Commentary Sexuality

Studying Down: Thoughts on Sex Work, Steinem, and Self-Representation

Stigma Shame and Sexuality Series

Some people perceive all women’s participation in the sex industry as a product of coercion. For me, this couldn’t have felt less true. Though circumstances had been a factor, the first time I stripped was no act of desperation. I made a choice.

This post is by Melissa Petro, and is part of Tsk Tsk: Stigma, Shame, and Sexuality, a series hosted by Gender Across Borders and cross-posted with Rewire in partnership with Ipas.

I did not read Gloria Steinem’s article “I was a Playboy Bunny” in Women’s Studies 101, and as much as I would like to say that her ethnographic research inspired my own, this isn’t true. My research began the second semester of my second year at Antioch College. Prior to calling it “research,” it was just plain work.

At nineteen years old, I found myself in Oaxaca, Mexico, living as a student abroad. Three weeks into my trip—out of cash, my credit card having hit its limit—the solution seemed obvious. I became a sex worker, starting as a stripper at a club called La Trampa. I stripped on and off through college, sometimes thinking of it as research, sometimes— more honestly—not.

My junior year, I traveled to Europe where I interviewed prostitutes and other sex workers about their lives and professions. At twenty-seven years old, after a five year hiatus, I returned to the industry for a brief stint, this time as a call girl on Craigslist. Like Gloria Steinem, I consider myself a researcher, a writer, and a feminist. Unlike Gloria, when it came to researching sex work, as much as I would have wanted to have believed it then, I wasn’t “studying down.”

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For some, sex work is about survival. They do it because they have to. While this may be true for some, some people perceive all women’s participation in the sex industry as a product of coercion. For me, this couldn’t have felt less true. Though circumstances had been a factor, the first time I stripped was no act of desperation. I made a choice.

Coming home from Mexico, I thought about all the reasons, besides money, I preferred my newfound occupation. Of all the jobs I’d had, stripping was by far and in many ways the best. It had the best uniform. I could make my own hours. And then there was the money. I preferred a job that so-called decent women wouldn’t even consider, I found myself thinking.

In Europe, while the other kids were out drinking and dancing, I transcribed my tapes in the evenings in the hostel, playing and rewinding the microcassettes. Speaking to other women about their lives and professions as sex workers began a process that went on for nearly a decade.

The sex workers I met and interviewed were regular women, their lives in all ways normal, despite what some might think. For many sex workers, including myself, it was “what some might think” that made our lives most difficult. The idea that sex workers are deviant, and  that our occupations are associated with drug use, sexually transmitted disease, mental illness, trafficking, and victimization is a lens through which all sex workers are seen and, I’d venture to say, through which we begin to see ourselves.

As my research revealed, sex workers employed various ways of distancing themselves from the stigmatized identity imposed upon them by their professions. Had I the courage to recognize them then, I could have seen examples of this in my own life. Sometime after my first night working at La Trampa, I called home from a pay phone across the street from my apartment. I told my mom I’d found a job babysitting. I talked on and on about how much it paid. I mean really, mom, it’s unbelievable. I took funny things that had happened in the club and I changed the setting. I made things up. Like so many women I had interviewed, when it came to those who loved me, I lied.

My mom, at the time, worked as a secretary at a racetrack. When I went away to college, she took a second job in retail to help cover the costs. She worked at a supplement store in a strip mall, peddling diet pills to girls I’d gone to high school with. Hanging up the phone that day, I pictured my mother in her polyester uniform, a name-tag pinned to her breast: Patricia. My mom liked my stories. She was proud of me. I never even considered telling her the truth.

Back at Antioch, I described my experiences in Mexico as “participant observational research.” On campus, I made no secret I had stripped. I wore it like a badge. On a campus that was sixty percent gay, I had stood out as ‘the straight girl.’ My first year, I was taught that my being heterosexual, not to mention white, was a privilege—but I had never in my life felt privileged. Finally, I thought, I had something about me that made me different, interesting. I had become a sex worker, the very term a political one. I argued that women’s participation in the sex industry was transgressive. Sex work had the potential of subverting the very paradigms it seemed to reinforce. More accurately, for me, sex work was a way to financial freedom, and that was empowering.

But in conversations about sex work, I spoke in the third person, too afraid to draw conclusions about myself. Whether it was the money or the attention, for the first time in my life I felt secure. In the club, if not in the real world, I was sexually desired. I felt in control. I felt valuable. In classroom discussions, I had become useful, quick to offer a unique and provocative point of view. Never in my working class life had I felt so seen. My research became my graduating thesis and was subsequently published in “Research on Sex Work” and in the anthology “Sex Work Matters: Exploring Money, Power and Intimacy in the Sex Industry.”Still, as much as I had hoped my interviewees could speak for me, I would not be satisfied until I had learned to speak for myself. Years later, I pursued an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from The New School, where my research began to take the form of memoir.

