Recent Trends in Sex Work in Academia and Beyond

Despite societal stigma, laws designed to further marginalize, enduring patriarchal attitudes toward sexuality, and the ever-present threat of violence, in recent times, individuals involved in sex work have been coming into the mainstream public eye through the explosion of social media and entertainment industries.  Through Instagram accounts and the popularity of celebrities like former exotic dancers Cardi B and Amber Rose, 7-inch pleasers, vinyl thigh-high boots, and sequined outfits are no longer the domain of strip clubs.  Sex work has also come into increasing prominence in academia, often through the study of the industry from feminist or sociological perspectives, as well as sex workers themselves increasingly coming forward with their experiences in addition to those being unwillingly outed.

Although sex workers have long been involved in all levels of society, including post-secondary education, this newfound prominence has led to the inevitable backlash.  Recent legislations, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, has left the industry facing increased pressure.  For those who dare unabashedly embrace and capitalize on their sexuality, this often comes at a high price, including “negative connotations ,,, misogyny, double-standards and slut-shaming.”

Ironically, despite this backlash, a recent trend of capitalizing on the movement while simultaneously shaming and excluding the very sex workers from whom inspiration is appropriated, has also been seen.  Some examples include blockbuster films (inaccurately) portraying sex workers, and the widespread marketing of the sex worker aesthetic, such as pole-dancing studios and strip club-inspired fashion lines.  This also includes recent “shadow banning” or silencing of sex workers on many social media sites, silencing the accounts of workers, while allowing ads for scantily clad celebrities using the sex work aesthetic.  Similarly, in academia, while the study of the industry is becoming increasingly prominent with some academics basing entire careers on sex work, sex workers themselves are being reduced to subjects, often exploited in the name of research.

Sex Work Defined

In recent years, the umbrella term “sex work” has increasingly been used to refer to individuals involved in a variety of industries, including exotic dancers, web-cammers, escorts, adult entertainment performers, and phone sex operators.  While opponents disagree with using one term for many different types of jobs, others cite the need to be rid of hierarchal divisions, or “whorerarchy,” with the outdoor, survival-sex workers often relegated to the very bottom.  Proponents believe that all forms of sex work and sources of income are valid, in addition to the fact that many jobs overlap.  Infighting only perpetuates patriarchal mores, instead of building a stronger and safer community.

Sex Work in Canada

The recent pandemic has affected all aspects of the sex industry, particularly the exotic dance industry.  In Canada’s west coast, most exotic dancers (or exotic entertainers or strippers depending on individual workers’ preferences) work on a circuit as independent contractors for one or a combination of three major agencies, crisscrossing the provinces, often booked in a different city each week.  Rarely, dancers may have the option of a home club.  Those who work their way further east into Eastern Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland become fully independent contractors, choosing to travel independently or stay in one home club.

Unfortunately, these long established circuits have recently begun to experience changes, exacerbated by the pandemic, which has shut down already struggling strip clubs around the country, forcing many workers to make difficult decisions.  Changes are also being seen in escorting as well.  Some sex workers have gone back to old jobs, some have begun businesses, and some have decided to start or continue web-camming.  Many have been left struggling, ineligible for government payments, such as CERB and CESB, or simply afraid to apply.  Many are currently struggling to make ends meet, as well as using forms of sex work to supplement government aid or low-paying jobs. Others are facing COVID-19 related racism.  Many have decided to consider or return to academia or take the step to full-time enrollment.

Sex Work and Post-Secondary Institutions

Sex work and academia have been inextricably linked over the years, as the rising costs of education are often out of range for many individuals.  Sex work allows individuals to earn a living wage in an entry-level position, as well as the added benefit of a flexible schedule that allows time to study.  Although weeks can be taken off work to attend classes, it is also difficult to take time off when out of town work is required, as seen in the west coast strip club industry.

Other benefits of sex work include increased family time, as well as the ability to secure housing, put food on the table daily, rest, and escape volatile relationships.  In addition, for those living with chronic illness or disabilities that makes regular employment difficult, and disability income programs hard to obtain and almost impossible to survive on, sex work can be a lifeline.

Outing Sex Workers in Academia

However, this increased freedom comes at a price.  Although schools, such as AU, offer sex workers the flexibility to continue their education, without fear of disclosure or threat of failure from non-attendance, in other post-secondary institutions, sex workers face the increased possibility of being outed.  One example of this was the 2018 case in which the Toronto Sun outed a local law student who also worked as a sex worker.  In academia, the outing of sex workers can lead to disastrous results, including job loss, loss of opportunities, discrimination, stigma, harassment, and fears for safety.

