I always know someone has published something somewhere about the whole "hooker teacher" thing when I start getting dozens of friend requests from 50-year-old dudes who live in Bumblefuck, Nowhere.
This time it was a piece on AOL Jobs. The article, "‘Hooker Teacher’ Forced to Resign, Now Can’t Find Work" begins like this, “Melissa Petro has spent much of her young life writing about the plight of sex workers: The stigma and shame, their treatment as victims or villains.” So far so good, but then: “Now Petro has been trampled by the forces she was trying to fight. After writing about her own experience as a sex worker, Petro was forced to resign from her teaching post. With two master's degrees, five years' experience in nonprofit work and three years as a teacher, as well as a litany of published writings, Petro is skipping meals. No one will give her a job.”
The part about my being forced to resign from teaching is true. The whole “can’t find work” angle comes from a piece I wrote for Salon nearly a year a go. Today I am gainfully employed (no more skipping meals for me!) and doing quite well as a freelance writer, thank you very much.
I teach memoir writing to adults at a continuing education writing school in New York City and for an organization called Red Umbrella, which provides direct services to survivors of the sex industry. Phew! We can put away the violins, people! If AOL would be interested in my writing a follow-up essay about my struggle to find a job and redefine myself after being scandalized as the "Hooker Teacher" I would be thrilled to write that for them-- even though I kind of already wrote that for xoJane. And yet, I find that most media outlets are less interested in hearing from me than talking about me (not you, xoJane. You rock).
Let me start by admitting the obvious. I will not deny that I have complicated relationship to my quasi-celebrity. In a quasi-celebrity-obsessed culture, I think most people would.
There is definitely a less-than-healthy part of me that likes all forms of attention, negative or otherwise. I really can’t tell the difference, at least not right away, and so attention of any sort gives me, at least initially, a little charge. When I find that someone has published a made-up news story about me, however, I get miffed.
While I realize that the “Hooker Teacher” is not me -- rather, it is a caricature created by the media to which they’ve assigned my likeness and aspects of my story -- I am reminded, every so often, that most people don’t. Most people think I am whatever the news story they’ve read about me says I am -- most people, including the very many creepsters whose Friend requests sit in my inbox, awaiting confirmation.
I shouldn’t call them creepsters. Some of these guys are probably very nice. They are decent and good-intentioned. They are our neighbors and coworkers. They may be some of your brothers or dads. Sometimes, in their profile picture they are pictured with their wives/girlfriends and/or kids. When they include a message it is generally supportive (although sometimes it is not, which is another strange phenomenon -- I mean, who reaches out to some random stranger on the Internet by Facebook to let them know they’re ambivalent about the choices that she or he has made in her life?)
Usually, the messages are along the lines of:
“I think what you wrote is an excellent piece of literature, no joke” -- er, why would you be joking? -- “I don't agree with what's happened to you after reading about it in Fox news. I'm sure there are a lot of people here that stand with you and I'm one of them. Remain true to your values and don't take crap off of anyone” -- Glen, from Piedmont, Virginia
“I just read an article about you on cnn's web site. I am sorry you lost your job. People need to understand that nobody is perfect and people make mistakes. I hope you find a job soon or hope that something good comes out of all this. Good luck!!!”-- Edward in Orient, Ohio
See, those were really nice. This is why I want to give these people the benefit of a doubt. Of the now hundreds of emails and Facebook messages I have received, I have only gotten one penis picture and two or three overt offers for paid sex.
Perhaps, I tell myself, I am too quick to judge. It would be nice to believe that Glen is a regular reader of Post Road (the literary magazine that published my first essay) or that Edward is deeply concerned about rights and dignity of people who have or currently engage in transactional sex, but I feel that would be naive. I’m even less inclined to believe that all these guys on Facebook are sincerely rooting for me when every third one wants to meet for a drink “and possibly more.”
My boyfriend tells me that my wanna-be friends are all -- without exceptions -- perverts, and that I ought to simply delete their requests. Instead, I read their messages and cull through their profiles, trying to get a sense of who they are. Maybe, I tell myself, they’re a big shot agent or some other other “important person,” though this has not once revealed itself to be the case.
“Important people” usually introduce themselves as such, or we typically have at least a dozen friends in common. More typically, these random people appear, upon closer inspection, to be older men with fewer than a hundred “friends,” their “likes” including Nascar, Pro-Wrestling and South Park -- not that there’s anything wrong with any of that -- only, c’mon, we can assume how “Melissa Petro” fits in.
If you read my writing, you have a sense of who I am. If you don’t, you don’t. If you read the news stories written about me (and not my writing) you will wrongly assume that I was a teacher by day, hooker at night, until the day I revealed myself in a disgusting, media-savvy plan to get publicity for my upcoming memoir. Now, according to most recent reports, I’m literally starving and unemployable, so desperate and/or unrepentant of my old ways that I will do anything for cash.
My boyfriend has said that I ask for attention and then criticize the people who give it to me, and there is some truth to this (he is good for pointing out the truth -- one reason I keep him around). But equally true, and more importantly, is the counterargument that my putting myself out there, literarily or otherwise, is not an invitation for people to publish poorly researched or purposely false news reports. And it’s not an invitation to everyone on Earth to get to know me privately.
The idea that any woman who has, at any time in her life, made herself sexually available (for money or for any other reason) should then, automatically, be perceived as available to everyone -- sexually or otherwise -- is absolutely wrong, and yet it's insidious.
Now that I think about it, this is something I have struggled with my whole life. Particularly when I was younger, when men I didn’t know would approach me in public -- at a cafe or the gym, for example -- and try and strike up what to me seemed like an innocent conversation, my first instinct was always to be polite.
Too often, such “innocent conversations” would end in my turning down a date or simply feeling held hostage, stuck in a conversation I didn’t want to have, feeling as if I had somehow “asked for it” by virtue of my gender. When I started working as a stripper, I learned this was an actual job, not just another chore women are obligated to do.
Being sexually available and making men feel good about themselves is work, and I don’t have to do it for free. I sold sex for lots of complicated reasons, including the one, uncomplicated reason that I needed money. Today I don’t. I don’t sell sex, that is -- and I don’t need money. And I don’t give away what I used to get paid for, and so -- no offense, Glen and Edward -- but I don’t want to be your friend.
I LOVE it when women send me friend requests or letters of support, but if you are a dude and you try to friend me, I will assume you are looking for the “hooker teacher,” and, ultimately, I will delete your request. I do, after all, have a public page.