With the livelihoods of sex workers being threatened by the US “sex trafficking” crackdown, it’s an important time to listen to people who work in the sex industry.
Lindsay Irene, 32, is an Ottawa-based sex work photographer. The photos she has taken appear in sex workers’ online advertisements and on their websites, essential marketing tools that help them secure work. That work is increasingly under siege with the passing of SESTA-FOSTA—a new American law that seeks to tackle online sex-trafficking activities, but critics say promotes internet censorship and endangers consensual sex workers. Workers say that SESTA-FOSTA will literally kill them.
FOSTA is affecting sex workers in Canada too, especially since many popular sites used to facilitate sex work—such as the recently FBI-seized Backpage.com—are based in the US. A few weeks ago, Lindsay embarked on a project that she hopes will help humanize sex workers in a time when their very existence is being attacked. She plans to travel around Canada documenting sex workers’ lives through interviewing and photographing them in their homes.
“Whenever the media talks about sex workers, it’s a standard photo of the girl on the corner in fishnets,” Lindsay explained. “I feel like if the public could actually see a human face, they’d see these are actual real people who live amongst us—and maybe it could shift the perception that they have.”
She is currently raising funds to travel around Canada with her project, “Home Lives of Sex Workers in Canada,” and is looking for more workers to include.
VICE: You mention how the images we see of sex workers are often these cliché stock photos, which are a problem since these tend to be ridiculous and affect public perception.
Lindsay Irene: It is ridiculous. I feel there’s so much work to be done with changing the image of sex workers. It’s hard though, because a big thing is, for me, finding the subjects, they have to be very out already.
What are you hoping to bring to this project that people outside of sex work, civilians, that they don’t understand about sex workers?
Whenever I talk to anyone outside of the sex world, they just have this really negative view of sex work. They all assume that they’re being forced against their will… Everyone who I’ve met has been doing it because they want to or because they enjoy it or they’re financially gaining from it. But also, they’re real people. They’re beautiful-hearted people who are really complex… Another thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of them are big animal lovers, which I found very endearing. The biggest thing is to show that they’re people who work hard, and they deserve rights just like anyone else.
You said you noticed a lot of them have pets. What else have you noticed about the homes of sex workers so far with your project?
They’re all so different. Some have roommates. There’s a lot of diversity: I’ve gone from a basement apartment, to a girl who has a two-bedroom penthouse condo… A lot of their homes reflect their personalities, like one, her place was all decked out in Star Trek memorabilia. They still have their own personal flare—and some sex workers work out of their homes, too. Some will have a separate bedroom for sex work, and some will use their own bed. There wasn’t really any common link between any of them. They’re all vastly different.
In Toronto, I know it’s become popular for sex workers to work out of condos. Can you talk about that setting?
That’s common. In Toronto, I’ve heard that a problem is that a lot of the buildings have concierge up front. So, a lot of workers have been outed by that because they get suspicious. But another common thing is a lot of workers will have shared accommodations… In Montreal, there’s one I visited I want to say there’s about 50 workers who use it in this one building. In this building, there’s multiple floors and condos they’re using. Whereas, other workers are more protective of their space and don’t rent it out because they have a lot invested in it. It is really neat to see the camaraderie of everyone coming together and sharing resources.
In one of your photos, there are two people sitting together at a table. Can you talk about them?
They’re both sex workers! I thought that was really cool.
I’ve noticed sometimes clients or fans get upset when they find out that a sex worker is dating someone in their personal life.
I know, isn’t that so ridiculous? I find it so odd when clients get upset over that. These two call each other “partners”—she recently moved out of their building, and he lives in their old place… She was feeling really unsafe about some neighbours. She just moved into this new place a few weeks ago. They’ve been together for a few years, really sweet, super supportive of each other. Vivienne (on the right in the photo) is a talented artist and studied fashion design. She plans on turning her place into an art space to feature local artists.
Someone once looked at another one my photos and said, “Oh, it’s not like she could ever have a boyfriend with what she does.” And I was like, “No, actually, her boyfriend was holding the reflector while I was taking that photo.” Yeah, it’s really frustrating. A lot of the people I’ve interviewed for this project have partners, open relationships or monogamous relationships. It’s not for everyone, but sex workers treat it as a job—and their partners know that. Some are more supportive than others, obviously.
Many sex workers are not open about their work. Can you talk about why this poses a challenge for proper representation?
This is just the very beginning of my project, so I still hope to find more diversity. What I’ve been doing is finding sex workers who already show their faces online and messaging them. It is really hard to find people of colour who will show their faces. I talked to a few of them about it, some who I’ve done their professional photos for, and some say it’s because of a fear of being the target of violence. As well, for some it’s about their families and their cultures too.
Are there any photos you’d like to talk about the story behind?
Chloe, I knew her because she had reached out to have me take photos of her. She was one of the first people I asked to participate in the project, and she was really, really supportive of it. I went to her home, which she purchased herself… She works as an escort, but she also works as a phone sex operator and at a massage parlour. She had a really lovely cat. Something neat about her is how fiercely protective she is of other girls in the industry. She has actually chased clients into the parking lot of massage parlours when they refused to pay a girl who was new.
Madison was a really cool girl, the one with long, blonde hair. She looks like she stepped out of a Roots [Canada] advertisement… She’s probably one of the most pure-hearted people I have ever met. She was just so positive, just smiling the entire time. She actually left a career in finance to do sex work, and she does very, very well for herself and lives in a penthouse condo. I reached out to her, and a few days before, she was travelling to the States for work. At the border, they actually stopped her. Even though she never showed her face [online for work], they were able to find out by pairing a photo on her [sex work] Twitter to a photo on her private Instagram. They were able to link her to sex work, and they banned her for life from entering the United States… Afterwards, she said fuck it and decided to show her face [online for work]. She’s probably one of the most vocal people, is super loud and proud about being a sex worker. I’ve done two photoshoots with her since then, since she wanted to have ones that showed her face.
Let’s talk about SESTA-FOSTA. Why is it so important right now in particular to show everyone that sex workers are just regular people?
So many people when they hear about SESTA-FOSTA, they don’t understand how it’s hurting sex workers. They actually think it’s helping them, when that couldn’t be further from the truth right now. Treating all sex workers as victims is not helping the situation. They are people who are trying to do their jobs, and now their resources are being taken away from them—such as being able to do proper screening [of clients]. How do you expect sex workers to thrive if you’re removing their source of income? It’s ridiculous. I feel like if the public could actually see the type of people who are being targeted by this… I was in Toronto when FOSTA onset. Workers were just freaking out. It’s a really tumultuous time right now. I know they will pull through this, though—sex workers are some of the most resilient people out there. They’re not going anywhere, either. They’re just going to have to find new avenues to advertise. But, I think the public needs to understand what the actual truth is.
You can find out more about Lindsay Irene’s project “Home Lives of Sex Workers in Canada” by visiting her Kickstarter.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Follow Lindsay Irene on Twitter.
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