Nfld. & Labrador

'Don't assume you know who I am': Sex workers speak out in exhibit at St. John's City Hall

A week-long exhibit is highlighting the issues and challenges faced by sex workers - in their own words.

Art and advocacy display to mark International Sex Workers Rights Day on March 3

Heather Jarvis with the Safe Harbour Outreach Project in St. John's worked with groups across Canada to create the display. (Krissy Holmes/CBC)

"I just want people to look at me and try to understand why I do what I do. Don't assume you know who I am. Ask me," writes C.L., a street sex worker in St. John's.

It's an excerpt from a piece hanging at City Hall as part of an exhibit called Sex workers speak out: Coast to coast perspectives about Canada's harmful laws. 

"We really need to take a step back and take away the salaciousness of sex work and understand it as a job, as a form of labour," said Heather Jarvis with the Safe Harbour Outreach Project (SHOP), which advocates for the rights of sex workers across Newfoundland and Labrador.

Part of the contribution from C.L., a street sex worker in St. John's. (Krissy Holmes/CBC)

SHOP collaborated with the city to host the exhibit, which features the viewpoints and stories of six sex workers in St. John's, and six from the rest of Canada — all with a diverse range of experiences and backgrounds.

The display specifically focuses on the impact of Bill C-36 — the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act — which came into effect in 2015. 

While the new law does not make the sale of sexual services illegal, the purchasing of those services is treated as a criminal offence, with penalties that include fines or jail time. 

It is also illegal to advertise sexual services.

The law makes it illegal to advertise the sale of sexual services, prompting this message from the manager of a massage parlour in St. John's. (Krissy Holmes/CBC)

"The simple version is sex workers are viewed as victims, so our laws don't want to penalize them, but our laws look to the clients, the purchasers, the buyers, the Johns, as criminals, but anytime you criminalize any aspect of a product it's driven underground," said Jarvis.

It's a job 

Jarvis said one of the things sex workers want people to realize is that they're not all victims, and unlike sexual exploitation and trafficking, consensual sex work is a job that many choose to do.

"People can make a lot of money and work on their own schedule and have control over their own working environment," said Jarvis.

"There's a reason why people turn to sex work, or choose it above other jobs, and we have to make sure that we form that distinction."

The exhibit is on display at St. John's City Hall, with a closing reception for the public in the Great Hall at 6 p.m. on Friday. 

With files from the St. John's Morning Show