Canada recently passed Bill C-36, the cuddly-sounding “Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act.” While ostensibly crafted to keep sex workers safe, the bill has been blasted by sex worker advocates because, they argue, it was created without sufficient input from those who happily work in the industry, and is yet another attempt to further criminalize the profession. “Sex workers across the country—thousands of us represented by 20 to 30 different organizations, as well as individuals—were not listened to in the development of this legislation,” says Jean McDonald, executive director of Maggie’s, a Toronto-based sex worker action project. “The Bill criminalizes adult consensual sex. I believe that a lot of the people who are supporting the legislation try to associate it with underage sex workers or underage people in the sex industry or people who might be understood as trafficked, but what the legislation itself is really dealing with is adult consensual sex work—it’s not dealing with anything about being forced into the industry or underage workers. Even if we scrapped the entire legislation, we still have laws in the books that deal with underage persons, we still have laws that deal with rape and sexual assault, we have laws around trafficking.”
McDonald feels that decriminalization of sex work is the best way forward to ensure better working conditions and safety for sex workers, alongside education programs to challenge the stigma that sex workers face. (Legalization, on the other hand, would result in the government creating laws around sex work, which often overly restricts those in the industry.) “Even if the laws start to change overnight, there’s still not a concerted effort to see sex work as a valuable and viable work option, and to see sex workers as respected members of our community with access to the same kinds of labor protection and legal rights that everyone in Canada should have,” she says. “We should feel like we can call the police should something happen to us. People say, Oh, you know, prostitution isn’t the oldest profession, it’s the oldest oppression, and I say, well, if people are oppressed in any form of work or any part of our lives, the way to address that is not to criminalize these aspects of our lives: it’s to ensure legal rights and labour protection so that oppressions can be challenged.”
VICE recently debuted a documentary, The New Era of Canadian Sex Work, that follows Canadian pop musician—and former stripper—Lowell as she investigates what life is like for sex workers and clients in Canada, as well as abroad. (You can watch it on vice.com.) “I initially wanted to make the doc to assess the stigmatization of being somebody that’s worked in sex work; generally people think that they’re stupid or have come from abusive backgrounds, and that’s not necessarily always the case,” she says. “I do think that those things happen and that they should be assessed and, obviously, if the government wants to intervene in that way, they should definitely look at social programs for people that are struggling in their youth, but there are a lot of really intelligent, kind and wonderful women that do sex work.”
Inspired by the women who share their stories in The New Era—and irked at the negative narratives perpetuated in the media—we asked several Canadian sex workers to tell us about their jobs. You can read excerpts below; click through to read a full interview with each sex worker.
Amber Rose, 24, Montreal
What surprised me most about sex work: How normal everything was. You expect from the way media portrays sex work for the men to be disgusting and creepy and the women to be hooked on drugs and not doing well in life. This was not the case at all, and I think that’s what made me start to love this profession. The men are completely normal, and the majority are respectful, fun and personable, and the women are some of the most intelligent, down-to-earth, organized individuals I’ve met in my life. It came as a welcome shock to have my prior judgments squashed by the actual reality I was working in.
The funniest thing that ever happened to me on the job is: Oh, boy, there’s been too many to list! During a duo with another lady all three of us broke the bed, including the wooden slats underneath! The client had to come back with power tools to help repair it the next day!
I love sex work because: There is too much for me to actually list! This job, while not perfect, is the best I have ever had in my life. I get to meet wonderful people and have great experiences. I get to explore my own sexuality in a way I wasn’t able to before. I am finally able to be out of debt and live a stress-free life. As an independent, I have the freedom to work whenever I want and have my schedule as flexible as I need it to be, allowing me to spend more time with friends and family, or just with myself, while not having to worry about how to make rent, pay my bills or even just have enough money to buy food. I get to have lots of physical intimacy, and while it isn’t all great, the majority of it is pretty good sex, which makes up for me being single. I also have Borderline Personality Disorder and lots of anxiety, so being around people for too long in a day can cause me some issues, and there’s some days where I can’t bring myself to leave my house or talk to people, and this profession allows me the freedom to take care of my mental health, which I wasn’t able to do when working six days a week, eight-plus hours a day, and the constant stress of your job being at risk if you need to take a day off.
G, 40, Toronto
I love sex work because: I enjoy helping people achieve intimacy, whether it is someone with medical, physical, mental or emotional difficulties; giving a lonely person some joy; or helping a man who loves his dying wife remove sexual tension from the stress of their lives; or just helping boost a client’s self-esteem. A client walking away happy is very fulfilling. Another thing I love about sex work is making my own hours.
If you have a partner, how do they feel about your career? It surprises most that I have been with a life partner for many years before I started this profession. The decision for me to enter this trade was one we discussed and made together. My partner has been very supportive and, in fact, encouraged me into activism. We are both professionals: my partner is a manager at a medium-sized IT firm and I am in “human resources.” Which makes us an attractive power couple! Sometimes we both joke about bad customers.
The most rewarding part of my job is: Again, making people happy. I have helped shy clients move out of their parents’ basements and start dating, and quadriplegic clients experience intimacy. I’ve been there to give palliative clients a last romp; and answer long-withheld questions about the female anatomy they never had the courage to ask. I have offered and participated in so many wonderful human sexual experiences it is hard to summarize them all.
Eden, 21, Ottawa
What I would like more people to know about sex work is: You need to listen to us. I’ll steal a page from disability advocates: nothing about us, without us. We are excluded and talked-over for most decisions on policies, initiatives, etc. that affect us. All over the globe, we end up with policies that put us at risk, and we have no power to change it. People spend more time listening to people with no actual experience than they do listening to us. It drives me—and many other sex workers—up the wall. There are so many incredible people writing about their experiences. It isn’t hard to find the blogs.
The most challenging part of my job is: The advertising. It is a lot of work.
My first client experience was: Amusing. I found him through a dating site and at first he didn’t want to pay for sex. We stopped talking, but one day he decided he absolutely needed to experience being with me and was willing to pay my rate. He was kind and we spent a lot of time talking. I had always heard about how much time clients spend talking to the escorts, but I suppose I had underestimated it.
Additional reporting by Ashani Jodha.