I am finishing up a PhD in the social sciences, and will be on the academic job market soon. I really want to teach more than anything, either at the university or high school level.
I need advice with regards to something in my past which may or may not come up as I look for positions and hopefully begin teaching: for several years, I did various forms of sex work in order to survive financially. This work falls within a grey area in terms of the legality of it in the place I was living at the time.
Although I worked under an fake name, was never arrested, and did not consent to clients taking photographs or video of me, I know that it is possible that my images are online, and/or that I could be involuntarily “outed” some other way. This causes me a great deal of anxiety, especially in light of recent stories about teachers being fired when their involvement in sex work was discovered.
I have no shame or guilt about how I used to get by (I don’t consider myself to have had much of a “choice,” in the matter but that’s a different discussion!) However, I’m aware that some may think my participation in the sex industry somehow diminishes my teaching abilities or sense of judgement.
At this point I am wondering if I should have some sort of response prepared should the issue arise – and I guess I don’t even know if it would be better to deny my past (lie) or defend it. I don’t know what my “rights” to privacy are in a situation like this, or even the first thing I’d do if anything surfaced, now or ten years down the line.
In the meantime, I feel like I’m carrying a big, dark secret around, which is isolating and stressful. After extensive research, I’ve determined that the area where I live does not have any resources for current or former sex workers, so I’m on my own trying to sort this out. What would you do in my situation?
Dear Good Teacher:
Anyone who went into a room with you during your life as a sex worker was there just as much as you were there. Were their entire lives & career prospects & worth as human beings transformed by that act? Did a professor who hired your services back in the day become less of a professor because of it? Did he turn every class after that day into a lecture on “doing it”? Did he try to influence all his students to go hire or be sex workers, too? No? He probably carried on quietly being good at his job, the way you will be good at your future job. Why should someone’s entire adult life be relevant to their job application, anyway?
People can be jerks, and they can really latch onto a faux scandal and puff themselves up at the importance of vulnerable people, and the culture is definitely sexist. So your worries that your past could haunt your future aren’t misplaced – a mean-spirited, judgmental person could do a lot of damage to you with information about your past. I don’t have an easy fix for the way that sex workers carry more stigma than the people who hire them or consume pornography do. Still, I think it is very unlikely that your past will have an effect on your current job search, so maybe I can help you feel less anxious about this particular aspect of what is a stressful, competitive, and difficult venture for everyone who looks for academic employment in the social sciences.
True Story: There is a porn video where someone who looks EXACTLY like one of my friends is doing…stuff. A former boyfriend sent it to her (Pro-tip: Never do this). The physical resemblance is so uncanny that my friend joked that she might not remember doing porn but definitely would have remembered becoming fluent in Russian.
My friend has the privilege of joking that you do not feel that you have, but look at it this way: The massive amount of porn in the world feels like a curse to you right now, because you think “Chances are, pictures of me are out there somewhere. There’s just too much for that not to be the case.” But the massive amounts of porn in the world are also your shield. If images & video of you do exist somewhere, the chances that someone who will be on a search committee has a) seen it and b) will both recognize and remember that it’s you, ten years later and c) get past the infinite amounts of plausible deniability that you have on your side and actually put your name to that face in a way that can affect your employment chances are very, very small. Even in the above example, where someone who knew my friend saw the porn and then was crass enough to pass it on to her, NOBODY believes it is actually her, not even the guy who sent it.
Something you always have on your side is “How gross are you (coworker, future employer) for emailing me pornographic images and telling me that they look like me? This makes me very, very uncomfortable and is completely unprofessional and out of line.” cc: Human Resources. Anyone who did that should be crushed like a sexually-harassing bug, and the question of whether the images are actually of you should never come into it. “Do you email everyone links to your personal masturbation stash, or just coworkers?“
Let’s talk worst case scenarios:
#1: Say you apply for a teaching position. Someone on the search committee used to be a client of yours, so they know FOR SURE that it was you. How could they out you to everyone without outing themselves? My prediction is that they will not do that; they will find a pretext to prefer the application of another candidate. Is it discrimination? Yes. Is it actionable, provable discrimination? No.
Non-comforting solution: Jobs in the social sciences are hard to come by and the process is extremely grueling and competitive for everyone. You will never even know if your past was a factor in getting the position. Maybe they just liked another candidate better. I think you would do well to assume that if you don’t get a certain position or interview, it had nothing to do with your past and everything to do with the shit job market. This scenario is extremely, extremely unlikely and if it did come up it would be a weird, one-time fluke kind of thing and it would not follow you from search to search, institution to institution.
#2: Say you are already working somewhere. Say someone comes forward with a rumor that you used to be a sex worker, and it gets to your employer, and they ask you to respond in some way. Say it’s a little whisper campaign, and you feel conversations stopping when you come into a room and lots of weird, sidelong glances. Or, since this is a worst-case scenario, say that you work in a high school and the person bringing the rumor forward is one of the parents. Say that the media is interested in “allegations that a well-respected high school teacher used to be a sex worker!” and a shitstorm is a-brewing.
I think this is all extremely unlikely, but you asked in your email if you should have some kind of prepared response ready. Any response is going to be so situation-dependent, right? A good boss who knows & supports your work would completely ignore (and tell everyone to completely ignore) the rumor. A bad, insecure boss will run to you to try to find out if it’s true. Maybe keep “And this is relevant to (work topic) how, exactly?” at the ready. My best advice is that most people will be looking at your reactions more than anything else, and they will take their cue largely from how you react. Make anyone who would come after you with this show their hand completely before you tip any of yours.
You shouldn’t have to lie or deny your history. But you also shouldn’t have to disclose if you don’t want to, and you definitely shouldn’t have to do it on anyone else’s schedule or anyone else’s reasons when you are not comfortable.
I can think of four concrete steps you could maybe take right now to alleviate your anxiety about this.
1) Do an employment background check on yourself. Hire someone reputable do do a standard employment-check on you and report to you in confidence anything they find. If anything about your past life shows up, you can deal with it on a case-by-case basis. If nothing shows up, relax.
2) Find a lawyer. You want to educate yourself about your rights, employment discrimination, about libel, slander, defamation of character, harassment, etc., and you also want the number of a friendly lawyer or two you could consult if things did go haywire. Did any of the research you did on organizations list resources for legal advice?
3) Find a counselor or other safe space. The likelihood of someone actually outing you or of your history of sex work impacting your job search is, in my opinion, very small. But the anxiety is big. Talk to someone. You said you found no local resources. Could you find a hotline or online community here? Do something to make sure that you are less alone with this.
4) Write your whole story and put it aside. Get the story out of your head, lock it away behind a password. Someday you are going to be a big-time tenured Somebody, and it is going to maybe be time to tell the whole story of your life because it will help you to tell it and it will help other people to know it. Think of the amount of porn in the world. Then think of the number of people who work in porn or sex work for a while and then transition into other careers. Maybe down the road you can be the one to help them. Do it (or don’t) on your own time in a way that feels right for you.
I congratulate you on finishing your degree and wish you luck on your job search. I hope you can let your fears go and really enjoy working in a field you love.