Only in writing my own story was I able to see its whole truth. My experience as a writer and activist is similar to my experience as a sex worker. Although initially empowering, everything I gained was not without consequence.

Last year, September 2010, I was removed from my job as a public school teacher for publishing an article on the Huffington Postin criticism of the censoring of the adult services section of Craigslist. I had wanted to make the point that some women, like I had, choose to sell sex, and that the conflation of consensual sex work with abusive sex trafficking does all individuals engaging in commercial sex– be they victims or otherwise– a disservice. Having done so before, though never for a site as visible as theHuffington Post, I thought nothing of speaking first-person and publishing under my name. Though I knew there was a risk for backlash, I assumed such speech was constitutionally protected, believing then– as I do today– that its political import outweighed any distraction it had the potential to cause the community within which I worked. As much as I underestimated the distraction my writing created, I overestimated the institutions I had assumed would defend its political importance, starting with the institution of feminism.

In response to my speaking candidly about my experiences and without a psuedonym, I was called a ‘moron’ and a ‘disgrace.’ My behavior was characterized as reckless and selfish, my mindset described as ‘depraved.’ From the way I was characterized, it was the act of representing myself that people found most offensive. One feminist blog called my apparent vying for attention ‘disgusting.’ Female reporters took issue with my bio, demanding to know how I could refer to myself as a feminist. An ex-whore attention whore? It was too much. A sleaze and a blabbermouth and an idiot but a feminist?

Feminism, as I see it, is a movement that fights for the rights and equality of women and while that definition is expanding to include individuals across a gender spectrum, it has always at least purported to include all women. Black and white, rich and poor, virginal or professional and everything in between, it is a feminist belief that whatever our experience, our experience is meaningful. The act of telling that story is a feminist act.

“Stories from each other’s lives,” Gloria Steinem once said, “are our best textbooks. Every social justice movement I know of has come out of people sitting in small groups, telling their life stories, and discovering that people have shared similar experiences.”  Whereas sex workers are largely excluded from conversations about their own lives, thus alienating them from the category of feminism, in my eyes there is no woman more imperfect—and, thus, more feminist—than the unrepentant whore.

Considering the pain I caused myself, this past year I often wondered what I could have done differently. In the end, I realize I could not have done anything differently but to have said or done nothing at all. As Rebecca Traister put it recently in a NY Times article on contemporary feminist activism: “The standard response to any public attempt by a woman to upend expectations of consent, passivity and silence – whether she does it calmly or hurredly, in court or in fiction… – is still that she is a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.” For sex workers engaging in the media, this is particularly true. We are talked about ad nausea but not allowed to speak. When we do, no matter what we say or how we say it, it is bound to come out wrong. I say, speak anyway.

Today, one year later, I have no regrets—not about my past, not about speaking out. I am thirty one years old, no longer a child. As the product of all my choices and experiences, I am entirely comfortable with the woman I’ve become. I am a daughter, a sister, a girlfriend. I am somebody who is loved. I am a former sex worker. I am still, and will always be, a teacher. Today my life is filled with opportunity because I have the imagination to believe this, and though not without consequence, this is all because I worked in the sex industry— not in spite of it. A victim of poverty, a victim of sexism, a victim of stigma and discrimination— a victim of my own poor judgment, at times, perhaps— but a victim of sex work, I was not.

Melissa Petro has written for The Huffington PostDaily Beast, Salon, Rumpus.net and elsewhere. She is a regular contributor at xojane and this month’s guest blogger at Bitch Magazine, where she authors a column on representations of sex work in the media. She teaches creative writing at Lehman College, Gotham Writers Workshop, and Red Umbrella, an organization that empowers sex workers to represent themselves. She holds a BA from Antioch College, an MFA from the New School and a Masters in Education from Fordham University.  Contact melissa.petro@gmail.com.

News Politics

Clinton Campaign Announces Tim Kaine as Pick for Vice President

Ally Boguhn

The prospect of Kaine’s selection has been criticized by some progressives due to his stances on issues including abortion as well as bank and trade regulation.

The Clinton campaign announced Friday that Sen. Tim Kaine (R-VA) has been selected to join Hillary Clinton’s ticket as her vice presidential candidate.

“I’m thrilled to announce my running mate, @TimKaine, a man who’s devoted his life to fighting for others,” said Clinton in a tweet.

“.@TimKaine is a relentless optimist who believes no problem is unsolvable if you put in the work to solve it,” she added.

