As Ava* embarks on the first semester of her master’s program, she is relieved that the admissions committee at her graduate school didn’t find out about one of her part-time jobs.
The University of Calgary environmental sciences student dabbled in a variety of work during her undergraduate studies, but by far her most lucrative gig was sex work.
For three months, Ava met with clients she contacted through the popular dating and escort website, Seeking Arrangements, to go on dates and sometimes have sex before collecting payment for her services.
“I paid for a year and a half of tuition,” she explained of her stint in the industry. “The downside to that was I suddenly had this money that wouldn’t be explained through the job [as a bowling alley attendant] I had at the time.”
Prompted by a bubbling curiosity, Ava became involved in sex work during the second year of her studies. She soon secured one main client who sought out her services twice a week, and she ended up going on two other paid dates over those three months.
Her main client, who she calls Steve*, would take her to dinner, on hikes, or to watch a movie, and then back to his place to have sex.
“Just to preserve yourself you have to stay silent, even if it’s something you really want to talk about.” – Ava
“More or less like how you would have a girlfriend, only if you didn’t talk to your girlfriend outside of your dates,” she remarked.
Hiding in plain sight
Even though she wants to speak out about her experience, Ava faces the tremendous stigma attached to selling sexual services.
Many post-secondary students who earn an income through sex work feel compelled to keep the nature of their work secret to protect themselves from discrimination. This is despite the fact that students gaining an income from sex work is neither new nor uncommon.
Simon Fraser University recently made news for having one of the fastest growing “sugar baby” populations in the country — that is, an increasing number of students signed on to the website Seeking Arrangements. While some users see it as just a dating app, others use it as a way to pay their tuition.
Ava used the site to meet clients who would in turn pay her for her services, which she considers sex work to be. However, she recognizes that the stigma attached to the sex industry means that many other website users do not view what they do in the same light.
As students may choose not to identify themselves with the sex industry, there are no representative statistics on how many may be involved in selling sexual services.
Stigma can also be a factor in the choices clients make when hiring a student sex worker, according to Ava. Those using sites such as Seeking Arrangements, she speculated, prefer to seek out a student in order to distance themselves from the stereotypical notion of sex work.
Though our image of a sex worker might be someone working on the street to support a drug addiction, Canadian show a different picture: they place the figure of non-street-based sex workers between 80–95 percent of the overall sex worker population. This encompasses male, female, trans*, and non-binary workers providing a variety of sexual services from massage parlours and escorting to online sex work.
Despite the variety of services, one commonality remains: that dealing with those outside of the industry can often be a sex worker’s greatest challenge.
A study released by SFU researcher Raven Bowen earlier this year found that Vancouver women leaving the sex trade reported harassment when transitioning into mainstream careers and even faced losing their newly secured job due to “whore stigma.”
Still, many sex workers are eager to voice their experiences so that people can relate to their work.
“People know about sex work, [but] they don’t know any sex workers,” Ava contended. “Sex workers can still lead normal lives within sex work, and then out of sex work, regardless of what the media thinks.”
Tricks of the trade
For Ava, balancing university life with sex work was rewarding — at least, for the most part. Besides earning substantially more per hour than she could at other jobs, Ava said that she found her friends to be largely open to the idea.
“My friends were really shocked at first, and then they were like. . . ‘I guess you’re doing what you want and you’re doing it safely,’ so they were okay with it,” she reflected.
Her arrangement with her main client didn’t pose any major problems, either.
From the start, Ava proposed a written agreement stating the boundaries of their interactions as well as her rates. For BDSM, which was also included in the agreement, she sought special limitations. She said that her client always respected the conditions of their relationship.
Though Ava admits that what she was doing was sometimes dangerous, she took precautions by notifying her sisters of her visits with her clients and telling them where she planned to be. Looking back, she wishes that she would have been even more careful.
“I witnessed myself becoming a victim to people in my life and I also witnessed a loss of my own voice, people stopped believing that my experience was the truth.” – Brenna
“If I was to coach somebody else on how to get into the industry, I’d [tell them] ‘make strict rules for yourself, don’t break them, they’re for your safety,’” she said. “I definitely met two of my clients for the first time in their car, and they were strangers — which is dangerous.”
