The H-Word: She Works Hard For the Money (So You Better Treat Her Right.)

Melissa Petro
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black and white photo of a man washing a huge pile of dishesMy first job was washing dishes at a place called Marvin’s Diner. My best friend Jenny and I worked the Sunday morning shift, starting at five thirty in the morning in the basement. Our first task was to turn potatoes into hash browns. The potatoes were boiled in enormous cast iron pots on oversized commercial gas stoves—no easy task for two ninety pound girls. Once boiled, they went straight into the freezer to cool while we peeled and grated potatoes from the day before, cold as clumps of ice. We worked all morning, unsupervised, in the drafty bowels of the diner. When the potatoes were done, it was time to start the dishes, which had been piling up all morning. Marvin, the owner, sat all day at the counter, drinking black coffee, chain smoking and ordering us about. He was decrepit old man with crooked yellow teeth and foul breath. At the end of our first shift, he told us to wear skirts next time—the shorter the better. We held out our hands—red and raw from the dish sanitizing solution—in anticipation of our cash.

We did it because we were paid in cash under the table and because no one else would hire us: We were twelve.

As a teenager, there was nothing I wouldn’t have done for cash. I worked in fast food. I worked in retail. I was a check out girl at the grocery store. I stuffed envelopes after school. One summer, I even sold singing telegrams. I worked long hours for unreasonable bosses, all for very little pay. At Marvin’s, Jenny and I found ways to make the day go by faster. We’d crank up the radio and steal cigarette breaks, often ashing those cigarettes straight into the hash. We fantasized aloud about what we’d tell Marvin if only we could while enjoying endless cups of coffee, the job’s only perk. Sure, it was fun to be with Jenny but I would not say the work was “fun.” As far as I knew, it wasn’t supposed to be.

Had you asked me as a teenager my ideas of “work,” I would’ve said that work sucked and I would’ve been half-right: the jobs available to me, at that time, did. The environments I worked in were highly restrictive. The tasks were repetitive. Work required more strength than skill, although most jobs, I thought, required neither. You couldn’t go fast enough and there was always more to do. The money was barely enough to make it seem worth it, but you did it anyway. Why? In the community where I grew up, everyone worked, most people were poor—it was just the way things were. I worked because I wasn’t given an allowance, and I needed cash. What was the alternative? 

black and white photo of a light-skinned woman's nude body. Her head is out of frame.

The term sex worker was introduced by writer, activist and self-identified sex worker Carol Leigh in 1979, the year I was born. It is an umbrella term used to describe any type of sexual services exchanged for financial gain. Anything from working as a phone sex operator or being a stripper to working in porn or working as a prostitute could be classified as “sex work.” Activists like Leigh argue that the term locates sex work in the realm of work, similar in some ways and dissimilar in others to any other form of labor. Sex work, these activists argue, is work and—like any other job—people do it for the money.

I started stripping when I was nineteen years old. It was the second semester of my second year of college, and I was living in Mexico as a student abroad. Out of cash, my credit card having hit its limit, it was strip or go home. Going home, in my eyes, was not an option. I needed to be there to earn college credit, but it was more than that. To have gone home would’ve felt like a failure. I was the first in my family to go to college, let alone study abroad. I would not disappoint them or myself. I would not back to the claustrophobic working-class white trashdom I’d worked so hard to escape. Instead, I started working at a club called “La Trampa”—translated, the tramp or “the trap.” I stripped, on and off, for the next four years. In many ways, sex work was an ideal occupation. Working part-time as a stripper, I was able to pay the family contribution portion of my tuition as well as cover my living expenses. It made it so I could travel and work the unpaid internships taken for granted as part of the “undergraduate experience.”

I did it for the money but it was also true that I enjoyed it. Like no job I’d had before, stripping took skills. Yes, it was physically strenuous, but it was not only physical. Interacting with customers required intelligence and personality. I was free to be myself—or, at least, a part of myself. Indeed, of all the jobs available to me at the time, there was no question: stripping was, by far and in many ways, the best. It had the best uniform. I could make my own hours. I liked to dance. I felt genuinely good at it. And then there was the money. 

Stripping was an ideal job, if not for the fact that I had to hide the realities of my occupation for fear of what people would think. I lied to my family and my boyfriend at the time, scared they would reject me. To those I did confide in, I found myself downplaying the negative aspects of the job. I was earning an education and carving out the life I wanted the only way I saw possible, and yet the fact that I was working as a stripper gave people permission to look down on me. People assumed all strippers were stupid or desperate. My job was considered demeaning. Feminism felt sorry for me—and that was demeaning. The fact that I’d found a way to be self-reliant could’ve been a source of pride. Instead, I was made to feel ashamed. 

Five plus years since I last time I sold sex, I am still overcoming the feeling of shame. I am still making sense of myself and my experience by defending what, for me, is an inarguable truth, a reality I know from firsthand experience: not all sex work is “sexual enslavement” and some women and men choose to sell sex because of circumstances other than force. I am still defending my choice by explaining those circumstances, again and again, justifying why I did something that so-called “decent” women wouldn’t even consider doing, constantly assuring those who’ve never done it that it’s “not that bad.” Thirty one years later, before we are even allowed to consider how to make our jobs and our lives better, current and former sex workers are still struggling to feel dignity in our choices by defining them as such, insisting that society recognize what we do or have done as “work.”