Increasing Threats of Violence

Apart from worrying trends of outing in academia, sex workers also face estrangement from loved ones, housing loss, as well as physical and mental health concerns such as depression, anxiety, and stress in all aspects of their lives.  In addition, many sex workers face violence as well.  One prominent example is the recent murder of a Montreal sex worker by a client who was originally imprisoned for the murder of his wife and assault on a previous partner while he was on day parole.  A “risk management strategy” had permitted him to visit sex workers.  This senseless death reveals a larger trend of governmental policies that disregard the agency, safety, and lives of sex workers, often sacrificing these individuals to protect those deemed more worthy.  Even laws passed under the guise of protecting sex workers have led to increased dangers, stemming from 2014’s Bill C-36, which made “purchasing sex or benefiting from the selling of sex is illegal.  As a result of C-36, sex workers cannot advertise sexual services, and potential clients cannot communicate with a . . . [sex worker] in any way, or in any place, for the purposes of buying sex.”  Despite a promising 2013 Supreme Court ruling, which was overturned a year later, sex work in Canada today is treated “using the ‘Nordic’ model, which positions sex work as a social ill, sees workers as victims, and punishes clients.”

Similarly, in the United States, the 2018 passage of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), effectively stated that, “websites can be held legally liable if their users post ads for prostitution,” leading to the shutdown of advertising and review websites.  Touted as a way to fight trafficking, SESTA/FOSTA instead created increased danger for consenting sex workers, as they lost the ability to screen clients, as well as access “bad date lists” of violent clients, harm reduction resources, and even legal advice.  It should be noted that despite their purpose, these bills do not help actual trafficking survivors confront their abusers.

Among those most adversely affected by SESTA/FOSTA are BIPOC, as well as queer communities, including trans sex workers of colour, sex workers with disabilities, as well as lower income individuals.  In Canada, the situation is similar as well.  For example, according to Statistics Canada, from 1991 to 2014, of the nearly 300 Canadian sex workers murdered, many of were Indigenous women.  In addition to these laws, threats of outing and violence, sex workers often face industry problems as well, including unsafe working conditions, racist hiring practices, and predatory bosses and agencies.

Instead of the passage of laws without consultation with sex workers and restrictive working environments, many advocate instead for decriminalization initiatives, with safer working conditions, as opposed to legalization, which many fear would lead to invasive practices, restrictions, and increased exploitation.  Many denounce these laws as denying the agency of sex workers, insisting that they are helpless victims in want or need of saving.

Patriarchal Standards

It is difficult to escape the feeling that these laws are based largely on outdated patriarchal attitudes; if the issue were truly the trafficking of human bodies, society would aggressively pursue trafficking in all industries, including the domestic sector and food sector, such as  migrant workers in agriculture.  Instead, this focus on sex trafficking, as well as a general disdain for the sex industry as a whole, occurs at the moment women themselves capitalize on the very sexuality that men have historically sold in the form of literature, theatre, art, and more recently film, photography, and music.

Conflicting images of socially constructed femininity and sexuality are instilled from a young age and sold by the media, acceptable only if adhered through a set of rigid and often convoluted rules created by and for the male gaze.  The dichotomy of the whore and virgin very much permeates throughout Western thought, and individuals who choose to capitalize on this imagery, as well as blur these lines, continue to be seen as vile, immoral, and worthy of shame.  It is these enduring attitudes that lead to outings in academic, professional, and personal spaces, discrimination, as well as violence and death.

Moving Forward

Sex workers have long existed in all parts of our social fabric, including the academic sphere, and will continue despite recent challenges faced by the sex industry in recent years.  Despite sensationalized media representation and dehumanization by broader society, while simultaneously profiting from the sex worker aesthetic, sex workers are not a mythical “Other” or academic subject; they are our classmates, our teachers, our friends, and perhaps even our family members.  That said, notwithstanding their relation to others, sex workers have inherent value, simply as human beings, and deserve to be treated as such.  Like any other career, sex work is simply work, with sex workers skilled in a variety of disciplines, including sales, marketing, branding, and media skills.

Society’s outdated attitudes, patronizing legislations, and dehumanizing imagery and language simply perpetuate harm and increasing marginalization of an already vulnerable sector.  Stronger laws protecting sex worker rights, including those that pertain to outing, doxxing, and discrimination, as well as increased access to resources and protections, unionization, freedom to work independently, accurate representation, and a change in societal attitudes is required for the safety of all who choose sex work as a career choice.  Although the future remains uncertain, community solidarity has risen amidst these laws and struggles, with unique initiatives, such as whisper networks, activist organizations, and sex workers themselves working to keep communities safe.  Sex workers have always known what is needed to keep the community safe; it is time for society to listen.  It is time for sex workers to tell their own stories.

For students who would like to learn more, AU’s Labour Studies (LBST) 415: Sex Work and Sex Workers offers an introduction to sex work in Canada.  In addition, sex work advocacy groups throughout Canada, including Calgary’s Shift: Support for People in the Sex Industry, Vancouver’s PACE Society, Montreal’s Stella, Maggie’s Toronto Sex Worker Project, and Toronto’s Butterfly: Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Network offer a variety of services and resources for and by sex workers.