However, Ava still found balancing her work with her professional and personal life to be her greatest challenge. The fear that her parents would find out about her work always loomed in the back of her mind.
“I was having constant anxiety about that,” she admitted.
As an advocate for normalizing sex work at university and having just completed an application for grad school, she also acknowledged how that experience could affect her education.
“I’m glad I didn’t talk about sex work on my Twitter account, because I know they vet you online,” she explained. “If they’d found that, whatever committee admitted me to grad school might have a different opinion of me. Because, of course, sex workers are still considered criminals.”
Despite her concerns, she speculated that she’d probably do sex work again if the opportunity arose. She broke off her earlier gig with the economic downturn in 2013, as her main client could no longer afford to buy her services. Ava said at the time she didn’t want to go through the hassle of finding another client who would accept her terms — so she quit.
Part of her reason for speaking out is that she feels it is important to tell people about her experience in order to dispel the overwhelmingly positive or negative views of sex work that many people hold.
“Really my experience was neutral,” she explained. “It was like having a job in a retail place for three months.”
A similar experience
Ava is not the only person who reports that they were drawn to sex work out of curiosity. Brenna chose to give online sex work a try when she heard how much she could earn, and worked extensively as a ‘cam girl’ while saving up to go back to school.
“I saw the opportunity to use it as a form of employment while I went back to school, which was the goal at the time,” she said. “I saw it as something to do while I was in school.”
Brenna, who identifies as a trans woman, found that her role as an online sex worker was a reliable and profitable job to support herself.
“I enjoyed a lot of things about my work. I enjoyed the freedom it allowed me to control my schedule, to control my financial freedom,” she explained.
“Often my work was just chatting with people about their life and making them feel a little less lonely. There were certainly many clients that I had very positive working relationships with, who I felt really respected me and valued their time with me. I always hoped that, at the end of the day, they felt a little less lonely and a little bit more validated in their life after talking to me.
“I had days where I didn’t want to log in or I just wanted to stay in bed or go to the beach with friends, but that can be said with any job.”
Over time, Brenna found that the stress of regularly facing the stigma of sex work really took its toll on her mental health. Shortly after she exited online sex work, she found a corporate job and said that she was worried, on a daily basis, about explaining the gap on her resumé or being ‘outed’ by co-workers.
“I started to burn out because of living two separate lives and not being able to communicate with people in my life,” she said.
Brenna was unable to divulge to some people — including roommates and colleagues — how she had been occupied during the time she worked online, knowing that it could put a strain on those relationships.
“There were more than a few times where I witnessed myself become a different person in someone else’s eyes when they found out what I did for a living,” she explained. “I witnessed myself becoming a victim to people in my life and I also witnessed a loss of my own voice, people stopped believing that my experience was the truth.”
Her counsellor at the time felt he was unequipped to help her with issues surrounding sex work and referred her to a support service for sex workers, which proved to be a turning point in Brenna’s career.
“It helped me rebuild my self-esteem — which, I feel like the stigma around the work and the constant message that I was receiving that I, myself, as a sex worker was damaged goods — has really had a huge impact on my sense of self-worth. The secrecy around it had created a lot of anxiety for me,” she disclosed.
Not long after, Brenna found a position working for the agency which had helped her manage the stigma of sex work. She now works as the communications person for the Vancouver-based PACE Society.
Both Brenna and Ava feel they experience stigma because of their association with the sex industry.
With the potential for stigma and discrimination to become debilitating in someone’s life, it doesn’t come as a surprise that students keep their work a secret.
“A student who was discovered for being a sex worker could be harassed out of [their] education, and it certainly does happen,” Brenna said.
The recourse which often comes from going public with one’s background in sex work is something that Ava finds very concerning.
“That’s a form of stigma, having to stay silent,” she said. “Just to preserve yourself you have to stay silent, even if you don’t want to, even if it’s something you really want to talk about.”
Sex worker advocacy agencies such as the PACE Society commonly contend with forms of discrimination, including evictions and loss of employment.
