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Once a Sex Worker, Always a Sex Worker?


Melissa Petro is an elementary school teacher who used to be a sex worker. Her essay for The Rumpus, "Not Safe for Work," examines the stigma associated with her former career, which poses a (probably unjustified) threat to her current one.

When I first took a job as stripper, I had no sense that my decision to do so would have any real, far reaching effects on my life. To the contrary, I found in sex work a solution to very nearly all my problems at the time. No longer homesick or lonely, my new job not only remedied the un-belonging I’d experienced as a foreigner, but—as a product of a broken, working-class household, the first in her family to go to college, let alone study abroad—through sex work I discovered in myself a seemingly unending source of power and autonomy relating but not only having to do with my newfound ability to make money, and lots of it, anywhere in the world. And yet, my decision to strip naked for cash was consequential, less for my experiences in that dusty Mexican strip club—which were somewhat benign relative to what one might imagine—and more for “what some might imagine”—for, from that day forward, forever being seen and seeing myself through the lens of stigma attached to being a sex worker.


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While I was in college, before I became a writer and editor, I did pizza delivery and waited tables. But those jobs aren't likely to haunt me for the rest of my working life—and there's no pressure on me to keep quiet about them.

To Petro's credit, she's not concerned with whether "an individual can, at one time, have been a sex worker and, today, be a teacher." Of course s/he can. Instead, Petro focuses on "whether society is ready to adapt their schema to accommodate our reality."

For more on the topic (including ethnographic research and interviews with women who have worked in various parts of the industry) check out Melissa Petro's contribution to the collection Sex Work Matters: Exploring Money, Power, and Intimacy in the Sex Industry. Or take a look at an excerpt from her memoir.

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