In Canada, where it's legal to sell sex but not to buy it or advertise it, it can be tricky for sex workers to navigate the laws and avoid dangerous or shady johns.
"It's one of the few jobs where it has no wage gap, we set our own hours, we work independently, and we basically operate our own small businesses. We aren't given credit for that, though, because people think that if you sign up for this you're somehow doing something wrong," Olivia Grace, a Toronto escort, told me over the phone when I spoke to her about the nature of being an independent escort in Canada. (Selling sex is legal in Canada, but buying it is not, and neither is advertising prostitution—a situation that has been criticized by many sex workers and academics.)
When many in the mainstream public think of escorts, they often think of brothels, madams, and pimps, but the reality is that many escorts work independently. Through review boards such as CAERF, and social media sites like Twitter and Instagram, indie escorts are able to advertise their services and fill their schedules without ever having to join an organization or align themselves under a boss. They are their own managers and they set their own rules, which means they also have to choose their own clients.
Whether it's the fear of losing money or being in physical danger, the way in which escorts vet and screen their clients to see if they're actually legit is quite important. We spoke to some independent escorts of different backgrounds to see how they make sure the people they're spending time with are for real.
Some of the names have been altered to protect the identities of the individuals interviewed.
Lisbeth Nova, 33, Toronto
VICE: How long have you been in the field for?
Lisbeth Nova: Two years almost. Independently.
Do you find that more of a strength or weakness, compared to being in an agency?
There is an upside and downside. For me personally, I'm very thankful I started independently. I'm also older than most others, I've got some street smarts. I'm very particular about who I see. I like to have a little bit of a chit-chat before I meet anybody.
What does being "particular" mean to you?
Well, first of all, they have to write me a proper email. I don't accept pizza order delivery-style write-ups. When you first start out—guys online know who's new and who isn't, so the weirdos really try to take advantage of that. When you're new, they think they can get away with a lot more, so you really need to establish yourself as somebody who doesn't take a lot of shit. As your name gets known, those emails stop. I prefer clients that actually have a brain.
What do you mean by "pizza delivery emails"?
I just don't accept emails that are like, "Hey, meet me at 5. I want anal for two hours, bring your friend." Like, no. You have to tell me exactly who you are and sell yourself to me.
How do you determine when something's actually worth your time, outside of just sending a coherent email?
Usually I need a reference, meaning they need to forward me to someone in the community who they've already seen and can back them. If they're new—and I love new clients—then they need to send me ID, or a LinkedIn, or something that can prove who they are and their working status. Oftentimes I'll meet them in a public place first.
Do you ever get people trying to rip you off or pull something shady?
It does happen, not that often for me. The rule is, if there's too much back and forth with email, you know they're full of shit. If they're serious—they have all the money in an envelope ready to go—then it's usually fine. If they want to talk about their fantasies and stuff through email, then fuck off. I should be getting paid for discussing it. A lot of people like that are just jerking off at their laptop while you send those emails, but they'll never follow through. The people who are serious, it's all business.
Olivia Grace, 29, Toronto
VICE: Have you ever had encounters with law enforcement?
Olivia Grace: The law is different in Canada. If you are working together or in a company, you can be accused of pimping each other out, but working independently is generally OK. That's why I take immense care.
How safe do you feel as an independent versus being in an agency?
I personally think that independents are going to win out. I raised my prices during the recession, and I attracted more clients because of it. I wanted to have a certain caliber of gentlemen, and they came when I brought my prices up to $300 an hour. It's the average price here in Toronto, because it's an expensive city to live in, and a lot of SPs [service provider] use that money for things like a separate space where they can work—somewhere else than their actual home. It's not as disorganized as people think.
Jaynelle, 25, Montreal
VICE: As a trans woman, do you feel like you have to take more preventative measures than most sex workers?
Jaynelle: I feel that as a preoperative trans woman, I do. I pass, but not when it comes to sex, so you have to make that abundantly clear to people.
What are some of things you do to prepare for a client?
Well, first off, I only advertise on review boards when I need to. I have a good circle of clients that I can see regularly, and a lot of my interactions are done in person. Friends know where I am whenever I'm working, and I don't ever see anybody who I haven't built rapport with. I need to make sure they're totally comfortable with progressive ideas and aren't trying to pull something. It's been great for the most part.
For the most part?
Obviously, when some find out that I don't have bottom surgery yet they are turned off or grossed out or whatever. I have heard some rude remarks before, but I always make sure I prevent it before it gets to that point. I also only see people who can afford me—it just doesn't make sense and isn't smart to shoot for low-ballers.
Have you ever been put in danger?
No, but my friends have, and that scares me. All the deaths last year are concerning, because it reminds me that we're not out of the forest yet. There's still so much hate and that can be very hard to outrun. It's almost like another job on top of all this.
Why don't you work for an agency?
I don't like how much money they try and take, and I don't like being tied to entities. We don't see a lot of busts happen in terms of sex workers—mostly just clients—but I don't like the idea of being managed. I really do like my freedom.
Jordan, 19, Vancouver
VICE: You're the youngest person I've spoken to so far. How much experience do you have doing this?
Jordan: Not very much, about six months at most. I forget whether it was July or August when I started.
I've been told younger SPs have trouble with harassment and trolls. Do you get that?
Oh yeah, lots of messed up emails and stuff online. I'm not totally comfortable with putting myself out there yet, though, so I still operate under the radar. I think I haven't got the brunt of it yet.
What have you received?
Lots of people asking me if they can treat me like a slave—white dudes mostly. I can't tell if they think that, because I'm black, they can treat it as a kink and it's OK, or if they are just fucking assholes.
How do you screen people?
I always get them to send me pictures of them, and I send that to two friends who I trust dearly. I also get them to link me to their social media accounts, and if they're not clearly active or seem fake, I cut them off. I also only take e-transfers and I take it before we meet.
One of the workers I spoke to said that having a separate pad to do your work is the dream, rather than having to do it all at your house or a hotel. Since you're new to this, how does that aspect affect you?
It's tough. I just got my own place, so now I have a bit more privacy, but it's still, like, not totally comforting to know that people are coming into my home when I am alone. I'm in school right now so I have to balance this life where people know me as one person, and then another where I do my work as somebody completely different. It's tough to keep those two separated.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Follow Jake Kivanc on Twitter.