Leadership and Community Building Programs

History of Sex Work: Vancouver

History of Sex Work poster

"As in all civil rights movements, we need to understand our history
in order to understand our place in the community."

History of Sex Work: Vancouver book coverFree Download —The History of Sex Work: Vancouver
The History of Sex Work book is available for free download (PDF, 7 MB).

To Buy the Book
If you are interested in purchasing a copy of the book for $25 (not including shipping), please contact: community-ed@sfu.ca. All proceeds from the sale of this book are reinvested in the History of Sex Work Project, and will support project participants in employment training opportunities, further education, and public outreach activities. (Price does not include shipping and handling. S&H within Canada and the US: $4.00. Internationally: $10.00. Buyers can also arrange for pickup at SFU Vancouver. All prices in Canadian dollars.)

In 2005, a group of Vancouver-area sex workers came together in partnership with Simon Fraser University in the hope of discovering the history of sex work in the city of Vancouver.

The History of Sex Work: Vancouver project was born out of this partnership as a community art and historical research initiative. It offers alternative perspectives and creates diverse lenses (such as labour and human rights) through which to engage with the sex worker community in Vancouver by examining the rich history of that dynamic community since the incorporation of the City.

Participants researched their history using a variety of methodologies and the worked to produce a synthesis of findings in the form of a multi-media installation and a book compiling the stories of project participants. It is hoped that these multiple forms of expression will activate the involvement of a broader community and engage a wide audience in creating meaning and recognizing new alliances. 

The group sees this project as an opportunity to move away from 'victimhood' and to gain legitimacy. We believe that this shift will translate into project participants having direct influence in decisions that affect their work and lives (i.e. policies, by-laws, legal reform).

Installation Concept
Once the bulk of the research was completed, the group engaged in a collaborative consultation process with local artist Anne Marie Slater and her production company, Spoton Moon Productions. Slater conceived of the "parlour" concept for the installation. Offering a counterpoint to written history, the parlour setting allows you to step back in time and re-examine the lives of contemporary sex workers through multiple and complex lenses; through their own voices.

The installation was originally created as a site-specific piece to inhabit the Lobby of the Dominion Hotel, located in Vancouver's historic Gastown neighbourhood. By starting "where it all began", Slater and the group were able to create a full experience, taking advantage of the rich history and the feel of the neighbourhood. By situating the installation in this area the group was also able re-situate the neighbourhood itself, creating an opportunity for community celebration, and engaging diverse stakeholders in a dialogue about some of the socio-economic factors that have led to the dangerous and degrading conditions that community members often face in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. At the same time, the installation was envisioned as a portable project, able to communicate the same ideas in any space.

One of the ways that the Leadership and Community Building Programs supported this project was by organizing and offering a series of workshops that helped participants build skills that the group had identified as essential to their success. Examples of topics include: oral history; interviewing skills; library research; internet research; Vancouver history; tours of the Vancouver and Vancouver Police Museums; and a workshop on properly citing sources.

Learning Portfolios
A unique aspect of this project was that each participant was supported to keep a learning portfolio that mapped and tracked both group learning and individual learning throughout the course of the project. We designed the model for these portfolios in partnership with Vancouver Community College. VCC agreed to assess the portfolios on an individual basis at the completion of the project and will award credit towards either the Adult Graduation Diploma or VCC courses, depending on the needs of the individual and the work and learning they have demonstrated. This aspect of the project ensures that the group's efforts hold currency beyond the life of the project.

Project Launch
The multimedia art installation and book were successfully on April 12th, 2007, at the Lamplighter Pub and Dominion Hotel, located in the historic Gastown District of Vancouver. Approximately 300 people attended the event, and attendees represented a broad spectrum of sectors, from survival sex workers, to police, to members of the NGO community, to members of parliament.

Next Steps
The group plans to tour the installation around the region, province, and country. They are currently engaged in an effort to raise funds for this phase of the project. In addition, project participants would like to partner with a publisher/distributor for the book, to ensure that it reaches as many people as possible and attains maximum impact.

Project Partners:

  • A coalition of current and former sex workers who were committed to researching and analyzing their own history in a collaborative and respectful way;
  • Vancouver Community College

Project Funders:

  • Vancouver Foundation
  • Vancity Credit Union
  • Harbour Centre Printing and Copying
  • Simon Fraser University (the Continuing Studies Development Fund and the John Wighton Community Partnership Fund)