Sex workers speak out

Under anti-prostitution laws, sex workers face constrained choices

Part 2 of a series
Photo: Jeff Turner

The anti-prostitution laws introduced by the Harper Conservatives have constrained the choices of sex workers. In this second installment of a series featuring the voices of sex workers, three women describe how the new laws have caused them to reconsider where to work, with whom, and which clients to take on — often leading to decisions they otherwise wouldn’t make.

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Celine, British Columbia

I’m an indoor sex worker in British Columbia. I have sold sexual services in a massage parlour, at an escort agency, and as an independent escort who provided incall and outcall services. You might have sat next to me on the bus, been in my university class, or seen me at my mainstream job, and had no idea that I was also a sex worker.

When the federal government passed new sex work laws criminalizing the purchase of sexual services, I decided to start working in the United States. I figured that if I was now going to have to work in a criminalized environment, I might as well do so in the United States and earn U.S. dollars.

Sex work after Harper For two years, sex workers have faced tough laws, implemented by the Harper Conservatives in defiance of a Supreme Court directive not to impose dangerous conditions on prostitution. The new laws criminalize those who purchase sex (clients), those who communicate in a public place in order to sell sex (sex workers or third parties), those who carry an advertisement for sexual services (e.g., newspaper, website), and those who gain material benefit from sex work (e.g., security, drivers, receptionists, agency owners). Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government has yet to address the unconstitutional nature of the legislation. The Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform invited sex workers to talk about about the impacts of the new laws. These are their stories.

Unfortunately, my experience ended in a work-related sexual assault. I felt very scared and alone after being victimized in a foreign country. It was my decision to go to the United States, but I doubt I would have made the trip if I could have simply stayed and worked in Canada under the old laws, where I still faced criminalization but the purchase of sexual services was not a crime.

The Conservative government promised protection for people like me under the Protected Communities and Exploited Persons Act. But if clients can be arrested for purchasing my services, it changes the entire nature of the interaction. Clients become nervous and reluctant to provide adequate screening information. The feeling in the air is one of uncertainty and suspicion. It’s an extremely uncomfortable work environment. Being with clients who are nervous and suspicious doesn’t make me feel safe.

I have not had any interactions with the police in Canada, before or after the change in laws. But I’m definitely more suspicious of law enforcement now that there is a focus on the purchasing of sexual services. I go to great lengths to avoid interacting with police because I am distrustful and suspicious of them. I know there are some police who are good people and mean well, but generally I don’t see the police looking out for my best interests.

I think sex work should be decriminalized. Everyone involved in the sex industry would be safer in a decriminalized environment. Of all the options I’ve read about, I am most supportive of the New Zealand model.

It’s important that people know that sex workers are everywhere. Mostly, people just look at me and see a person. However, when my sex work status becomes known, all of a sudden it’s as though I’m a different person. The stigma around sex work follows us forever, even when we stop doing sex work.

Remember that sex workers are around, all the time. Sex workers are on the bus next to you. They are in the same restaurant as you. They are dropping off their kids at daycare beside you. Treat us with the same level of respect and consideration you would give anybody else.

Sandra, Victoria, British Columbia

Before Canada introduced new laws to “protect” people like me, I was happily working as an escort at an agency in Victoria. I’d worked there for 10 years and enjoyed the atmosphere and not having to do any of the boring administrative work. I got to show up for the fun bits and had plenty of free time to pursue my hobbies and other business ventures. Clearly the arrangement worked for me, because I stuck around for a decade!

I ended up with little choice but to work independently, even though I would feel a lot safer working with others.

Then the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act was passed in 2014. Business immediately slowed down at my agency, and I heard through my friends that this was the case at other agencies in town, too. Clients had heard about the new laws that criminalized the purchase of sexual services for the first time in Canadian history; it was all over the media. Desirable clients disappeared, and for nearly a year I watched my income dwindle.

By the time I was financially desperate enough to make a change, I was seeing only a few clients a week — and they were the less desirable ones, who tried to bargain for services and push my boundaries. My friends at other agencies tell me this same situation caused some indoor workers to move to the streets, which can be more dangerous due to visibility issues and increased contact with police.

I left the agency and worked out of my own home for a while, but was constantly worried that I would be evicted if my neighbours or landlord found out. Now I have a dedicated workspace. I feel safer this way, but the trade-off is that now I have to pay two rents, which means I have to work more often.

The new laws made it illegal to work with other sex workers, so I ended up with little choice but to work independently, even though I would feel a lot safer working with others. I wish people understood that agencies and brothels are an important part of sex work and that a well-run indoor workplace not only keeps us safer but means the administrative aspects of the work are done by people who know and understand it.

