It's a lot, and it's honest work

The fight to recognize sexual labour

Sophia Gorbounov, Sports Editor

I can’t quite remember when I first learned about the existence of sex work. Certainly, I learned about sex at some point in a middle-school classroom, probably among a group of snickering teens. Yet the idea of sex as a job did not exist in my mind until cinematic depictions introduced me to the stereotypical image of a sex worker: A woman in the night, heavily made up, dressed up in provocative clothing, standing at the corners of dark streets and getting into strangers’ cars. At the time, I didn’t see this as work. I saw what she did as a shameful, criminal act, almost a threat to society. Because I believed that sex work was not an “admirable” profession, I did not see it as a profession at all. It took the longer portion of my life to understand that no matter my opinions on the task itself, sex work is real work. 

The moral status of sex work has long been debated, both by a sex-conservative establishment and radical feminists. Is it sex? Is it work? Can it be both? These are questions that have divided feminist circles for the last century. Some feminists, whom critics accuse of participating in “carceral feminism,” advocate for increasing legal penalties. For them, sex work and sex trafficking live on the same spectrum of degradation and exploitation. Many carceral feminists, like the radical feminist Catherine MacKinnon, or the anti-prostitution advocate Julie Bindel, believe that sex work should be outlawed altogether, with the ultimate goal of abolishing it.

Clearly, there are problems with this framework. But on the other hand, critics of carceral feminism can sometimes veer into a romanticized version of sex work—one in which exploitation is never a factor. In the book Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers Rights, activists and sex workers Juno Mac and Molly Smith argue that this philosophical binary creates two inverse images of sex workers: The “happy hooker,” an empowered, often young, white woman who participates in sex work as a form of liberation and autonomy, versus the young girl, stolen from her bed in the middle of the night and forced into sex trafficking––the latter of which does not even constitute sex work at all. Ultimately, these two characters form a reductive dichotomy of sexual labour. The first image ignores the realities of migrant women, for instance, who are coerced or threatened into exploitative sexual labour due to the potential threat of deportation or other consequences. The second image paints all sex workers as helpless victims and strips them of their autonomy. The truth of the matter is that there is no one kind of sex work. Safe and well-compensated sex workers exist, as do those who exist in volatile spaces with poor working conditions. 

Sex work is what McGill law professor Angela Campbell calls a "morally ambiguous" profession. As she wrote in her 2013 book, Sister Wives, Surrogates and Sex Workers: Outlaws by Choice?, prevailing perceptions of sex work are dominated by a choice-coercion binary.

“I think we think of people as enlightened or as exploited and subject to [societal] pressures,” Campbell said. But, she added, “Any of us can be subject to forces that feel coercive.”

Whether or not something is coercive depends on who you ask. To those with the privilege of having a secure, legally unambiguous job, the complex choice to enter sex work can look like a product of exploitation and restriction. But Campbell pointed out that activities deemed degrading by some, like selling services on the street, can be viewed entirely differently by those actually working.

“There are people who appear to be in circumstances that are very limiting, when in fact they exercise incredible resilience and resistance in their own communities,” Campbell said.

At least in some ways, sex work has become more normalized in recent years. Nathan*’s path into sex work began during the pandemic. He explained that returning to his home country of Malaysia with a schedule full of online classes presented him with a newfound amount of free time.

“Everything was up in the air, school became ridiculously easy and all of a sudden I had all this time,” Nathan said. “A pimp in Malaysia reached out through my Instagram [...] and asked if I’d be interested in doing this and I thought ‘Why not?’ I had nothing to lose if I tried it out. If I like it, then it’s money.”

For Nathan, sex work tends to be transactional, rather than something sexually fulfilling for the service provider.

“When we have sex with our clients, it’s a service in exchange for something else,” Nathan said. “You’re offering something that you wouldn’t normally do and you’re doing it for the perks, not for the pleasure [....] When you really think about it, what’s the difference between sex work and just giving somebody a regular massage?”

But, of course, the two professions aren’t the same in the eyes of the law. “[By] taking it one step further and making it an erotic massage, suddenly it’s sex work and it’s illegal,” he added.

Despite its history of being stifled and criminalized, sex work remains one of the oldest professions in the world. In Canada, the history of sex work legislation is impressively convoluted and ambiguous. The first recorded sex work laws were introduced in Nova Scotia in 1759, but the legislation was centred on removing “vagrants”—anyone considered undesirable—from the street. The real legislative history began after the Canadian Confederation was formed in 1867, when these vagrancy laws were combined in the Canadian Criminal Code with more sweeping laws that forbade brothels and pimps from employing women. Since then, legislators have expanded the definitions of criminal conduct; by 1985, the Parliament passed a law that barred public communication for the purposes of “prostitution.” Finally, in 2014, after a Supreme Court overruling of previous sex work laws, Canada implemented Bill C-36. This bill followed the lines of the Nordic Model framework, meaning that the purchase—but not the selling—of sex is illegal.

