Sex work is often viewed as a profession that both men and women have been forced into — a difficult choice when no other option is available. But this is not true for all sex workers. Kay, whose name has been changed for privacy purposes, is one such worker who feels that her work is meaningful and fulfilling.
“My work is the only thing in my life that always makes sense, that I always understand, and that I know resonates truly with who I am,” says Kay.
As a teenager, Kay’s curiosity about sex work started after she had read a book about a young woman who worked in the temple of Ishtar—a Babylonian temple that practiced sacred prostitution.
“I was completely enamoured with the beauty and the sacredness with which they described sex. These women who worked in the temple had ownership of their own bodies and over their own understanding of pleasure,” says Kay.
Although this made Kay think about engaging in sex for a higher purpose, it wasn’t until she was 28 that she decided to enter the sex work industry. The first step was to look at agencies so she could do it legally.
Under the current Canadian law, it is not illegal to work in the sex industry, but it is illegal to buy sex. To work as a sex worker legally in Calgary, you have to be licensed as an independent escort, and this licence has to be held by an agency that is also licensed by the city.
“The problem with this system, is there are only a few agencies in Calgary, and all of them, without exception, run their girls like pimps.” – Kay
Some of the problems with the agencies include little referencing and few security checks of clients, verbal abuse and ignoring drug addiction problems among the workers.
“While I worked at the agency, I was assaulted by one client. The agency’s reaction was, ‘Oh yeah, he gets a little rough sometimes. But he’s never sent anyone to the hospital.’”
Kay was also drugged twice and says the agency’s response was similarly apathetic. After three years of constantly having to advocate for herself, Kay decided to leave the agency and work independently.
Although without the agency Kay is technically working as an illegal escort, she has had no similar experiences where her life has been at risk.
“My clients are very respectful, they’re very genuine. And I’ve been able to really tailor my brand to attract a certain type of clientele that I could never do with an agency,” says Kay.
The irony of the legal route being more dangerous than the illegal route is a problem, advocates say.
The intention of Bill C-36, which came into force in December 2014, is to ultimately reduce the demand for sex work by making it illegal to purchase and advertise sexual services. The legislation itself is biased, assuming that sex work is an inherently exploitative and dangerous profession, and although the bill is aimed to make sex work safer, the result has been the opposite.
Sarah Leamon, a criminal defence lawyer and board chair of PACE Society in Vancouver, which stands for Providing Advocacy, Choice and Education, explains how Bill C-36 has made it challenging for sex workers to openly communicate with their clients prior to meeting them. The ability to establish guidelines, rules and expectations before the first meeting is important to the safety of the workers.
“If you’re purchasing something you know is illegal, you probably don’t want to communicate and disclose too many details about yourself,” says Leamon.
The legislation has sex workers continuing to operate on the margins of society, as they are not only trying to protect themselves but protect their clients.
“If police come in and demand access to their client list, their clients would potentially be in harm’s way,” says Leamon.
The issue of human trafficking is often an argument for the abolition of the sex industry. But human trafficking is not exclusive to sex work and, according to Leamon, is more common in Canada in domestic labour and the beauty industry. Additionally, the current legislation may make it more difficult to detect human trafficking in the sex industry.
“We have a sex trade that is forced into the underground and on the margins, it makes it more difficult for authorities to properly identify and intervene with people who are not there by consent.”
Leamon adds there is no evidence to support that criminalizing the purchasers of sex will reduce human trafficking.
Kay explains that the monitoring and regulation of the agencies would help to ensure the workers’ rights are being protected, but this won’t happen without decriminalization of the sex industry.
Shift, a program through the HIV Community Link, is dedicated to help both sex workers who want to remain in the industry and those who want to exit. It provides a variety of resources including food hampers, bus tickets, tax help, education, counselling, and community-building activities.
“Sex work can be isolating,” says Katelyn Dickin, who works as the Shift Educator & Capacity Coordinator. “People need someone to talk to, someone to vent to, because they might not have anyone else to chat with.”
Shift has helped Kay develop a community of other like-minded sex workers.
“They’ve been wonderful for allowing me to start to participate in sex worker advocacy, and raise awareness around sex workers’ rights,” says Kay.
Shift also works to educate the public and to challenge their notions about sex work stereotypes. Dickin explains that a study done by University of Victoria professor Cecilia Benoit, reveals the typical profile of a Canadian sex worker is Caucasian, Canadian born, in their thirties to forties, with some post-secondary education.
“We’re sex workers but we’re also parents, or we’re also siblings, we’re also nurses and we’re academics, we’re all of these things together,” says Kay. “Sex work is just one of the ways in which we express ourselves.”