Sex workers have limited opportunities to talk about the realities they face. While testimonials are understood and used in a variety of ways and the definition of what constitutes a testimonial can differ from one group or organization to another, public disclosure generally presents an opportunity for sex workers to talk about living and working conditions, establish alliances, share strategies, and work together to fight for their rights. In contexts where “prostitution” is criminalized, sharing stories about the impact of such laws on people’s security and dignity provides a way for sex workers voices to be heard.
The development of tools to raise awareness and fight the stigmatization of sex workers is of particular interest to the working committee on testimonials by people with an experience in sex work. The committee’s activities have also included organizing practical workshops on the personal, educational, and political dimensions of giving testimonials, and development of an archive of films and videos leading to the production of a compilation of video testimonials.
Competition among testimonials: A major challenge
Testimonials by people with an experience in sex work evolve in a context in which a large number of “survivor” stories that promote the criminalization and abolition of prostitution compete for attention in the media. These stories are in contrast to those gathered by organizations such as Stella, one of a small number of groups “by and for” sex workers that support self-determination and the decriminalization of sex work.
Sex worker testimonials are often taken out of context for the purposes of sensationalism. First-person accounts can be used to reinforce false correlations between sex work and mental health problems, drug and alcohol use, violence, or childhood sexual abuse. The frequent assumption that people do sex work because of some underlying problem is a major challenge to activists working to deconstruct these links.
Risks and advantages of using “I”: Strategies for managing public discourse
Several community groups involving people with an experience in sex work participated in discussion activities organized by the Testimonial Cultures project, particularly during a study day that took place in November 2012. These discussions touched on different objectives and experiences related to giving a testimonial, as well as the conditions under which testimonials are produced. The use of first-person narratives and different disclosure strategies were among the major topics of discussion.
During these exchanges, participants noted that conveying a personal tone establishes a degree of credibility. Putting a face on reality that is often different from what audiences expect to see can help to deconstruct stereotypes. That said, people are generally alone when they give a testimonial and this can cause feelings of isolation and vulnerability. For this reason, people who give testimonials sometimes prefer to use “we” as a reminder that other community stand behind them. It is also possible to advance the cause by speaking as an activist without disclosing one’s personal experience in sex work. Ambiguity can be another strategy: the person giving the testimonial neither confirms nor denies that she or he is a sex worker.
Speak Up!: A workshop on sex work and media relations
The decision by the Supreme Court of Canada in December 2013 invalidating three sections of the law related to sex work and the subsequent introduction of new legislation by the Canadian government have put discourses and debates with regards to the sex industry in the media spotlight. This has generated a need to provide training to francophone sex workers on how speak to the media. In response to this need, the working committee on testimonials by people with an experience in sex work developed and offered a new workshop on this topic with the help of several contributors.
The workshop was held on February 20th, 2014. Seventeen participants enthusiastically took part, indicating that the event met a real need. The workshop provided an opportunity to distribute a French-language translation of Speak-Up!: A Guide to Strategic Media Tools and Tactics to Amplify the Voices of People in the Sex Trades, a document published by the Red Umbrella Project, a New York organization whose mandate is to amplify the voices of those working in the sex industry. Translated under the title Prendre la parole ! : Un guide stratégique pour amplifier les voix des travailleuses et des travailleurs du sexe dans les médias, the guide provides basic information, techniques, and strategies for interacting with the media.
Bad clients and agressors list
A form that allows sex workers to provide a physical description and other information in order to warn colleagues about potentially dangerous clients provides the basis for the organization Stella to prepare and circulate a list of “bad and undesirable clients.” The list provides a way for incidents experienced by escorts, street prostitutes, masseuses or nude dancers to be reported through the sharing of anonymous testimonials. Not available on the Internet or for consultation by the public, it has been sent out on a monthly basis to some 600 workers and more than 200 organizations for over 16 years. This community-based “self-protection system” contributes to building solidarity among sex workers.
Publication of ConStellation magazine
Published since 1996, the ConStellation magazine is an uncensored and bilingual offered by sex workers. In its pages, we find diverse perspectives, testimonies, analyzes, literary and film reviews, games, poetry, and anecdotes – all about sex work. Each edition is thematic. In 2008, a special edition published on the occasion of the 16th International AIDS Conference was awarded the Prix Grafika.
The Sensibilisation XXX Awareness project
This public awareness project was aimed at supporting the social integration of sex workers, sharing knowledge with diverse groups, and developing intervention practices. Components of the Sensibilisation XXX Awareness project included the publication of a French-language anthology of texts on sex work written by people in the trade and their allies, training workshops on the demystification of sex work adapted to a range of target audiences, training for sex workers on how to do public education about sex work, and the development of educational tools. These activities have strengthened collaborative efforts and allowed hundreds of individuals to better understand the issues raised by sex work.