Commentary | Toward (in)visibility

On being a student and a sex worker

*The information presented in this article and by Scarlet Solidarity is not intended to influence anyone to commit an illegal act. Scarlet Solidarity is a tool offered to sex workers so they may improve the quality of their lives and their working conditions.

The truth is we are everywhere: in bars, on the street, on TV, in the personals section of Craigslist. But you probably don’t think you know someone who would do this. I mean, who in their right mind would choose to sell themselves to random people? Who in their right mind would actively seek out strangers and offer their bodies for a quick buck? Who would degrade themselves in that way? Who would choose to be a sex worker? I did. And will likely continue to do so.

The truth is, sex workers are your friends, your coworkers, your past and future lovers, and maybe even your future late-night companions. We’re also your fellow students, and like many students, we sometimes find it stressful to balance work and school. Add in a dash of illegality to that work, and you can begin to understand the precarious situation of sex workers in Canada today.

Many well-intentioned people agree that, in order to make sex work safer, there is a need to decriminalize the industry. However, many fail to take into account the reality of those they are seeking to support and ‘protect.’ We are pushed toward invisibility even by our ‘allies.’ We are pushed toward working in secret, and navigating the shaky boundaries between what is legal and what is not.

It is important to acknowledge, though, that the solution to being silenced is not necessarily a monolithic push toward visibility. Indeed, many in the industry prefer to remain anonymous.

And frankly, I do feel like my work is shameful. We can, and should, attempt to be as sex work-positive as we can, but after centuries of shaming and degradation, sex workers can’t help but internalize some of that shame. This is why I prefer to remain anonymous, even to some of my closest friends.

The truth is we are everywhere: in bars, on the street, on TV, in the personals section of Craigslist. But you probably don’t think you know someone who would do this. I mean, who in their right mind would choose to sell themselves to random people?

 

If we truly are going to switch to a sex work-positive attitude, then answer me: would you consider purchasing sex from someone? Not everyone would want to. If you wouldn’t either, would you demonize those who do so? We all need to question how far we are willing to go in order to be truly pro-sex worker. You don’t have to buy sex, but you do at least have to support those who do, and those who sell.

I entered the industry online, mainly working through the M4M (men for men) section on Craigslist, and in gay bathhouses, in both cases dealing mainly with male clients. In the beginning, I was trying to find someone who could help me pay for school, as well as other things. University tuition is pricey, and I really do enjoy sex and spending time with people. That makes this kind of work perfect for my skill set. I’m still very new to the scene, and, to be honest, the biggest surprise is how much work it is. Sex work is a job, and it’s one that is about making someone happy, and providing a space for people to explore their own and someone else’s body.

I’ve talked to clients who really wanted to lose their virginity but were too intimidated to seek that experience out in the usual way. They wanted to take the pressure off by hiring someone to help them with their first time. I’ve talked to clients who wanted to try a new fantasy, but couldn’t find a partner who was interested in doing it. I’ve talked to clients who really just wanted to connect with someone who wasn’t in their life in any other way. I’ve also talked to clients who were dealing with past sexual trauma and wanted someone who would take the time to guide them slowly through another sexual experience.

But as with any other job, there are certainly aspects that are less than desirable. There’s no question that it can be a little scary sometimes: sketchy clients, people not wanting to pay upfront, having to go to gigs alone. On top of this, many of us feel shame from even our closest friends, allies, and partners. What’s much scarier, though, are the ways that the current Canadian government constantly seeks to make our work more dangerous.

Sex workers engage in an occupation whose main source of income (our clients) is criminalized. Furthermore, active efforts to make our work safer are also criminalized. What I do is largely illegal, and this makes my job increasingly more dangerous.

Sex workers engage in an occupation whose main source of income (our clients) is criminalized. Furthermore, active efforts to make our work safer are also criminalized. What I do is largely illegal, and this makes my job increasingly more dangerous.

This is the reason why, last year, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down laws that prevented sex workers from living off the avails of their work and working out of brothels. The laws essentially made sex work unsafe, which is why the court asked them to be amended. To much disappointment, the amended legislation put forward in Bill C-36 criminalizes the advertising and buying of sexual services, while decriminalizing the sale of sexual services. This includes interactions between pimps, johns, and sex workers themselves, This is an affront to our work and and our lives.

How are we supposed to continue our work if our revenue streams are cut off? How is making our clients fear persecution from the police supposed to make sex workers safer? Making our clients fear being arrested puts our negotiations with clients in a dangerous and precarious position. We need space and time so that we can negotiate agreements with our clients and ensure our safety.

Bill C-36 criminalizes the advertising and buying of sexual services, while decriminalizing the sale of sexual services. This includes interactions between pimps, johns, and sex workers themselves, This is an affront to our work and and our lives.

Bill C-36 is not what we want, and yet it’s supposed to ‘protect us.’ These so-called progressive laws are meant to help ‘victims’ of the sex trade get out of the industry. But in reality this only acts to cut off our source of income, by effectively putting us out of a job. The irony is that the state wants you to have a job, but only so long as you’re not selling blowjobs for $100. The state is not, and never was, interested in us or our protection. To survive, we have to help ourselves.

Luckily, there are resources available to McGill students affected by Bill C-36. Scarlet Solidarity is a for-us-by-us peer support group for sex workers who are also students in some capacity. We want to create a community of support for our fellow sex workers, so that we can protect each other, help each other, and support each other.

Sex workers all over Canada are pulling up their bootstraps, tightening their corsets, and lubing up for the post-Bill C-36 world. It will be tough, but we are resilient, strong, and here for each other.

And trust us, if we’re half as good at helping ourselves as we are at keeping you company at night, sex workers will continue to thrive in whatever oppressive conditions we are put in. Until sex work becomes decriminalized, we will continue to prosper in an environment that constantly seeks to punish us and deny our right to engage in this work.


David V is a pseudonym used by a student who works with Scarlet Solidarity. If you are interested in finding out more, or have any other questions, please email scarletsolidarity@gmail.com.


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