Security in Sex Work: Why it’s such a struggle

After a decade of implementing laws designed to provide more protection for sex workers in Canada, the need for positive spaces in the industry continues to be a concern
A popular misconception of the sex work industry is that it primarily takes place in back alleys and dingy corridors. While setting up a meeting can be as easy as sending a couple texts. It is common for sex workers and their clients to go out on dates to get to know each other first to ensure they are compatible partners. PHOTO: Adobe Stock

Lula Blue was working in retail in Alberta, long hours and minimal pay, and started to wonder if there wasn’t another way to earn a better living. She decided to give sex work a try. She kept her retail job but started with an outcall agency — an organization that facilitates the sale of sexual services by posting ads, responding to phone calls and booking clients for sex workers.

“I really liked it right away,” she says. After three months, she quit her job in retail.

Blue worked with various outcall agencies for her first three years. In that time, she learned about the business around her and once she felt ready, she transitioned to being an independent provider. What finally prompted her to make the switch was a growing list of issues she was having with the way the agency was run. 

“Situations would come up where I would question whether or not the owners of the agency were actually screening clients properly to keep me safe. And whether or not the clients were compatible with me as a person and my services,” says Blue. “Since going independent, I have been so much safer than I was when I was working for an agency. Adding that, “Being able to work independently definitely is a privilege.”

Blue spent several years saving money, slowly building her independence. “I had to work towards purchasing things for my incall space, but even once that was secure, my own advertising costs money. Building my website costs money, and maintaining my social media accounts takes up a lot of my time. There’s definitely a lot of benefits to going independent, but it’s not always the realistic path that any sex worker can take.”

A changing industry and a government lagging behind

Blue found herself in an industry evolving in directions that could offer workers a much safer environment, but that security is caught up in longstanding debates along moral grounds that persist to this day.

While the Canadian government is still wrestling with ways to prevent exploitation and human trafficking, groups that actually represent sex workers are advocating for a more compassionate, nuanced and practical approach.

In June of this year, Canada’s federal government released a review of the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA), Bill C-36, the act that governs sex work in Canada. 

This report was the culmination of eight meetings that heard from 72 briefs and 48 witnesses prepared by various organizations and nonprofits from around Canada. 

Groups like Amnesty International defined sex work as ‘the exchange of sexual services between consenting adults for some form of [remuneration], with the terms agreed between the seller and the buyer.’

But groups like the Christian Legal Fellowship felt that “the purpose of the PCEPA is not to legalize prostitution (and attempt to make it safe), but rather to deter and decrease it as much as possible because of its inherent harms, including the risks of sexual exploitation and trafficking.”

“All organizations have a certain mandate” says Dr. Cecilia Benoit, professor and scientist at the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research. “And if the mandate is to deal with a certain group of clients then they are going to come up with definitions that actually fits their clients.”

“I think every organization has its particular kind of mandate and clientele that it’s working with or trying to help,” says Benoit. “If you’re a sex worker organization or even in harm reduction, you’re going to be working with individuals who have expressed the desire to stay [in sex work] so they’re going to want to improve their situation.” 

Even Dr. Benoit, with her three decades of experience in the field, has been subject to this clashing of ideals. 

In the spring of 2022, while the review was being conducted, Benoit’s definition of sex work was called into question during an interview in front of the Crown. 

Dr. Cecilia Benoit has been a published sociological researcher since 1987 and has been involved in the sex work discussion since the mid-nineties when she copublished Dispelling Myths and Understanding Realities— which was eventually used in 2010 to challenge the Criminal Code and helped spur the conversation that created Bill C-36. PHOTO: University of Victoria

According to one of the expert witnesses, Deborah Hack, Benoit’s definition did not include prostituted persons as her definition didn’t acknowledge coercion as a component to why people engage in the sale of sexual services. “And that’s simply not correct. I just ask them, ‘Have you sold sex for money at least X number of times in the last 12 months?’” 

“I think my definition and my studies include people who come from a wider range of agency,” says Benoit. 

Defining it as such allows for a larger cross-section of people to fall under that banner of “sex worker.” This is helpful from a research standpoint as it brings in a larger pool of perspectives that include both people who participate in sex work consensually and those who are coerced. While this works well  for some, it goes against the very core values of what other groups believe.

Take one of the recommendations that the Conservatives’ Dissenting Report put forward:

“The Government of Canada acknowledge the inherent involvement of human trafficking within the sex work industry and consider the varying degrees of coercion that individuals who have entered into the sex industry have faced, nullifying the myth that sex work is consensual and could possibly be made to be a safe working environment.”

The issue that Benoit, and many others take with this idea, is that while various aspects of sex work are recognized as legal activities, the inclusion of human tracking in Bill C36 undermines those activities prompting Benoit’s claim that “the government wants to have it both ways.” 

“They believe that sex work is different than human trafficking,” says Benoit. But adds, because human trafficking is also part of sex work, it motivates lawmakers to uphold the PCEPA as it now stands. Benoit concludes, “I don’t think you can have it both ways.”

The OnlyFans social media platform was launched in November 2016. While it provides exposure for chefs, fitness trainers, musicians and a cross-section of celebrities, OnlyFans is mainly used by pornographic creators, both amateur and professional (Wikipedia).
A space for digital sex work

The notion that sex work can’t be consensual is further disproved when you consider digital sex work like camming and OnlyFans. This is where models utilize digital spaces like video calls or chatrooms to create sex positive spaces that others can join in and interact with. This usually involves engaging with the provider in some fashion but that is not a requirement. Not only are those providers choosing to sell sexual services but they are often putting more effort into their brand image than many mainstream jobs. 

