Independent sex workers, especially those who work out of their homes, face more difficulties in trying to screen and manage clients. The anti-prostitution laws introduced by the Harper Conservatives have led to the closure of some brothels and escort agencies, forcing workers to operate alone. This is the fourth installment of a series featuring the voices of sex workers.
Pseu Donym, Ottawa, Ontario
I am a mixed-race, Indigenous and Caucasian, indoor sex-working woman, who has worked off and on for the past 22 years. I grew up off-reserve, struggling through poverty, with a lack of connection to my family’s cultures.
My choice to enter sex work was partially influenced by being raised by a single mother who was a residential school survivor with experience selling sex, and sharing a home off and on with a sister who was a street-based sex worker starting from when she was 11 (during my formative ages from 5 to 12). In fact, my first experiences of selling sex and having sexual intercourse were one and the same at the age of 12. Reflecting back now, in my mid-30s, I feel I was quite mature and wise beyond my years.
I think people have these ideas of hyper down and out street-based workers or high-class happy hookers. I don’t fit into either category.
I do sex work to pay my bills. Although it’s not my dream job, my clients treat me well, and it allows for a flexible schedule, giving me free time to read, spend time with family and friends, take vacations, volunteer and focus on my education. In fact, without sex work I am not sure I would have finished my first bachelor’s degree or be working on my second right now. I only entered sex work full-time after two years of university left me struggling. Ten years of customer service work left me easily employable, but I desperately needed time to keep on top of my studies. I am nerdy, modest (financially and publicly), aching to learn, and able to be involved with things I am passionate about such as connecting with new people, sex worker rights activism, volunteering and learning about my culture.
Though I have no regrets about selling sex as a youth, I was definitely more prepared at 26, when I started to work full-time. When I was 12, there were things that I needed in a context where I was making tough decisions about how to support myself, but the criminal justice system would not have been helpful to me. Penalizing me for finding ways to support myself would have been detrimental.
The new sex work laws introduced in 2014 have made life more difficult for me in a number of ways. I cannot explicitly communicate what services I provide on certain advertising sites run by a third party. This often leads to miscommunication with my clients, and I worry it might result in frustration and feelings of rejection, which are not conducive to an intimate space.
Prior to the introduction of the new laws, I required clients to provide me with a phone number, a reference, and other personal details if necessary. Although this was still illegal, there wasn’t as much police repression and political spotlight on the industry so sex workers and clients were in a more comfortable space to evade the law. Now potential clients are less willing to share private details that I previously used to screen them, so I am less sure of the people I am inviting into my home, which doubles as my workspace.
I have not had any encounters with the police, and I think I’d feel somewhat comfortable calling them if I experienced anything that made me fear for my safety. Sadly I cannot say the same for my outdoor working colleagues.
My sister worked on the streets, and I worry about the women who work on the streets, women who are disproportionately Indigenous. The new laws really isolate workers and push them to the margins of society, and this is in part what has happened to the missing and murdered women in our community. Too many have been lost, and this has to stop.
It is really important that the government listens to people who actually sell and trade sex, and that they review and rewrite the awful bill that the Harper government concocted. We need to have opportunities to share our experiences anonymously — because so many of us cannot speak publicly — so we can have our voices heard. We face negative consequences related to law and stigma if we are out about our experiences as sex workers. We could lose our homes, our children, our friends and family, our “straight” job. Criminalization of any kind reinforces stigma against sex work because it reproduces the idea that sex workers and sex work are socially undesirable.
I am writing this piece under a pseudonym, because of the stigma and fear that we as sex workers must confront. To minimize the isolation I experience and increase the support in my life, I have become active in the sex worker rights movement. I am getting stronger day by day. Maybe eventually I’ll be courageous enough to write using my real name, coming out of the “sex worker closet.” But for now, especially as a current worker, I am focusing on cultural healing, growing and learning as much as I can so that I might help others on their journeys while staying hidden in the shadows.
