We Pardon Spitzer, But Still Judge Former Sex Workers (Like Me)

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Photo: Melissa Hom

Five years ago, Eliot Spitzer got caught paying women like me. And now he is stumping, smiling for photographers, and topping the political polls for New York’s next comptroller.

Meanwhile, here I am, working on building a living as a former sex worker, with no full-time job since I lost mine as a schoolteacher three years ago. Today, I spend a lot of my time writing about being a former sex worker (which I have done many times by now). I also teach new writers, including those at risk of sexual exploitation, on how they can tell their own stories. I would be fine with Spitzer’s return to politics if sex workers were allowed the same dignity of returning to normalcy. But apologizing and getting my career back wasn't exactly an option our society supports.

I used to think that sex work was empowering, until I figured out that this was true only in a financial sense — which is no small thing, but it’s not everything, and for a long time, I refused to acknowledge what that “empowerment” cost. In fall of 2010, after I published an op-ed on the Huffington Post under my real name arguing that not all sex workers were victims of trafficking or under the control of a pimp (I certainly wasn’t), I was abruptly sent to the "rubber room," an administrative office turned holding cell for New York City’s unwanted educators.  Four years after transitioning out of prostitution, winning a coveted position as a New York City Teaching Fellow, earning my master's degree in education, and giving lessons on art and creative writing at a struggling elementary school in the South Bronx, I sat in that drab room until the City could find a way to fire me. (I was tenured, so that required a hearing.)

Yes, it’s true, I had brought this scandal upon myself, but I could have never anticipated the fallout, or that my candor would make me a victim in another way. Like Spitzer, I was put on blast on the cover of the New York Post, then ridiculed in the national press. I was shamed by the City, including Michael Bloomberg himself. Ultimately, I was forced to resign from a career that I loved. Where, I asked myself, do you go from here? What do you become when the whole world, it seems, has found you guilty of “Conduct Unbecoming”? Can a woman ever be taken seriously after her sexual exploits have been made into front-page news? What if she doesn’t ask for forgiveness? What would society make of an unrepentant whore? Had I predicted the extent of this backlash, I would have made different choices.

Like Ashley Dupré, the 22-year-old escort who gets credit for bringing down Spitzer (as if it’d been her idea), I was forced to remake myself — again, as I had in becoming a teacher — and this time publicly. I could relate to Dupré: Behind the seductive name, the glamorous pics, the aspirations of a music career that everybody laughed at, I imagined there was a young woman not that different from me. The Times reported she was worried about how she would pay her rent and was considering working at a friend’s restaurant or, once her apartment lease expired, moving back with her family in New Jersey “to relax.” On her MySpace page, she made no secret that she was from a broken family, had used drugs, struggled financially, and had been homeless.

After I was fired, I couldn’t pay my rent. (Even now, freelance writing and the seminars I teach barely pay the bills.) Because of the negative publicity, I lost the part-time jobs that subsidized my teaching salary. And it would only get worse: When I surrendered my fight for my job, the Department of Education contested my unemployment, even though my resignation agreement had stipulated that they wouldn’t; this was the only reason I didn’t go to trial. I moved back in with an ex-boyfriend, falling back into an emotionally abusive relationship. I was four years in recovery for alcohol and sex addiction and 31 years old. Selling sex was out of the question, even though this option haunted me more then than it had in years.

“I don’t want to be thought of as a monster” Ashley said. Spitzer — a.k.a. Client 9 — seems to have cleared that hurdle, with 48 percent of the NYC voting public now supporting him for the second-highest elected job in the city. At the same time, and even more surprisingly, Anthony Weiner has been topping those same Quinnipiac polls in his run for New York’s mayor less than three years after being caught with his pants down.

But while Weiner gets thousands of words to examine his conscience in The New York Times Magazine, sex workers are portrayed in the media as victims or villains, rarely as humans with backstories and complicated lives — lives made all the more complicated by the sudden glare of attention. Sometimes, you leverage it for all it’s worth. In some ways, you have no choice. Once you’ve made a choice that stigmatizes you, your paths become limited. So, from the rubber room, I did an interview for Marie Claire. I wrote a series of articles on the incident that helped establish my career as a freelance writer. Friends congratulated me on my book deal, assuming this was inevitable. But there was no book deal.

In at least one major respect, I have been relatively lucky. Most people don’t have the luxury of being entirely open about their sexual histories — especially women. Especially women with experiences in the sex industry. Sex workers risk losing custody of their children, or being denied housing or employment based on their current or past professions. My own version of redemption has come from sharing my story in order to help others, then being able to step offstage, go home, and appreciate my privacy. Still, I will never teach children again in a full-time setting, and I’m okay with that.

Since their scandals, I suppose Spitzer and Weiner have been in rubber rooms of their own, self-imposed sabbaticals from serious public service. Now they’re back, just like Tiger — another man who apologized, stepped down, shut up, lost his sponsorships, and is obviously past that, now covered in Nike swooshes. Men have a way of coming back that I’ve always admired and aspired to replicate. As Anna Holmes wrote in an op-ed for the Times, we are more entertained than outraged by wealthy men’s bad behavior. Men who abuse women and behave outside the sexual norm are the norm. Eventually, they’re allowed to slowly leave that rubber room, to recede back into their former existences, while us bad girls are branded for life.

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