Sitting at home on a sunny fall afternoon, coffee in hand, Melissa Petro looks like the picture of tranquility. Light streams in through gauzy curtains; artfully hung collages grace the walls of her cozy Manhattan flat. But outside her front door, a media storm rages. Reporters and photographers have been hounding her for weeks, ever since she got yanked from the Bronx classroom where she taught. The reason: Before becoming a teacher, she had sold sex on Craigslist — and she had recently blogged about it on The Huffington Post.
The 30-year-old Petro, who had been granted tenure last year after three years at her school, says she loved teaching art and creative writing to grade-school kids, and they loved her back. Today, she is on "administrative duty," which, she says, simply involves sitting at a desk all day, doing nothing. Here, Petro tells her story to Marie Claire, describing why she went public with her past — and how it actually feels to sell sex on Craigslist.
Marie Claire: Why did you decide to blog about your past?
Melissa Petro: The point of my blog post was to criticize Craigslist for shutting down its adult-services section amid concerns that it enabled prostitution and exploitation of women. I argued that for all the victims in the adult-services section, there were a considerable number of people who chose sex work of their own free will, as I had done in college and grad school, to earn a little money. Prostitution is a far from perfect occupation — I will be the first to admit that — but it is an occupation, and it is an occupation that many individuals choose.
I disclosed my history because I think if you're going to state an opinion, you ought to back it up with your credentials. A lot of people have such strong opinions about sex work and yet they have no experience or personal knowledge whatsoever. I don't claim to be an expert on anything other than my own experience. I've been a stripper and I sold sex. I also conducted interviews with sex workers across Europe and in the United States — this research became my undergraduate thesis at Antioch College.
MC: In your blog post, you said Craigslist abandoned its principles by closing its "adult" section. But prostitution is illegal in most states. Why should websites be allowed to sell sex?
MP: Just because prostitution is illegal doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Turn to the back page of The Village Voice or, hell, troll around the "casual encounters" section on Craigslist or even the personals, and I'll bet you'll find prostitution is alive and well. In my article, I commended Craigslist for having dignified sex work with its own space. It was in the "jobs" section, if I remember correctly. Calling it what it is.
People who have sex for money are considered by our society a "minority" group, an "other." Different. Not the norm. Our actions may be different, but inside we are made of the same basic material. Our thoughts, feelings, fears, and desires, our motivations, are similar. And, actually, our actions might not even be so different. Certainly a lot of women and men have sex for reasons other than love. Many of these reasons could even be considered what we call "transactional sex," sex in exchange for something, material or otherwise.
MC: Tell us a little bit about your background, where you grew up...
MP: I grew up in Walton Hills, Ohio, a suburb on the east side of Cleveland. My mother was a secretary at a racetrack. My father raced horses. My father had a real get-rich-quick personality. He was very impulsive; he had an explosive temper. He moved out my senior year of high school, and I haven't seen or talked to him since. When he left, I felt many things, but part of what I felt was a relief. He'd always been unhappy, and he'd made it feel like it was our fault. He'd never been a provider anyway. It was always my mother who took care of us.
I was angry when he left, but I also saw that my father had the courage to do what my mother didn't — leave a bad marriage. At least for this reason, I respected him. Also, because he seemed to have the power. In some ways, I am much like my father: I've always been a little dark, moody, discontent. And I've always been attracted to seedy places — racetracks, strip clubs. These places are familiar to me. Chaos, dysfunction, desire. This is the environment in which I grew up.
MC: Why not blog about your experiences anonymously?
MP: I don't feel the need to hide behind a pseudonym. I understand that guilt, shame, and secrecy are not useful as a way of life. Listen, in the home where I grew up, we had a lot of secrets. When I was in elementary school, I remember my mom saying that if any of the teachers asked what was going on at home — if anyone ever asked if something was wrong — I was to say no. Implicit in "not telling," I think, is shame.
MC: Before you wrote your blog post, had you discussed writing it with anyone at the school?
MP: No. The fact that I was a writer was something I had made clear from the beginning, while interviewing for the job. Last year, an administrator came to me with concerns that there was something inappropriate about me online. I reminded her that I'm a writer. I told her I write about my personal experiences, including stripping, and that in my opinion, my writing is anything but inappropriate. She asked me why I didn't write anonymously, and I told her my reasons.
MC: But still...you were teaching! Weren't you worried about getting fired?
MP: I don't think having my history — or writing about it — should disqualify me from teaching today. The fact that I was competent at my job has never been called into question. That said, as I teach my students, there are consequences for our actions, positive and negative. I made choices, I was willing to take responsibility for my choices, and I was willing to accept the consequences.