The prospect of Kaine’s selection has been criticized by some progressives due to his stances on issues including abortion as well as bank and trade regulation.

Kaine signed two letters this week calling for the regulations on banks to be eased, according to a Wednesday report published by the Huffington Post, thereby ”setting himself up as a figure willing to do battle with the progressive wing of the party.”

Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the progressive political action committee Democracy for America, told the New York Times that Kaine’s selection “could be disastrous for our efforts to defeat Donald Trump in the fall” given the senator’s apparent support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Just before Clinton’s campaign made the official announcement that Kaine had been selected, the senator praised the TPP during an interview with the Intercept, though he signaled he had ultimately not decided how he would vote on the matter.

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Kaine’s record on reproductive rights has also generated controversy as news began to circulate that he was being considered to join Clinton’s ticket. Though Kaine recently argued in favor of providing Planned Parenthood with access to funding to fight the Zika virus and signed on as a co-sponsor of the Women’s Health Protection Act—which would prohibit states and the federal government from enacting restrictions on abortion that aren’t applied to comparable medical services—he has also been vocal about his personal opposition to abortion.

In a June interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, Kaine told host Chuck Todd he was “personally” opposed to abortion. He went on, however, to affirm that he still believed “not just as a matter of politics, but even as a matter of morality, that matters about reproduction and intimacy and relationships and contraception are in the personal realm. They’re moral decisions for individuals to make for themselves. And the last thing we need is government intruding into those personal decisions.”

As Rewire has previously reported, though Kaine may have a 100 percent rating for his time in the Senate from Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the campaign website for his 2005 run for governor of Virginia promised he would “work in good faith to reduce abortions” by enforcing Virginia’s “restrictions on abortion and passing an enforceable ban on partial birth abortion that protects the life and health of the mother.”

As governor, Kaine did support some existing restrictions on abortion, including Virginia’s parental consent law and a so-called informed consent law. He also signed a 2009 measure that created “Choose Life” license plates in the state, and gave a percentage of the proceeds to a crisis pregnancy network.

Regardless of Clinton’s vice president pick, the “center of gravity in the Democratic Party has shifted in a bold, populist, progressive direction,” said Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, in an emailed statement. “It’s now more important than ever that Hillary Clinton run an aggressive campaign on core economic ideas like expanding Social Security, debt-free college, Wall Street reform, and yes, stopping the TPP. It’s the best way to unite the Democratic Party, and stop Republicans from winning over swing voters on bread-and-butter issues.”

Roundups Sexual Health

This Week in Sex: The Sexually Transmitted Infections Edition

Martha Kempner

A new Zika case suggests the virus can be transmitted from an infected woman to a male partner. And, in other news, HPV-related cancers are on the rise, and an experimental chlamydia vaccine shows signs of promise.

This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Zika May Have Been Sexually Transmitted From a Woman to Her Male Partner

A new case suggests that males may be infected with the Zika virus through unprotected sex with female partners. Researchers have known for a while that men can infect their partners through penetrative sexual intercourse, but this is the first suspected case of sexual transmission from a woman.

The case involves a New York City woman who is in her early 20s and traveled to a country with high rates of the mosquito-borne virus (her name and the specific country where she traveled have not been released). The woman, who experienced stomach cramps and a headache while waiting for her flight back to New York, reported one act of sexual intercourse without a condom the day she returned from her trip. The following day, her symptoms became worse and included fever, fatigue, a rash, and tingling in her hands and feet. Two days later, she visited her primary-care provider and tests confirmed she had the Zika virus.

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A few days after that (seven days after intercourse), her male partner, also in his 20s, began feeling similar symptoms. He had a rash, a fever, and also conjunctivitis (pink eye). He, too, was diagnosed with Zika. After meeting with him, public health officials in the New York City confirmed that he had not traveled out of the country nor had he been recently bit by a mosquito. This leaves sexual transmission from his partner as the most likely cause of his infection, though further tests are being done.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s recommendations for preventing Zika have been based on the assumption that virus was spread from a male to a receptive partner. Therefore the recommendations had been that pregnant women whose male partners had traveled or lived in a place where Zika virus is spreading use condoms or abstain from sex during the pregnancy. For those couples for whom pregnancy is not an issue, the CDC recommended that men who had traveled to countries with Zika outbreaks and had symptoms of the virus, use condoms or abstain from sex for six months after their trip. It also suggested that men who traveled but don’t have symptoms use condoms for at least eight weeks.

Based on this case—the first to suggest female-to-male transmission—the CDC may extend these recommendations to couples in which a female traveled to a country with an outbreak.

More Signs of Gonorrhea’s Growing Antibiotic Resistance

Last week, the CDC released new data on gonorrhea and warned once again that the bacteria that causes this common sexually transmitted infection (STI) is becoming resistant to the antibiotics used to treat it.