A vintage-looking illustration of three white women holding signs saying 'the cost of living keeps us stripped' 'we want more for earning less' and 'we want pin money'

Today, thanks to multiple degrees and many years of experience in the labor market, I realize that not everybody hates their job. In college, I interned at two domestic violence shelters as an advocate and as a rape crisis counselor. After graduation I worked in nonprofit development as a grant writer, in charitable event coordination and cause-related marketing (a job requiring skills very similar to stripping). When I found myself working a dead-end job as a research assistant at a public hospital, I returned to sex work—this time as a call girl on Craigslist. Whereas I’d hated my desk job, I hated prostitution even more. After four short months, I quit. I went back to school and became a teacher, a job that I loved. 

Whereas some people tolerate their work—as Jenny and I tolerated working at Marvin’s—some jobs are easier than others to tolerate, and some people have the privilege of working jobs they actually enjoy. Sex workers fall into every category, and so long as there is poverty there will always be a class of individuals who would rather sell sex than be poor.

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10 Comments Have Been Posted

I really appreciate this

I really appreciate this post, thank you.

Similar Struggles

I would like to commend the author for her insightful take on certain aspects of stripping. As someone who danced from the ages of 18-23 I emphasize with the authors difficulties with other feminists. It is one thing to constantly have to overcome the stereotype that all strippers were abused or are drug addicts but to be told by women that you otherwise identify with that your job is wrong and demeaning is truly disheartening.

What I struggled with most was certain feminists notion that I was unable to understand my own oppression, that I simply was not smart enough to know how awful my job was. I was raised to believe that feminism was about equality and trust in other women and the fact that these select women did not believe I was capable of making my own decisions or understanding my own choices is something that I struggle with to this day.

Thank you.

I applaud your honesty &

I applaud your honesty & there's absolutely nothing to be ashamed about concerning stripping etc. Sure, there are aspects of it that I'm sure are undesirable and a lot of women could not deal with, but it is what it is & you gotta do what you gotta do. Society just uses this playing field as leverage for feelings of superiority from one "group" of people to another. Ultimately no one person can be grouped.

Good for You

I applaude you. I applaude all the men and women in the sex-work industry. Let go of your shame, for the shame you feel is that which is projected onto you. Don't let anybody else's shame dictate your self worth. You are all beautiful.

Thank you for writing this

Thank you for writing this piece! You have successfully articulated many aspects/realities of dancing which I have been unable to. Your words are very appreciated.

Stunning! You so eloquently

Stunning! You so eloquently describe how complicated the issue of sex work is in order to move beyond the false dichotomy of sex work as exploitative VS. sex work as empowering. Your final statement, " long as there is poverty there will always be a class of individuals who would rather sell sex than be poor," speaks volumes to me. You so succinctly say that our experiences as sex workers are contextual while not ignoring larger social structures. You point out what many radical feminists miss in their analyses: namely, the larger social structure we should be talking about is economic inequity.

Right on! (and write on!!)

I'm a whore.

I'm a whore with a couple of graduate degrees and I've never run into all these evil, anti-sex-work feminists that everyone talks about. Weird. And I'm pretty damn hardcore about my feminism, haha.

I feel more exploited by my "straight job" in academia than I do by the men who pay a few hundred bucks an hour for my company and sex.

Also, I know this is an unpopular opinion, but I feel like the fact that the term "sex work" can apply to relatively benign, legal, safer occupations like stripping is problematic. It's almost as if the dangers, and struggles we face as a result of prostitution are being co-opted by those at the top. Until prostitution is decriminalized, we will never have a safe work environment, and there will always be a huge stigma around the service we provide. That is deeply disturbing and it takes a huge toll. i know that stripping is not easy work, and it's surrounded by its own issues, but it is so far from what I do that I'm not sure it's appropriate to use the umbrella term "sex workers" for all of us.

The term sex work or sex

The term sex work or sex worker should not have anything to do with the relative danger of the work being engaged in. Prostitution, pornography, pornographic modelling, and stripping are all types of sex work even if that work is engaged in on a webcam with no one else in the room.

terminology and whoredom

As a long time sex worker rights activist (29 years now) AND whore (retired call girl), let me just say that it is MOST appropriate to use the term 'sex worker' to the entire industry, because it describes the type of work we are all doing. All prostitutes are sex workers but not all sex workers are prostitutes. And believe me, anyone in the sex industry - even those who engage in legal sex work- faces stigma and danger.

Ever since porn was 'legalized' by court decision, many of those who engage in making porn have distanced themselves from us outlaw whores. The court did not say it was not prostitution, but rather that even if it was, in this context, it was protected free speech. Nevertheless, if you ask a porn actor/actress if they are a prostitute and they will vehemently deny it, even if they have 'private clients' outside of their porn jobs.

You are right about us not having a safe work environment until prostitution is decriminalized, which is exactly why we need to enlist our non-outlaw fellow sex workers to help fight with us. As long as any of our work remains a crime, it can be and often is applied to anyone who offers sexual services, whether legal or not. The rabid anti-prostitution feminists whom you have never met (you lucky whore!!!) will not just stop with prostitution in their quest to 'abolish' all sexual labor- they want to do away with any jobs in which a man may receive any sexual gratification from women (they are unconcerned about what sexual gratification men may receive from other men).

Many of us old whores have worked hard to form alliances with everyone in the sex industry to work together to change things for all of us. As an old whore, I will never reap any benefit from decriminalization other than to know that when that happens, I will truly have the rights to my body back. What it all boils down to is this- "my body, my choice, no exceptions."

Great Story

I am a former sex-worker and I think it is great that you put your story out there for others to read. I am sorry that people made it so that you could not be proud of your own self even when you were taking care of your own self the way you wanted to. Just know those that are ignorant to the facts are those that look down in shame on those of us that know the facts and hold our heads up high.

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