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images courtesy Debb Hurlock

Exhibit kicked out of city hall

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"I was 12 years old and I came from a pretty good home, you know," said Rebecca, who asked her real name not be used. "I was raised in a middle class family in a really nice community in Calgary. No one wants to pay attention to the fact that it's happening, they don't want to know. The biggest misconception is that 'that would never happen to me, or that that would never happen to my daughter, or my little sister.' But it does."

Rebecca had been abused by a family friend between the ages of nine and 11. At age 12, she met an older man who took her out for dinner, bought her clothes and alcohol and one day, asked for the favour to be returned. She was on the streets at age 15--she had a one-year-old child--to fuel her increasing drug habit. She would stay there until she was 24.

About a year and a half ago when University of Calgary social work researcher and United Way community worker Dr. Debb Hurlock decided to put together a research group of five peer researchers--ex-sex trade workers--Hurlock's purpose became helping people understand that prostitution exists in Calgary.

The research took the form of a PhotoVoice Exhibit--a technique used to give voice to a marginalized societal group by giving them cameras and asking them to take pictures of their experiences. The images are then shown publicly to share the experiences that mainstream society doesn't often get to see, explained Hurlock.

"The broadest and most important goal of this project was to cultivate and change social consciousness around the issue of the sex trade and the people involved in it in the hope that we would cultivate that sense of empathy so that people could gain more support for people in the sex trade," she said.

When Calgary's city hall agreed to show the body of work in mid-June, the peer researchers--especially Hurlock --were excited the institution would give their project validity.

However, the exhibit didn't last long on city hall's walls as many complaints were lodged within the first couple hours, said city hall spokesperson Barbara Clifford. Many children visit city hall on a daily basis and of the 25 pictures that were exhibited, two were deemed offensive. One was of a dismembered Barbie doll and the other of pennies with "whore" written underneath the picture.

Although not her own, Rebecca, said she loved the Barbie doll photo because it was symbolic of a woman not only being piece-mealed physically, "like a fucking happy meal: legs, tits and ass," but also spoke to the fragmentation of the emotional and spiritual self.

Despite her acknowledgement of the ability of the photos to spark needed conversation, she said when the entire exhibit was taken down, she wasn't surprised.

"When it comes to the sex trade, it's the big elephant in the middle of the room that nobody wants to talk about," she said. "When you start acknowledging it and talking about it, you're going to be forced to do something about it. Your moral conscience won't let you deny it's taking place."

AIDS Calgary's Shift program helped with the project, giving advice to the research team as an organization that works on the front lines. The association provides harm reduction service to sex trade workers, said Shift co-ordinator Roseline Carter.

"The fundamental theory behind harm reduction is realizing that some harm is inevitable and that abstinence isn't always an option," she said. "We need to meet people where they're at."

Shift is one of the two programs in Calgary that offers support for those in the sex trade. They provide safe sex supplies and knowledge of how to be safe in one of Canada's most dangerous professions. They also work towards gathering statistics about Calgary's sex trade community, a job that is almost impossible due to the transient nature of the individuals and their wish to remain anonymous, said Carter.

Since word spread of the exhibit being stripped from city hall's walls, the group has received support throughout Calgary and across the country, said U of C social work dean Dr. Gayla Rogers.

"There's something about this story that has resonated with people," she said. "Why? I'm actually not sure. Sex trade workers don't often experience widespread community support."

Hurlock is now planning a six-month local tour for the exhibit because many Calgarians have stepped forward to offer their space. She is even in negotiations with city hall, as they have offered to re-host the display with a couple revisions that keep the message intact while making it child friendly.

"Whether people take this awareness and choose to fight and change policies or use it as a catapult to put resources in--whatever that may look like--I felt like my real purpose was to get people talking about it," said Rebecca, who is now working in an office in downtown Calgary. "It's a conversation that people need to have."

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