The "Hooker Teacher" tells all

I lost my elementary school job for admitting my sex worker past. Now, even friends ask: What was I thinking?

Published May 5, 2011 1:01AM (EDT)

A photo of the author
A photo of the author

I have two master's degrees, five years' experience in the nonprofit sector and three years' experience teaching -- and I cannot get a job. Why? Just google me. I'm the "Hooker Teacher" -- at least that's what I've come to be called ever since Sept. 27, 2010, when I found myself on the cover of the New York Post.

"Meet Melissa Petro," the story began," the teacher who gives a new twist to sex ed." The piece describes me as a "tattooed former hooker and stripper" who was "shockingly upfront about her past." Indeed, earlier that month, I'd written an Op-Ed on the Huffington Post that criticized the recent censoring of the adult services section of Craigslist and came clean about my own sex-worker past. Because I was arguing that sex workers shouldn't be ashamed to speak for themselves, I signed my name to it. The New York Post wasn't interested in my politics, however; its interest seemed only in cooking up shock that an elementary school teacher would dare admit such a shady history.

The Internet shaming was fast, intense and seemingly unending, summed up in February by columnist Andrea Peyser, who wrote: "Hooker turned teacher Melissa Petro is a disgrace."

Eight months after the story broke, I am jobless. I cannot get hired. And even my biggest supporters ask me privately: "But seriously, what were you thinking?" The answer is complicated. I was being idealistic. I was being provocative. I was naive. I picked a fight that I thought I could win -- and I was wrong.

One reason I was so casual about the disclosure was that I had been writing about my past long before becoming a teacher. As a student at the New School, where I earned a degree in creative nonfiction, I began work on a memoir that details, in part, how I began stripping while living in Mexico as a student abroad. As an undergraduate at Antioch, I conducted ethnographic research across Europe and in the U.S., interviewing women from all aspects of the industry about their lives and their professions (published in the collection "Sex Work Matters: Power and Intimacy in the Sex Industry"). The subject of sex work and workers' rights became a passion about which I've written in print and online, everywhere from academic and literary journals to political blogs.

Another reason I didn't think my story would be shocking is because, well, my story isn't shocking. Whereas some women's road to sex work entails coercion and last-ditch survival, for me, this wasn't the case. The product of a working-class home -- the first in her family to go to college, let alone study abroad -- my working as a stripper began as a means to an end. Prior to stripping, I'd worked in fast food. I'd worked in retail. I even spent one summer delivering singing telegrams. I was used to long hours, unreasonable bosses and very little pay; stripping -- at least at first -- was the ideal job.

But sex work, I would learn, was a far from perfect occupation. Prostitution, in particular, was not the job for me. I was simply not suited for a profession that relied on dishonesty. I got caught up in the industry's pull toward materialism and greed. The industry's criminalized and stigmatized nature only exacerbated the rigors of the work. I kept my job a secret, even from my family and friends. Living a lie, I lied to myself. My own denial and self-justification made it near impossible to extricate myself from the business. It was only by writing about my experiences that I was able to see my truth.

Around my 27th birthday, I gave up sex work for good. It was some months later when -- unemployed and working on a book -- teaching presented itself as an option. I was attracted to the flexibility and creativity of the profession. I liked the idea of working with children and of making a difference in my community, not to mention the summer vacation. After graduating from the New School, I landed a spot as a New York City Teaching Fellow, which bills itself as a highly competitive program that recruits "high quality, dedicated individuals from different backgrounds" to become teachers in New York City's struggling public schools. My first year as a teacher, I earned my master's in childhood education in the evenings while working full-time at an elementary school in the South Bronx. I taught art and creative writing to students in grades K-5, nearly 700 students each week. In the three years I spent there, I grew to love my job.

My past had no bearing on my competence as a teacher, and so I refused to operate as if it did. The idea that an elementary school teacher wasn't entitled to a life in her off-hours I found equally absurd. Sure, I'd seen other teachers get in trouble for stupid things like pictures or comments posted on Facebook. Even so, I did not think it would happen to me. I was well appreciated at my school. When it came to my administration and my colleagues, my personal life was just that: personal. Many of them knew I was a writer, and those who had bothered to google me knew I wrote about my past. It had never been an issue -- until the day it became front-page news.

There it was, my name and likeness -- a most unflattering shot, by the way -- under varying versions of the "hooker teacher" headline (which always made it sound like I was still involved in sex work, as though I were heading from the reading circle straight to working the streets): "Bronx art teacher blabs about exploits as stripper and hooker," "Prostitute teacher a reason to end tenure." I was called an "idiot prosti-teacher" in one N.Y. Post headline. One photo caption by the same publication read, "Attention whore." More offensive than my past, it seemed, was the fact I'd had the gall to talk about it. The women's blog, the Frisky, supposed it was "all part of Petro's media-savvy plan to get publicity for her upcoming memoir," which the writer called "disgusting." The Daily News, Inside Edition and Us Weekly all sent their female reporters, women ironically similar to me -- young professionals, well-dressed, writers themselves -- to get in my face, demanding to know how I could refer to myself as a feminist.

