Kerri Cull’s Rock Paper Sex The Oldest Profession in Canada’s Oldest City is a captivating snapshot of the sex industry in St. John’s. The collection profiles sixteen people who live in the city and engage with different types of sex work, some who provide sex services and some who avail of those services.
The collection gives readers a sense of the wide range of types of sex work happening in the city. Over the course of the book we come across descriptions of dancing in clubs,street-based work, massage parlour work, escort work and professional dominant work, among other forms of sex work.
Each chapter is devoted to particular individual who Cull interviewed about their experience with the sex trade. Cull was inspired to begin this project in 2014, when several news outlets were reporting on a gang rape warning issued for St. John’s sex workers. She was struck by the fact that law enforcement and outreach personnel were quoted in the articles but the voices of sex workers were absent from the conversation. For her this book was meant to be an opportunity for sex workers to share their perspectives on the industry.
“St. John’s is small, everybody knows everybody because of that it’s very easy to get caught and the stigma around sex work is very strong. So I feel like it’s even harder for sex workers to be open about their experiences here [than in other parts of Canada], whether good or bad, whether they feel victimized or empowered,” Cull said.
After spending hours transcribing each of the lengthy interviews, Cull edited the transcripts into stories written in the third person and interspersed with direct quotes from her subjects. All of the interviewees had an opportunity to approve their stories before they went to print and names were changed to protect their anonymity. In shaping the stories, Cull’s biggest concern was that the participants felt comfortable with the way they were portrayed and felt their stories were told accurately.
The result is a very nuanced portrait of the city’s sex work industry; many of Cull’s subjects have a complicated relationship with the work they do. She speaks to lots of people who entered the sex industry as consenting adults who feel empowered by the work they do. For many of them, the complications are mostly caused by society’s perception of the work they do as opposed to the reality of their work. However she also speaks to a woman who was coerced into the sex trade as a teenager and returned as an adult, she tells Cull, “…I treat all of it as exploitation. I don’t treat any of it as a choice”.
“A lot of people have asked me, if you had to say whether people who are engaging in sex work are victims or not, whether they’re doing it for survival or not, where would you fall?” Cull said. “It’s those kinds of questions that made me want do this research because there is no answer to those questions. When people understand there is no either/or, that’s a good place to be.”
Cull has been overwhelmed by the attention the book has received since its release, many people have told her the collection opened their eyes to the diversity of the city’s sex industry and the complexity of peoples’ experiences of it. For her, the feedback from people in the sex industry has been the most rewarding. Since the publication of Rock Paper Sex she has been contacted by several people with sex work experience who would like to be included in a second book on the subject, if she decides to write another.