Life After Sex Work

Fired from her schoolteaching job after revealing she had once been a Craigslist call girl, Melissa Petro describes the world that awaits people who leave the trade.

Elizabeth Weinberg

After working in the sex trade for around seven years, I met a guy I sort of liked. He had a major problem with what I did for money. Getting to know him stopped as soon as it started. That’s when I knew: I no longer wanted to sell “the girlfriend experience,” as we called it in the industry, in other words, selling sex but acting as if the guy and I were on a “real” date. I wanted to be an actual girlfriend. I wanted to use the academic degrees I had worked hard to earn. For me, I realized, sex work and the “straight” life couldn’t mix. I wanted out—just like so many critics of the sex industry would advise.

That wasn’t so easy. I faced a constellation of challenges that made transitioning out of the trade incredibly difficult. It took me multiple tries to leave sex work for good. When I left in 2007 to become a public-school teacher in New York City, I ultimately lost my job after blogging about my past. Today, in honor of International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, I’m here to tell you about another kind of indignity sex workers face—not on the job, but when they leave the trade.

Whether sex workers love, hate, or feel ambivalent toward their job, most don’t intend to work in the industry forever. But the complicated reasons people enter the trade—including but not limited to economic factors—are the same complicated factors that make it difficult to leave.

I first got involved in the industry due to my economic circumstances. A sophomore in college in Ohio, I went to study abroad in Oaxaca, Mexico, while volunteering at a preschool for indigenous street kids. One afternoon at a grocery store, out of cash, my credit card hit its limit. That moment of economic desperation turned into a job as a dancer and stripper at a local club. Later, in graduate school in New York City, I traded sex for money for a few months on Craigslist.

Sex work was a job that suited my needs, as it is for many. Particularly in the recession, women who are unable to make ends meet—and may also be single-parenting or putting themselves through school—turn to the trade to support their families or supplement their incomes. Corey Shdaimah, director of a city-run program in Baltimore that helps people transition out of the trade, describes sex work as a “rational choice” for the individuals she meets. Program participants list housing, employment, transportation, and health costs as economic motivators that compel them to sell sex, she says.

Of course, there are also noneconomic issues that lead people to sell sex. Nancy Todd, a self-described Catholic-girl-from-the-suburbs-turned-prostitute, is now the executive director of Because She Matters, a blog in Tucson that tells the personal stories of sex workers and lists information on support groups and other services. While noting that not all sex workers are “powerless” over their participation in the industry, she says, many suffer from histories of trauma and substance abuse. They are typically survivors of childhood neglect, ranging from molestation to parental disinterest and denial.

I myself was never molested as a kid growing up in Ohio. However, I had an emotionally absent father and a mother deeply concerned with mounting debts, the death of her parents, and her failing marriage. I can see now how family played a part in my own choices. I realize how the “get-rich-quick” feeling I got from trading sex for cash reminded me of the warm, excited feeling we would get when my father, a daily gambler, came home after a lucky day at the track.

And the secrecy required of a sex worker mirrored the “don’t ask, don’t tell” environment in which I’d grown up: I was never supposed to talk about our family problems.

When it comes to leaving the trade, people need emotional and psychological support—not just money. They need a nonjudgmental environment, Shdaimah says, to make sense of their experiences, so that they can make choices that are right for them. They need to be treated like human beings. And yes, they need jobs.

Three months after the last time I sold sex, I landed a job as a public school teacher, teaching art and creative writing at an elementary school in the South Bronx. I earned a decent salary, people respected me, and—for perhaps the first time in my life—I felt useful and appreciated for something other than my body. My kids loved me. My colleagues praised me.

In 2010, around three years later, I lost my teaching job after blogging about sex work on The Huffington Post. I was writing about the closure of the Craiglsist “adult services” section, where sex workers listed their services, and I discussed my own history. A New York tabloid saw the blog post and blasted me in a series of nasty stories. I was booted from the school. It was a chilling message to any sex worker out there looking to leave the life.

Critics say people should get out of sex work, but then hypocritically shun us when we make the transition. We receive little sympathy when we are outed—and it’s even worse if we out ourselves. But I feel that telling our stories is integral to finding meaning in our lives and our experiences. Before writing and sharing my experiences, I felt compelled to suppress my past, including my childhood. I was left alone to deal with the confusion I felt knowing I was a “whore.”

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Writing about my life, in blog posts and in short stories for literary sites, helped me to reconnect to my goals and to the identity I’d had prior to becoming a sex worker. I may have lost my teaching job, but I started to find myself.

This past fall, I partnered with sex-worker advocacy group Red Umbrella Project in New York to launch the Becoming Writers Workshop, allowing sex workers to write their stories. The eight-week workshop culminated with a public performance and the publication of PROS(E), an anthology of writings by people in the trade. I’m hoping that programs like this will not only give people the skills to tell their stories, but will help society understand something about life in the sex trade—and reduce the stigma.

Since losing my teaching job, finding work has been a struggle. I teach writing where I can, but it doesn’t pay much. Admittedly, I have sometimes felt tempted to return to sex work. But I choose to not sell sex, as I’m too intimately acquainted with the pain that doing so would cause me. On this day, International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, people in the industry come together to address their special vulnerability to violence and human-rights abuses. I ask that today you also think of the people who—for whatever complicated reasons—sell sex. When you think of us, I hope you realize, we’re not that different than you.