“I think when COVID broke out, a lot of sex workers were unrealistic. Like a lot of companions were under the impression that going online would be easy,” says Leah Lawrence, a Calgary-based sex worker looking to transition to being an online provider. “I think we all saw a dollar sign above our heads, you know.

“When it comes to online, you could have the best content in the world but if you have no fans then it really doesn’t work. It’s something that you have to work at. For instance, you need to create a shit-load of content.”

Being a digital provider also comes with a number of other conditions that need to be met to be able to do the work  safely.

When Blue was pushed to embrace more online platforms like OnlyFans because of COVID restrictions she had a reckoning with the high entrance cost to creating online content saying, “I had not had a lot of beforehand experience with taking videos, or setting up sets, or purchasing equipment for said videos, or even editing videos.

“I had to get editing software to do editing. I upgraded my phone so that I had a better camera, got things like ring lights, tripods, different lighting for my apartment, all of that kind of stuff.”

Even after sinking all that time and finances, there is no guarantee of success. 

“I found that even during my prime on OnlyFans where I was putting the maximum amount of effort into that platform, it still didn’t make up the majority of my income. It pretty much maybe covered my rent and maybe like a bill or two,” said Blue.

Associated risks of providing digital sexual services

Not finding a following as a digital provider is certainly a discouraging thought for someone in the business, and while that risk is very real, if you manage to create a community it then presents you with a whole new set of issues.  

For one, “there weren’t a lot of boundaries between my personal time and my work time,” says Blue. “I think most people who are self-employed can relate to that feeling like you’re always working in some capacity even if you’re not actively working. I’m just better at having boundaries when it’s full service, in-person work rather than online.”

There is also the instability of online platforms as they face stigma associated with selling sexual services so, says Blue, “A lot of banks don’t even want to be involved in the exchange of the legal sexual services.”

Digital companies such as Amazon, Lyft, and Stripe, Inc., process payments for some of the largest websites in the world, but in their Restricted Businesses section they explicitly call out websites that offer “adult services including prostitution, escorts, pay-per view, sexual massages, and adult live chat features” as ones they won’t work with.

In doing this, it pushes online sexual service sites to use less reputable payment processing companies that are not capable of offering the level of cyber security that the bigger companies can. 

While this isn’t an outright concern as many smaller payment companies can still be secure, it does showcase the precarious corner of the internet that companies that host sexual services are forced to occupy because of stigma.

Another risk to selling sexual services digitally is the anonymity negotiation that the provider has to have. “I have a lot of recognizable tattoos that I allow to be in my videos and in my photos, and I’m now labeled on the Internet forever as a sex worker,” says Blue.

“If I decide to leave the industry later, that’s always going to exist online. So that definitely puts me at risk in terms of stigma, in terms of finding employment later in life, and in terms of finding housing later in life.”

There is also the awareness that whatever level of anonymity you have tried to cultivate in your digital career, it may be infringed upon at any point. 

“I had a client record me without my consent and put it up on [digital sex site] Pornhub” says Lawrence. “He had also taken and spliced my copyrighted pictures into the video.”

“I ended up going to the RCMP in Regina, working with an officer named Cory and he ended up having the video removed.” 

Screenshot of LeoList, an online directory for sex workers to list their profile.
Sex work and Security

Lawrence’s experience is not unique but does showcase a positive outcome that is not always achieved. Even though Lawrence belongs to multiple marginalized groups, her outward appearance affords her certain privileges that aren’t universal in the sex work space. 

“One major thing to keep in mind is the intersectionality of communities within sex work,” says Blue. “And that intersectionality creates another host of stigma and dangers and risks that other sex workers may not face. Sex workers aren’t only white women. People of color, people with disabilities, trans people and other people in the LGBT community are sex workers as well.”

A Calgary-based pro-sex work non-profit organization, Safelink Alberta, tailors its services to the individuals they assist.

 “The only mandate is if you’re a current or former sex worker,” says Hanako Rodgers, a social worker and case manager at Safelink. “We try to meet you with what you need if you want to choose a different career, if you want to focus on a different goal, or if you want to increase your capacity in sex work, really, whatever.”

Helping sex workers feel more secure in their day-to-day is one of the services Safelink offers. “I think safety looks different for everyone,” says Rodgers. “There are lots of things that have been instilled in people, regardless of whether they’re working as sex workers or not, about safety, especially in sexual interactions, especially people who are assigned female at birth.” 

“So I also don’t think that the onus is only on sex workers to keep themselves safe,’’ says Rodgers. “Respect from all communities and from sex buyers specifically is a huge element.”

However, gaining that respect has been a consistent challenge as the PCEPA creates a climate where, even in situations where consent has been given, sex buyers are still criminalized.

“If you’re criminalized for purchasing services, the chances of you being willing to offer legal information such as your real first and last name, a driver’s license, stuff like that is going to decrease because the risk is there of being charged,” says Rodgers.

It is undeniable that pro-sex work non-profits like Safelink Alberta help create more positive space for sex work in Canada but they are not the magic bullet that will solve the stigmatization of this group. Rather it focuses on reducing legitimate harms that crop up.

When it comes to governing sex work, whether digital or in-person, Canada has plenty of laws that already exist to cover any crime that could be committed against a provider of sexual services. 

“There are already criminal provisions that address things like assault and kidnapping and theft. There’s a whole cyber-crime division charging things like fraud, piracy and doxxing. So I don’t believe that sex work needs any special laws,” says Rodgers.

Bringing sex work completely out of the shadows would be the absolute best thing we could do for the security of this vulnerable population.

Not doing so “pushes us further underground, says Blue. “Pushes us into needing to work for other people, which isn’t always exploitative, but it definitely can be.”

Hanako Rodgers, social worker and case manager at Safelink. PHOTO: Supplied by Hanako Rodgers