We were asked by an organizer from the CBC to volunteer as “books” for the Human Library event in Ottawa, which took place in January of this year. The program featured people from a diverse spectrum of experiences that attendees could “borrow” for 20-minute, one-on-one conversations.
Shortly before the event, there was a flurry of media coverage, which included one particularly offensive article entitled “Library to Loan Out Hooker, Stripper” by Anthony Furey in the Ottawa Sun. The reason this article incensed us, other than its hysterically inaccurate depiction of the event in which we were about to participate, is that we are the hooker and stripper in question.
Furey balks at “activist agendas” that “turn human beings into stereotypes” even as he uses stereotypical language like “hooker” throughout the article. This treatment is not just reserved for the likes of hookers and strippers, however, as he considers most of the human books to be “of a decidedly fringe flavour.” In this way, he positions the “fringe” books as social outsiders and dismisses the importance of events like these that encourage people to look beyond what they access in the media.
In particular, Furey takes issue with the book title one woman chose, “Urban Aboriginal,” as a “ridiculous and condescending term.” This overlooks the fact that participants were asked to choose their own book titles, discounting that particular woman’s choice to call herself an “Urban Aboriginal” and Lindsay’s choice to call herself a “Sex Worker,” not a hooker.
He instead insists that the Human Library event “fetishizes people’s differences” and argues that “whatever differences there are have more to do with their character than their ethnic background.”
As much as we’d like to think that people are judged only by their characters, that is simply not true. In other words, Furey’s insistence that differences are purely character-based ignores the importance that social positioning plays in people’s lives. Particularly for those of us “of a decidedly fringe flavour,” our experiences with stigma and discrimination have shaped our lives. These are precisely the differences that are important to hear about. As such, the Human Library is not fetishizing people’s differences, but rather bringing diverse (and in many cases, rarely heard) experiences to light. This was confirmed to us only on the day of the Human Library, when many of the “readers” said they had never spoken with anyone who worked in the sex industry before.
After intimating that we don’t have anything useful to say, Furey also criticizes the library for encouraging people to “talk to a hooker” instead of reading. He goes on to dubiously claim to be “an advocate of someone talking to or being friends with hookers if that’s what he or she wants to do” (emphasis ours); however, he has nothing to offer on how someone might go about befriending a person who works in the sex industry. Instead, he seems to assume that sex workers are easily identifiable and available for a chat.
In short, we aren’t. Unless you come and see us professionally, you would not be able to distinguish us from anyone else. Indeed, like many of the other books at the library, including neurosurgeons and firefighters, we do not wear our work clothes in our free time. Further, many sex workers are not open about what they do because they fear the consequences of stigma, which can range from harassment to family trouble to arrest.
After Furey’s article was published, we weren’t sure what to expect on the day of the event, but even though we were stationed at different locations, we were both pleasantly surprised with our readers, who themselves were diverse in their ages and experiences.
Readers asked Lindsay how she became involved in the sex industry and how she told her family about her work. They also asked about the legal status of sex work in Canada (prostitution is itself not illegal; however, there are several provisions in the Criminal Code that make it difficult to work legally and safely) and commended her for her work with people with disabilities. Tuulia was also asked about her work history, as well as what happens at strip clubs and how she stays in shape. So, despite the fact they had never spoken to a sex worker before, we found our readers to be polite, respectful and excited to learn about our lives and experiences. We would gladly volunteer as books again.
The Human Library originated as a way to bridge gaps and forge alliances between disparate groups of people. We think it did just that. Each of our readers walked away with a fuller and more nuanced understanding of the sex industry, one that portrays us as the multidimensional human beings that we are.