Baratta with his puppy named Roman. Taken in the bedroom of his 2-bedroom apartment in Calgary. PHOTO: SHAWANDA BACKFAT

Luis Baratta has turned to sex work to support himself during the pandemic, however, along with being misunderstood by society, Baratta’s new occupation as an escort makes him at a high risk for violence, sexually transmitted infections and COVID-19. 

Before the pandemic, Baratta worked as a full-time barista at a local coffee shop. When all non-essential businesses were forced to shut down, Baratta lost his job and began looking for employment elsewhere. Unable to find work, Baratta has become a sex worker to help support himself as the pandemic continued.

“Not working has just been really hard, like not having an income,” Baratta says. “Times are hard. I kind of have no choice right now.”

The ability to pay his bills and rent on time brings relief, but Baratta now feels as if he is sacrificing his safety for security. Especially as a gay sex worker, Baratta is in constant fear that one day he may be the victim of a hate crime. 

“Sometimes you just don’t know what you’re getting yourself into,” Baratta says. “Because you have people who are really nice about it and then you have your sketchy people. And with the way society is now, people either like gays or they hate gays.”

Baratta turned to sex work as a source of income when he lost his job due to COVID-19. PHOTO COURTESY: LUIS BARATTA

Taking extra precautions to avoid getting raped or robbed is now a part of his everyday life. Luckily, Baratta hasn’t experienced that himself, but says many of his friends who are also sex workers haven’t had the same luck.  

“I’ve heard horror stories and I’ve seen some things from other friends that have done it like back home in Ontario. And they all warned me not to do it because of that,” says Baratta. 

Dallas LeBlanc, a friend of Baratta’s who has been working as a sex worker for just over a year says “I knew a lot of girls in Edmonton that were in the worst situations. Like it could get really heated if they [the client] want something really specific.”

“You kind of jump into the situation and risk it. Like you never know, it’s a gamble,” says LeBlanc.  

As he works by Baratta’s side, LeBlanc provides Baratta with tips and advice on what tools could be used to minimize the possibility of sexual assault and robbery. These tools include emergency SOS settings, sharing his location with friends, lessons on how to use discreet weapons for self-defence, tips on setting up a safe work environment and advice on how to spot early signs of dangerous clientele. 

“People think that people who are in the sex industry or sex workers are below them. We may be in a certain type or a certain line of work but we’re not any different.”

LUIS BARAtTA

Along with the potential for violence, there are many health risks associated with being an escort, especially with the spread of COVID-19. Aware of the many health risks, Baratta always takes extra measures to ensure he and his clients stay safe. Baratta has also been approved for PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis), a medication taken to prevent the transmission of HIV after possible exposure.  

Although he has been approved for PEP, Baratta’s online advertisement states condoms are a must. He also shares he often goes in for STI testing and will not take clients with flu-like symptoms. 

Because the sex industry has always been seen as taboo, being ridiculed and misunderstood by society has been the hardest thing for Baratta to get used to so far.

“People think that people who are in the sex industry or sex workers are below them. We may be in a certain type or a certain line of work but we’re not any different,” Baratta says.

A red umbrella is the recognized symbol for sex worker’s rights. PHOTO: CRAIG WHITEHEAD/UNSPLASH

Baratta shares that the biggest misconception about sex workers is that they sell their bodies to support a drug habit.

“That’s not why we do it. Like, yeah, there are some who do drugs, but then there are others who do it because we need to make a living,” Baratta says.  “I don’t think it’s fair that that’s how we are looked at.”

As for LeBlanc, he has learnt to cope with judgment from others by viewing negative perceptions of sex workers as invalid. 

“We provide a service just like anything. For example [with] a fast-food worker, people need to eat. It comes full circle. It’s not like we’re not a part of the economy” LeBlanc says. “We are just facilitators. We sell smiles.”

Although his choice to become a sex worker was due to unfortunate circumstances, Baratta is happy with his overall decision. Being judged is one of the issues sex workers face on a daily basis but by Baratta sharing his story, he hopes to give sex workers a voice and to create understanding within society.

“I rather have people hear why I decided to do this and I kind of feel it could kind of give somebody else that courage to speak out.”