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New York Teacher Punished for Sex Work Past

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There's tremendous disingenuousness at work in the campaign against New York elementary school teacher Melissa Petro, who's been suspended by Mayor Bloomberg himself after her sex working past gained national attention. Critics are scrambling to find ways to get around her tenured status, eagerly suggesting that she may have lied at some point in her interview process or perhaps (fingers crossed!) broken the law by merely applying for a teaching position in the first place.

The outrage surrounding this story is the direct outcome of Petro's honesty about her former sex work even more so than it is about her past itself. She's been accused of "bragging," "glamorizing," and "flaunting" her history, all of which are used as synonyms for "talking about." (Petro called her time as a sex worker "physically demanding, emotionally taxing and spiritually bankrupting" -- hardly a good recruiting pitch.) New York officials and media commentators primarily seem angry that the stigma against sex work wasn't strong enough for her to keep her mouth shut. The word "brazen" comes up a lot in internet comments on the matter, as does a general tone of indignation: who does this mouthy chick think she is? (Most delusional of all is the reaction that "she must want the attention." Because being stalked by the NY Post's photographers and called a danger to children is the American dream.)

Petro's article on this very website is at the centerpiece of the controversy, since her previous speaking and writing focused only on her time as a stripper. In her HuffPost piece, Petro writes about the few months in grad school when she used Craigslist to offer "sexual services" in exchange for money, which was all the license CBSNews and New York Magazine needed to deem her a "prostitute teacher" and "hooker/teacher." Those labels have gone uncontested in spite of the fact that she doesn't identify herself this way and never specifies what type of sex services she offered.

Those crying for her termination are putting forth two assertions to justify their pitchforks: one, she broke the law, and two, she's supposed to be a role model for children. On the first point, there is no evidence. Petro was wisely vague about the details of her Craiglist engagements, and she has no history of arrests. Adult Services advertised a wide variety of sex for sale, including foot fetishism and sensual massage. (Domination and sexual role-play are both legal in New York.) Furthermore, prostitution is a misdemeanor charge, meaning it's on par with loitering and disorderly conduct. I find it unlikely that this level of social scorn and reprobation would be directed towards a male teacher with a past of tagging public property.

The role model claim is somewhat more interesting. Is it fair to expect notoriously underpaid public school teachers to live spotless personal lives? And how would such a requirement be weighed against their capacities as an educator, including their ability to engage with and encourage students? There's been absolutely no mention of Petro's track history in the classroom, but one article noted that she was "well-liked." We live in a world where Eliot Spitzer is still interviewed about accountability and incumbent Senator David Vitter leads in the polls; do we seriously think an art teacher's personal conduct should be a held to a higher standard than that of elected officials?

Schools have long used firing power to express moralistic dissatisfaction over female teachers' personal conduct. Women have been fired for becoming pregnant out of wedlock, becoming pregnant while single, and for using in vitro fertilization. In all cases, the equivalent of the role model argument was deployed.

So what exactly does Petro's removal teach children? That your past will haunt you forever? That telling the truth no one wants to hear will cost you your job? That no one, regardless of qualifications or likability, deserves a second chance? The media circus surrounding her suspension has certainly already reinforced a message that students receive from pop culture and mainstream media: that sex workers are bad, dirty, and dishonest people with nothing to offer.

Petro knew how predictably this sad case would play out on the national stage. She wrote about just such a scenario in June of this year, in a Rumpus essay on "the persistent and erroneous insinuation that once a prostitute, always a whore." Her unapologetic use of her real name to relate her experiences as a sex worker was part of her effort to repudiate this assumption. Unfortunately, the rest of country seems happy to keep that limited thinking in full effect.