested interest in trying to make the industry safer and free of exploitation, and often have their own, thoughtful solutions to how to end exploitation in the industry, which is often overlooked,” D’Adamo said. “We are always open to having conversations with other anti-trafficking organizations, and coming up with solutions which have far, far less unintended harms.”