Sex work is often misunderstood, but for these Ryerson students, it’s both a means of income and empowerment
Andrea Josic reports
Content warning: This article contains mentions of sexual violence.I
In his aspirations to become a successful beauty blogger, Adrienne Nguyen*, a fourth-year faculty of communications and design student, would often post high-quality pictures of himself wearing wigs and glam makeup on Instagram. For years throughout his undergrad, men would send him direct messages asking to be his sugar daddy because of his femme appearance. At first, Nguyen refused because he wasn’t interested in sugaring. But last December, out of curiosity, he started researching financial domination, or “findom.”
Findom exists between a dom, in this case Nguyen, and a sub—somebody that pays the dom money to be mistreated by them, ranging from things like calling them names to making them beg for attention. In order to gain clients, Nguyen made a Twitter account to run his sex work business. Twitter was ideal because he could use TweetDeck to schedule tweets and make himself seem like he was active 24/7, gaining more traction on his account.
A man once sent Nguyen $45 just to talk to him. Nguyen accepted the request to chat—until he told the man, “I’m bored.” In findom, the dom acts dismissive and humiliates the sub, making them plead to keep the conversation going. Within 25 minutes, Nguyen had earned $500.
“Turn on my camera? Charge. You want to see my feet? Charge. See my socks? Charge. If you want to see my left sock off, my right sock off? Charge, charge, charge,” Nguyen says.
Nguyen took a break from findom because he wanted to focus more on his beauty business aspirations—at the time, it’s what he felt more passionate about. But shortly after Valentine’s Day, Nguyen found himself revisiting his Twitter. He realized he missed the feeling he got from findom: empowerment.
At this point, he decided to go all in by joining OnlyFans—a website where people can pay for a monthly subscription and view exclusive content, both sexual and not, on various profiles.
“On [these sites], you’re like, ‘I’m the hottest shit on the block,’ and then you just feel so great about yourself,” says Nguyen. Prior to trying sex work, Nguyen didn’t think highly of sex work and bought into the stigma surrounding the industry. But now, he’s realized how positive the community really is.
Despite the money coming in quickly and easily, Nguyen believes this form of sex work is a lot more than just posting a photo and expecting cash to pour in. He credits a lot of his success in findom to the marketing strategies he’s picked up from his communications degree and running a beauty blogging business—such as understanding when and how to schedule content on social media, who his target audience is and what they’re looking for.
Sex work is considered one of the oldest professions in the world. It’s a complex industry, but it’s often misconstrued by students—especially as an easy way to make money. It’s not uncommon to hear, “I’m just going to drop out of school and become a stripper,” particularly at Ryerson, which is within walking distance of several adult entertainment facilities like Zanzibar and Filmore’s. But Ryerson students that actually do sex work know it’s not as simple as that. For them, sex work can be a difficult job, like any other. It’s a reality that can be fun, rewarding and a legitimate source of income, given that many part-time jobs aren’t enough to cover tuition and rent.
Findom is just one of many forms of sex work people within the industry can practice. Other types of sex work include, but are not limited to, street-based sex work, cam work, sugaring, stripping, erotic dancing, phone sex, pornography and escorting.
Some sex workers say they prefer online sex work because it can feel safer and easier to access. In a 2017 study of 641 sex workers in the United Kingdom who use the internet for their work, 89.4 per cent said they could work independently and 85 per cent said it made it easier to screen clients.
A 2017 study of 209 sex workers by sociology professor Cecilia Benoit at the University of Victoria shows that there were three main reasons people did sex work: critical life events that cause people to be susceptible to negative experiences of sex work, the need or desire for money and the appeal—including feeling empowered by the work itself. Ryerson students who are sex workers have reported similar reasons, including being empowered and having to pay their bills. For these students, sex work is real work.L
eah Carlaw* first developed an interest in sex work in high school—specifically, how it was stigmatized and how sex workers she read about seemed unapologetic in their work. She did a school project on Sasha Grey, a former adult film star, and her work outside the adult film industry, like how Grey used to hold reading programs for kids at inner city schools. Carlaw was fascinated by Grey for being a sex worker while also working in education, because she used to assume that once somebody did sex work, they wouldn’t be accepted in other spaces.
After graduating from Ryerson with her English degree in 2018, Carlaw began working as a teacher, a freelance artist, a reiki practitioner—a form of energy healing—and works with queer youth at after-school programs. It was through reiki that Carlaw started seeing her main client. She considers it a gig like any of her others, but with more of an “air of attraction” because of how much control she has over who she chooses as a client.
