Listen to the Sex Workers

A new essay collection brings their experience and opinions to the fore

To be a sex worker is to negotiate space.

For me, the negotiation began with the body. I use “the body” intentionally—the body, not my body. What aesthetics, what controversial or provocative debates, what syndromic meanings are placed on the sex worker’s body? Which of these meanings would I utilize to earn money versus which meanings would I try to deflect in order to reduce potential harm?

My own body came second, as I continually negotiated what body parts and sexual activities I would make available, or not.

Venue and environment also demanded ongoing negotiation. I moved from survival street work in Vancouver’s East Side to massage parlour work in Kitsilano, and from coyly worded advertisements in the Buy and Sell in the 1990s to explicit online sex hookup sites in the 2000s.

And within each workplace venue, I found myself further negotiating space. For example, because I am a white woman and was a college student, one massage parlour’s madam instructed me to work in The Den fantasy room, which included a handsome globe, a brown leather chair and a dusty set of hardcover literary classics. I could work also in The Roman Room if need be, but never The Safari Room.

All of this proved to be quite unelaborate in comparison to the complexity of negotiating space as a sex work activist. The more vocal and visible I became, the more I spoke up outside of my workplace, the more labyrinthine the negotiations became. Where could I find a platform for dialogue? Who had spoken before me? Were these speakers sex workers, or did outsiders lead the dialogue? What was said? What previous discussions and meanings were already attached to my story before I myself voiced it? Who was my audience? Would they be allied listeners, or antagonists? How could I tell the two apart? What reasons did audiences have for listening? How would my voice and story be used? And, an important question for the poet in me, can a sex worker ever express herself or himself without explaining herself or himself?

I have posed these questions in lectures I have given at Canadian and U.S. universities. I have sought mentorship from groundbreakers, including San Franciscan activist Carol Leigh, aka Scarlot Harlot, who coined the very term “sex work,” and New Yorker Audacia Ray, founder of the Red Umbrella Project. Most recently, I published a poetry/memoir hybrid book entitled How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir. My book, like myself, is both hesitant and unable to provide sweeping answers. A single definite statement can be made: nothing about, without us—nihil de nobis, sine nobis. Every negotiation about sex work must have sex workers holding that space.

It is with this declaration—nihil de nobis, sine nobis—that I approached Selling Sex: Experience, Advocacy and Research on Sex Work in Canada, edited by Emily van der Meulen, Elya M. Durisin and Victoria Love. Turning to the contributor pages at the back, I discovered that 5 of 33 contributors chose to highlight sex work in the first sentences of their biographies. Certainly, all the contributors who highlighted “assistant professor” or “doctoral candidate” could potentially be experiential; academic work and sex work are not exclusive to one another. However, when, for example, Victoria Love opens her professional bio with “is a sex worker … and has experience in a number of sectors, including erotic dance, massage, and escort,” she disrupts the deep-seated idea that sex work skills are invalid; Love invites the reader to view the credible merits of her work.

Red River further challenges the oft-devaluing of sex work skills: “Many sex workers have great professional skills, but they can’t put them on their résumé for fear of stigma or the simple fact their work isn’t recognized as legitimate.” River cites his own résumé—which shrinks from four pages to a page and a half by omitting his sex work and activism skills and accomplishments.

The anthology is a dedicated space for contributors to demonstrate, again and again, the validity of sex workers’ skills, determination and community building, with one third of the book specifically addressing the theme of “experiences.”

Workplace skills are not the only experiences that have undergone erasure. Entire intersectional identities are overlooked in popular discourse. This erasure seems to scream in “We Speak for Ourselves: Anti-Colonial and Self-Determined Responses to Young People Involved in the Sex Trade,” an interview between contributors JJ and Ivo. Ivo calls out: “We as young Indigenous peoples have limited ways to identify ourselves in terms of both sexuality and gender. In my home territory of Cowessess First Nation, we had over 120 different words for sexuality and over 40 for gender alone … Who was it that robbed me of this knowledge?” Ivo goes on to show that when her youth or indigenous communities’ stories do show up, they are co-opted by the rescue profession: “Organizations that want to save us … rely on traumatizing stories of youth exploitation to get funding,” says Ivo.

Sarah Hunt, whose essay largely focuses on women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, echoes Ivo’s concern about the co-option of indigenous experiences: “As Indigenous people, we have long experienced being spoken for, misrepresented, and silenced by dominant discourses.” Hunt breaks the silence by asking: “That’s usually where the story ends: the missing women. What about the women who are still working in the sex trade today?”

Other contributors answer Hunt’s questions by uncovering the ground-breaking histories of nihil de nobis, sine nobis—experiential peer-driven sex work groups and movements, found in advocacy-themed sections.

In “Working for Change: Sex Workers in the Union Struggle,” co-author Trish Salah reflects upon the important political work lead by trans sex workers in the late 1990s: “Trans sex workers and their allies developed front-line peer-run drop-ins and social services for street-based and poor trans people, like the High Risk Project in Vancouver, Meal Trans in Toronto, and Action Santé Tranvesti(e)s/Transsexuel(le)s du Québec.”

In “Né dans le Redlight: The Sex Workers’ Movement in Montreal,” Anna-Louise Crago and Jenn Clamen offer an inspiring anecdote of a sex work visibility action: “Street-based sex workers distributed pamphlets during the city’s large outdoor Montreal Jazz Festival, requesting passersby to call city hall and denounce the annual wave of arrests of sex workers.”

Three contributors I personally know and admire—Joyce Arthur, Susan Davis and Esther Shannon—recount a long-standing history of advocacy:

Vancouver’s diverse sex worker movement began to organize community-based initiatives in the 1980s, such as founding sex worker support groups, safe work spaces, and harm reduction programs, as well as engaging in labour and community organizing, dialogues with police and government, public education campaigns, and activism … Over the past thirty years, more than twenty sex worker rights groups have formed [in Vancouver] … Almost all these groups still exist today.

Selling Sex not only negotiates space, but also claims it with 349 pages of histories and voices. I will proudly arm myself with this anthology as I continue my own activism. It will be a resource I turn to when the ongoing questions overwhelm me. This anthology has accomplished what it—and perhaps all sex worker activists and allies—intended to do. To sum this vital intention up, I will end with a quote from Sarah Hunt: “Let’s make sure to put the voices, needs, and rights of sex workers themselves at the centre of this movement.”