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L’Itinéraire vendor reveals reality of sex work to challenge stigmas

L’Itinéraire vendor Jo Redwitch candidly reflects on her former career as a “sex dancer” in Montreal. Her essay is in reaction to Canada’s controversial new prostitution bill, which has been widely denounced by sex workers. Jo believes the bill “isn’t suited to the reality of sex work” and hopes more sex workers can “find the courage to speak out and share their point of view” to challenge common stigmas.

Her own response is a brave example.

Jo's story was published in a themed edition of her street paper.

By Jo Redwitch, L’Itinéraire vendor 

People all have their own ideas about prostitution. I worked for many years as a sex worker in strip clubs. I did it knowingly and purposefully. For me, it wasn’t exploitation—it was a way to work independently. Unfortunately, prostitution is still stigmatised today.

“Prostitution” is a word that evolves over time and as society changes. Some people cast judgments without knowing anything about this parallel world. They base their ideas on what they hear in the media, which often shows its darkest, seediest side – nowadays, it’s young women who run away from home and are exploited by street gangs.

I know that this phenomenon exists and that it’s important to inform people about it, but do things always need to be sensationalised? I don’t think the new provisions of the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act are suited to the reality of sex work. Ignorance and prejudice only fuel the stigma. To undo this knot of incomprehension, we need sex workers to find the courage to speak out and share their point of view.

The good years

I started to dance for money and freedom around 20 years ago, during a profitable, fun period. Every night, we had the illusion of being the stars of the show, and I loved the physical and artistic aspects of pole dancing.

“We could change clubs like you’d change a G-string. That sense of freedom is what kept me under the black lights for so long.”

Contrary to what you might find now, we were both competitive and united. The alcohol flowed freely, and marijuana smoke was always in the air. Most of us worked independently, without pimps. We had to pay $25 for the “service bar” at the start of our workday; that entitled us to dance. Dances cost the customer $10 and lasted for one song. That money went straight into our pockets. Some girls went through agencies, which took a percentage of the money collected by the bar. We worked with organised people who completely respected our freedom. We could change clubs like you’d change a G-string. That sense of freedom is what kept me under the black lights for so long.

It was right before these lap dances became legal—the law then started to consider them entertainment—that I made a decision that changed my life: I started to work in strip clubs where prostitution was unofficially permitted in the private booths. We needed to be quick because we were paid by the service, not by the hour. Time was money, and you needed certain skills to find your niche in that environment.

L'Itineraire vendor Jo Redwitch. Photo: Alexandra Guellil

My job: sex dancer

When I was a club courtesan, or “sex dancer”, I knew the art of seduction; how to quickly size up a client, and how to listen. I set my limits, and I had good judgement. But most of all, it was my respect for my clients that helped me make it through without too much psychological damage. Also, I was always able to remember that this was a full-fledged job and that I needed to keep my professional life separate from my personal and love lives.

During the last stretch of my career, I opened my eyes and realised that girls like me are useful in society. Some clients have odd fantasies, and they need a place to satisfy them. Sex addicts and people who don’t want to have, or aren’t capable of having, an intimate relationship also have sexual needs.

“Over the course of my career, I saw suffering. But I also saw girls support their children and mothers.”

I’m not proud to talk about this part of my life, but I’m also not ashamed of what I did. To prostitute yourself is hard — for me and for many other people — but it’s not the end of the world. Can we be free to do what we want with our sex organs?

Over the course of my career, I saw suffering. But I also saw girls support their children and mothers, save up for their retirement, buy a nice house, or open a jewellery store, chocolate shop or clothing boutique.

In my humble opinion, prostitution is a service job that will never be able to be completely controlled or eliminated. Maybe we should just accept what we can’t change.

Jo Redwitch sells L’Itineraire at Berri-Uqam and McGill/Phillips Square metro stations in Montreal, Canada.

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