On the surface, the Nordic model seems like the ideal compromise for sex work critics and advocates alike: Punish the buyer, but not the seller; protect the woman, arrest the man. But although the Nordic model has been hailed by many as the ultimate fix to sex work legislation, it only increases financial precarity for sex workers. If one half of the transaction is outlawed, how is a sex worker supposed to find the means to live? The Nordic model criminalizes the entire goal of sex work—the compensation. Thus, even though the selling of sex is not illegal, sex work falls into a grey category of illegal occupations. Secrecy is incentivized in this model, since a sex worker who exposes an abusive client to arrest risks losing income or putting themselves in danger. The ultimate result is that sex workers are at much higher risks of experiencing labour violations. 

More recently, advocates for sex work have moved away from the word “legalization” toward the word “decriminalization.” The distinction is crucial. Legalization typically involves the regulation of certain streams of sex work. However, exactly what kind of sex work is allowed is up to legislators, who can potentially criminalize many categories of sex work. On the flip side, decriminalization implies fully removing sex work from the list of criminal offences and treating sex work just like any other type of work. This would open the doors to labour rights for sex workers, as their form of employment would fall under the Canada Labour Code. 

“When sex work is viewed as criminal, sex workers’ clients and other third parties are constantly trying to evade law enforcement, and when you’re evading law enforcement, it means that you’re in isolation, you can’t access services you need,” explained Jenn Clamen. “It means you don’t tell people you’re working in the industry.”

Clamen is the National Coordinator for the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform (CASWLR) The organization formed in 2012 in the middle of a constitutional challenge called the Bedford case. Terri Jean Bedford, a Canadian dominatrix, initiated the now historic 2007 lawsuit, arguing that Canada’s anti-prostitution laws were unconstitutional. After a seven-day trial in 2009 and a year of judicial deliberation, Bedford and her two colleagues, Valerie Scott and Amy Lebovitch, won the suit in its entirety, and it was their work that led to the eventual Supreme Court decision to overturn previous sex work laws in 2013.

Since we continue to live in a country where sex work is criminalized, organizations like the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform (CASWLR) have been working nonstop to help provide the support and resources that sex workers need. Despite the fact that the selling of sex is not criminalized, sex workers continue to fear the police, and rightly so—over-policing of sex workers remains a critical issue. Ultimately, it tends to be the most marginalized and vulnerable who experience the most policing. 

“Even in a decriminalized sex industry, there are still many sex workers in our community that will be over-surveilled and under-protected,” Clamen said. “Police racially and socially profile Indigenous women, Black women, migrant women, trans women, and women who use drugs.”

Indeed, the heavy policing of sex work is a problem worldwide. In their book, Mac and Smith recount some of the atrocities committed by law enforcement, including sting operations where police would pose as clients, have sex with a worker, and then proceed to arrest them. Interestingly enough, officers who purchase sex with the goal of arrest are legally protected and hailed for their actions, whereas those selling the sex are shamed and punished. 

Some of that has changed during the pandemic. Digital sex work has become increasingly accepted, particularly during the surge of interest into OnlyFans, a content creation platform favoured by many sex workers. One online sex worker who goes by the cam name Leena Archephina explained that the competition is tough, noting that she has to be creative in order to be noticed more. 

“It’s kind of difficult,” Archephina said. “[Camming] is a women-based industry [....] If you have to go through Craigslist to find clients and it’s not regulated, then it’s very sussy. You could run into malicious people.”

In some ways, digital sex work can be safer––but there are no guarantees. Safety is also, inevitably, contingent on identity. Nathan explained that being a masculine person in sex work allowed him the safety net of knowing he would be able to speak up if he was uncomfortable. 

“Being a cis dude can be a lot safer, just because of physical strength,” Nathan said. “In a situation where you’re with a client who’s aggressive or stronger than you are, it can easily turn into a very sour situation [...] so my whole brand was that I’m this alpha top who is dominant and won’t give into any sort of situation where I would be more submissive in the dynamic.”

But not everyone has that luxury, and clients can quickly turn violent. Archepina emphasized that there is always a power dynamic between a sex worker and their client. 

“I have a friend that met up with someone and the dude went apeshit,” she said. “He started saying ‘I’ve killed a man,’ and to be stuck in a room with something like that can be very scary [....] If it was regulated and there was a place you could go to meet [with sex workers] where there’s actual protection [it] would be best.”

This lack of safety is a far cry from many other jobs. When I look for employment on LinkedIn, I can assume that a safe workspace environment is a given. I’m lucky enough that I barely need to know my rights, because the occupation I ended up in is not likely to put me at risk of seeing those rights taken away. All of these privileges sound so fundamental to me that I can’t fathom a reality where they aren’t. But this uncertainty is a reality for so many sex workers across the world. 

Until sex workers are legally protected, piling on more and more punitive measures will do nothing but drive the job further underground. No matter our ideological inclinations, we have to accept that sex work will not cease to exist. It’s time to think about sex work as a profession in need of labour rights, rather than an occupation on which to project our moral baggage. New legislation centred on decriminalization would create better safety nets for those seeking to exit the sex industry as well as those still in it, by providing stable avenues to leave the profession instead of evictions, fines, and nonsense end-demand laws. 

While sex workers have a vast array of experiences, what unifies them is that they all deserve the same fundamental rights that are bestowed upon those in other professions. Sex work is work, and it’s about time we start treating it that way.

Illustrations by Jinny Moon, Design Editor