“After doing massage therapy for a while, I am now working as an escort full-time. I see two to three clients a day. Seventy-five per cent of my clients are kinkier and twenty-five per cent want vanilla sex or massage with orgasms.”
This is how a male student, who wishes to remain anonymous, described how he started to consider sex work earlier this year to raise funds to attend a midwifery school in New Zealand. As a massage therapist working in Kitsilano who identifies as “sex positive” and sexually experimental, he found the transition to working as an escort “pretty natural.”
“The work is what you make it,” he said. “I find it really rewarding to help clients explore their sexuality.”
He is part of a number of students who have taken work in the sex industry as a source of income. “Participation in sex work: students’ views,” a UK study published in May 2010 by the journal Sex Education, found that 16.5 per cent of undergraduate students would consider working in the sex industry and that 93 per cent identified money as one of their main motivations. The same study found that 11 per cent would consider taking a job as an escort.
Janine Benedet, a UBC Law associate professor who researches laws relating to sexual violence against women, including laws on prostitution and pornography, said that a “more lax legal regime” in the UK may mean that the number of students engaging in prostitution could be greater than the number of those involved in sex work in Canada.
SFU prostitution researcher Tamara O’Doherty said that it “remains difficult for the public to understand” why adults would choose to work in the sex industry without coercion or financial stress, but explains that attractive factors include a flexible work schedule, high pay and anonymity. “Sex work” is a broad term that can describe jobs such as erotic modeling, web cam work, stripping and erotic massage—which may or may not involve physical contact with clients. Benedet said the term “sex work” is a politically contested one, because it “de-genders the practice of prostitution, which is overwhelmingly about men buying and selling women and girls,” many of whom are poor and using it as a last resort.
Benedet said that she believes that students are misled into thinking non-prostitution forms of sex work are safer.
“Many of [the types of sex work in the study] involve no direct physical contact and may appear to students who know little about the abuses in such industries to be relatively harmless ways of making money,” said Benedet. “I suspect that if they sat down and talked to some women who had left these sectors of the industry they might see it differently.”
Trina Ricketts worked as a stripper to fund her studies at SFU and Kwantlen University. As the founder of the online community nakedtruth.ca and as an organizer of events such as the annual Exotic Dancers for Cancer Strip-a-thon, she is now one of Canada’s most recognizable sex worker advocates. But when Ricketts was a student, she was not comfortable telling her classmates about her work.
“I majored in English and women’s studies, and I felt very much like an outsider in my women’s studies classes,” said Ricketts. “I hope it is different now, but in 1998, the average ‘feminist’ student in university was very much anti-sex work. I never disclosed that I was a dancer. I was still learning how to use my voice back then.”
“As more sex workers come out of the closet,” said Ricketts, “I hope that more people will be forced to face the fact that we are not all degraded, violated victims.”
O’Doherty agrees that the public image of prostitution is harmful and has said to The Georgia Straight, “We need to take a few steps back and look at how we are structuring the experience of sex work to be one of victimization.”
The UK study came just before a September 28 Ontario judge decision to strike down key provisions of the province’s anti-prostitution laws. This may eventually lead to the decriminalization of “brothels” nationwide if the decision is upheld in the Supreme Court of Canada.
“There are certain advantages that people hope will occur by legalizing prostitution, which I think won’t occur,” said UBC philosophy Assistant Professor Scott Anderson. “…Unless you make sure there are many other good options available to people who need work, especially in less privileged circumstances, merely legalizing prostitution does not mean that everyone that [is employed by it] believes that it is a really good [job] to do.”
However, the anonymous Kitsilano student escort said that safety is a top concern for him and that the most important way to stay safe is to work indoors.
“Even though I’m worried about being arrested for technically running a brothel, in-calls are much safer because I have more control over my work environment.”
As additional safety precautions, the student escort only agrees to work with clients after a telephone screening process, does not see clients late at night and makes sure his roommates are aware of what he’s doing—and would recommend that other students do the same. Ricketts said that students who are considering sex work need to be extremely conscious of their safety. Besides the potential for sexual harassment or rape, top student concerns regarding sex work include encountering social stigma and other repercussions even after they are no longer engaged in sex work.
O’Doherty warns against students revealing their real identities if they choose to enter into sex work.
“I know a few people who have been very open about their involvement in sex work,” said O’Doherty to The Ubyssey. “The stuff they’ve been through is quite hellish.”
Not everyone who enters sex work “has made a big mistake,” Anderson explained, and noted that some kinds of sex work may be better than many other forms of employment for some. However, he is skeptical of whether anyone could ever make an “informed decision” to enter sex work.
“There’s certainly some aspects of the industry that are worse than almost anyone can imagine if they haven’t done it, so…. some people who end up doing that as a way of making money are making pretty serious mistakes.”
—With files from Trevor Record