Melissa Petro, an elementary school teacher at Bronx school PS 70 and publicly out former sex worker, was recently reassigned from her teaching position to administrative duty “pending investigation,” following her recent Huffington Post article on the shutdown of CraigsList and her own experiences briefly using the site as a prostitute. In the article, Petro uses her real name and is open regarding her past sex work.
The outrage expressed by the parents of students at Petro’s school is expected, though perhaps a bit unjust, considering the means through which it comes. After all, I’m fairly certain that Petro’s elementary school students are not reading either her Rumpus.net article on being a children’s educator and a former sex worker, or her personal thoughts on CL prostitution via The Huffington Post. You can be sure, though, that her fellow coworkers and potentially her students’ parents were reading it and it is their moral outrage, not her potentially immoral impact on her students, that motivated this decision.
As the recent Jezebel article on Petro’s reassignment aptly points out, “It would be easy to criticize Petro for being reckless, for revealing information she probably knew could jeopardize her job. But a few years ago â€” and still, in some places â€” simply being open about your sexual orientation can get you fired.” Now, some people might find the association between sex workers rights and gay rights to be offensive, based on the notion that sex workers “choose” their profession, while those in the LGBT community do not “choose” their orientation or identification. Yet it was long argued to LGBT folks that they “chose” to be out about their sexuality, so the choice of living in the open in appropriately similar. Wherever you fall in the spectrum of that argument, being “out” about who you are – be it queer, kinky, poly, formerly a sex worker or currently one – can and does cost us as sexual minorities. It costs us strong relationships with our family and friends, who don’t accept us. It costs us the ability to be open with those around us, including those we work with.
In Petro’s case, she wasn’t willing to let it cost her her own sense of self, in addition to these potential dangers. As she so candidly spoke of in her Rumpus.net piece,
“It is a not a question of whether an individual can, at one time, have been a sex worker and, today, be a teacher. The reality is that a person can, as I have served at my current position competently for a nearly three years…It is a question of whether society is ready to adapt their schema to accommodate our reality.
It would be better, I suspect, if I were ashamed.
In an off the record conversation, a sympathetic administrator kindly asked if I couldn’t publish under a pseudonym. I wish, for her sake, I could. But for sake of the rights and integrity of myself and every other man or woman who makes or has made choices similar to mine, and then tries to make sense of these choices, I cannot. I learned along the way that ‘you are only as sick as your secrets.’ My writing and performing my work has been my salvation. I wrote myself out of the hell of secrecy and into the body of the woman I am today, capable of making meaning of myself and my experience â€” more than qualified to manage a classroom and teach kids about art but also, like anyone else, to be more than just my job.”
Believing that a former sex worker isn’t allowed to speak about being a sex worker, because it makes her too morally remiss to educate children, means that sex workers are so far gone ethically that they are sub-citizens, worth less than another person, regardless of education or experience. Whether you see Petro’s behavior as reckless or brave, her situation reinforces that few people “on the fringe,” as it were, are really allowed to lead authentic lives. This is another grand opportunity for those of us within alternative communities of all types to remember that when one of us fails to be heard equitably, we all do and it costs everyone as a result. For this reason, it is my belief that we should stand in support of one another, because it is a stand we also take for ourselves.
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