As part of their ongoing campaign to dehumanize sex workers as much as possible, The New York Post ran a story today that breathlessly chronicles the improbable continued employment of “prosti-teacher” Melissa Petro as—get this—something other than a prostitute. WHAT THE WHAT?
Yes, that’s right. Despite once having done sex work to make a living, and subsequently being fired from her teaching job as a result of said fact, the resilient young
teacher/writer/human fallen woman is now teaching adults at Gotham Writing Workshops, as well as “teaching hookers” at the Red Umbrella Project, an organization that helps sex workers write and share their stories. Adults and hookers? She’s so versatile.
The actual content of the article is not that damning, because there were no damning facts to report; Petro’s employers were aware of her past when they hired her. But the way the article is framed is a study in sensationalistic, “once a hooker, always a hooker” language, from the lede (“She’s a working girl once again!”), to the reference to exposed flesh (“Petro, wearing a sleeveless dress that showed off her tattooed arm”–What a harlot, showing off one of her arms) to the continued insistence on referring to people who’ve done sex work as “hookers,” as though once you accept money for sex, you are forever defined by it.
They had to take a quote blatantly out of context to make it sound like even one of her students was upset to be enrolled in a class taught by the “prosti-teacher:”
Two Department of Education employees who enrolled unaware of her background had mixed reviews of their bad-girl teacher when they learned about her past.
“As a teacher, yes, it concerns me,” said a GED teacher on Staten Island who asked not to be identified.
“She’s probably better suited to teach adults. You literally have to kill someone to get fired from the DOE.”
And this line, Petro explained to me by email, is a mischaracterization of how she feels about what happened to her:
Petro, who has an MFA from The New School, said she regrets advocating for sex-worker rights while she was working for the Education Department.
“What happened to me was terrible, and I regret the pain it caused my family and my former colleagues,” she writes. “…But I’ve said explicitly again and again that I have no regrets- not about my past, not about coming forward. Knowing what I do now- that is, the way it all turned out- I certainly would have done some things differently, but regret? No. I try to learn from things, rather than regret them.”
Petro has a great response to the piece on Jezebel today which is certainly worth a read, in which she talks about the dangers of reducing a human being down to an archetype:
In real life, I teach my students, none of us are caricatures. That is to say that characters are never entirely villainous nor heroic. Main characters, especially, must be portrayed as real. Whether prostitute or public school teacher, each character is an individual, unique and complex. I teach my students to look for the plot. Even real life, and, accordingly nonfiction, sometimes follows this formula: there is a protagonist, she has a goal, she encounters a conflict. As a result of conflict, there’s change.
That said, she’s in a pretty good place these days, so she seems more amused than anything by the Post‘s continued obsession with her:
Sex work, I can see more than ever, is only a part of my past — and when it comes to being the “hooker teacher,” that story is written and I have moved on. I wish the Post would, too. If not, hopefully that reporter learned something from my class.
I hope so, too!