Students in Sex Work

By Joanna Chiu

A UK study, published in May 2010 by the journal Sex Education, found that 16.5% of undergraduate students would consider working in the sex industry. The study has provoked debates in other parts of the world—including Vancouver—about the safety and well-being of students engaged in sex work.  

Earlier this year, the Georgia Straight presented two contrasting perspectives on students in sex work in the article, “Debate sheds light on students in sex work”. Rob Roberts, a professor at London’s Kingston University, thought that the percentage of students who would consider sex work was “worrying” because high tuition rates are forcing some students to “[lead] this kind of life in order to go to university.” 

Simon Fraser University prostitution researcher, Tamara O’ Doherty, on the other hand, told the Straight that “we need to take a few steps back and look at how we are structuring the experience of sex work to be one of victimization.”

In Canada, the stereotype that most sex workers are victims remains prevalent because ongoing stigma about sex work makes many sex workers reluctant to speak out and debunk stereotypes.

According to Trina Ricketts, whose work as a stripper funded her studies at Simon Fraser and Kwantlen University, as more sex workers “come out of the closet, more people will be forced to face the fact that we are not all degraded, violated victims. “

Although Ricketts is now one of Canada’s most recognizable sex workers’ advocates as the founder of the online community, and as an organizer of events such as the annual Exotic Dancers for Cancer strip-a-thon, when Ricketts was a student, she was not comfortable telling her classmates about her job. 

 “I majored in English and women’s studies, and I felt very much like an outsider in my women’s studies classes.  I hope it is different now, but in 1998, the average ‘feminist’ student in university was very much anti-sex work.  I never disclosed that I was a dancer. I was still learning how to use my voice back then,” says Ricketts.  

While street-level sex workers are often survival sex workers, the majority of sex workers are “indoor” sex workers like Ricketts. Sex work is a broad term that encompasses jobs such as modeling, web cam work, stripping, and erotic massage—which may not involve sexual intercourse at all.

O’ Doherty says that there “have not been conclusive studies that suggest that students are more likely to get involved in a certain kind of sex work.” However, O’ Doherty said that flexible work schedules, safety and anonymity are particularly important to students.
Although O’ Doherty thinks that sex workers and their allies are doing great work to fight stigmatization and marginalization of sex workers, she does not recommend that students put their names and faces out there as sex workers: “I know a few people who have been very open about their involvement in sex work and the stuff they’ve been through is quite hellish. “

However, O’ Doherty says that students should not worry about future employers being able to check to see if they had been involved in sex work because “Revenue Canada does not publicize that information.”

I talked to a former University of British Columbia student who started working as a male escort in January 2010 to raise funds to attend midwifery school in New Zealand.  He finds his job “amazing and fun” and thinks that the high pay and flexible schedule are great perks.

 “I was doing drywall work earlier and then massage therapy. But now I’m working as an escort full-time. I see 2-3 clients a day. 75% of my clients are kinkier and 25% want vanilla sex or massage with orgasms. The work is what you make it. I find it really rewarding to help clients explore their sexuality.”

The student only works with clients in his apartment after a telephone screening process, does not see clients late at night and makes sure his roommates are aware of what he’s doing.  Working indoors is particularly important for safety, he says, because “even though I’m worried about being arrested for technically running a brothel, in-calls are much safer because I have more control over my work environment.” 

Besides doing in-calls over out-calls, O’ Doherty, Ricketts and the student escort suggest the following safety tips for students in sex work or who are considering sex work:

1.    Learn about the different types of sex work, including types of sex work that do not require direct contact with clients.
2.    Do not go into unfamiliar situations alone. If you ever feel unsafe or uncomfortable, then you should take on less risk.
3.    Be aware of your personal boundaries and communicate them clearly to your clients.
4.    Screen clients carefully before agreeing to meet them.
5.    Know your rights and contact the police to report harassment or abuse.
6.    Always tell a friend where you are going.
7.    Ask a friend to stay in your apartment to be there if something goes wrong, especially when you are seeing new clients.
8.    Value yourself and your clients: get regular STI checkups.
9.    Seek out support or advice from sex workers in your community through sites such as and organizations such as FIRST Advocates and the West Coast Co-operative of Sex Work Professionals .
10.    When advertising, do not use your real name, email address or photo unless you are comfortable about revealing your identity.

Note: After my interview with the student escort, on September 28, an Ontario judge struck down key provisions of Canada’s anti-prostitution laws, which may eventually lead to the decriminalization of “brothels” nationwide. Stay tuned for an article that will explore the effects of Ontario's ruling for Vancouver sex industry workers.