There are about 350,000 cases of gonorrhea reported each year, but it is estimated that 800,000 cases really occur with many going undiagnosed and untreated. Once easily treatable with antibiotics, the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae has steadily gained resistance to whole classes of antibiotics over the decades. By the 1980s, penicillin no longer worked to treat it, and in 2007 the CDC stopped recommending the use of fluoroquinolones. Now, cephalosporins are the only class of drugs that work. The recommended treatment involves a combination of ceftriaxone (an injectable cephalosporin) and azithromycin (an oral antibiotic).

Unfortunately, the data released last week—which comes from analysis of more than 5,000 samples of gonorrhea (called isolates) collected from STI clinics across the country—shows that the bacteria is developing resistance to these drugs as well. In fact, the percentage of gonorrhea isolates with decreased susceptibility to azithromycin increased more than 300 percent between 2013 and 2014 (from 0.6 percent to 2.5 percent).

Though no cases of treatment failure has been reported in the United States, this is a troubling sign of what may be coming. Dr. Gail Bolan, director of CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, said in a press release: “It is unclear how long the combination therapy of azithromycin and ceftriaxone will be effective if the increases in resistance persists. We need to push forward on multiple fronts to ensure we can continue offering successful treatment to those who need it.”

HPV-Related Cancers Up Despite Vaccine 

The CDC also released new data this month showing an increase in HPV-associated cancers between 2008 and 2012 compared with the previous five-year period. HPV or human papillomavirus is an extremely common sexually transmitted infection. In fact, HPV is so common that the CDC believes most sexually active adults will get it at some point in their lives. Many cases of HPV clear spontaneously with no medical intervention, but certain types of the virus cause cancer of the cervix, vulva, penis, anus, mouth, and neck.

The CDC’s new data suggests that an average of 38,793 HPV-associated cancers were diagnosed each year between 2008 and 2012. This is a 17 percent increase from about 33,000 each year between 2004 and 2008. This is a particularly unfortunate trend given that the newest available vaccine—Gardasil 9—can prevent the types of HPV most often linked to cancer. In fact, researchers estimated that the majority of cancers found in the recent data (about 28,000 each year) were caused by types of the virus that could be prevented by the vaccine.

Unfortunately, as Rewire has reported, the vaccine is often mired in controversy and far fewer young people have received it than get most other recommended vaccines. In 2014, only 40 percent of girls and 22 percent of boys ages 13 to 17 had received all three recommended doses of the vaccine. In comparison, nearly 80 percent of young people in this age group had received the vaccine that protects against meningitis.

In response to the newest data, Dr. Electra Paskett, co-director of the Cancer Control Research Program at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, told HealthDay:

In order to increase HPV vaccination rates, we must change the perception of the HPV vaccine from something that prevents a sexually transmitted disease to a vaccine that prevents cancer. Every parent should ask the question: If there was a vaccine I could give my child that would prevent them from developing six different cancers, would I give it to them? The answer would be a resounding yes—and we would have a dramatic decrease in HPV-related cancers across the globe.

Making Inroads Toward a Chlamydia Vaccine

An article published in the journal Vaccine shows that researchers have made progress with a new vaccine to prevent chlamydia. According to lead researcher David Bulir of the M. G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research at Canada’s McMaster University, efforts to create a vaccine have been underway for decades, but this is the first formulation to show success.

In 2014, there were 1.4 million reported cases of chlamydia in the United States. While this bacterial infection can be easily treated with antibiotics, it often goes undiagnosed because many people show no symptoms. Untreated chlamydia can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, which can leave scar tissue in the fallopian tubes or uterus and ultimately result in infertility.

The experimental vaccine was created by Canadian researchers who used pieces of the bacteria that causes chlamydia to form an antigen they called BD584. The hope was that the antigen could prompt the body’s immune system to fight the chlamydia bacteria if exposed to it.

Researchers gave BD584 to mice using a nasal spray, and then exposed them to chlamydia. The results were very promising. The mice who received the spray cleared the infection faster than the mice who did not. Moreover, the mice given the nasal spray were less likely to show symptoms of infection, such as bacterial shedding from the vagina or fluid blockages of the fallopian tubes.

There are many steps to go before this vaccine could become available. The researchers need to test it on other strains of the bacteria and in other animals before testing it in humans. And, of course, experience with the HPV vaccine shows that there’s work to be done to make sure people get vaccines that prevent STIs even after they’re invented. Nonetheless, a vaccine to prevent chlamydia would be a great victory in our ongoing fight against STIs and their health consequences, and we here at This Week in Sex are happy to end on a bit of a positive note.