Her current client reached out after seeing her ad for reiki on Kijiji, telling Carlaw he wanted a session. Based on the tone of his message, and the fact that he needed help with his erectile dysfunction, she thought he wanted more than just reiki. She also didn’t have her level two reiki certification at the time, which would’ve allowed her to do a healing session at a distance. After messaging back and forth, he was honest about his intentions. She felt comfortable about the relationship and agreed to pursue phone sex. He has remained one of Carlaw’s most consistent clients, and they primarily have a findom relationship.
Almost all of Carlaw’s experiences with sex work have been positive, but as a Black queer, femme, she’s experienced some covert racism in her job. While exploring findom, she had some “eyebrow-raising experiences” with white men, who would sometimes fetishize her because she’s Black. Carlaw doesn’t even bother telling straight, cis, male clients that she’s queer.
A 2017 study found that racialized women are often exocitized and hypersexualized based on race-specific features. Conducted by Menaka Raguparan, the study shows that racialized women tend to be objectified and dehumanized based on their bodies or the assumption they have a “wild” nature.
Ruth Neustifter, co-chair of the Sexual & Gender Diversity Research Lab and associate professor at the University of Guelph, says there’s a tendency for sex workers to be portrayed as thin, white, cis, able-bodied women because that is still what’s most desirable. In For Black Models Scroll Down: Webcam Modelling and the Racialization of Erotic Labour, a study published by Angela Jones at the State University of New York, 65 per cent of models on an undisclosed cam site were white women, while only 6.4 per cent were Black. Eurocentric ideals trickle down into sex work and which often puts white women at the forefront of modern sex work movements and portrayals of sex workers in the media. Because people think sex work isn’t a choice and white women are delicate, white women are viewed as worth “saving” from the industry, according to Neustifter.
Furthermore, those who are Black, Indigenous, queer or trans, or intersections of those identities, are particularly at risk for mistreatment or violence while doing sex work.
A 2014 study by the National Transgender Discrimination Survey of 6,450 trans people in the United States showed that 44 per cent of Black trans people participated in sex work, compared to six per cent of white trans people. In 2015, 41 sex workers were killed in the U.S. Of the 17 Black sex workers, 12 were trans women, according to Amnesty International.
Indigenous sex workers in Canada are also at risk as they’re often left out of the conversation when it comes to public policy and research regarding sex work. In a chapter of Selling Sex: Experience, Advocacy and Research on Sex Work in Canada, Sarah Hunt notes that “Indigenous sex work has been conflated with sexual exploitation, domestic trafficking, intergenerational violence and the disappearance or abduction of Indigenous girls and women,” preventing meaningful conversations that centre Indigenous sex workers’ voices. When sex workers’ experiences aren’t taken into consideration, there is a risk of “reproducing the discourses of colonialism that constitute Indigenous women as without agency.”
While sex work is a career for Carlaw, it also gives her space to grow and to work through her boundaries surrounding relationships and her body. Following an abusive relationship, it was difficult for Carlaw to get physically close with somebody, which is why she mainly keeps her sex work online or over the phone.
In spite of this, she’s slowly finding it easier to build a relationship between sex work and intimacy. She’s been able to differentiate the way she approaches sex work from the way she views sex in her personal life.
“Sex work now just looks like letting my guard down, getting a little bit playful and less focused on the transaction. I most certainly think that [sex and sex work] can exist separately—it’s still not the same kind of intimacy because I’m still not emotionally invested whatsoever.”A
fter struggling to find part-time work in her first year, Ella Mackenzie*, a fourth-year English student, turned to SeekingArrangement, a website where sugar babies can meet sugar mommies and daddies. She tried it because it felt like a casual income where she could be her own boss and set her own hours. Mackenzie prefers SeekingArrangement over other options for sex work because of the safety associated with the process of being able to message clients and vet them, explaining it as “Tinder for sex work.”
Mackenzie enjoys sugaring because men treated her nicely, buying her dinners and often paying her in cash that she could use towards school. She eventually found a part-time job, and stopped sugaring for the moment. Despite having various clients, Mackenzie wanted a guaranteed income. Sex work can be unpredictable—sometimes Mackenzie would have no clients, and sometimes she’d have a relationship with a few at a time.
Sugaring is often classified as sex work because there is an exchange of services for financial compensation, according to Neustifter. Sometimes, sugar daddies or mommies will give gifts and pay for expensive dates. Other times, they will give weekly allowances for a certain amount of meet-ups per month or a payment for each meet-up. Neustifter said that some people might not consider sugaring as sex work since these relationships don’t often have explicit agreements about expectations for exchanging financial resources for erotic contact. But there still is often some sort of exchange occurring for sex.
Mackenzie refers to sugaring as a “transactional form of dating,” while still recognizing it as a type of relationship. “You’re doing [emotional] work—and half of sex work is emotional labour.”
Before SeekingArrangement, organizing sex work online looked very different. In 2018, the U.S. Congress passed two bills—Stop Enabling Online Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA) and Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA)—which made various websites liable for selling sex online. While this was intended to prevent human sex trafficking, it also affected sex workers who were posting ads for their own work online.