MC: How did the Huffington Post piece get so widely noticed?
MP: I didn't mention that I was a teacher in the blog post, but I had done so in other pieces I'd written. A New York Post reporter put one and one together. He started following me around, asking people if they knew me. My principal called the cops, thinking the reporter was some weirdo stalking me at the school. When I realized the Post was going to run a story, I told my principal about the blog. I figured she deserved to be informed of the situation.
MC: How did you feel when the story broke and you got pulled from the classroom?
MP: The night I received the call telling me that I had been reassigned, I went for a run, all the while thinking, Shit, what have I gotten myself into this time? Maybe I should've just kept my big mouth shut. I thought, What the hell am I going to do now? Financial insecurity has always been a big worry for me. That was my immediate response — one of fear. I also don't like to think that people are angry with me, even people that I've never met, so you can imagine, when I first read that the mayor of New York had referred to me as "that woman," I felt very embarrassed and ashamed.
Then I kind of got my balls back. No one has the right to shame me today, just as I no longer shame myself. The Post called their story an "exclusive," but this story was not their exclusive — it was my story, my exclusive; I had been writing about my experiences for years. In the days leading up to when the story broke, the Post reporter shouted at on the street: "This is your last opportunity to speak, Ms. Petro!" All I could think was, I don't need you to quote me. I can quote myself.
MC: Suddenly you came under fire across the media. How did that feel?
MP: Ultimately, I believe I did nothing wrong. Why, after serving competently as a teacher for more than three years, am I suddenly not fit to be in front of a classroom? Is it for having once been a stripper, or would that have been all right if only I hadn't crossed the line and sold sex? Or would all of that have been OK, too, if I had kept my experiences to myself? I think this whole scenario would be a little more palatable to the Department of Education, and my critics in general, if only I were a little more repentant. If I had stayed silent and in shame.
In one paper, I'm being made out as some sort of moron blabbermouth. In the next article I'm villainized for somehow masterfully calculating this whole thing. I've been called an "attention whore" and a "media whore," which is honestly more offensive than just a plain old whore, because at least when I was prostituting, I was getting paid. Let it just be said that I've in no way profited off these circumstances, certainly not monetarily. I don't write for the money, or for the publicity — certainly not this kind of publicity. I write because I'm a writer, and because these are issues I feel strongly about.
MC: Describe what being reassigned to "administrative duty" means.
MP: "Reassigned" means that instead of teaching, I go to the administrative offices at 65 Court Street, where I sit six hours and 50 minutes each weekday in a windowless cubicle at a generic desk they've designated as mine. Publicly, the Department of Education claims that people who've been reassigned are doing administrative work, but the reality is that no such work exists. It's a racket. I'm paid my full salary to sit in what amounts to detention. Because I'm tenured, it is my understanding that the state of New York cannot fire me without evidence that I've egregiously violated my contract. The teachers I've met who've been reassigned have been here for literally years, their investigations pending.
I can spend the day surfing the Internet, sitting with my feet up, reading a book, or even working on my memoir. Not a bad situation for a writer. Still, this is not the job I signed up for. I certainly won't do this forever. But my instinct is that, like the countless other "reassigned" teachers around me, I'll never be allowed to teach again, nor will I be fired. I'll have to quit.
MC: Do you still want to teach?
MP: I don't have much hope I'll return to teaching. But yes, I'd gladly do so. I loved my job, and I was good at it.
MC: Do you feel that teachers are held to an unfair standard?
MP: I wouldn't say that the standards we hold teachers to are unfair so much as they are absurd. I hate to break it to the world, but here's a real exclusive: Teachers have s-e-x. That is to say, individuals who work as teachers are still allowed to be sexual beings with adult lives outside the classroom.
MC: Why did you want to become a teacher? What were you most proud of?
MP: I became a teacher through the New York City Teaching Fellows program. I'm sure they'll really appreciate my giving them the plug. The program recruits individuals to become teachers in the city's most needy public schools. I didn't know that I wanted to be a teacher; I knew I needed a job, and maybe I wanted to work with kids.
I really lucked out getting a job teaching art and creative writing. My students loved me. I taught them to mine their own lives, to use their feelings and personal experiences for material. My students wrote essays about themselves, about their neighborhoods, their hopes and proudest accomplishments. My fifth-graders kept "artists' journals" where they responded to mentor artists' work. They seemed to really enjoy this. I think my students appreciated an opportunity to think creatively. I took them seriously — I respected their thoughts and ideas — and I think they understood this. I really dig kids' art. Sometimes I would let them free-draw, and some of the stuff they'd come up with was just hilarious. I had a second-grader draw me a picture of a snake eating popcorn. Fantastic!
