Rock Paper Sex: The Oldest Profession in Canada’s Oldest City by Kerri Cull

Here’s what I got out of this book: Sex workers are everywhere, there are so many more than I would ever have thought, they come in all shapes and sizes and ages and genders, they could be anyone (maybe someone you know or work with).

There is no one truth about sex work or the people that do it.

Here’s something else I learned: “Current laws on prostitution in Canada, introduced in 2014, make it illegal to purchase sexual services but legal to sell them.” (Wiki) Tricky, right? And does this really help to protect sex workers?

One of the major arguments about legalization of sex work revolves around the risky nature of working on the street. Proponents of legalization suggest that if sex work was legal, it would be out in the open and those who engage in it would have protection, resources, and recourse if they were victimized.

Something else I learned: There are two ways of feminist thinking towards decriminalizing sex work. Some believe sex work is empowering for women; they have control over their bodies and get to decide what to do with them. Others believe that sex work is exploitation of women and legalizing it will only perpetuate the problem.

Through the personal stories of a variety of sex workers in St. John’s, Kerri Cull explores all of these issues in her book.  Many of the interviewees in this book are independent sex workers; they’ve made personal choices to be doing what they do. They have strict rules about safety and discretion, and have chosen this profession over others. It allows them to pay the bills, their student loans, and to support their children without asking for help from anyone else.

Nancy remembers the jaw-dropping feeling of the first time she made $1200 a week. She could support her kids. She could pay her bills. She could buy something for herself for the first time in years. She was finally independent.

Some of the interviewees include a woman who has been working as a stripper since the birth of her daughter at the age of 16, a woman who runs a massage parlour, a transgender woman who has gained much-needed self esteem in the attention she has received through her sex work, a couple who set up a massage practice in their home for both money and pleasure, a woman involved in the BDSM community, as well as a couple of men who speak candidly about the reasons they pay for sex (and companionship).

Megan appreciates that her work simply makes people really happy. They then take that happiness and contentment out into the world with them.

Most people don’t think they’d ever do it, but everyone has a price.

It is probably one of the only industries where men automatically make less then women.

They look down on us, feel we are asking for trouble or may even deserve it.

If the girls didn’t feel so ashamed of their actions, they wouldn’t get so caught up in drugs and alcohol.

It takes a strong sense of self to stay healthy in this kind of environment that at its most simplistic is about physical appearance, but ends up having deep mental and emotional consequences.

There are still many sex workers out there that are involved out of desperation, addiction, and survival – most of whom have a history of abuse. These women (and men) also deserve to have their stories heard, and their rights upheld.

At the end of the book, there is information about resources in St. John’s for sex workers looking for support, as well as interviews with government and community workers.

Until sex work is decriminalized, there will always be barriers to sex workers accessing their human rights. The criminalization of sex work certainly lends itself to the stigmatization of sex work and those who do it. Stigma has been named by sex workers in this province, and across Canada, as the worst part of doing sex work. There is a real lack of understanding about sex work and the people who engage in it in our community, and this lack of understanding perpetuates myths, stereotypes, and prejudice, which in turn leads to stigma and discrimination.

Every person craves acceptance for who and what they are.

I have to admit that one thing I kept thinking throughout the book was, how can there be so much demand for paid sex? What is this an indication of? (I’m not going to answer that… but you can if you want.)

Further reading:

Interview with Kerri Cull at The Telegram: “I thought, if one of these gang rape victims did want to take legal action, they probably wouldn’t because there’s such a stigma attached to their lifestyle. As the media started picking up on it, I realized that people weren’t really hearing the voices of the actual victims. So, here they are.

Review at Atlantic Books Today: “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.”

My review of The Change Room by Karen Connelly, in which one of the main characters is an independent sex worker.

Thank you to Breakwater Books for sending me a copy of this book!

23 thoughts on “Rock Paper Sex: The Oldest Profession in Canada’s Oldest City by Kerri Cull

  1. A Life in Books says:

    Here in the UK prostitution – i.e. selling sex – is legal but soliciting is not. How you’re supposed to do one without the other is a conundrum. As a civilian, I’ve always assumed that sex workers would prefer the safety of a legalised trade but as in this book I’ve heard arguements to the contary when the subject enters the news arena. Whatever the solution I think we all need to accept that there will always be sex work just as there will always be intoxication and find a way to make it as safe for everyone as possible which involves obliterating organised crime from the equation.

    • Naomi says:

      I think you’re right. And I don’t think there could ever be a perfect solution to make everyone happy – there are just too many different opinions as well as different types of sex work (and levels of risk, etc.) to take into the equation.

  2. madamebibilophile says:

    It’s a really complex issue and while I support legalisation I know that doesn’t automatically get rid of all the problems around it. This sounds a thought-provoking look at what goes on all around us, but hidden.

    • Naomi says:

      That’s what I find so interesting – how hidden it is from those of us who are not involved. But, it seems, easy to find for those who are looking!

  3. Elle says:

    One of my very favourite blogs is The Honest Courtesan, run by a long-time sex worker based on the West Coast of the US. She writes under the name Maggie McNeill, and reading about legalisation, prohibition, consent, safety and all those other issues from her point of view has been incredibly eye-opening for me. I highly recommend it:

  4. annelogan17 says:

    So what’s most interesting to me that I got from your review, is the fact that this one of the few industries that women automatically make more than men in. And, in a similar vein, it is probably one of the oldest industries we have! I can’t say I know much about this whole topic, but I’m in support of decriminalization if it helps people, especially single mothers trying to support their kids.

    • Naomi says:

      Now you’ve got me thinking back (way back) to when/how it all began. I guess we’ll never know. One good thing is that they are well paid (as they should be)! (With the exception, possibly/probably, to women and men who are being forced into it by others.)

  5. The Cue Card says:

    The topic opens a can of worms for sure. I’m sure the book is a wealth of information on the subject. But I still would rather help sex workers transfer out of the trade then legalize it. hmm perhaps that’s just naive of me, but in terms of the degradation and abuse of the whole transaction it’s hard to want it for anyone.

    • Naomi says:

      I wouldn’t want it for anyone who was being abused either. But that’s the thing about this book – it makes you realize that there are people who choose to do it, even when they don’t have to. It’s much more complicated than I thought!

  6. Grab the Lapels says:

    I’ve read stories in memoirs and fiction about how most people who pay for sex want someone who isn’t their spouse because they feel inadequate around their spouse. I just finished Janet Mock’s memoir Redefining Realness, and she talks about that. She also mentions that the same men who drove down the strip to mock the transwomen in sex work were the same ones who came back later to buy their services because they felt that transwomen were beautiful.

    • Naomi says:

      Interesting. I’ll be watching for your review of that memoir! The men in the book also mention the fact that they just aren’t attracted to their wives anymore (or their wives aren’t attracted to them), which I’m sure is probably common.

  7. buriedinprint says:

    What an essential read: I’m glad to see you covering it here. Chester Brown’s graphic memoir “Paying for It” might make for an interesting companion read too; I found it really shifted my thinking, gave me a new way into thinking about it from a different perspective. And I know, I just *know*, how you are always looking for other graphic novel and graphic memoir recommendations, which is exactly why I keep sprinking them into our bookish chat. *grins*

    • Naomi says:

      Well, actually, I *was* thinking of Chester Brown’s book while reading this. But our library doesn’t have it, so if I want it I have to request it… and, well, I’m ashamed to admit it but I’m slightly embarrassed about requesting it. You know… small town. So I haven’t yet… But I’d love to get more from the buyers’ perspective.

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