Two major websites for sex workers were affected: Craigslist and Backpage. Both websites were classified advertising sites with sections that advertised sex work—Backpage called it an “adult section” while Craigslist called it the “personals” section. In these sections, sex workers could post ads and find work independently, ultimately making it safer for them to get clients. These U.S. laws affected sex workers within Canada as well, as Backpage was shut down completely, and any ads posted on Craigslist hinting at sex work are now removed immediately.
Stigma surrounding sex work is largely credited to the laws around it. In 2014, Canada passed Bill C-36, Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA), a law that criminalized the act of purchasing sex. According to a 2017 report by Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform, Bill C-36 reinforces the fact that sex workers are “victims” at the hands of “criminals” purchasing sex.
Tamara O’Doherty, a professor of criminology at Simon Fraser University in B.C., says the sex work industry itself is often viewed as part of the patriarchy and an act of violence against women. “People argue that there’s no way to actually consent to sex if you’re receiving some kind of income because you are inherently being exploited as a worker.”S
tudents involved with sex work like Nguyen, Mackenzie and Carlaw had predominantly positive experiences in their sex work. But there are also those like University of Toronto student Salwa Khan* who didn’t get to choose the outcome of their sex work, and were forced or coerced into sexual situations. Without consent, sex work is no longer sex work, but exploitation.
Back in 2013, Khan was in an unhealthy dynamic with an ex-girlfriend, who was struggling with an eating disorder and asking Khan for money to help her out with food. At one point, Khan had given their ex-girlfriend $6,000. At the time, Khan was speaking to an ex-boyfriend, who they considered a friend, and told him that they ran out of money. The former partner suggested Khan do him “sexual favours” in exchange for money.
For about a year, the ex-boyfriend would take photos of Khan and grab their body without asking—and when Khan would protest and be noticeably uncomfortable, he would tell them they need to pretend to enjoy it. In order to make money, Khan agreed. When Khan started to gain some weight, their ex said the pictures were worth less.
“I was mad that he even suggested that, because I thought we were friends. But I was so desperate. I could not afford to say no.”
He planned a weekend at Khan’s apartment and told Khan he would give them $2,000 at the end—as long as they did various sexual things throughout the weekend. But when Khan tried to establish boundaries, their ex insisted they needed to do whatever he wanted because they were getting paid.
That weekend, he forced himself on them, and every time Khan refused to do something, their ex would deduct money from the $2,000 they’d agreed on. By the end of the weekend, he flat out refused to pay Khan.
According to the Understanding Sex Work project by Benoit, a 2015 study revealed that 24 per cent of sex workers reported that they have been attacked and 19 per cent reported that someone had forced or attempted to force them into any unwanted sexual activity. Sex work is sometimes abused because people believe sex workers are consenting to all forms of sex, even though they’ve only consented to doing an aspect of it for pay.
For reasons like that, sex work can be extremely dangerous when exploited. Between 1991 and 2014, there were 294 reported homicides of sex workers, according to Stats Canada. Due to the criminalization of the industry, sexual violence is often underreported by sex workers out of fear that they will be punished, and not the perpetrators.
After being taken advantage of, Khan doesn’t believe they’ll approach sex work in the near future. Currently, they’re focusing on bettering their mental health, healing from abusive relationships and treating their anxiety and depression.
In order to make sex work safer, there are sex workers rights’ movements and organizations fighting for policy and law changes. The Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform is an organization comprised of sex workers’ organizations across Canada and focuses on creating unified responses to law reform around sex work. It was three sex workers who brought forward Bedford in Bedford v Canada, a 2013 case that challenged Canada’s prostitution laws in an effort to protect sex workers’ rights.
Maggie’s: The Toronto Sex Workers Action Project, a sex workers’ organization made for and by sex workers, offers drop-in hours, court and social service accompaniment, legal and health information, access to safer sex and safer drug use materials, workshops and more. They also have a “bad client list,” a list sex workers can contribute to and access to see a list of clients that have been “time wasters and bad dates” for other sex workers to avoid.W
hile sex work is an effective, enjoyable and legitimate way of making money for some students, it isn’t for everyone—and there’s still progress to be made in shifting people’s understandings of sex work as a safe, consensual and real form of work.
To do that, Carlaw, who considers herself an activist and sex work educator, says that although education is extremely important in destigmatizing the industry and furthering sex workers’ rights, empathy plays a huge role.
Whether or not you’re engaging with a sex worker, Carlaw says it’s important to talk about the industry and sex workers positively.
“It helps show the people around you that might not know very much about the industry or about this kind of work why it’s very, very important to treat these people with kindness.”
*Names have been changed to protect sources’ safety and privacy