My first year teaching I gave an assignment where I asked students to tell me the one most important thing about themselves. One fifth-grade girl wrote, "The most important thing you should know about me is that my father died." Now this girl was a very challenging student; she didn't get along with any of her classmates. She was always refusing to do the assignments. Whatever it was, she'd say, "I can't." She'd cry at the drop of a hat. Now, I finally understood. I was so glad I'd asked. My class was all about creating a safe place for my students to create and share. I don't know how often, in school or — hell, in life — children are allowed to share. Students are told constantly all day long by everyone: Be quiet, sit still.
MC: Reports have said you were granted tenure a day before you wrote your Huffington Post piece. What's true?
MP: The insinuation that the timing of my publishing was in any way an act of calculation is just plain wrong. I cannot tell you the exact day I secured tenure. I was told by my administration that I was recommended for tenure at the end of the last school year and that it goes through automatically sometime over the summer before our fourth year of teaching. Saying I published the very day I received tenure is just another headline manufactured to sell another paper.
MC: How did your stripping days begin?
MP: When I was at Antioch College in Ohio, the school had a program called a "co-op," in which students could work or volunteer for a semester anywhere in the world. I went to Oaxaca, Mexico, to volunteer at a nonprofit preschool for street kids. I was 19 years old. About a month into my trip, my volunteer job fell through. I didn't speak Spanish, and so there was nothing, really, for me to do. I was lonely. I was homesick. I was running out of cash.
My mother and I had busted ass to pay for college: I had paid for my entire first year through merit-based scholarships, mostly essay and other writing contests. My mom had taken a second job to try to make up the difference. One day, at a grocery store in Mexico, my credit card was denied. That's around the time I met this guy, a tattoo artist, who introduced me to La Trampa — the strip club where I got my start. For me, stripping began as a solution for my problems at the time. It definitely seemed that way at first.
After Mexico, I was living in Cincinnati. I worked days at a strip club called Leroy's, and I worked nights on-call as a rape-crisis counselor. I was living with my boyfriend, and I didn't tell him or anyone else I was stripping. It was not something I felt I could explain at the time, and so I lived these two separate, seemingly disparate lives.
MC: Later, you went to grad school at The New School in New York City, to get an MFA in creative writing. That's when you decided to sell sex on Craigslist. What sparked this?
MP: It was October 2006; I was 26 years old at the time, a graduate student. I was employed as a research assistant at a public hospital. My job was basically to bring my boss's boss, a world-renowned pediatrician, a can of Diet Coke every so often. The rest of the time I sat in a windowless office at some random desk they'd designated as mine, doing nothing. Sort of like I do now.
After work I'd commute home to my studio apartment in the West Village, eat dinner standing over the sink — typically something cold, straight from a can — before hurrying to get to class. I had just left a long-term relationship. That was very hard for me. I had felt trapped in the relationship and had behaved very self-destructively to get out of it. In the end I felt like I'd behaved badly. Other than my schoolwork, which I loved, I was bored, restless. My job was an insult. There was only one thing I had to remember to do at work, and yet I was constantly forgetting to bring my boss's boss his can of Diet Coke. I remembered that as a stripper, I had felt alive. Onstage in the spotlight, I'd felt beautiful.
MC: So you headed for Craigslist. This was around the time the British blog "Diary of a London Call Girl" was exploding into a bestselling book. Did you think this would be sort of glamorous and cool?
MP: At this time in my life, I felt anything but glamorous and cool. I was thinking about my past experiences, which weren't exactly glamorous, but they were a sort of fantasy. The sex industry, to me at the time, was a sort of fantasy world. Reality is suspended. In a place where names are made up. People wear costumes. Nothing is real, it seems, and you are sexy and desirable. Everyone is looking at you; everyone loves you. The money, you think, will buy you whatever you need, and all your problems will be solved. That was my experience as a stripper.
MC: Tell us about Craigslist...
MP: I generally responded to ads placed by men. Guys would place ads looking for a "non pro," that is, a nonprofessional, a regular girl looking to make some quick cash. I'd also, less frequently, place my own ads in this section billing myself as what I was — a regular girl, so to speak. I'd say I was a grad student, bored and curious, looking for a little excitement. I sold what ultimately amounted to GFE, "the girlfriend experience," which basically means the customer can expect the girl to be willing to act as if she were a "real" date or girlfriend. Kissing, touching, oral sex, sex-sex....
READ PART II OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH MELISSA PETRO — INCLUDING DETAILS OF HER EXPERIENCE SELLING SEX ON CRAIGSLIST — .
Abigail Pesta is Marie Claire's editor-at-large.