New exhibit channels encounters with sexual exploitation into art

The artwork is mostly anonymous, but the lived experience isn’t. 

The artwork at Eastern Edge Gallery in St. John's is mostly anonymous, but the lived experience isn't

Patrons view the art at the exhibit launch on Tuesday evening. (Mark Cumby/CBC)

The artwork is mostly anonymous, but the lived experience isn't. 

An exhibition featuring art created by people who've experienced sexual exploitation opened Tuesday at Eastern Edge, a gallery in downtown St. John's. 

"Exploitation is happening all around us. It's not just a mainland thing," said Lori Petersen, co-chair of the Coalition Against the Sexual Exploitation of Youth, the group that commissioned the exhibition.

It's a small exhibit with a heavy presence. The objective, Petersen said, is to have voices heard. 

"I hope that my words and my work can speak to other people," said Vero Drake, the only artist of the five in the show who submitted their art under their own name. "Hopefully they can find themselves in my work."

Vero Drake (they/she) is a transgender artist and former sex worker who has three pieces in the Reconnection and Resilience exhibit. (Katie Breen/CBC)

Drake, a transgender artist and former sex worker, has two poems and a photograph in the exhibition. Both poems are about their time in the sex trade. 

Mr. John is about her fears and anxieties regarding violence, and Gone to the Dogs is about her "owning the dirty truth" of her reality as a young trans woman sex worker in St. John's.

The difference

Not all sex work is sexual exploitation but exploitation can be found in the sex trade.

"Sexual exploitation is the abuse of positions of vulnerability, power, trust, and dependency to profit monetarily, materially, socially, or politically off the exploits of another person," reads a definition on the website for Thrive, an umbrella organization that oversees the Coalition Against the Sexual Exploitation of Youth. 

Exploitation can look like "survival sex" — or sex for transportation, housing or goods. It can involve sex acts, escort services, stripping and child sexual abuse materials. Exploitation can take the form of human trafficking, revenge porn, or forced labour, in person or online. 

We don't deserve to be hidden in the shadows.- Vero Drake

Drake doesn't consider herself someone who was exploited in her sex work, but says her life circumstances were exploitative.

"No one forced me to do sex work. I never had a pimp. I never had an agency. I never had any one person or institution forcing me to behave in any certain way," Drake said.

"But the social conditions and material conditions of my life as a young, marginalized, vulnerable transgender woman … framed my own agency in what was and was not possible for me at that time."

Drake has three pieces of art in the exhibition: two poems, and this photograph. (Mark Cumby/CBC)

Drake, 27, formerly identified as a trans woman but now identifies as non-binary. She started sex work at age 20 and worked as an independent escort until she was 26.

"There are reasons why a lot of us turn to sex work because, you know, transgender people on average — particularly trans women and most importantly, Indigenous and Black trans women of colour — have some of the highest rates of under- and unemployment in the world," Drake said, coupling that reality with the financial pressures of gender transition. 

Reconnection and Resilience

The exhibition, called Reconnection and Resilience, runs at Eastern Edge until Friday. 

That theme resonates with Drake, who says it's important for sex workers of all experiences to reconnect or continue connections with their communities. 

"We don't deserve to be hidden in the shadows.… Our truths, our experiences should be valued and celebrated and not hidden or be afraid of."

Lori Peterson is co-chair of the Coalition Against the Sexual Exploitation of Youth. (Katie Breen/CBC)

Petersen hopes the exhibit raises awareness of sexual exploitation.

"We've had individuals with lived experiences feel comfortable enough to kind of shine some light into what their life and their experiences have been," she said.

It's a small step to acknowledge exploitation is happening, she said. From there, it's about where to go next. 

"How can they educate us on how to move forward? What services can we then advocate for?"

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