'Hooker Monologues' play aims to dispel sex worker myths, stigma

VANCOUVER -- Maggie de Vries spent a good chunk of the 1990s trekking out to a small, grey house in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside trying to rescue her sister from a life of prostitution.

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But after Sarah vanished and her DNA turned up on serial killer Robert Pickton's farm, de Vries read her sibling's journals and discovered her mission had only stirred up shame.

"I didn't know what she was going through," said de Vries. "I didn't know she was scared. I didn't know she wanted out."

De Vries reveals her painful journey of reckoning over the past 18 years in a raw new theatre production called "The Hooker Monologues," which opens Wednesday in Vancouver. The title plays off the acclaimed "Vagina Monologues" by feminist Eve Ensler.

De Vries' original work answers Sarah's decades-old journal entries with present-day personal responses as part of 21 performances. The 10-member cast is composed of sex workers and their allies. The production was funded by grants and donations, and is directed by Vancouver's Mindy Parfitt.

Audiences at the show will hear authentic stories that peel back the curtain on the hidden world of sex work, which covers a range of jobs, clients and experiences.

"They get to enter into Sarah's private thoughts that she wrote for herself. They get to see her hopes and dreams and longings. That's something they might not imagine," said de Vries, who regrets not trying to accept and understand her sister.

"If my attitude had been different, I could have simply been present. ... It's too late to connect."

While de Vries' main performance is sad and gripping, she will also present a bizarre episode involving a sex worker on the job in Alaska on 9/11.

Monologues by other cast members include escorts and exotic dancers, a dominatrix, and a history lesson on the "Shame the Johns" campaign in the 1980s.

"I would like it to be a window into people's lives who work in the industry. We're so often presented in mainstream media as one-dimensional objects rather than subjects," said cast-member Carmen Shakti, who's been a self-employed indoor sex worker for about five years.

"When people see us as full humans, they're more likely to agree with us having the same human rights and workplace rights as everyone else. That's my ultimate motivation for going public."

The show endeavours to dispel stigma and challenge myths about the sex work industry, according to its playbill. It was the brainchild of researcher Raven Bowen, a former executive director of the PACE Society, a sex worker support organization.

Cast members spent more than a year crafting a production infused with empowered messages, from denouncing the casual insult of "whore" to showing sex work can be a satisfying career choice.

"It's not the sex worker in the mini-skirt under the streetlight leaning into a car," said Bowen, adding that only five to 15 per cent of the industry is visible. "That's the image that we see all the time but that is not reflective."

Another goal of the show, strengthening public support for decriminalizing the sex trade, is aimed at overturning legislation passed by the former Conservative government. The courts and advocates contend that banning the purchase of sexual services is dangerous because it exposes sex workers to violence and exploitation in an unregulated market.

Bowen said she hopes the show builds understanding about elements of the trade its workers abhor and want to eliminate, including forced labour, slavery and human trafficking.

But the blanket social taboo makes it difficult for average Canadians to form opinions on sex work laws, said de Vries, which is something she hopes the show will change.

"They want to do whatever will make things safer and better, but they don't know what that is."

Shakti, who practises sacred sexuality and Tantra, wants audiences to learn that many sex workers shun victimization and consider themselves entrepreneurs. Some of her clients are middle-aged men with physical and psychological barriers who have never experienced sexual intimacy.

"It's not the kind of love you have with a partner, but it's a type of love and it's just as important and the world needs it," she said.

She believes that religious teachings underpin modern culture and obstruct society from recognizing sex work as legitimate.

"There's the idea that women can be smart or sexual, they can't be both," she said.

Neither cast member sees any harm with displaying the multi-faceted trade in an entertainment format.

"This is important to do because it's not safe to do," said de Vries.

"The danger for sex workers identifying themselves in our society creates a greater distance. It keeps them invisible. We need to see there are sex workers all around us."



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