As an advocate, I had long ago realized the media generally treats current and former sex workers in one of two ways: We are portrayed as victims, looked down upon and felt sorry for, too stupid to realize our own victimization; or else we are made out to be villains -- dirty, cheap and willing to do anything to satisfy our greed. For years, I'd fought these gross stereotypes. Now I found myself on the receiving end of it.

To some, it was unfathomable to think that a woman could have once been a prostitute and, at another time, served her community competently as a teacher. Even New York's Mayor Bloomberg made a statement personally requesting my permanent removal from the classroom. It was as though I were a monster needing to be stopped.

I'm not a monster, or a moron. I'm a human being, and -- like everyone else -- I've made mistakes. In the community where I grew up, girls didn't become writers and teachers; they became strippers. I worked hard to earn my degrees. Of my sex work past, I have no regrets. Why, hadn't I done exactly what critics of prostitution would have wanted? I had exited the sex industry to become a "productive" member of society. And yet no one seemed to accept that I might not be ashamed of my past. That I might, on the contrary, be proud of it.

I thought my perspective deserved to be heard. I thought that my speech was protected. I did not believe a government employee could lose her job for publishing an Op-Ed. Like I said, I was naive.

The night before the Post article came out I received a phone call from the superintendent of schools in my district informing me that I'd been put in reassignment. Instead of teaching I would report to the Department of Education administrative offices and sit awaiting instruction, where I sat for months until this past Friday, my last day. After months of investigation, I was formally charged. The charges -- conduct unbecoming a professional --were a direct result of my published writing, the evidence cited against me consisting entirely of my quoted work. The fact that I was competent in my role as a teacher was never called into question. Even the Post could find no way of describing me other than "well liked." But my job performance was never a consideration. The only fact that seemed to matter, apparently, was that I'd been a whore.

In the days and weeks following my reassignment, I learned a number of hard lessons about constitutional law. The constitutionality of a government employee's speech is contingent on whether or not that speech creates a distraction in the workplace and, if it does, it is not protected so long as the distraction outweighs its political worth. This is the same reason that a soldier, according to people like John McCain, shouldn't announce that he or she is gay. Doing so, the argument goes, would create a "mortal distraction." In the case of the Hooker Teacher, in order to fire me the DOE needed only to prove that my writing created a disruption in my school community and that such a disruption had little societal value. Whether it was my speech or the speech of the New York Post that created the disruption was, of course, an argument to be made.

Meanwhile, the actual political import of my work was impossible to gauge, my own words buried in google searches underneath inflammatory news pieces, sensational headlines and cherry-picked excerpts from my creative work that, printed out of context, suggested I wrote at length about marijuana-fueled shenanigans and lesbian love affairs. Contrary to how I was being painted in the headlines, I was not a teacher blogging recklessly in her off-hours on WordPress about her sexual escapades. I was a writer and, as a writer, I was establishing a platform as a social commentator on an issue of cultural importance.

In the wake of Hooker Teacher headlines no one was debating the censoring of Craigslist, the legality of prostitution or even the constitutionality of my reassignment. The heated debate in the commentary section of the Daily News, for example, was whether I was hot enough to be paid for sex. The papers printed my personal Facebook statuses as if they were news. CBS published a slide show of my personal pictures, implicating my family and friends. The home where I lived was revealed on the nightly news so that anyone who wanted to could easily come find me. I was personally insulted and put at risk, then made to feel that by publishing a work of serious nonfiction, I had been "asking for it."

Sure, I knew I was taking a risk. I stated that in the original HuffPo piece. But knowing there is a risk doesn't mean you realize how great a risk it is, or what the consequences will be. And the consequences, in a word, have been devastating.

While I was paid by my employer through April, I had been relying on two after-school jobs to make ends meet. The day the Post story hit I was unceremoniously fired from both, including a position working in the childcare section of my gym. Other than an offer to be in a porn mag and another paid opportunity to be interviewed on "Inside Edition" -- an agreement that felt a little like Red Riding Hood signing off to have dinner with the wolves -- there were no silver linings in my dark cloud of publicity. Like the teenager I had once been, this past winter I would've done almost anything for cash. No one willing to hire the hooker teacher meant that I skipped meals. I walked instead of taking the train and didn't launder my clothes as often as necessary. This, I understand, is the predicament of the unemployed and working poor and it reminded me a lot of how I grew up. I worked hard to escape those circumstances, and the fact that I was back there -- with student loans to boot -- felt unfair.

I suppose I could've just gone back to hooking. Instead, I made the arguably anti-feminist decision to give up my apartment and move in with my boyfriend. If this situation has taught me anything, it is that sometimes we must put ideals aside and think practically -- much like I did at 19 years old, when I became a stripper. So, in the end, I resigned from my job, rather than pursuing a trial. I quit rather than be fired because, had I not signed their agreement, the DOE threatened to contest my unemployment. As much as I believed in the merits of my case, it was a risk I couldn't take.

Now, I send out rafts of résumés, and I can't find work. Whether that's partly the economy, I can't say, but these days it seems my most important former occupation is the one not on my résumé. Despite all I've lost, though, I refuse to let this defeat me. I know there would be something worse than living with the consequences of speaking my truth: living in silence. Let's hope potential employers take note: I didn't lose my job for being a hooker. I lost my job for being a writer.

By Melissa Petro

Melissa Petro writes for The Huffington Post, Daily Beast, and XO Jane..

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