There are many avenues for students engaging in sex work could to assure their own safety.
This is how a Canadian male student, who wishes to remain anonymous, describes 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 Vancouver (one of Canada’s most liberal cities) 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 says. “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 percent 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 percent would consider taking a job as an escort.
Janine Benedet, an associate law professor at the University of British Columbia, who researches laws relating to sexual violence against women, thinks 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.
However, prostitution is illegal in the United States, where FBI and police are able to arrest sex workers, while prostitution has been legal in Canada since at least the mid-1880s. Recent developments also suggest that sex work may become completely decriminalized in Canada.
In September 2010, Ontario’s Superior Court Justice Susan Himel struck down three components of Canada’s prostitution laws —the bawdy house law, the communication law and the law that prohibits living off the avails of prostitution—in a 131-page ruling which concluded that Canada’s current prostitution laws violate the Charter of Rights.
Simon Fraser University prostitution researcher Tamara O’Doherty says that although laws in Canada may be changing to recognize the research on how criminalization of sex work actually makes sex work more dangerous, it “remains difficult for the public to understand” why adults would choose to work in the sex industry without coercion or financial stress.
“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. O’Doherty explains that factors that make sex work attractive to some students include a flexible work schedule, high pay and anonymity.
Benedet argues that 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. 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,” says 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,” says 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,” says 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.”
As the Ontario Superior Court decision makes its way to the Supreme Court of Canada, a debate is rising about whether the decriminalization of prostitution will actually improve safety in the sex industry.
“There are certain advantages that people hope will occur by decriminalizing prostitution, which I think won’t occur,” says UBC philosophy 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.”
Regardless of how Canada’s prostitution laws change or don’t change, there are many things that students in sex work could do to safeguard their own safety. The anonymous Canadian student escort says 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 with the way the laws still are, 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 says 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 also 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,” says O’Doherty. “The stuff they’ve been through is quite hellish.”
Not everyone who enters sex work “has made a big mistake,” says Anderson, but 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.”