JOAN SULLIVAN: ‘Rock Paper Sex Volume 2’ shines a light on occupation in the shadows

ST. JOHN’S, NL — “Rock Paper Sex Volume 2: Trigger Warning” is Kerri Cull’s sequel to her first volume, subtitled “The Oldest Profession in Canada’s Oldest City” (2017).

Both are largely composed of interviews, presented partly verbatim and partly condensed and contextualized.

Like the first, this one is populated by candid, vulnerable, often extraordinary voices, but with a deeper dive into the wider industry.

The Sword of Damocles: should sex work be decriminalized at all levels? Who would it empower, and who would it endanger?

Currently “sex work” – I don’t mean to use an understatement, but not everyone in “Trigger Warning” disagrees on what to call it, so I’m referring to the term most commonly accepted – exists on many levels of legal, social and personal intersections.

Rock Paper Sex Volume 2: Trigger Warning By Kerri Cull Breakwater Books $22.95 240 pages – Contributed

A person who individually decides to enter the field – whether it’s offering experiences from their own space, posting images online, taking a job in a massage parlor or dancing in a strip club – would generally be much more protected by decriminalization. But not everyone who is exploited or trafficked would be.

And an additional, and not insignificant, complication is that these most fragile and exposed people are often in denial about their situation, insisting that they make their own choices.

It takes skilled and experienced counsel to remedy this, and the transition to self-empowerment can take many cycles and many years.

The interviews provide insight

Cull includes an informative interview with former Blue Door social worker Cheryl Coleman, as well as a list of resources and additional reading, as potential guides.

A dominant theme is that sex work is both hidden and mainstream.

Time and time again, respondents insist that most people know a sex worker – a family member, college classmate, work colleague – but simply don’t.

Sex workers struggle both against and within stereotypes, past abuse, traumatic connections, lack of physical boundaries, barricaded memories, varied diagnoses, immorality, addiction. For many reasons, they keep their work private.

Cull’s conversations include people engaged across the spectrum of sex work, mostly women but also men, transgender and non-binary, and she also speaks to a woman who finds out her husband is engaged with sex workers ( whom she does not blame for his actions and their marital fallout) and a man who regularly pays for sexual encounters.

In each chapter, Cull introduces the protagonist by name or pseudonym: for example in “Not Enough Value”: “It was 2015 when Lauren started dancing. She was doing her undergraduate studies at the time and was going through a tough time. His living situation was not ideal. She was couch surfing with friends and trying to make ends meet. Her friend invited her to the strip club to try it out for a weekend to change her situation with some quick cash. At first she backed off.


Sex workers struggle both against and within stereotypes, past abuse, traumatic connections, lack of physical boundaries, barricaded memories, varied diagnoses, immorality, addiction. For many reasons, they keep their work private.


Lauren worked as a bartender, but the salary wasn’t enough to support herself and she basically lived off her car, with daunting credit card debt. The money from the striptease allowed him to turn the situation around, almost instantly.

Lauren details the clubs’ personal and management structures, workplace issues regarding respect for staff and professional fees (the dancers operate as independent contractors and are not covered by the usual health and safety protocols).

She has been harassed in clubs but, as she and others point out, it happens just as much, if not more so, in other jobs, such as bars or call centres.

Many interviewees emphasize their agency and their clear-headed, entrepreneurial approach to their work.

sad stories

But there are sadder, more visceral stories. One is that of Morgan, who “was introduced to ‘life’ by her ex-partner”.

Morgan was a full-time nurse in a small community when she met a man on Plenty of Fish, and soon found herself dominated, isolated and used for sex – activities she didn’t realize her partner was doing. was paid.

It took years of bicycle abuse, self-harm, and periodic respite before she achieved physical safety and mental and emotional stability; she would insist that she made her own decisions and that she deserved no more health and comfort than she had; a compassionate perspective for herself was hard-won.

Another interesting constant is the impact of COVID-19 on the industry.

Strip clubs closed, for example, and reopened with mask and social distancing requirements.

Massage parlors have also been closed for some time (they are in the same alert level category as nail salons).

Additionally, massage parlors are officially under a moratorium in St. John’s, although this is changing politically.

“Trigger Warning” is another varied and pointed take, highlighting a shady occupation.


Joan Sullivan is the editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.

Michael A. Bynum