Canada’s pandemic response has been far from perfect and has resulted in people being left behind. Among that group are sex workers.
The pandemic has upended all of our lives to some degree; others more so. But while various government bodies attempted to address the health and economic needs of society, people were left behind, whether out of ignorance or lack of sympathy for these groups. Among those left behind were the sex workers. They represent just a small cross-section of Waterloo Region that isn’t often acknowledged.
The term “sex worker” covers a broad range of professions that refer to the consensual sale of sexual services, performances and pornographic material. It can cover anything from stripping to full sexual intercourse and everything in-between. Terms like ‘prostitute’ or ‘hooker’ carry negative and derogatory connotations, while sex worker is the more appropriate and preferred term over others that are rooted in a history of patriarchy, misogyny, and sexism.
We spoke with Sage*, a stripper at Waterloo Region’s last remaining strip club, Roxxanne’s. She has danced at clubs across Canada, but considers Roxxanne’s to be her home club. She jumped on to a Zoom call from her Toronto apartment, where she was waiting out the pandemic.
“I always liked dancing and performing. I used to figure skate as a child,” Sage said. “When I turned 19, I went to Roxxanne’s, talked to the DJ there and asked to work, and I’ve been there pretty much ever since – off and on.”
Strip clubs have been shut down during the pandemic, with Roxxanne’s mostly operating as a bar/restaurant now. Instead of dancing on the pole, or chatting up patrons, she’s been wrapped up in a sweater and relying on the Canada Relief Benefit (CRB) for income. With the province in its third lockdown, the clubs won’t be opening up anytime soon.
When it was still operating as a strip club, a number of precautions were put in place like many businesses. It wasn’t much of a leap for them given Roxxanne’s was a no contact club in accordance to city bylaws. Compliance with provincial guidelines meant adding more sanitization, as well as ensuring all their staff wore masks and face shields. The only time dancers took off their masks were during their intensive pole routines on center stage. To accommodate them, tables were pushed up to the stage to prevent patrons from getting too close. Lap dances were as close to people’s laps as they could allow: two meters away.
Despite all this, Sage said the patrons didn’t seem too fazed. The pandemic did affect their bottom line, whether it was due to reduced capacity, people staying at home, or just people weren’t aware the club was even open.
“All of us were in the same position. Where we wanted to work; we wanted the money and, obviously, CERB was not paying us what we typically make. So, we all really banded together to try to make it as safe as possible and adhere to the rules as much as we could,” she said.
Unfortunately, strip clubs shut down regardless under Public Health guidelines. Roxxanne’s reopened briefly under the new tiered system, before having to shut down again and turning its focus back to being restaurant; takeout only under current restrictions.
Meanwhile, dancers have been hunkering down like many of us, unable to work. They’re relying on the CRB to float them, though that may not be enough for some people. Sage has been able to make it work with the help of her partner. However, she notes that while she might not be hurting, others might be.
“Especially because we created a lifestyle for ourselves that we were able to afford and now that’s kind of being taken away from us,” she said. This leaves strippers dipping into their savings, and taking on debt. She knows dancers who were still working under the table during the pandemic, doing private parties and events.
“We’re also not really a part of any unions or EI, so we’re kind of separate from that because a lot of people don’t like talking about sex work,” Sage said. It’s tough to imagine any politicians really sticking their necks out for strippers, but an advocacy group delightfully named “Work Safe Twerk Safe” did file for a judicial review of Ontario’s strip club closure.
The group argued the late September closure order had unfairly targeted strippers. Specifically, the group argued the order infringed on strippers’ charter rights to freedom of expression and association in a safe, secure environment, and their right to work freely in their chosen environment.
In February, the latest update from the group sees them moving forward in the review. The Ontario Superior Court granted an anonymization order, so strippers could have their names redacted on court documents made available to the public.
Sage felt that strippers were being scapegoated when brought up in the conversation. Even during the pandemic, one of the biggest news items to capture the nation’s attention was an outbreak at the Brass Rails club in Toronto. Jokes around the awkward conversations between spouses followed. However, according to her, strippers weren’t the source of the infection, but another employee was.
“It’s just because dancers are seen as a vector of disease, and not necessarily just COVID. We’re stigmatized with STI, everything else, so I think that COVID kind of just flew on top of that,” she said.
Sage wants to return to dancing as soon as possible but is worried about catching the virus — and like everyone else, COVID fatigue was setting in.
“We obviously are all upset. I think we’re really all wanting to go back to work and make our money and do our thing and get back to kind of going back to shred of normalcy,” Sage said. She wishes there were better long-term plans in place — or more consideration for sex workers and the issues they face.
Sage is just one of many dancers in Waterloo Region and represents one end of the spectrum when it comes to sex work. This is part one of a three part series on the changing nature of sex work in Waterloo Region through the pandemic.
*name changed under condition of anonymity.