Due to criminalization, sex workers are forced to perform invisible labour that is both stigmatized and unrecognized. The McGill Daily surveyed student sex workers on the labour and care that goes into their work, as well as the difficulties and benefits of their jobs. Like any industry, sex work suffers from the deficiencies of capitalism, namely the precarity of their labour. The Daily does not want to homogenize the realities of sex work, but instead offer a platform to the non-obvious and uncredited labour that sex workers do.
Though the labour of sex work is physically, emotionally and practically exhaustive, sex workers are left out of conversations of burnout and self care. Several students who work in the industry spoke to the Daily about the personal labour and care work that goes into sex work, and the necessity for making space for self-preservation and reflection. Between “taking necessary sexual precautions,” regular STI testing, maintaining their appearance, and physical safety, respondents spoke to the labour that goes into the day-to-day of their work on top of balancing their school work.
“A lot of times, more privileged people paint the industry as glamorous. They might have been lucky enough to get nicer clients maybe, but I think also more privileged able bodied thin white cis women will be treated nicer because their bodies are more valued. But we don’t all get that experience. I think we all need support because we *are* workers (this is work!) but support is not the same thing as the pretense that some of the more privileged strains of liberal feminism work with; namely it attempts to combat the stigma we face by acting like those of us in this line of work don’t face abuse by people who think their money entitles them to do whatever they want to our bodies. “
– McGill graduate student who does sugar baby work
An undergraduate student at McGill who works as an escort spoke to the emotional and practical difficulties in their work: “virtually all my clients are awful to varying degrees; it requires a performance of femininity that runs contrary to my preferred gender presentation; the risk of violence is extremely high; the process of negotiating over how much my services are worth is profoundly demeaning; and the fact that I can’t talk about these things with many people in my life.”
Community based organizations, such as Stella and Maggie’s, provide supportive groups and spaces for sex workers, but many student sex workers still feel the strain of not being able to share the day-to-day pressures of their work, as most workers outside of the industry can.
As forms of digital sex work become more prevalent in the industry, advertising services and screening client bases online comes with a distinct set of challenges. Due to restrictive “community standards” and platform guidelines, sex workers often find their content removed, or their accounts suspended or silently “shadowbanned.” Recent legislation such as the FOSTA/SESTA bill passed in the United States provide legitimacy for these restrictions as they attempt to combat sex trafficking. However, bills such as these group definitions of sex trafficking in with consensual sex work, censoring and preventing sex workers from discussing and offering services, further complicating the labour of sex workers and implicating their work as illicit. In conjunction with subscription sites such as Patreon, credit card processing firms like Google Pay and PayPal flag and ban transactions involving “adult content,” making it difficult for sex workers to safely and easily recieve compensation for their services. As they are pushed off these platforms, not only are environments like these delegitimizing for sex workers and their labour, it also places significant barriers on workers maintaining their livelihoods and safety. In an interview with Vice, camgirl Melody Kush explained that platforms are “not discriminating our content, they’re discriminating our persons, our work, our jobs. They’re invalidating us.”
Stella, a Montreal organization for sex workers, keeps record of bad clients based on reports from sex workers. The list is updated monthly, because the labour of safety is ongoing. This labour is done by sex workers to protect themselves, but also to protect each other. Outside of Montreal, unofficial whisper networks serve the same purpose and are common within sex worker communities.
In addition to maintaining this list, Stella also provides medical and other services for sex workers. As in all industries, industry-specific resources and services are vital to sex workers. Unlike many other industries, the task of providing those resources is relegated to community organizations; both stigma and the law prevent sex workers from seeking those resources in more public spaces. Stella is run by current and former sex workers, as well as community workers, who do this extra labour because the precarity of sex work in the North American context demands it. In areas without centralized community organizations and support systems, much of this labour is left to individual sex workers themselves.
“There’s a very nuanced and tense debate among [sex workers] about how one should view the industry. Personally I’m very critical of [sex work] as a phenomenon – I think that under our current social conditions (that is, under a capitalist and patriarchal system) it’s pretty intrinsically harmful and fucked up. That said, we can also reduce harm to workers by decriminalizing [sex work], and that should be an immediate priority – I just don’t think it’s enough in the long term, ultimately we need to topple the aforementioned systems altogether.”
– McGill undergraduate student who does escort work
Even in countries (such as Canada) where sex work is technically decriminalized, there are aspects of sex work that are still prosecuted. Canada operates on the “Nordic model,” i.e. criminalizing clients instead of sex workers themselves. In theory, this is supposed to make things easier for sex workers. In practice, they can still be criminalized for soliciting sex in a public place, using their homes as spaces in which to conduct their work, and living off of the profits obtained through sex work. In short, sex workers can’t be arrested for having sex, but they can be arrested for virtually every non-sexual part of their jobs. Many sex workers have reported that criminalization of their work has led to a reduced ability to negotiate safer sex with clients, as carrying condoms and lubricant can be used as evidence of sex work. Studies have also shown that disclosing one’s identity as a sex worker can have a negative impact on relationships with service providers, and could lead to police entrapment. One study showed that “even when physical access to cervical screening sites appears to be sufficient, social and structural barriers continue to impede regular, voluntary cervical screening among sex workers.”
While keeping oneself safe from prosecution is one type of labour that sex workers need to perform, they also need to consider their bodily safety. According to Maggie’s, a Toronto organization for sex workers, “many workers do choose to host at their own place or a hotel despite the legal risk because hosting offers other types of safety.” Maggie’s also suggests that people “work in well-lit, populated [areas] when possible. While this can discourage bad dates, it may lead to unwanted attention from police, neighbours, etc.” Having to decide between which type of safety is more important is an emotionally-draining type of labour that many don’t think of when considering sex work.
As a undergraduate student who does cam work told the Daily, “Some people talk about sex work as this dehumanizing thing, but in my experience with camming (which I know is very different from other kinds of sex work) it hasn’t been any more dehumanizing than working retail, for instance. Not to blame capitalism, but like, it’s because of capitalism. In my experience, neither customers nor employers see you as a human being. […] At least when you’re self-employed, like I am, you only have shitty customers to deal with.”
This article was originally published in print on November 24, 2019 as part of the Labour, Body and Care joint issue.