‘If you were in my shoes you’d probably be doing the same thing’
One of the pieces written by local sex workers and hung at St. John’s City Hall this week as part of “Sex Workers Speak Out: Coast to Coast Perspectives About Canada’s Harmful Laws,” a public exhibit. “We pay taxes. We vote. We promote and project equality, empowerment, independence and self-worth. Our work is consensual. Our work is real work,” writes A.J.K., manager of a local massage parlour.
©Tara Bradbury/The Telegram
None of the women have used their real names, and why would they? Telling their stories is risky enough — and the stories are powerful.
They’ve been harassed, felt unsafe and forced to hide their occupations for fear of being arrested. There’s the universal feeling of judgment, feeling shunned by society for trying to make a living and provide for their families.
Sex workers afraid to speak up
“People condemn us. They look at us with disgust. Yeah, it’s disgust I see, especially from women,” writes one St. John’s woman. “People can be walking down the street, having a big conversation, and then they see us and suddenly stop talking or pull their children or boyfriend closer to them like we’re literally going to hurt them.
“But they shouldn’t judge me until they walk in my shoes. People need to get outside of stereotypes and judgment. Don’t talk to me about something you don’t understand because if you were in my shoes you’d probably be doing the same thing.”
They are sex workers from the St. John’s area who have chosen to take part in “Sex Workers Speak Out: Coast to Coast Perspectives About Canada’s Harmful Laws,” an exhibit being held at St. John’s City Hall this week.
The display is co-presented by the city and the Safe Harbour Outreach Project (SHOP), which advocates for the human rights of sex workers and provides support and resources to sex workers in the St. John’s area.
The perspectives of six local workers join those of six from other parts of the country for the display, hung in the building’s Great Hall.
“To be able to have these stories displayed at city hall is important,” SHOP program co-ordinator Heather Jarvis says. “It acknowledges that sex workers are a part of our community, they are important, their voices are being heard and their rights are human rights.”
After the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 2013 that certain Criminal Code provisions regarding sex workers went against the workers’ rights to security and liberty, the federal government, under then-prime minister Stephen Harper, passed new laws that recriminalized aspects of the sex industry, Jarvis says, forcing workers underground and into unsafe situations.
The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act makes it illegal to purchase sexual services, and makes it illegal for sex workers to advertise and thus make clear their boundaries, Jarvis says, and presents all workers as victims who need saving.
“It creates very real barriers to sex workers accessing basic human rights and puts them more at risk of danger,” Jarvis says. “As much as we can understand where it comes from, it pushes everything underground, creating unsafe working conditions and upholding a stigma.”
The workers’ stories all reflect that experience. The exhibit includes a piece by local worker Autumn Raine, who says her clients include politicians, judges, police officers and others, yet the law impacts her occupation.
“Women working on the street who had safer places to work without worrying about being criminalized would be safer and could make safer choices while working,” Raine writes. “Because of these laws they’re getting raped and smacked around and hidden, driven underground.”
There’s a piece by Jamie and Thorn, a St. John’s couple who met as coworkers in a massage parlour and who have a child together. “The ludicrous and archaic laws governing our work have left us afraid to tell even our closest confidantes how we feed our family and put our child through swimming lessons,” they write. “We watch as our friends who ‘work the hill’ shake nightly, wondering whether their evening might feature violence or arrest or both. In some ways, we’ve had it easy, but in every way, no one in this industry does. Governments aren’t responding. People in power aren’t listening. We’re still scared.”
There’s a piece by A.J.K., a local massage parlour manager.
“We are now forced to advertise (if at all) by using sketchy websites that put everyone at risk,” she writes. “Women have had their personal information, including full names, addresses, contact information, identifying photos and social media accounts posted and shared for everyone to see. This is where we are forced to go to advertise. This is not safe and this is not acceptable.”
Jarvis says there’s not a specific type of person who engages in sex work; she knows nurses, lawyers, mothers and others working in every area of the province, including Labrador.
“This includes strippers, escorts working out of their homes, people working online, in massage parlours and on the street,” she says, noting only about 20 per cent of the workers work at the street level.
SHOP, with a full-time staff of two, has provided services to more than 150 sex workers in the 3 1/2 years it’s been in operation, on a meagre budget: just $65,000 in funding last year, plus donations. Current funding runs out at the end of March.
Jarvis is hoping the “Sex Workers Speak Out” exhibit will result in an increased level of awareness of the needs and rights of sex workers, and will challenge the stigma associated with the job. The partnership with the city — whose officials were interested in discussing the idea from the moment it was presented to them, Jarvis says — is a step in the right direction, she believes.
“Sex Workers Speak Out” will be available for public viewing until Friday, International Sex Workers Rights Day, when there will be a public reception with light refreshments at city hall starting at 6 p.m.