Who Can Speak for Sex Workers? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Who Can Speak for Sex Workers?

Who Can Speak for Sex Workers?

By Melissa Petro


Because those working in the sex industry have a right to be heard.

By Melissa Petro

Melissa Petro is a freelance writer and writing instructor based in New York City. 

Backpage recently shuttered its adult advertising section in the U.S. after years of complaints by activists and authorities — the closure falling just hours after a U.S. Senate report accused the site of knowingly facilitating online sex trafficking. Seven years ago, I broke my anonymity as a former sex worker in an op-ed that cost me my career as a schoolteacher. People, I provocatively claimed, have sex for many different reasons — one of which is money. I was writing in response to the censoring of the “Erotic Services” section of Craigslist, arguing that when it’s time to make laws, we need to listen to the people most impacted. 

Our so-called advocates still don’t seem to get this: Since the closure of Craigslist, business on Backpage has been booming — and catching flak. The Senate report that prompted the site’s closure talks about purposely concealing criminal activity but doesn’t differentiate between sex trafficking and consensual sex work. Senators didn’t consult with any current sex workers on the report, nor were sex workers present at the recent hearing.

I understand why they would prefer advertising their services on a site like Backpage, rather than walking the street or working for an agency or pimp.

When advocates do consult individuals with experiences in the sex trade, they tend to talk only with those who describe themselves as “survivors” of the industry, while lobbying for it to be abolished. These voices count, but theirs is just one perspective. Each individual with experience in the sex trades has their own complicated story.

The fact that sex work occurs on a spectrum — there is not a distinct category of victims, and exploitation is fuzzy — is often used to support the argument that all prostitution ought to be eradicated. But many sex workers, even those with sad stories, express no immediate interest in leaving the life. Others express a desire, but lack the means to make it happen. There are countless individuals currently relying on sex work as a means of survival who opposed the campaign against Backpage — and the site’s closure hurts their ability to make ends meet. Their voices must be heard too.  

My own complicated story started nearly a decade ago when, living as a student abroad in Mexico, I ran out of money and started stripping. I worked as a stripper on and off for years, eventually becoming an escort on Craigslist. Sex work was my choice, and I always had other options. For various reasons, it was the option I preferred — until I didn’t, and I quit. I became a teacher, a job I loved.

What happened to me as a result of sharing my story was devastating. Losing my career in elementary education was a blow on every level — financially, psychologically and emotionally. Luckily I had enough skills from my previous employment to avoid returning to sex work. But not everyone is so lucky. I now work as an instructor, teaching creative writing to new writers, including women and girls best described as victims of commercial sexual exploitation. They are victims in a dozen different ways, and yet not all hate selling sex. And even those who want another way of life find it difficult to transition out of the sex trade. Most don’t qualify for unemployment, or have credit cards or advanced degrees like I did. 

When I watch them go on interviews to retail outlets, only to come back disappointed over not getting a minimum-wage job, I see why many return to sex work. And I understand why they would prefer advertising their services on a site like Backpage, rather than walking the street or working for an agency or pimp.  

To help those who need it, we need to approach the issue of selling sex differently. If you want to fight sex trafficking, fight for affordable housing, adequate health care and alternative economic opportunities. Fight to reduce harm and violence toward individuals who, for whatever reasons, choose or feel compelled to sell sex. But don’t make their lives harder by taking away a resource they need to survive. Fight to reduce stigma, so that individuals with experiences in the sex industry can speak up and be involved in conversations affecting their lives.

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