The H-Word: What the H?

Melissa Petro
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mannequin in window wearing a lace teddy holding an american flagWelcome to the H-Word, a series dedicated to evaluating, challenging, and re-presenting sex worker portrayals in the media from a feminist, pro-sex worker (though not necessarily pro-sex work) stance. If that seems contradictory or impossible, keep tuning in. Besides my perspective, this column will present first-person stories from individuals across the country and from all areas of the industry sharing a part of their story and describing their experiences. Sex workers speaking for themselves, about themselves?! It is not so radical an idea—why, straight white guys have been doing it since the beginning of time!

And yes, the “H-Word” is hooker. The title of this series is inspired by an article written by Sarah Elspeth Patterson about the media’s pejorative use of the term. As Patterson so astutely points out, people rarely enjoy being called a hooker, whether a sex worker or not. “When looking at the ways in which the media in the United States continues to use the term,” she says, “it’s not difficult to ascertain why sex workers still have an impossible time being visible and out in this country.”

In September of 2010 I was dubbed the “hooker teacher,” originating from a headline on the cover of the NY Post: “Bronx Teacher Admits: I’m an ex-hooker.” The NY Post article was spurred by an article I had written for The Huffington Post in criticism of the censoring of the adult services section of Craigslist and in defense of the rights and dignity of sex workers, a subject with which I have some history. The day the Post’s article ran, I was removed from my job teaching art and creative writing at a public elementary school in the South Bronx. For speaking publicly without the veil of a pseudonym, I was called a moron and a blabbermouth. I was deemed a disgrace, unfit to work with kids. Though my competence in the classroom was never called into question, for having the history I did—and for speaking about it, freely and without apology—I lost my career.

Associated with deviance, drug use, mental illness, and disease, sex work defines the people who do it like no other occupation. No matter the realities of our experiences, we are thought of as victims and as inherently damaged, either before or as a result of our profession. Sex workers are considered a danger to society, unfit for serious public service. Worst of all: once a sex worker, always a whore. It is pervasive, condemning stereotypes like these and others that cost me my job. There is a stereotype that current or former sex workers are so highly sexualized that all we think about is sex, but I’ve found that it is people with no experience in the sex industry whatsoever who can’t get our business off their minds. Whereas the media is constantly using our industry to sell papers and raise ratings, sex workers are little involved in the manufacturing of these stories. We are spoken about ad nauseam but not allowed to speak. When we do, we are punished: the “hooker teacher” scandal makes all too salient this point.

Why should feminists care? The fact that sex workers are not often involved in the creation of these stories means that much of what we read or hear about commercial sex is a heap of baloney. If it is truly feminism’s aim to help sex workers, it would serve feminists to know the population we are dealing with—to identify sex workers’ true concerns so that we can intervene in ways that truly matter. Even better, let us sex workers help ourselves, and believe those of us who say we don’t need help at all. Invite sex workers into the conversation about their own lives. Sex workers’ lives are women’s lives, queer or transgendered lives, the lives of poor people and people of color, and individuals’ experiences in the labor market. Let us learn from one another.

For the next eight or so weeks, the H-Word will serve as a watchdog, calling out damaging mainstream media depictions of sex workers and our industry, celebrating when they’ve gotten it right, and highlighting mainstream media alternatives. Equally important, The H-Word will create a space for sex workers to represent themselves. I will share more about my experience being branded “The Hooker Teacher” and also about my process of reclaiming my identity through language. I have a complicated relationship to the word hooker, as do many sex workers (and women in general). The title of this column captures that discomfort and confusion. Without adequate language to describe ourselves, we are rendered invisible. The purpose of the H-Word is to fill in the blanks, and to give names and meanings to the diverse body of individuals who sell sex.

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13 Comments Have Been Posted

Excellent introduction! This

Excellent introduction! This is a subject that definitely needs more illumination by those who know what it means to live in this societal role... conjecture, stereotypes, and assumption are often used in place of original sources, and it's doing a great deal of damage to our conceptions of sex-workers.

Reminds one of how men used to (and still do in part) use the very same devices to explain and discuss women, and look how long it's taking to recover from that!

I'm excited to read this

I'm excited to read this series and to learn more about sex workers' lives -- real lives, rather than fictionalized accounts. I have so many (probably stupid) questions and hope to have some of them answered. Thank you!

love the idea

Love the idea of a feminist, pro-sex worker stance ... regardless of a person's view of sex work. Just as all patriotic Americans should support the troops no matter what one may think of the country's military strategy ... we need to support the people who make their living "selling sex."

Although honestly, sex is a transaction isn't it? We're all selling & buying at some level aren't we?

Should be a fascinating series. Thanks!

I'm rootin' for ya.

Great start! Looking forward to what you have to say.

Is that you in the picture? (just kidding).

This series is going to be interesting.