Many people may believe that Canada’s new laws around sex work are having a big impact on buyers without bringing harm to the workers. But my experience has been the exact opposite since the laws were changed in 2014 and buying sex became a crime.
I started working in the industry as an escort 16 years ago, when I was in my mid-30s. I was really struggling financially at the time to keep my house and support my children, and I took a job first as an escort driver for an agency. In that time, I met a lot of escorts who spoke pretty positively about their jobs so I decided to switch to escorting.
I worked with agencies because it afforded me greater safety. Callers are aware that there is a driver with you and that you are part of a network of people who know exactly where you. That’s why being able to work in groups is so important, but it’s illegal under current laws.
I worked with two outcall escort agencies, where workers meet clients at their homes or hotels. The agencies had safety measures in place, including a comprehensive “bad date list” that identified not only violent perpetrators, but bad clients who stood up workers and others who were just plain rude. The agencies also had a safety protocol ensuring escorts were able to take a few minutes after arriving to assess the client and the space. If the client was alone and all felt fine, we’d inform the driver and the hour would begin. If not, we’d say we had forgotten something in the car and leave.
Like most people in the sex trade, I fear police. I have not been physically harmed in 16 years of doing sex work, but in 2003 I experienced how police treat sex workers. Another escort and I were at a call where one of the clients attacked a worker. We left immediately and went to the police station with our driver but the police weren’t nearly as interested in the assault as they were in the details of the agency.
We were interrogated for hours. The police had been nice to us initially, but that ended as soon as we identified as escorts. Back in those years, even though purchasing sexual services wasn’t illegal, the police still treated us badly. Now that even more aspects of sex work have been criminalized, I know I won’t ever be calling them.
After that incident, which outed my coworker and me as well as the agency to police, the escort office was routinely attended by police who harassed us. I really liked working there but finally quit after more than three years because it felt inevitable that one day soon, all that police attention was going to cause problems for me.
I soon found another very good outcall agency, a great place with all types of support for workers. But when the federal government criminalized the purchase of sexual services in 2014, the agency announced that it would be closing. We were all devastated. I had been there for 10 years.
Even before the laws went into effect, many newspapers stopped printing our ads, as did telephone directories. We began to feel the squeeze on our incomes. This hurt me in particular, as I catered to an older demographic more inclined to use the classified section. I worked north of Toronto, where the agency ran print ads in small community papers.
The escorts had no choice but to start giving our personal phone numbers to regular clients so we didn’t lose them when the agency closed. This is not something I ever wanted to do. I’d always appreciated having an agency there to manage screening, advertising and administrative processes.
Once I had to manage my own phone calls, I found I couldn’t always get back to my clients as quickly as my agency used to. They took it personally and eventually stopped calling. I’m down to having just two regulars left.
I am 50 years old now and not going to start over with a new agency. The closing of that agency has not only affected my ability to support myself financially but also left me without contact with most of my sex work family. I am disconnected from all the supports I previously had and the layers of security are gone.
Operating alone, I am at more risk than ever before. Some of my escort friends have lost their homes. Sex workers are suffering most from the changes to the law, not our clients.
In an effort to keep my home in these times of falling income, I have been looking for another job. Nothing has the flexibility or the pay of sex work, and I am desperate not to end up back at a call centre, where I used to work.
The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act that now governs Canada’s sex industry is far worse than the previous laws. It has re-created the criminal laws that were struck down as unconstitutional in the 2013 Supreme Court of Canada Bedford ruling, and has added a few more. It infringes on my right to safety and security and has had a major impact on my income. Advertising my services is much more difficult, and the possibility of working with a network of people for both safety and camaraderie is near to impossible without breaking the criminal law.
I want to keep doing sex work. It is a life support for many of us, but the new laws are unplugging that. Prohibition never works. We need decriminalization. Just ask sex workers and Canada’s Supreme Court.