What’s the shame in sex work? Stigma.

We spoke to a young Montreal sex worker about how the world’s oldest profession is treating him.

anonymous sex worker

The advertising tenet “sex sells” has become so widely accepted it can seem hackneyed. However, rearrange the words and you’ll stumble upon a question that few have seriously or compassionately asked: “Why sell sex?”  For Tyler, a male escort based in Montreal, what began as a quick way to pay off student debt has empowered him to confront his insecurities and embrace his sexuality.

As an indoor escort, Tyler mostly provides sexual services to male clients in either their apartment or his own, which he shares with two roommates. Unlike the quick anonymous exchanges that play out on the laziest of primetime TV shows, many of Tyler’s sessions begin with a conversation about comfort zones, preferences and personal history.

In early 2015, sitting on a $20,000 loan taken to finance a brief stint in law school, Tyler began a frustrating hunt for part-time work. “The thought of escorting had crossed my mind before but I’d shied away from it,” he says. His breaking point came after months of searching while sitting in an interview for a part-time retail job that he knew would bring more stress than income.

He turned to Rentboy, an exclusively homosexual escorting database that went offline last August when the FBI raided its New York headquarters. After setting up a profile, messages began to trickle into Tyler’s inbox but he refrained from answering, worried about what exchanging money for sex said of his morals. Then, one afternoon, Tyler felt reassured by a prospect who disclosed his identity and shared a picture of himself. They arranged a time to meet at Tyler’s apartment. As the session crept closer, Tyler hesitated again and asked his client to amble around the block for 15 minutes while he regained his composure. One hour later, Tyler, with $250 in pocket, laughed in disbelief as the door closed behind his first satisfied client.

“I thought to myself, ‘That’s it?'” The heart-wrenching guilt that Tyler expected to feel simply wasn’t there.

Fast cash may be a powerful incentive for young adults who enter the sex industry but Tyler stresses the profession is no cakewalk. “It’s hard work, and not just physically. It’s difficult to work through your own emotions while helping someone else to feel good.” That “emotional labour” is part of the reason clients pay up to $300 an hour for his services rather than seek free casual sex elsewhere. In jest, he adds, “Well, I’m also good. They’re paying for that.”

“I get all sorts of reactions. Some people tell me it’s disgusting while others either don’t care or tell me it’s really cool.” Pausing, he quips, “I think it’s really cool.”

In fact, escorting has acted as a litmus paper of sorts for Tyler. “The way people respond has had a huge impact on who I surround myself with. The people I want to be around are the ones who are supportive or don’t mind.” He doesn’t mince words with critics. “If you’re not okay with it, well…” Insert profane dismissal here.

Tyler describes feeling liberated by his work, which he feels has brought him closer to what he calls a “lineage of warriors.” He says, “I’m really proud to be a part of this long history of sex workers who, until now, I’d been disconnected from.”

However, he admits it’s not pleasant across the board. When asked about the worst part of his job, he barely pauses to think before spitting out, “the stigma.”

Recounting the difficulty he had accepting his sexuality before coming out to his small-town, religious family, Tyler told me, “I couldn’t have done this before. It’s so stigmatized and there’s so much historical and cultural baggage that you’re bombarded with for doing this. It would have destroyed me.” Initially, that stigma “put [him] back in the closet,” as he hid his escorting. Though, just as coming out helped him to accept his sexuality, he says, “escorting has made me a lot more self-aware and forced me to confront my own shame.” And while his parents remain in the dark, Tyler’s found that speaking openly with others about escorting has helped him to reject the shame he feels is unfairly imposed on sex workers.

Recipients of sexual services, too, he says, bear an unfair reputation. Since starting out, Tyler’s had clients whose reasons for coming to him are as diverse as their ages. “I had this one client who was 20 years old and had never been with another guy. My first time was terrible so, I just thought, ‘I’m gonna give you such a gift.’ A large part of giving him what he wanted relied on communication, clearing up what I’m comfortable with and discussing his preferences and boundaries.” Another client was directed to Tyler by his boyfriend, whose skin condition makes sex more pain than pleasure for them both. He assures me, “Most of the time my clients are just average guys. They’re not what people expect — they’re not monsters.”

“That being said, my safety’s still a priority and I’m learning to be more careful. Someone always knows where I am and I text them before and after.” Thankfully, Tyler hasn’t experienced work-related violence and screens his clients as best he can in order to prevent it.

Studies suggest that the incidence of violence against sex workers is highly variable. According to a summary report entitled “Sex Work in Canada,” written by University of Victoria sociologists Cecilia Benoit and Leah Shumka, a series of investigations have found that anywhere between 60 and 80 per cent of indoor sex workers report never having experienced work-related violence. That figure drops precipitously when applied to those on the street, whose high rates of homelessness and substance abuse amplify the likelihood of violence. Nonetheless, experts insist that the link between sex work and violence is drastically exaggerated.

Tyler doesn’t foresee an end to his escorting. When asked if he’ll stop once he completes his BA at Concordia, he warns, “I think using my status as a student to justify my sex work is the wrong approach. There are people who do it because they find it fulfilling and there are others who do it to survive. No reason is more noble than another.”

Tyler’s just one of many sex workers hoping to dispel misguided conceptions of the industry and those in it. Comedian Margaret Cho recently made headlines when she tweeted, “Sex work is simply work. For me it was honest work.” On top of a clean conscience, Cho remarked that the sex industry gave her “power+$$$” and the chance to recover from the sexual assaults she experienced repeatedly as a child.

Ultimately, both Tyler and scholars agree, the people who sell sex are diverse and their reasons multifaceted.

“They’re mothers raising children, they’re children caring for sick parents, you know? We’re people.” ■