I cannot wait to read this series. I read Belle de Jour: Diary of an Unlikely Call Girl and I thought it was a smart and witty book. Shockingly enough I felt the main character, who was based on the writer and her life as a call girl in London) is a feminist. The fact that she enjoyed her career and held power in it is an interesting concept (considering men and women were objectifying her.) She wasn't forced into it, it was a choice. I am very interested in reading these article (please don't hate on my comment. I know it seems controversial but if you read the book you'd know what I was talking about.)

I look forward to reading

I look forward to reading this, and to hearing your perspective. I remember when the "Hooker Teacher" story occurred, and I felt bad that you were treated so poorly for being honest about your life. I'm glad to hear from you, and I'm glad you're still working to make things a little bit safer for sex workers and provide some reality for others.


I hate the word hooker because it so often comes right after the word "dead" in what are allegedly jokes.
Very much looking forward to the next eight weeks or so :)

I'm glad that sex workers are

I'm glad that sex workers are getting out the message that they aren't victims and are challenging retrograde ideas about female sexuality, and acknowledging their ambivalences about the industry, and all that--that's good!

But it does seem that lately the feminist movement is all ''sex worker this, sex worker that''--and it would be nice if there was an equal focus on female hairdressers, cleaners, waitresses, nannies, hospitality get the drift. Us blue-collar gals in non-sex-industry-based employment are suffering some *serious* spotlight deprivation here! Our work may not be considered 'sexy', but it raises plenty of feminist and gender-related power issues, and it would be great if mainstream feminist websites and magazines had a guest post from a maid every once in a while...

Great topic for discussion

I am genuinely looking forward to your upcoming H-Word series Melissa, as sex work is very much indeed a controversial topic of conversation. More specifically, I am interested in the issue that you raise regarding language and the various ways it impacts the “knowledge” that the population receives regarding sex workers, all the while rendering sex workers invisible.
You write that your series comes from a “pro-sex worker (though not necessarily pro-sex work) stance. If that seems contradictory or impossible, keep tuning in”. Contradictory? Great! It will be interesting to see how you show that this exemplifies the importance that a space be created for self-representation. Language is a social structure that reflects limited patriarchal ideologies; Sex workers are “othered” in the same way other minority groups always have been. Congrats on the decision to tackle this subject as I think your blog will definitely help to shed light on some widely held beliefs about sex work. Also, Kudos to you for standing up for your beliefs and using your Voice.

The introduction gives a

The introduction gives a brief explanation of "The Hooker Teacher's" take on sex workers and being branded a Hooker--and therefore, "always a whore". A Whore has always had a stronger meaning to me personally than the word Hooker. Sex workers and the whole concept of this life style and choices made is a radical idea when thinking about. Choosing this lifestyle and being open to the public about it with her first work published, caused the end of the author's teaching profession, which shows how radical this sex work is viewed by our society. The author's adequacy to teach in the classroom has little to do with her life choices beyond the school, for this particular act. A teachers actions beyond the school setting are important to their justice in the classroom setting, moreover, she is not a criminal, etc.

I think this is a great idea

I think this is a great idea for a blog. The pro-sex work feminist perspective is not shown enough. Many feminists say that the way society treats us and expects us to fit a certain role is unfair. I don’t understand the feminists who aren’t in support of women who want to have sex for money just to try it out or to have fun, as you said. It’s not okay when society tries to police women’s sexuality and tells us we can’t be too sexual but shouldn’t be prudes either. If feminists are telling us that we can’t have consensual sex for money, then what makes them any better than the rest of society? NVchoices made a great point by saying that much of sex is a transactional thing. For example, in many cases men will take a woman to a nice dinner or buy her expensive jewelry in the hopes that she will sleep with him. In a more college oriented example, many fraternities will pay to supply the sorority that they are partying with lots of alcohol in an attempt to get the girls drunk, leading to a better chance of sex. This is pretty similar to Melissa Petro's situation, if you think about it. Instead of jewelry and expensive dinners, she just cut to the chase and took the money directly. I’m not saying this is exactly the same situation. When money is spent in dating, emotions usually grow too, whereas in selling sex, emotions are supposed to be avoided.
On another note, I find in fascinating that selling sex seems so bizarre to some people, yet it is one of the oldest professions in existence. Selling sex talked about a lot in the Bible. Other topics such as homosexuality were seen as completely unheard of when mentioned in the Bible, but today homosexuality is much more accepted. I feel like selling sex is just as taboo as it was during Biblical times. Why is this?


This is a brave and strong statement about a woman's rights over her body against stigma but complicated by a general context of criminality, exploitation and deprivation. I wonder if men fit in your analysis. Surely to leave us out is the elephant in the room. We (men in general) are the main purchasers. We still, generally, exercise more power and wealth in society so structurally this is not an equal relationship. But that said can a purchaser of sexual services be regarded as simply exercising choices over his body if this is with genuine consent? Or is this always objectifying and exploiting women? I will follow with interest.

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