Sex workers speak out

'What did you expect?' How sex workers learn to endure crime and avoid police

Part 8 of a series
Photo: T.E.A Photography

Enforcement of anti-prostitution laws varies from city to city, with some places having a more hostile climate and others taking a more supportive approach. In all cities, relations with police affect sex workers’ willingness to report crimes committed against them. This is the final installment of a series featuring the voices of sex workers.

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Claudia, Montreal, Quebec

I’m Claudia, a transgender sex worker since the age of 13. So yes, 32 years in the business soon! I work on the internet and on the street.

I have been more discreet since the new laws came into place. I offer my services less explicitly over the phone now, and I feel free on the streets. I know who to do business with, and it’s not that complicated to avoid childcare centres, parks and schools. After so many years working in the streets, I know who to talk to. I don’t quote prices over the phone, and everything is discussed inside the house. I do the same in the streets as well.

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.

Due to the laws on advertising, I do not openly discuss my services. My ads do not mention any sexual service or price. I put "relaxation" instead of "massage," and I talk about "spirituality" instead of "sex." Sex workers have to do this because our landlords and neighbours can see our ads online. The risk is real, and we could lose our home.

I very rarely talk to the police and try to avoid them. They are always there to see what we are doing, but as we have been working on the streets for a long time, they know us and tend to leave us in peace. But my sisters who use drugs aren’t as lucky and are harassed by the police at every corner.

I’m working on a challenge with Clinique Droits Devant, a legal clinic in Montreal that helps people who have accumulated several tickets for loitering or jaywalking. The police most often penalize the people visible in the streets, such as sex workers and the homeless, rather than the general public that does the same things. I was ticketed for being in a park.

In the streets, I take risks and speak openly about my services. But when I need the police, I call without hesitation because I have the right to do so despite everything. I talk to the police but I stay alert. Sometimes you come across a police officer who is not respectful, but there are people like this everywhere.

I ask the government to leave my clients alone and go for the real criminals. Please change these ridiculous laws. If you want to stop human trafficking and true exploitation, stop attacking us and confusing exploitation with those of us who work to try to meet our needs! Sex work is not a game, it’s a calling — you've got it or you don’t.

We are real budding psychologists. And no matter who we are, regardless of the work we do, we deserve our place in the sun. So leave us in peace.

Carmen Shakti, Vancouver, British Columbia

I’m a Canadian sex worker currently working from my home in Vancouver. I’m fortunate to have a steady clientele, so while my business hasn’t been impacted as dramatically as I feared, the new sex work laws have had adverse impacts on my safety and well-being.

I have worked in the industry for six years, first at a boutique incall escort agency (a bawdy house) and then with an outcall escort agency through which I arranged to meet clientele outside of the agency. As I saved money and gained more control over my life, I started taking training in therapeutic massage and Tibetan tantra. Two years ago, I struck out as an entrepreneur, doing a mixture of escort work, tantric sexual instruction, and sexual bodywork for the purpose of healing and exploration on the part of my clients.

The new restrictions on advertising that came into force in 2014 have prompted a lot of the places where I advertise to ban certain words and phrases in my ads. Now, I advertise using the vaguest and coded terminology possible. I am not able to communicate effectively in my advertising, which is the first point of contact with a potential client. That not only increases my workload when handling bookings by phone and email due to people calling me to ask for services I do not provide, but also prevents me from establishing my boundaries with clients.

In similar situations, other Canadians have the option of small claims court or fraud charges for bad business dealings.

Now that purchasing sexual services is a crime in Canada, screening is more difficult than ever. I used to be able to get a new client’s name and references easily. The new laws have created a climate of fear and clients are afraid of providing personal information.

My new screening process includes interpreting the tone of any and all correspondence with a potential client and paying attention to my intuition. I am fortunate enough to have a partner who checks in with me when he knows I am with a client, but I wish I had more tools to keep myself safe.

