Selling Sex: Experience, Advocacy, and Research on Sex Work in Canada

As a Canadian sex Worker, I know too well how hard it can be to find a balanced, nuanced analysis of the lived experiences of people in my profession and the complex legal and social realities we encounter. Selling Sex proved to be a notable exception.

The book opens with a series of essays by sex workers about the daily realities of their work and lives. The diverse voices represented defy the persistent stereotypes of sex workers as disempowered, addicted, and in need of rescue.

The challenges and benefits described are not what the average person would expect to hear from a sex worker. For someone with no experience in the trade, these essays serve as a window into fascinating lives and subcultures.

Even a seasoned sex worker stands to learn from these stories. There is a genuine inclusion of many voices, including the rare perspective of a female-to-male transsexual sex worker and how his gender identity/ expression impacts his work.

Also included is a brilliant and devastating interview with someone who entered the street-level sex trade as an underage youth.

He describes both the failure of social service programs that serve sex workers to address the needs of the underage sex worker population, and the failure of the school system and society at large to provide comprehensive sex education.

Other essays deal with the rich history of sex work in Canada and chronicle the sex workers’ rights movement as well as harm reduction initiatives in several Canadian cities.

The impact of cultural ideas of female sexual “purity” and misguided attempts by the law to protect “good” women and punish “bad” women are still a big part of what sex workers and sex workers’ rights activists are up against.

Sex work is a contentious and divisive issue, and this definitely appears in how talk of sex workers’ rights has divided the feminist movement.

The wars between prohibitionist feminists and those in favour of decriminalization are discussed. Also included is the perspective of an activist and sexual assault survivor who observed the parallels between the experience of a sexual assault survivor and a sex worker when dealing with law enforcement and the legal system.

The final essays deal with police harassment, intimidation and violence against street-based sex workers, the complexities of licensing requirements of indoor sex work establishments, and paternalistic treatment of youth sex workers by social services and the law.

These essays discuss the painful realities of routine, casual human rights violations faced by the most marginalized and vulnerable sex workers at the hands of Canadian law enforcement.

The phenomenon of police officers confiscating condoms and harm reduction supplies from known or perceived sex workers happens far more often than one might suspect, and is one of the ways in which those who enforce the law work against the basic rights of sex workers to workplace safety and bodily autonomy.

When we dehumanize a group of people, violence against them becomes acceptable.

Sex workers have for too long been seen as something less than fully human, our work seen as unskilled, as a “high-risk lifestyle” rather than a job.

Our fight for decriminalization is but one aspect of the sex workers’ rights movement. The other, more complex component is our fight against stigma and the silence that we are encouraged to maintain around our work.

This book is invaluable as a resource to help people understand the complexities of the sex trade and to see the people who work within it as competent and capable of making their own decisions, rather than victims in need of rescue or deviants in need of punishment and control.

Kamala Mara works as a Tantric massage practitioner and meditation teacher. Her previous jobs in the sex industry include work as a fetish model, escort, dancer, and dominatrix. She is on the organizing team of SlutWalk Vancouver, and has volunteered for several harm reduction initiatives in Vancouver and Edmonton. Her writing and artwork have been featured in Dom’s View Magazine, Memewar Magazine, and The View From Here, an anthology of poetry written by Edmonton street-involved youth.