Marie Claire: How did you screen the guys?
Melissa Petro: I'd screen my clients in a series of emails, just enough to make sure they were legit. Then we'd meet up, typically in a public place, perhaps in my neighborhood. At the time, I lived on the second floor of a walkup building in the West Village, very near the West 4th Street subway station, which is centrally located and heavily trafficked. This location felt discreet but at the same time I felt guarded by the proximity of the general public. Ironically, there were often uniformed officers standing outside my door, at the foot of the subway station. That was both a reassurance as well as a source of anxiety—there were lots of times I stepped outside for a call, half-expecting to learn it was a setup and I would be arrested.
In my emails with clients, I'd describe myself as "adorable, bored, curious," "a typical grad student, looking for adventure," and, above all else, "normal." My intention was always to normalize the interaction—to frame the situation as possibly "naughty" but not "extreme." I wanted clients who were looking for a "normal" sexual interaction, nothing "dirty" or "kinky." It was always GFE. I considered these customers less of a risk. I guess I also figured, in retrospect, that if they wanted to be treated like a boyfriend, I assumed they'd treat me with at least some measure of the respect with which they'd treat a girlfriend.
It was always important to me that I might enjoy the encounter. Or I at least wanted assurance that I wouldn't not enjoy it. The guy's demeanor and appearance were important: I looked for clients in their twenties and thirties, and I always asked for a picture. I certainly wouldn't say it was the deciding factor, but the guy's appearance was definitely a factor that helped me decide whether or not I'd see him. I was always surprised that these dudes were willing to send me pictures, but they almost always did.
MC: What were the guys typically like?
MP: Meeting these guys was a lot like meeting a guy on a blind date. Almost exactly like this. We'd meet for drinks. Get to know each other. After two or three drinks, go back to my place or his. It was always very important to me that I feel in control of the interaction, and, for the most part, I always did. I generally do with men, because I have a strong personality—and because as a sex worker, as a woman, maybe, you develop an armor. A certain power. I had one or two dicey scenarios, but typically everything would go as planned. These guys were upfront about what they were after: company, conversation, physical intimacy.
I typically only went to Manhattan addresses that were convenient to get to by cab, unless the guy was offering some outrageous amount of money, in which case I'd break my rule. Actually, the two times I can remember this happening were both mistakes—two of the worst calls I ever took. The one guy was out in Queens. He was offering something like $1,500, so I went for it, and I didn't get a picture of him beforehand. I showed up and he was smoking pot, which is disgusting to me; I just don't like the smell of it or the way it makes people act. But worse than that, he was fat and hairy, just gross. That was a tough call. Then the other guy was in Long Island, and he ended up ripping me off. Too long a story to share, but basically when it was time to pay, he pulled out bank checks, which, needless to say, bounced. But those were probably the worst of the worst, which is not really that bad. Goes with the territory, and those were not typical. Typically, the guys were decent enough—well off, educated. Most of the homes that I'd enter were really nice, I mean shockingly nice—condos and townhouses much nicer than my little studio.
You know, the men that I met as clients are not unlike the men you'd meet anywhere else. I think this is what women don't realize when they think, "oh I could never." The next time you're on a subway, look around at the men you see—now, zero in on the guys in suits in their twenties and thirties, maybe one or two that aren't in suits but they've got nice shoes so you know they've got a little money. These were my customers. They were not unlike, for example, the men that I met online some months after giving up prostitution, when I tried online dating—which was awful, just awful, much worse than prostitution. In fact, sometimes they were the same men—I mean, I'd see pictures of guys I'd met as clients who were now looking for "real" dates. These were just your typical average-Joe types—maybe a little above average, many of them—because I do think it takes some balls to call a pro and pay a couple hundred dollars for a date. They were typically educated men, not bad looking, good jobs.
Ultimately, most of my encounters as a "non pro" were benign—average sex with average men and, well, after time, it begins to feel this way: average, mundane. This is the numbing aspect of the job—of any job, I think. I did not develop relationships with these people. I introduced myself to someone new again and again, half a dozen times a night. That is lonely-making. I had a couple regulars, but I preferred to see new people. I realize today that this was because, underneath my veneer, I did not have much confidence back then. Perhaps, like the men I met, I had one ad, one dress I liked to wear, certain lines I liked to deliver—ways of answering the same questions over and over again that made me sound clever and cool. Underneath that, I was lost. I did not know the woman I was beyond that, and I feared if I knew her, I would not like her.
MC: How much did you charge?
MP: I charged the going rate: $250 to $300 for an hour, sometimes more, never less. Some men were willing to pay more—I'd get a legit call for a $1,000 every other night or so—but typically if they were offering more, it was because they wanted something strange or stupid: sex with no condom, role playing, something like that. No thanks. I'd ignore men's ads soliciting services for less than $200 because I perceived a "cheap" client—one willing to pay less than the going rate—as potentially more of a risk.
