Matthew Quinn Martin is the director and executive producer of the Celebrities in Disgrace movie. His original screenplay Slingshot was made into a feature film and is available on DVD from The Weinstein Co. His short fiction has appeared in Transition Magazine, JMWW, The Oddville Press,Big Pulp (with Libby Cudmore) and numerous other outlets. www.matthewquinnmartin.com
The Old Fan Dance?
“I don’t want nobody like that around my kids” or “I totally agree with her; people trade sex for money/things all the time, and that’s her right to do it.” That seems to be what most people are saying about stripper/”hooker” turned Bronx art teacher, turned nascent celebrity, Melissa Petro. And I haven’t heard much from anyone that rises above either of those positions. From an emotional standpoint I can understand to the first sentiment, from an intellectual one the second.
However, after some reflection, I begin to wonder if there might be more at work here than the liberated pronouncements of a self-identified feminist vs. the rash fears of paranoid parents. The more I think about it all, the more I’m reminded of the famous Nazca Lines of Peru. At ground level, they appear as little more than a set of scratches in the dirt. Only when seen from the air do they turn out to be intricate geoglyphs. In the same way, Petros’s actions, when examined from a certain distance, might just turn out to be a brilliantly executed, near-perfect con job.
Here’s what we know. Petro used to work as a stripper in Mexico. In addition, in her own words, “From October 2006 to January 2007 [Petro] accepted money in exchange for sexual services [she] provided to men [she] met online in what was then called the “erotic services” section of Craigslist.org.” After The Huffington Post published an account by Petro detailing her erotic escapades, Petro was removed from teaching and put on “administrative duties.”.
That, as they say, is the sexy stuff that headlines are made of.
Less well-reported, however, is that Petro also holds an MFA in creative non-fiction from the New School University. In addition, she has been hard at work writing a memoir. Setting aside for a moment the fact that her claims are not prosecutable retroactively––no more so than having admitted to snorting cocaine (as our current president has done in his memoir). Her admission is in no way verifiable. Is it possible, just possible, that just made it up in order to spice up a memoir that might not have sold in a market choked with wannabe tell-alls? Is it possible that she exaggerated or totally fabricated this section of her past? We could ask an expert liar like James Frey. But unlike Frey, there’s no way to prove that Petro didn’t do what she claims. After all, it’s not the type of crime where the police could dust for fingerprints. Sure, one could check the Craigslist archives, but even if those could be traced back to her––which is doubtful, unless she was using her real name––that’s only proof of the advertisement, not the act.
Notice the timing. Her now infamous blog post didn’t appear until after she was granted tenure. How long exactly? A matter of hours. Ask yourself this: might it all be a stunt to not only sell her memoir, but ensure the book becomes a bestseller? Is it possible that safe in the knowledge that she was––thanks to her tenured status––immune from the unemployment currently afflicting our nation in double digits, might not Petro have then put herself in a position to generate the type of publicity that you simply cannot buy?
Before gaining tenure, Petro alluded to her possible pay for sex activities in an early posting on The Rumpus. Towards the end of the article, she deftly dances around the subject while drawing attention to it in the journalistic equivalent of a striptease. Earlier, however, she refers to her experiences as a stripper in Mexico as “sex work,” equating the two activities. From a logical standpoint I wonder if that is accurate. Sure, exotic dancers use their sexual desirability to make a living, but so do the cocktail waitress at Crobar. Are they sex workers? Are the barbacks at Splash sex workers? What about my friend Geronimo Frias? He dances at gay bars and bar mitzvahs (although the act changes a bit)…is he a sex worker?
But suppose we take Petro at her word. Suppose we do conflate conflate stripping and sex work. A stint as a stripper while studying abroad in Mexico and four months of part-time prostitution via Craigslist make for a fairly thin resume. At best I think she could confidently refer to herself as a “sex work dilettante.” And Petro herself might agree with me. In that same Huffington Post article she wrote that she was “no more a ‘professional’ than a person renting a room on [craigslist] is a necessarily a professional real estate broker.”
Recently, Stephen Colbert (of The Colbert Report), for a segment on his television program, worked a single day as a migrant farm worker. Later he used this experience to testify, in character, as an “expert” before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, and Border Security. Colbert’s testimony was a brilliant bit of satire, made all the more so by the ludicrousness of his attempt to pass off so little first-hand experience as expertise. In addition, Colbert was able to leverage his fame to help draw attention to some serious social issues and abuses facing migrant workers. I wonder if Petro is, in fact, doing to opposite––co-opting the struggles of real sex workers for equality, respect, liberation and so on, as a way to jump-start her writing career.
Petro herself seems to have anticipated any criticism on this front in that same Rumpus post when she quotes a Dutch call girl she met in Berlin. “You did it once, and so now you will be it forever,” Petro claims a woman referred to only as Anna said to her. “It doesn’t matter if you do it once or twice or three times—a prostitute is a prostitute.” Is that fair? What about someone who has a change of heart? I spent the summer after my freshman year in college working in a gun factory. Does that make me munitions manufacturer for life? What about the countless women (and girls and men and boys) for whom prostitution is not an enlightened choice, but something forced on them? According to a statement like Petro’s they too will wear the brand of prostitute for life.
As a teacher, Petro pulls in an annual salary in excess of $60K. Had not the city’s teacher unions and Mayor Bloomberg not come to an agreement eliminating NYC’s notorious reassignment centers, or rubber rooms, Petro would have been drawing that paycheck while doing absolutely nothing (other than working on her writing). But I wonder how long before the toxic publicity forces her to be pulled from those “administrative duties” she’d been assigned to.
Not only is her current memoir a guaranteed sale, but, no doubt, the follow-up––detailing her quest for liberation and true justice––has probably sold as well. After that, with two big book advances (and the inevitable movie options, speaking engagements and whatever settlement money she’s offered), if Petro is ever re-instated as a teacher, I wonder if she might call it quits, citing that her (disgraced?) celebrity status makes it impossible for her to fulfill her duties.
When I told my writing partner, and all around expert on human behavior, Libby Cudmore, my con artist theory, she responded, “Holy shit, I don’t know whether to give her a high five or say ‘f*ck you, c*nt.’”
And honestly, I don’t know either.
What is it about this specter of being hoodwinked by Petro that engenders such ambivalence? Con artists on the other end of the economic or gender spectrum are routinely celebrated in fiction and history (ex. P.T. Barnum, The Sting). I think there’s something to be explored there, and if it turns out that Petro has bamboozled us all…well there’s the subject of her third book.
(photos: sexworkerliterati.blip.tv, xingdo.com, genreviewer.com, thestarblogs.com)