PENINSULA ZOOMERS: Ending stigma of sex trade

Columnist April Lewis writes about sex workers and the need to be part of the conversation that ends the stigma.

This is not a column about sex.

You may recall that same opening line in my June, 2012 column, Forum spawns new ideas.

Well, this time, this is a column about sex; specifically sex workers.

I recently attended a production of The Hooker Monologues at the Firehall theatre in the middle of the downtown Eastside. Making my way through throngs of the disenfranchised, I entered the theatre for an opportunity to be part of the conversation surrounding the subject of sex work.

It is time to bring the discourse to the suburbs.

The Hooker Monologues is the brainchild of Raven Bowen, an activist currently pursuing her PhD, who advocates for sex workers’ rights. In this production, she seeks to show a human element in the personal stories shared by the cast of 10 women, who include current and past sex workers, as well as allies.

One cast member, Velvet, stated in a recent radio interview, “Sex workers are not expendable…we are people too.” As a professional dominatrix and transgendered woman, she is hoping the show will dispel the “ubiquitous images of women standing on street corners,” and erase the stigma surrounding the sex trade.

Carmen, an independent sex worker who specializes in tantric sex, has positive stories to share. She wants to dispel the myth that sex workers are “cold, jaded and armoured,” and that clients are “cruel, violent and perverted.” Her work with clients, who are often victims of trauma, is guided by compassion.

Maggie, a childrens’ author and teacher at UBC, is an ally in the cast. She has written a book, Missing Sarah, about her sister, who was one of the ‘missing women’ in the Vancouver Downtown Eastside; a victim of Robert Pickton.

In the play, Maggie has a dialogue with her sister, and quotes from Sarah’s journal which figures prominently in the book. Sarah was a street-level worker, addicted to drugs, who struggled just to survive.

Different women. Different stories. Different endings.

But they all want the same thing and that is to “unpack the word hooker” and come out of the shadows and stand up for their rights. They believe women have a right to choose and to be safe. As the demand for sex has remained unchanged, they are tired of being shamed and stigmatized by society.

They are working together to decriminalize prostitution, which has been a criminal act for centuries. In Canada, in 1972, it became illegal to solicit for the purposes of prostitution in a public place.

In 1985, residents of Vancouver’s West End lobbied to rid their neighbourhood of sex workers. This NIMBY trend continued until they were finally displaced and pushed to the Downtown Eastside, where they were further devalued and marginalized.

Sex workers fought to improve their lives by challenging the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and won two key cases: Canada v. Sex Workers United Against Violence/Kiselbach and Bedford v. Canada. The latter was lodged by three sex workers who won a unanimous Supreme Court decision that existing prostitution laws violated their rights to ‘security of person.’

The draconian Bill C-36 legislation, coupled with widespread ‘whore stigma’, discourages sex workers from engaging in public dialogues to improve their rights, safety and acceptance.

The Hooker Monologues is a creative way to change that and invites us all to be part of the conversation.

April Lewis is the local communications director for CARP, a national group committed to a ‘New Vision of Aging for Canada.’ She writes monthly.