Sandy (not her real name) is a young thirty something who purchased her first home two years ago and found herself front and centre to the Dartmouth stroll, where johns regularly pick up sex workers.
“I grew up in a pretty sheltered environment in a reasonably affluent neighbourhood,” she says. “Prostitution was not something I realized happened in our city and province so publicly. I am a realistic person though…so I accepted it as it was. I assumed that it wouldn’t really affect my life in this neighbourhood.”
Sandy soon realized the opposite was true. She had to call police once, when it appeared that a man was assaulting a sex worker on the corner. The woman was clearly upset, but when Sandy asked if she needed help she said she was okay.
In another incident, Sandy called the police to help a sex worker who appeared to be inebriated and walking in the middle of the road into traffic. Sandy wanted the police to help her get to someplace safe.
Sandy also feels a small element of danger. In the back of her mind she sometimes worries that a pimp may see her looking out the window or that someone may come knocking on her door, thinking she snitched on them.
“It isn’t going on here”
Most people who travel along Sandy’s busy Dartmouth road remain oblivious to what the night brings. Those of us who work on the front lines of the sex trade are all too aware of the challenges, the stigma and the traumatic stories that come from the streets. Each of those sex workers has a story, something that has led them to their path.
There are many myths about sex work in Atlantic Canada: that sex workers are nothing but deviants with low moral compasses, that all sex workers are victims of childhood abuse. And, perhaps most commonly, that “this kind of thing isn’t going on here.”
As Sandy’s story shows, if you never see it you can pretend it doesn’t exist. But on the contrary, sex work in Atlantic Canada has been thriving for a very long time.
There are in fact indications that sex work on the East Coast may be on the rise. In my work as executive director for the Stepping Stone Association, an organization that supports women, men and transgendered persons currently and formerly involved in the sex trade, we see continual increases in the numbers of sex workers we provide outreach and assistance to.
Stepping Stone has existed for close to 30 years. The need for its service is just as important now as it was when the association started out as two workers back in 1989, walking the streets to provide sandwiches and free condoms to workers on the stroll.
We believe in harm reduction, without judgment, and offer supports in many forms–whatever might help sex workers remain safe. If and when sex workers decide to exit the industry, Stepping Stone supports the transition to increase the chances of success.
Sex worker stories shed light
Our conservative selves would have us believe we are well past those Hollis Street stroll days, but there are signs that suggest otherwise, such as the emergence of stories shedding light on the personal lives of sex workers and their raw experiences. We are seeing new written works that give readers a window into sex work in Atlantic Canada.
Kerri Cull’s book, Rock Paper Sex: The Oldest Profession in Canada’s Oldest City is set to be released this Fall. The author paints a vivid picture of the sex trade in St. John’s, Newfoundland through interviews with people actively working in it.
We hear from a wealthy couple who engage in a form of sex-work service together, for the money and for pleasure; and from another sex worker who asserts that increasingly, sex workers like him are independent and not forced into the lifestyle, as many believe. We learn about a graduate student who entered the trade to pay her bills and start her own business and about a M to F (male-to-female) sex worker who entered the trade to pay for her transition treatment.
In addition to its compelling human stories of sex workers’ lives, Rock Paper Sex makes some important footnotes, providing context on the profession as a whole, including a discussion of the long-standing St. John’s rumours that some swingers’ clubs have more than 300 members. The book also looks at the Safe Haven Project (SHOP), which provides much needed services to sex workers but as a single resource is nowhere near enough in a city with a booming sex industry.
While Rock Paper Sex employs a journalistic approach to share diverse accounts of sex work, in The Teen Sex Trade: My Story, Jade H Brooks gives a harrowing first-person account of her own voyage into the sex trade by way of her boyfriend. (Full disclosure: I recently began work as an acquisitions editor for Formac Publishing, under which Jade’s title is published, however I have had no direct involvement in this book).
The prevalence of this type of coercion, in this case from an intimate partner, is more common than most people think. Any woman involved in sex work not by choice is being trafficked, used for thefinancial gain and benefit of others.
Jade Brooks’ book is sure to ignite the ongoing debate and discussion around sex work, trafficking and the dangers of conflating the two, which do not always overlap.
Her book also sheds light on community and what we accept as normal. Dysfunctional relationships can lead one to believe their pain and suffering is all in the name of love. Those trafficked into sex work often feel they are being protected and loved; most people can’t wrap their head around this kind of thinking.
My own book, Ride or Die, is a fictional story about a 15-year-old girl who is trafficked from rural Guysborough and taken to Toronto. Although fictional, the story mimics the lives of hundreds and thousands of young girls who fall victim to predators cashing in on their trauma.
While society is looking for scary pimps to prosecute, high school peers, friends and boyfriends are increasingly becoming the new faces of this epidemic. In the book, Kanika’s crush is also a recruiter. Unbeknownst to her, there is a motive for his sudden interest in her.
In my work at Stepping Stone, we often deal with horrified mothers desperately searching for ways to claim their daughters back. As Sandy learned when she discovered “the stroll” in Dartmouth, this lucrative business is happening right under our noses and, yes, right on the East Coast.
Rather than stand in judgment, we as a society should familiarize ourselves with the realities of sex workers, their lives and the challenges they face. These first-voice accounts are a first step in educating ourselves about the lack of services–mental health, housing, employment support, education opportunities–for sex workers, and how this prevents people from successfully exiting the industry.
And for those who choose the profession, understanding their stories shows us why they still deserve the same access to healthcare, dignity and human rights as everybody else.