Originally published in The Guardian
In the waning days of the last millennium, I worked as a stripper to pay for university. It requires no courage to admit this now, but had I written it a few years ago, when I taught high school, I would have been fired on the spot. My continued presence in the classroom would’ve set a bad example for the innocent teenagers in my charge, because we can’t let “The Children” think sex-industry workers could ever be decent people or anything.
So, if any strippers or (God forbid) prostitutes are reading this, and thinking, “Someday, when I finish university, pay off my debts, or the economy improves, I’d like to quit this job and do something else,” here’s two words of advice: don’t bother. At least, don’t bother if your sordid past is public knowledge, because the public for the most part believes two things: first, sex and sexuality are inherently degrading if you make money off either one; and second, the sex work you do or did defines you as a person, and will for the rest of your life.
So, don’t admit it and, for God’s sake, don’t get arrested for it; the last thing you need is your name listed in some government sex-worker database. Though that database listing might be inevitable for dancers in Louisville, Kentucky, now that the state supreme court ruled in favour of the city’s plan to impose strict new guidelines on strip clubs. The sole purpose of the rules is to make life difficult for owners and dancers alike. Among other requirements: all club employees, including dancers, must buy yearly licences.
Licensing requirements make sense for jobs where public safety is at risk; professionals like surgeons, airline pilots and nuclear plant operators should definitely demonstrate they can handle the important responsibilities their jobs entail. But what rationale justifies licensing guidelines to dance onstage in a bikini, or serve drinks to the audience? It’s possible city fathers are merely concerned with quality control, and will withhold licences from applicants whose tits aren’t bouncy enough, but it’s more likely an intimidation scam: register with the government so we can keep an eye on you if you do, and arrest you if you don’t.
Before starting my teaching job, I had to pass a background check; I suspect the principal would’ve rescinded the offer, had he found “licensed bikini dancer” on my permanent record. But that’s still better than being known as an ex-prostitute. Last week, Melissa Petro, an elementary school art teacher in New York City, was forced to step down after it was revealed she’d worked as a prostitute for four months in graduate school, from 2006 to 2007. Mayor Michael Bloomberg personally requested the tenured teacher lose her position; at a press conference last Wednesday, he said: “We’re just not going to have this woman in front of a class.”
Granted, when “that woman” wrote about her experiences for the Huffington Post, using her real name probably wasn’t the wisest choice. But until she did that, she might have made an inspirational story for prostitutes wishing to leave the life: local gal makes good, brings art to underprivileged children in the Bronx. Unfortunately, stories like that can only come true when nobody knows about them.
The punitive disapproval of Mayor Bloomberg and the Louisville leadership reminds me of the racist grownups of my childhood. I was born only a few years after America’s last racial segregation laws were struck down; not until 1967 did the US supreme court rule, in Loving v Virginia, that state laws banning interracial marriage were unconstitutional. My family moved to Virginia 10 years later, and throughout my childhood, I met plenty of adults who remembered and yearned for the good old days of Jim Crow. Such oldsters insisted their opposition to mixed marriage was based not on bigotry, but concern for “The Children” – on the grounds that a child with parents of two races supposedly won’t be accepted by either.
Yet, the only people who ever gave my biracial classmates any problems were… the exact same people insisting mixed-race marriages are bad for the children. “Biracial kids will have problems integrating into society” was the ultimate in self-fulfilling prophecies: those who predicted it did their damnedest to make it happen. And the same holds true today among those who insist sex work taints the workers for the rest of their lives.