From idea to publishing, three years and 100 per cent independence lead Cull to the publication of her book, ‘Rock, Paper, Sex’, which is set to be released September 22.
“Not every story is horrible, not every story is great – there’s a lot of in between stuff, and I don’t think people are going to expect it,” Cull said during a pre-interview with the Telegram. “There’s stories of empowerment and love, but there are also some really devastating stories about violence and suffering, so it just kind of runs the whole nine yards with the emotions and experiences of these people.”
Cull said that two of the stories showcase the voices of clients in the industry; something unique that she hopes will draw more attention to the topic. With around 20 pieces overall, she explained that every voice and perspective on the sex trade industry can be heard, or in this case read, through the pages of her book.
“You’ll notice too that I use prostitution, sex work, different phrases for it, because I’m trying to kind of cover all of the bases, so to speak,” she said. “I’m trying to use the language that the participants use to describe themselves, and most of them really don’t like the word prostitute, understandably, but then again if someone has been coerced or forced into prostitution and then you refer to them as a sex worker, that is extremely offensive and doesn’t really show their true experience. I used different language and wording depending on the story.”
As for what inspired Cull to write the book, she disclosed the truth behind “Rock, Paper, Sex.”
“The alleged hotel gang rapes that took place in the fall of 2014 in St. John’s. That was my inspiration.”
“I just thought about the victims and what they must be going through, and at the same time they’re trying to deal with this very private, awful thing that’s both physically and emotionally devastating … I couldn’t really wrap my head around what that must be like, and I thought back to when I volunteered at the sexual assault crisis centre years ago. I remember hearing other stories about how difficult it can be for the victim to report what happened to them, and that really can be just as awful as the experience itself.
“I thought, if one of these gang rape victims did want to take legal action, they probably wouldn’t because there’s such a stigma attached to their lifestyle. As the media started picking up on it, I realized that people weren’t really hearing the voices of the actual victims. So, here they are.”
Cull added that even though St. John’s does have some fantastic resources and advocates for victims of violence and sex workers, there’s only so much they can do. “I read a study somewhere while researching that said only 15 per cent of the voices over a 10 to 12 year period actually come from victims, and I found that really problematic.”
Igniting the spark
Once the idea had formulated in her brain, Cull set off to find stories.
She said she would post ads on adult websites across Newfoundland and Labrador, looking for anyone willing to share their experiences for the upcoming novel.
“I was basically being very honest about what my intentions were from the beginning,” she told The Telegram. “I just wrote a couple hundred words explaining who I am and what I’m looking for, and I honestly didn’t really know what I was hoping to find, and I definitely didn’t know what I was getting into in regards to how much work it would be. That said, it was completely worth it.”
Surprisingly, Cull didn’t have much trouble when it came to finding people willing to open up to her. She feared that, since it is such a personal subject, many would be reluctant to talk to her about their lives and experiences.
She was happily proved wrong.
“I think it’s because a lot of these people, they don’t have any outlet to talk about their experiences … especially because of the stigma attached to not only their lifestyle, but also to sexual assault victims in general,” she said.
“I mean, there are people who have been working in this trade for decades, who’ve been the victim of something like this, and who have never breathed a word about it to anybody … the book is their outlet.”
Out of all book participants directly involved in the sex industry, Cull said that only one person chose to identify her real name. People who reached out would first go through a lengthy interview with Kerri herself over email, asking any questions that they might have about the book and their role in it, and simply establishing trust between themselves and Cull.
“Protecting the anonymity of the contributors was, and still is, very important to me. At least a draft of every story has been proofread and approved by whomever it’s about, because they are the subject and I want them to feel as safe and in control as possible.”
Finding everyone that she had spoken to in order to let them read the manuscript proved to be difficult, she said. Some of the interviews had taken place a year or two before the rough draft was complete, which resulted in a bit of time needed for Cull to locate everyone. “It was stressful,” she said. “But it was an iterative, collaborative process.”
“Knowing that they trusted me and my intentions, and felt comfortable sharing such intimate experiences felt like a gift,” Cull said. She found herself in a position asking tough questions, often difficult for her to even get out, and always extremely personal.
‘Stories from all walks of life’
“One sex worker talks about some of her weirdest clients. A survivor tells of her experience being forced into prostitution at a young age and what struggles came from that. A dancer talks about her relationship to feminism and what it means to be an empowered stripper. A john, who is married with children, explains why he does it.” There are voices from that range from a transgender sex worker, to a male survivor who talks about sex worker laws — 20 people with 20 different stories, all of which Cull say touched her in some way.
“It would be great if people read it and learned something, whether it be about the law or about human nature or what have you, but that’s not point. I just want the participants of the book and people who are involved with the sex industry in general to know that they’re not alone. Their stories, their experiences, their opinions and lives matter. It’s not all bad, just as it’s not all good.”
From this project has sprung another idea for Cull: a therapeutic creative writing program with the participants of the Blue Door Program, a federally funded outreach program that helps people exit the sex industry. She’s excited to start the sessions this week, she said, and will focus on themes of self-love, beauty, courage and independence.
“If they are disrespected, violated, or done wrong by, that matters,” Cull finished with. “People care. Sometimes it may be hard to find these people, but they are out here. There’s so much stigma surrounding sex work that even if someone is victimized it would be really hard for them to come out about, and that’s a sad reality. Everyone deserves respect and safety, everyone deserves to be understood, and the first step to understanding anything, is to listen.”