Canada’s pandemic response has been far from perfect and has resulted in people being left behind. Among that group are sex workers.
Despite lockdowns and the pandemic, it hasn’t stopped the world’s oldest profession. Sex workers are caught between a rock and a hard place. The profession doesn’t qualify as an essential service, but that hasn’t stopped some in the region from seeking them out despite the best advice of Public Health agencies. On the other hand, sex workers who can’t afford to turn down clients find themselves risking their health.
Traditional media doesn’t often care much for the lived experiences of sex workers beyond the rare salacious or tragic headline, but there’s more to the lives of sex workers than what the headlines suggest.
We spoke with London*, a trans, non-binary sex worker in Waterloo Region. They represented the other end of the sex worker spectrum, not only offering sexual services, but also providing the emotional aspect (the girlfriend experience). Early on in the pandemic – as news of COVID infections began to cross borders – they made the choice to not see any more clients.
“I’m usually the person in my family who earns the most. And I haven’t been able to work. Which is weird because I would usually support my partners and their families financially before COVID hit,” they said over Zoom. “I’m lucky to have a supportive community that means it’s an option for me to stop working. But that’s not an option for a lot of people; a lot of my friends.”
London also had medical issues that placed them at high-risk of COVID as well. Amidst their medical and financial woes, they’ve been on the community housing waiting list since 2019.
“And I don’t know when my spot is going to come up,” London said. “My housing worker is such a dick.”
London has been able to find shelter in their partner’s home, but as they described it – the apartment was not a welcoming place. Neighbours had been regularly causing trouble for them, verging on abusive. It is something they have to bear with for now; moving is out of the question given the housing and rental market.
London continues to receive monthly payouts from the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), which disability activists and politicians have called barely livable. Circumstances vary, but for many people living on ODSP, they can only do so with additional support from friends, family, roommates etc. And if they chose to work, their wages end up gouged by the province. For example, a person on ODSP receives around $1,200 per month. They are allowed to make up to $200 per month before the government starts deducting 50 per cent of your earnings through your income support.
According to London, many sex workers were disabled in some way like themselves. That being paid under the table allowed them to continue receiving their monthly assistance, while also being able to live their lives, build their savings, and take care of their health in-between appointments.
In order to qualify for Employment Insurance and benefits such as CRB, sex workers must have had their taxes filed. But not all sex workers file their taxes for one reason or another. In London’s case, it would have endangered their ODSP payments. Even before COVID, sex work activists have voiced these concerns to politicians, only to receive mixed results.
The profession rests in a very awkward place in Canada. Not strictly illegal (it is only illegal to purchase their services, not to provide), but they don’t enjoy the protections of the law or ‘polite society.’ While the law offers immunity from prosecution, that doesn’t apply to being arrested. Unless they were coerced into the trade; unless they viewed themselves as victims to be rescued, they are judged for their choices.
The Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform recently issued a constitutional challenge for sex work reform, calling for the full decriminalization of sex work. The group argued that the current Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act not only does not protect sex workers, it actually prevents sex workers from the following things they need to ensure their safety:
- negotiating conditions and establishing consent to sexual activity;
- obtaining relevant and identifiable information from clients and engaging in other screening practices vital to safety;
- working in non-isolated, collective and indoor workspaces;
- establishing important working and safety relationships with managers, receptionists, drivers, interpreters, partners, peers, and security, and with other sex workers who pool resources, services, and knowledge.
The alliance is made up of 25 sex worker rights groups across Canada, including the Sex Workers Action Network (SWAN) in Waterloo Region. They and other groups across the country have been focusing on helping each other through the pandemic. For example, Maggie’s in Toronto have been running fundraisers to support Black sex workers in the pandemic.
Sex work offered London a degree of agency given their circumstances. They were able to set their own hours and rates, choose who they worked with, and create a living.
“I miss seeing my clients. I miss making people feel comfortable in their bodies. I missed having the income to support my family,” they said. They recalled times where they spent time just chatting with clients about their favourite songs, video games or whatever mattered to them.
“I’ve had clients who are palliative and just want to have a companion for, you know, the last three months. Or clients who are widowed, or clients who are disabled and have different needs.”
Canadians have been reporting their highest levels of anxiety (25 per cent) and depression (17 per cent) as a result of the pandemic, according to Mental Health Research Canada. So, it’s no surprise that some may seek the temporary company of a sex worker.
While London is taking a break from work, they know others who have continued in the region. While their community has always been under surveillance by police, London says they’ve been under increased scrutiny. Police services were given more legal grounds to enforce provincial guidelines, but that also meant communities that were already over-policed were more likely targeted under these laws.
“Nobody wants us to work. Even in sectors of the industry where it would be safe to work like some dancers in clubs,” they said. “Like I know a lot of a lot of sex workers have gone from full-service to online work, or dancing, but it’s not something that’s feasible for everybody.”
Online work generally requires more equipment, along with a stable internet connection and a private space to do that work. For London, they’re just not suited for the work on a personal level; they thrive on the in-person connection. An oversaturated market also means payouts are slimmer if you’re just starting out.
“So, people just have to keep working in order to pay rent in order to feed themselves and feed their kids,” they said.
Sex workers in London’s price range normally sanitized their work areas and practiced safe sex. What the pandemic did was cause them to dial up those measures. That could even involve wearing PPE, gloves and mask during sex.
Sex workers have cut down on how many clients they saw, reduced the level of contact (no kissing for example), and cut back on the types of services they’re willing to do. Some have even taken to doing more outdoor work and the glory hole has even been recommended by the BC Centre of Disease Control.
London recently received their first shot and hopes more Canadians will be vaccinated by the summer. They want to start posting ads for outdoor services, like long walks through the park and focusing more on providing the girlfriend experience.
London is just one sex worker among many in the region. This is part two of a three part series on the changing nature of sex work in Waterloo Region through the pandemic.
*name changed under condition of anonymity.