But the admin! The extra work! I barely have time for my hobbies, and my other business and second source of income languishes.

Imagine a chef who couldn’t work at a restaurant because the owners and managers of the restaurant are considered pimps under the law. Commercial and capitalist enterprises are not unique to the sex industry. Other industries operate with bosses and employees, and exploitation is not assumed.

Now it has been two years since the laws changed, and business is mostly pretty good for me now. The environment of fear and stress has relaxed, and I’m back to having the sweet, generous, and respectful clients (men and women) with whom I want to spend my time.

But the admin! The extra work! I barely have time for my hobbies, and my other business and second source of income languishes. Although I am happy with working independently, I’m not confident it’s a decision I would have made freely. It’s not realistic to expect that every person in the sex industry wants to or can be an entrepreneur.

One thing the new laws haven’t changed is how I engage with law enforcement. I never had any reason to interact before, and I don’t have any now. I feel pretty confident that I could go to the Victoria police if I had a bad date or something. But this is not the case for more marginalized sex workers nor is it the case in other municipalities. The Victoria police have taken a public position that recognizes the harms of criminalization and have been clear that their priority is not to enforce prostitution laws.

I am lucky that I feel quite safe at my job. But sex work would be safer if our lovely, good clients were not criminalized, allowing some distinction to be made between those who support us and those who abuse us. I ask the federal government for full decriminalization of sex work. I ask them to look to New Zealand as a successful model. And I ask for strong social supports so that those who are doing this work just to survive are not having to engage in anything that feels unsafe.

Amalie De Maistre, Canada

I have worked in the adult film industry and as a dominatrix in various Canadian cities.

Consenting adults get up to all sorts of kinky activities in a professional dungeon. Pro dominatrices may offer bondage/discipline, domination/submission or sadism/masochism (BDSM) along with fetish services. A fetish is the sexual arousal a person receives from a physical object or a specific situation, including activities such as foot worshipping, leather wearing, or cosplay.

I appreciate that this work helped me pay my bills and support myself for many years. But I left the sex industry for good on the day that the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act became law because I couldn’t bear the thought of the supportive, kind people who were my clients risking criminal charges for spending time with me.

Mentorship is a very important part of training in BDSM.

I started off in the adult film industry in November 2002, when I was 27. I was going through a divorce at the time, which left me with all the debt from joint credit card purchases. To pay off my debts while trying to cover the expenses of high-cost city living, I was working day and night at three jobs. Two were precarious on-call positions with no stability, and the third was a minimum-wage job at a cafe.

A coworker at the cafe had opened a dungeon. I told her about the adult film work I had been doing on the side, and together we decided to try to open a feminist porn company, focused on women and influenced by BDSM and fetish culture. The two of us learned a lot in that time about the film industry. I started seeing clients under her mentorship at her dungeon to make extra money. But things didn’t work out with the company, and our partnership broke up.

By then I was working for $12.50 an hour at a community social service agency providing harm reduction supports, and I was also seeing clients on the side to cover my expenses. I transformed my micro-apartment into a dungeon fetish fantasy space. I spent some time after that moving between Canadian cities, and was eventually able to mentor a friend who was having a tough time financially. Mentorship is a very important part of training in BDSM, and teaching my friend about occupational health, safety strategies and procedures really helped her build on what she had already learned through her own private BDSM experiences.

They had become my friends and caretakers in a time of need, and I couldn’t allow them to risk everything over this horrible new set of laws.

I was in my 30s at that point. I was starting to burn out and was ready to quit the sex industry. I was slowly starting back up with my harm reduction work when I injured myself severely. I was in chronic pain and couldn’t work. I relied on my submissive clientele to get my groceries, clean my house and help with other domestic chores while I tried to heal. My clients became my friends and support system.

Meanwhile, government funding for my harm reduction job was cut while I was on sick leave. This left few options but to get back into the game full-time in order to make ends meet. Seeing clients also helped support me while I obtained my degree.

On the day that the new sex work laws came into effect and the purchase of sexual services became illegal for the first time in Canada’s history, I quit the industry rather than put my clients at risk. They had become my friends and caretakers in a time of need, and I couldn’t allow them to risk everything over this horrible new set of laws. I'm still working on my degree and am $25,000 in debt. I know I could have paid the tuition by continuing to see clients. I feel pushed out of a job.

During my years in this work, I never considered myself a victim in need of rescue. My clients weren’t bad people looking to exploit or take advantage of me. I can only hope the laws change so consenting adults can make their own choices about whether to take part in paid erotic services.

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