I also make use of online communities such as the sex work review sites’ community watch pages, where escorts post information on potentially violent or troublesome clients. If I hear that someone is assaulting escorts in my area, I make the decision to only see regular clients until the criminal is caught.

I have not had any dealings with law enforcement in the entire duration of my career as a sex worker. I work with considerable privilege: indoors in a nice place. I am discreet in my dealings with clients.

If a crime is committed against me in the context of my work, I am not comfortable going to the police. Nor can I count on the protection of the courts against business-related violations committed against me.

One of my dreams is to start an escort and massage agency that has the legal capacity to make ethics its highest priority.

For example, a while ago I contracted the services of what I thought was a reputable web company to create an escort website for me. They were based in the United States, which I liked because hosting the website in Canada is illegal and this company could host the site from outside of the country. But they turned out to be unscrupulous. They took my deposit and did not complete the work I had paid for. In similar situations, other Canadians have the option of small claims court or fraud charges for bad business dealings. Not me. As a sex worker advertising sexual services, I did not feel comfortable reporting. Instead, I had to take the financial hit.

One of my dreams is to start an escort and massage agency that has the legal capacity to make ethics its highest priority: one that takes a lower than average cut of the worker’s booking fee, where a percentage of those fees goes towards health and retirement benefits for workers.

I believe this would be a great business model as well as a wonderful way to elevate sex workers’ rights in Canada. However, to go ahead with this model would put me even more firmly on the wrong side of the law since receiving material benefits from other people’s sex work is a crime.

Full decriminalization, like in New Zealand, is the only way to ensure that sex workers are not exploited by unscrupulous managers and people who target sex workers for abuse. Under decriminalization, we could organize and create a more healthy and sustainable workplace culture for sex workers.

Amanda, Victoria, British Columbia

I am an independent escort, working out of my own apartment. Canada’s new laws around sex work have made my work more dangerous by frightening my clients.

I have a website and I advertise online. I connect with clients by email and phone. Without a private security guard or receptionist or anything to screen my clients, I have to do that myself, based on references from other escorts and my own gut feeling. These new laws impact how I work and live as all of these necessary activities are considered illegal.

It’s just generally bad when there’s this tense, nervous energy going on in a private, intimate setting.

Since the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act became law in 2014 and made buying sexual services a crime, my clients aren’t as comfortable providing references and information about themselves. The new laws leave me with fewer methods of screening new clients, which is both frustrating and scary because I need to be able to obtain information before deciding to see them.

I can no longer reassure my clients that they will not be flagged by law enforcement, since our interactions are now considered unlawful. When clients arrive feeling nervous, I can feel the tension in the air, and that makes me nervous, too. It’s just generally bad when there’s this tense, nervous energy going on in a private, intimate setting. Nervous people behave differently. I really wish my clients could be relaxed, and that I could just do my job and they could just enjoy the experience.

Unfortunately, as long as so much of my work remains criminalized, I’ll never be able to trust the police. I would not call them if I had a problem. I did call Vancouver police one time in 2011, to report threatening emails I was receiving at the work address listed in my advertisements. They told me, “That’s part of your job. What did you expect, putting yourself out there like that?”

Can you imagine the police brushing off a realtor or a dentist who had received threatening emails at their workplace? In my experience, the police aren’t interested in helping sex workers. It’s as if I’m a second-class citizen because I sell sexual services, and that’s very frustrating.

I am going to continue doing my job no matter what.

I don’t think they will try to help or protect me regardless of what the laws are. But with or without the support of police, I would still be safer if sex work was decriminalized, and that’s what we need our federal government to do.

I am going to continue doing my job no matter what. It’s what I know how to do best and what I like best. I had several different jobs before being an escort. I was a personal trainer, a dental hygienist, and a restaurant server. I just want my government and society in general to respect the fact that I have decided on this career out of several career options. Doing sex work is the best for me out of all of these options, and I see myself doing it for a very long time.

I will find a way to work within any legal context, but I wish I didn’t have to worry about breaking the law and about my safety.

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