When a sex worker who works from home is discovered, Brenna explained, the association with criminal activity or the fear of receiving a rent cheque funded by sex trade income often prompts landlords to evict the worker.
Sex workers can also be fired from other jobs because of their involvement in the sex industry. Both Brenna and Ava agreed that these instances constitute a violation of basic rights.
“If [employers] find this one thing about you, they’ll make a judgement and that’s definitely a human rights issue, it’s a discrimination issue,” Ava said.
But discrimination based on involvement in the sex industry is not considered a violation of rights in Canada, according to Robyn Durling of the BC Human Rights Clinic.
Even though legislation makes it illegal to deny a person tenancy based on their job, Durling explained that the legal grey area associated with the criminalization of sex work clients would make the case non-viable.
Still, Ava’s sentiment that sex worker treatment is a human rights issue was echoed by Brenna, who related the problem to Canadian laws on prostitution.
“It is absolutely a human rights issue,” Brenna said.
Criminal law in Canada has essentially legalized the selling of sex, but maintains that buying sex, advertising sexual services, or allowing a person beyond the worker themselves to benefit from the earnings of sex work is illegal.
“I saw it as something to do while I was in school.” – Brenna
Back when the laws were first revealed in 2014, critics were quick to denounce them as pushing sex workers further underground, something which Brenna argued jeopardizes their safety.
“They are forced to engage in risky behaviour by not being able to tell the people in their lives what they do,” she contended. “It’s removed people’s ability to have a voice about the work they’re doing, and it sends a very clear message to society at large that these are problematic individuals and that it is okay to think of them that way.”
These factors considered, it isn’t surprising that students choose to stay quiet — the potential consequences are quite real.
Both Ava and Brenna reference the stress of “having a double life,” which circumstances make commonplace in the sex work industry. Though they didn’t find that providing sexual services for clients was a negative experience, public attitudes towards sex work proved to be their biggest obstacle.
“That [stigma isn’t] going to change until the people who are doing the work are able to speak out about the realities of the life,” Brenna asserted. “And people won’t be able to speak out about the realities of the life until it is safe for them to do so.”
What services are available for sex workers at SFU?
Health and Counselling Services
Free appointments with SFU Health and Counselling Services are available with doctors or nurses on the Burnaby and Vancouver campuses for general medical concerns including sexual health check-ups. Services include birth control dispensing, pregnancy testing, and sexually transmitted infections testing. Free counselling services are available at all three SFU campuses. Health and Counselling maintains a policy of patient confidentiality within their unit and will only share any personal details with third parties when required by law (details online).
Out on Campus
Out on Campus is a community advocacy centre open to people of all genders and sexual orientations. The centre upholds a safer space policy which does not tolerate oppressive language or behaviour. At their location on Burnaby campus, they offer a lounge, resource library, peer support, crisis referrals, free phone, and free and diverse safe-sex supplies (including external and internal condoms, gloves, lube, and dental dams; non-latex options are available). To maintain confidentiality, all names, telephone numbers, and addresses are never disclosed and members are not publicly identified.
The Simon Fraser Student Society – Legal Clinic
The Simon Fraser Student Society operates a free legal clinic accessible to undergraduate and graduate students. In order to make an appointment, students need to disclose if they are an undergraduate or graduate student, their student ID and basic contact information, and specify if they are requesting advice, information, or notarization. Visits to the legal clinic are confidential.
The Women’s Centre
The SFU Women’s Centre hosts a resource area for people of all genders, a feminist library, and a 24/7 lounge for self-identified women on the Burnaby campus. They provide peer support and crisis referrals as well as free snacks, safer sex and menstrual supplies, pregnancy tests, and a volunteer program for persons of all genders. The kitchen, non-sectarian prayer nook for Muslim women, and the safer nap nook are only available to self-identified women, with a zero-tolerance policy for gender-policing. The centre maintains a confidentiality policy except in the case where there is a threat to safety. Staff are trained to provide crisis referrals around many issues such as sexual assault, mental health, pregnancy, access to abortion, and housing.
*Names have been changed to protect the anonymity of the source.