All this did not seem like a small amount of money to me at the time. Most calls lasted less than an hour, start to finish, and it was not unpleasant work. I avoided putting myself in uncomfortable or unpleasant situation.
MC: You did this for about four months, and found that it wasn't such a great job…
MP: Right. In my experience, maintaining a viable self-image as well as a reputable image for others compromised my ability to make sense of myself. I kept working well after I stopped enjoying it, and I didn't even do it for that long. I started suffering from burnout after less than two months, but felt unwilling to stop because I thought stopping would mean having to admit I'd been wrong for having done it in the first place, which today I don't think I was. This was something I felt I wanted to do, something I needed to do, maybe, to learn certain things about myself.
For me—and I speak only for myself, of my experience—the greatest risk of sex work was its isolating nature. No matter how liberal or understanding one's friends are, there are very few people in our society who can fathom what it's like to work as a prostitute, unless they, themselves, have done it. I felt compelled to suppress whole parts of my experience, particularly the negative aspects of what I was doing. I had to deal all alone with the confusion I felt, which was very lonely-making. At first, working as a prostitute helped me to feel less lonely, but, then, it only made these feelings worse.
The nature of the industry—for me—made it impossible to be honest. I could not be honest, I felt, not with my clients, not with my family or friends, not with myself. That is very sad to me now, very antithetical to the live I live today, which hinges entirely on living honestly.
I also felt that I'd made myself reliant on the income. After my brief period of selling sex, I found myself virtually unemployable. I'd grown accustomed to the lifestyle of making hundreds of dollars an hour for working when I felt like it, doing what felt like very little work, and doing whatever I wanted to do with the rest of my time. I didn't want to have to then look for a "real" job.
MC: Do you think you were perhaps naïve about what this lifestyle would be like?
MP: I was perhaps naïve about myself and what I was capable of. I was not naïve about the industry. I thought that I was tough and so I could take it. I could show up and put on my show: introduce my cover story, numb parts of myself that were ambivalent about the choices I was making, and through it all, remain unaffected by the rigors of the work. I thought I could take, take, take it all in and it wouldn't affect me, but of course I was wrong about that. I am a tough person, but I'm still human, and I'm actually quite sensitive. I'm learning this now. And I'm learning to stop perceiving my vulnerabilities as weaknesses.
MC: Do you think you'd ever go back to sex work?
MP: I can't imagine any circumstances that would lead me back to sex work. I have dear, dear friends who love me as I am, and I love them. I show up for my friends—I'm a good friend today, a good employee, a good citizen, whereas three-plus years ago I was not. I have life skills that I didn't learn growing up but that I have now. I've recovered a sense of self and a sense of belonging in this world that I would not dare to jeopardize. I'm happy with my life today whereas, then, I wasn't—not at all.
MC: Any regrets? Was it worth it to go public with your past?
MP: Was it worth it? Absolutely. Writing has been my salvation. I wrote myself out of my own personal hell—out of the isolation of my secrets, which had formed a sort of cage around me. Writing and sharing my story was and continues to be a part of my recovery. I have no regrets, not about going public, not about my past.
MC: What's next for you?
MP: This experience has forced me to grow up. When all this happened—I mean, when the Post article came out and the shit really hit the fan—I was very afraid. I didn't know what to expect, but I think I expected someone to help me, to rescue me, to solve this problem, clean up this mess, tell me exactly how to handle this situation. All my life, I think, I've always been hoping for this someone else, and by someone else, let's be real, I mean a man, to swoop in and save the day. At a certain point, I realized that there was no one who was going to rescue me. No lawyer, no agent, no publicist, no editor. There was no one who was going to swoop in and handle this situation for me. I would have to be a grown-up and handle it myself.
The timing of all this was a little funny. A few months ago, I left a three-year relationship with a man I cared very much about—I still do care deeply for him. That was very hard for me, because he and I were very dependent on each other. I moved from the apartment that he and I shared into somewhere new, a studio apartment all my own. The towels in the bathroom are all mine, and the food in the fridge is mine. When I cook, I cook for myself a beautiful meal, and I serve it to myself on a large, heavy plate. I needed this, I think; this period of my life is all about taking responsibility for myself in a grown-up, healthy way. I'm not dating today. I'm not seeking a man to meet my needs, to fill any empty places in my life, to reassure me or to distract me from reality. I have female friends in my life today instead—dear, dear friends, and that is a true gift. I'm writing. I'm working on my book, and, in God's time, that'll be complete. In the meantime, I'm living my life.
Abigail Pesta is Marie Claire's editor-at-large.