Tonight, I did a segment on Fox 5 News New York, with host Ernie Anastos and guests Councilman Fernando Cabrera and attorney Arthur Aidala, to talk about Melissa Petro, an elementary school art and writing teacher in the Bronx who was outed this week as having a past as a stripper and a prostitute. Melissa is an acquaintance who I see out and about, and who performed at Sex Worker Literati last fall (watch her read her story about stripping in Mexico), which she preludes with talking a bit about being a teacher.
But when I say that she was “outed,” that’s not really the whole story. The NY Post broke the story on Monday with an “exclusive” – air quotes because the story is basically that someone found Melissa on the internet, the NY Post sent a photographer to stalk her, and it became a story. So it’s not especially exclusive if the info is already public, nor was she outed, since she’s been writing about her experiences in the sex industry for several years and in her writing has acknowledged the risk of outness. Read her Huffington Post piece about Craigslist and her Rumpus piece about being Not Safe for Work (as a teacher).
As I’ve written about before, I turn down a lot of media because I don’t have the time or energy, or I think it will be traumatic for me or unhelpful for the movement. In fact, I turned down a request from Fox News on Monday. I accepted the invite today because I just felt like I should pay it forward. I would want my colleagues to step up for me in the media spotlight if it were ever necessary. Furthermore, the way that Melissa is being lambasted by the media is wholly unreasonable, and the what about the children?! and OMG hookers!! discourse on the whole event is ridiculous. Tonight, I was prepared to defend Melissa and speak my kind of sense about the value of what she did. Which I know doesn’t mesh with the Fox Newsspeak, but that’s part of the fun.
Here’s the clip:
I walked out of the studio feeling good, but also thinking a lot about my privilege and the ways I wield it, and the complexities of race and class that are playing out in this situation. I am very much like Melissa (which is a big part of the reason I felt like I should do some media on this). I have big heaps of privilege: white, cis, middle class, educated privilege which allows me to not only make choices about the kind of work I do for a living, but also has enabled me to make a choice to be out and (sometimes) proud. My experience of sex work was definitely about money, but it wasn’t for survival. I could have found other ways.
I think its valuable to use my privilege in this way, to go on television and argue my point of view, even though I don’t harbor any illusions of it making big change. It also makes me feel the gulf between my privilege and the legions of other sex workers who cannot be out, whose work and lives are shrouded in the self-preservationist need to be secretive, whose economic circumstances make sex work their best option. Furthermore, the situation with Melissa Petro makes me think about the gulf between her and her students and their families – her (and my) upwardly mobile creative white conventional flaunting ladyness and what Councilman Cabrera establishes as good working class Black and Latino people who have morals.
Although I think that what is happening right now in these conversations about sex work, morals, and what’s becoming conduct is useful and important, I also know that it is dangerous. When middle class sex workers like me or Melissa Petro make our lives an example of how to destigmatize sex work, open up the conversation, and be whole people who are also sex workers, we also wield our privilege in a problematic way. When we say “Hi, I’m a good friendly teacher/girl next door/upstanding citizen,” unless we say so explicitly, we are also setting ourselves apart from people in the sex trade who are not those things. While middle class sex workers gain acceptance, the gulf widens, and many many other people continue being the victims of violence at both individual and institutional levels. It’s important not to reinforce these hierarchies, but there are so many rewards for doing so. As the sex worker rights movement, we must learn to move everyone forward, not sacrifice those whose stories aren’t salable or don’t quite fit or make people uncomfortable.