‘Even the people I work with don’t talk about it. They sweep it under their rugs.’
If Ask Spirest ever welcomes you into his quaint yellow apartment in downtown St. John’s, the smell of burning incense will attack your senses.
A trail of fairy lights are frivolously tangled around the three flights of stairs that lead to his bedroom, floral carpet covering each step. There are bundles of rope, kitten ears and a box of condoms on the floor.
Ask Spirest is his real name. He is 18-years-old. He loves cats, art, and his levitation wand – a colorful prop for visual performance.
He is also a sex worker.
And if you know Spirest from his trade, you might know him as a petite female with long dark hair and a fetish for rope play.
His story begins with discovering the realities of his gender. As an adolescent, he struggled with his identity as a transgender male. He was 14 when he asked his teacher and friends to refer to him using male pronouns.
And with that was a detrimental phone call from Spriests teacher to his parents. A conservative Asian couple with little understanding of gender identity.
For the following two years, Spirest stayed home and dealt with the less than ideal circumstances. He was not accepted for his gender, and things only got worse. He needed to escape.
“By the time I was 16, I started looking for sex for money because I wanted to leave,” said Spirest. “I wasn’t sure if I could make it on my own.”
When Spirest did decide to leave his parents, he was tossed between his friend’s couch and local homeless shelters. Sex work was his means of getting by.
But something that was once a seemingly choice-less act, turned into a career. Spirest says he expects to do sex work long term – at least until he graduates university. As for right now, he’s completing his fourth level of high school.
The money he earns through his work supports him enough to live comfortably with his roommates and save money in the meantime.
But Spirests background in the industry is unlike most. His transgender identity complicates things, as in his experience, clients are often seeking women.
So, to make things work, he pretends to be one. And because of that, the response is better. Clients show a much larger interest in comparison to when he is open about being transgender.
But with that, comes an ethical dilemma.
“Definitely some complicated guilt in working as a lady,” Spirest said. “I’ve worked through it to some extent but it’s still something I consider.”
And yes, people do find out that Spirest doesn’t actually identify as a woman. When asked why his voice sounds so low, he sometimes admits to his clients that he takes testosterone as a part of his transition.
“A lot of times I get the t-slur,” said Spirest. “The first impression that I get is that people really think that word is fine to use.”
The t-slur stands for tranny – a derogatory term for transgender.
He is no stranger to that kind of language. He says that the transphobia he experiences is not limited to his work life, but also exists on the outside and comes from people he sometimes doesn’t know.
After spending some time finding work independently, through various websites for local sex workers, Spirest applied to his first massage parlour.
On what looks to be a vacant building downtown, The Red Room is scrawled in tiny letters. The realities of these adult massage parlours are rarely disclosed. They’re a local secret to most.
Spirest said that from the beginning he learned that massage parlour culture was an unforgiving one. It was taught to not trust the other workers. You were only to trust yourself.
The interior is often similar to that of an actual spa. Massage tables and candle light in certain rooms. Behind the closed doors of the other rooms are visions that are much more intimate – an affair only the worker and their client experience.
In 2013, a Supreme Court decision made making money off someone else’s sex work illegal. However, sex work itself is not. Massage parlours work through a loophole; they rent space to the workers, but do not make money off the sex itself.
To prevent the granting of permits for more adult parlours, the massage parlour moratorium was put in place in 2015 by the city of St John’s. A former parlour on Wood Street received a series of complaints from locals, so the city put the ban in place to protect residents.
Spirest thinks lifting the ban will make for safer sex work. With no more permits issued, it is hard for people in the industry to relocate when issues arise.
And Spirest says practicing safety in this industry is crucial, as it is undoubtedly a risky business.
“Locally, in many current scenarios there’s more risk than there could be in a place where it’s decriminalized”, said Spirest. “Screening clients could be more thorough and make for safer sex workers if people weren’t concerned about getting in legal trouble paying for sex between consenting adults.”
Kerri Cull is the author of Rock, Paper, Sex, a novel that profiles 16 people in the city that engage in different types of sex work. She thinks the current laws are unable to accommodate every type of sex worker, and that’s where the problem lies.
“I know that the current laws piss everyone off,” said Cull. “Nearly everyone I speak to takes issue with them. I believe it’s due to the fact that not all experiences are the same. Some being completely opposite.”
There are many different types of sex trade workers, says Cull, and there are multiple things that should be taken into account when seeking a solution to the current laws. She lists how people get into the trade: socioeconomic factors, gender issues and violence brought on by customers and pimps.
“We need more understanding of what people are going through,” said Cull. “We need to have less judgments toward people engaging in sex work so they are more likely to reach out when they are victimized, to seek medical attention, and get help when needed.”
Having a conversation
Talking about it, Cull says, and understanding what sex work looks like in our community is how sex-trade workers can stay safe.
“Sex work in St. John’s has many different faces,” Cull said. “It’s not just street workers engaging in survival sex or people offering elite services to people with money. There is a spectrum of experiences and sometimes buyers and sellers can cross many points on that spectrum.”
Spirest chooses to be vocal about his experiences in sex work both in person and online. He says that he’s had the opportunity to meet like-minded people this way. He uses his platform to advocate for sex workers rights and normalizing an industry that is often viewed as taboo.
Spirest says he is aware of the repercussions, though.
“If the school I’m paying money to attend or the employer I’m working for is against sex work and against what I believe in, then I don’t want to go there,” Spriest said. “I don’t want to work there.”
It’s not only people outside the community that don’t like to talk about sex work, he says. The stigma also exists with people in the industry.
“Even the people I work with don’t talk about it. They sweep it under their rugs.”