When sex worker Carmen Shakti begins her ribald tale of five hours spent providing oral stimulation to an erection-challenged client — a marathon session that ends only after she develops cheek cramps — many in the audience aren't sure how to react.

"He's floppy as flounder, so I have to increase the suction," she reads into the stage microphone.

Eyebrows rise. Faces stiffen. Some chuckle.

But as her story builds toward a crescendo — with the client desperately trying to climax while the service provider fantasizes about steak dinners and kitchen appliances — nearly everyone in the house is howling with laughter.

"When I'm done, I lie in bed with my stack of cash, arranging it in stacks of 100. Yeah, baby, that's my rent for the month, right there! My face will recover," Shakti says with a triumphant giggle before strolling in stilettos back to her chair.

The Hooker Monologues - stage

Carmen Shakti at the microphone in stilettos. The Hooker Monologues brings nine sex workers and their 'allies' on stage to deliver real-life stories about the world’s oldest profession. (CBC)

It's just one of many candid, eye-opening stories that populate a new theatrical production in Vancouver called The Hooker Monologues, which brings nine sex workers and their "allies" together on stage to deliver real-life stories about the world's oldest profession.

"I hope that by hearing stories by actual sex workers, people will have a reference point," Shakti said. "They'll get that we have communities and families and hopes and dreams and we're complex people. We're not just 'whores.'"

The Monologues were recently workshopped for a select audience, as the performers gear up to unveil their stories at the Firehall Arts Centre next March. They hope to dispel stereotypes about prostitution by giving voice to women who perform sex work.

"Society needs to change," said Shakti, who described sex work as her calling, adding she specializes in tantric sex services. "I don't like living in closets. They're good for clothes and that's about it."

Humanizing 'hookers'

Not all of the performers in The Hooker Monologues are as comfortable as Shakti about going public with their connections to sex work, worried how "coming out" may affect their children, families, relationships or job opportunities.

As a result, the all-female cast is composed of active and former sex workers, as well as women who advocate on behalf of sex workers. The audience isn't told which performer is delivering her own monologue.

"Stigma is something that stays with people their entire lifetime, whether you're in or out," said Raven Bowen, a long-time sex-worker advocate who came up the concept after appearing in a production of The Vagina Monologues.

Carmen Shakti - Hooker Monologues

Carmen Shakti, who describes sex work as her calling, says she specializes in tantric sex services. (CBC)

Similar to that internationally renowned play, The Hooker Monologues features women alone at a microphone on an unadorned stage.

The performers, all dressed strikingly in red and black, tell widely diverse stories:

A feminist relates the day her view of sex work radically changed while handing out condoms to street prostitutes. A sex worker recalls 9/11, when a client paid her to curl up in her arms and weep after planes flew into the World Trade Centre. An author digs into the diaries of her sister, a former drug addict and sex worker, whose DNA was discovered on the Vancouver-area pig farm of serial killer Robert Pickton.

Bowen intends The Hooker Monologues to humanize the experiences of "the silent majority of middle-class sex workers" engaged in neither survival sex trade nor servicing millionaires.

"We just want people to be compassionate, to understand there are different things going on out there," said Velvet Steele, a transsexual dominatrix whose monologue describes holding a client captivated as he kneels before her.

"We're not trying to candy-coat things. We want to change thought perception, try to remove stigma and make women feel empowered."

Hooker monologues - Velvet Steele

Dominatrix Velvet Steele’s monologue focuses on her ritual of putting on lipstick before meeting a client. (CBC)

Opposed to criminalization

The Hooker Monologues is also an implicit repudiation of Canada's prostitution laws.

After the Supreme Court of Canada shot down laws prohibiting brothels as unconstitutional, the former Conservative government introduced a new law that criminalizes anyone who buys sex or profits from the sale of sex. The group believes theatre's intimacy may be more successful than protests at raising awareness about the law's negative effects.

"We'll be able to include audiences in the lives of sex workers in a way we haven't been able to do in the past, because I don't think a Canada that understands the impact of criminalization would have supported the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act," said Bowen, currently completing her Ph.D in social policy in England.

Rehearsal - Hooker monologues

The year-long process of self-examination and writing their monologues has turned the cast into a family of sorts. (CBC)

The cast has become a family of sorts during the year-long process of writing and self-examination they describe as both painful and healing. A young mother who goes by the name Divine is struggling to finish writing her monologue, about a time she was sexually abused by seven men while employed by an escort agency.

"I don't know if it`s something that I'll be capable of fully performing because it is a real thing and really painful," she said. "It's not something that was handled or supported well [by the agency], so there's still a lot of anger and hurt and all those things that accompany traumatic events."

None of the women are formally trained writers or actors, so they invited director Mindy Parfitt and dramaturge Camille Gingras to offer feedback on early drafts. When the two theatre professionals volunteered to guide the production, Esther Shannon, one of the performers, was surprised.

"The dream opened up when they came to us, because we knew so little about theatrical performing. They're the ones that really gave us the sense that 'yes, we can do this.'"

Parfitt and Gingras meet with the cast regularly, coaching them on performance or editing scripts. "Everybody needs help to make some things come to life and it`s not easy for sex workers to get help," Shannon said.

The Hooker Monologues has received grants from the Community Arts Council of Vancouver and Raincity Housing, but the group recently launched a crowd-funding campaign, hoping to boost its shoestring budget in time for performances on March 9-13.