The stories of sex workers across North America are woven together in this newly-published book of poetry
Jayde Atchison // Staff Writer
For many, the term “sex worker” evokes images of hardened women leaning into car windows and negotiating with Johns, donning tight leather skirts and unbelievably high heels.
Hustling Verse: An Anthology of Sex Workers’ Poetry shatters the stereotype of the sex worker, and all the preconceived notions of the sex work industry that propel it. Published last September, the book is made of poems written by sex workers across North America, and edited by Amber Dawn and Justin Ducharm.
Reading 209 pages of poetry would normally take me a single sitting to power through, but Hustling Verse is weighted with emotional content that required breaks to take in the trauma of being abused by Johns, the struggle of transitioning genders as a religious person and unapologetic retellings of moving between sex work and attending university.
An incredible stigma exists around sex work, and yet it’s one of the oldest and most utilized professions in the world.
In Amber Dawn’s introduction, she recounts that sex workers are one of the highest researched, debated and discussed populations. However, their voice is often left out of the narrative, leaving people in power, such as politicians, speaking for and about them. “Sex work, when and if spoken about in the public sphere at all, is often presented as a dry, distant, or theoretical topic: legislative debates, moral panic, health research and reports, etc.,” Dawn said. “It’s little wonder that sex workers would turn to highly creative and experimental art forms to tell our authentic stories”.
In gathering these tales, the book gives sex workers a chance to speak for themselves and share their reality. The language that flows through the pages allows readers to be transported into their local gay bars where men are dancing shirtless on stage, or to the alleyways of Davie Street where people observe the party-goers pass by as they smoke another cigarette.
These poems range from admiration of their companions on stage, to the grief of losing fellow workers and contemplation of the lack of justice from the system that is supposed to protect them. Indigenous women have been going missing and murdered throughout North America, and often have to fight tooth and nail just to be heard. Several poems reveal the poets’ fear of going missing, being harassed by police or facing the danger that helps them pay their rent.
Healing is a prevailing theme woven through the pages of Hustling Verse. One poem is an apology letter to the writers’ body for all the hardships it had to go through over the years. Another goes between childhood horrors and adulthood experiences in a tale of coming to terms with the past and finding peace. These poems show how humans are able to rise above the worst circumstances, and how healing can be a beautiful process.
“One of the things I am always so aware of when making art about sex work is that every worker who experiences that piece is going to have a different relationship with sex work, circumstantially or not,” said Ducham. “What I think art like that and like Hustling Verse does is provide people with a perspective that is human and similar to their own, maybe making them feel less weighted down and able to see how healing is possible.”
Some people join the sex work industry out of necessity. For others, sex work is a lucrative and fulfilling way of making money. Regardless, no one is qualified to pass judgement or place shame on sex workers. We’re all humans with stories to tell, and these stories are worth listening to.