Sex work means an adult exchanging sexual services for payment.
While there are lots of other terms that someone might use to describe this, many of these aren’t appropriate to use today. You may have heard people talk about sex workers as “prostitutes”, or even “whores”. At SextEd, we try to avoid words like this! That’s because they can contribute to negative ideas about people who do this work.
We also avoid describing sex work as “selling sex”, or saying that sex workers “sell their bodies”. That’s because they don’t sell those things! When someone does sex work, their body and sexuality still belong to them. They’re just exchanging a service that involves those things for money. Ideally, someone doing this should have control over which services they do, who they do them with, and how much they charge.
Regardless of how anyone feels about sex work, the people who do it are human beings who deserve respect!
What is sex work?
Sex work is when adults offer sexual services for money or goods. Sexual services can include any kind of sex, from penis-in-vagina sex to acting out certain fetishes. Which services a sex worker provides should always be up to them!
A sex worker is someone whose job is in the sex industry. Sometimes people choose it as their job, some do it in order to pay for basic needs like food and shelter, and some unfortunately are forced into it. While this is true for most jobs, a lot of people assume that all sex workers are forced into it. But this isn’t the case!
Just like with any kind of sex, sex that someone pays or gets paid for should always be consensual. Non-consensual sex is sexual assault, and a crime. Just because someone is paying for sex does not mean that the sex worker must do everything that their client is asking. Even if someone is paying, sex workers can withdraw their consent at any time. A sex worker is a businessperson, and they can refuse service to anyone!
It’s illegal to force someone to do sex work, or to live off of the money that a sex worker (who isn’t you) makes. It’s also illegal for minors (people under 18 in Canada) to be sex workers.
What kinds of sex work are there?
There are lots of different types of sex work! Some of the most common include:
- Escorting, or full-service sex work (FSSW). Escorting is when someone performs specific sex acts for money with another person. This is what most people think of when they think of sex work! Escorts can work independently, or they can work at illegal or legal businesses which provide sexual services “under the table”, like erotic massage parlours.
- Webcamming, or camming. Camming is when someone performs sex acts for an audience who watches from a distance via webcam. They might get tips or record custom videos for clients.
- Stripping or exotic dancing. Stripping is when someone takes off their clothes as part of a choreographed performance for a live audience. Strippers usually work at businesses called strip clubs, but they can also do events, like bachelor or bachelorette parties!
- Adult film acting. An adult film actor, sometimes also called a porn actor or porn star, is someone who performs sex acts on camera for adult films, or pornography. Adult film actors can work independently by producing their own films, or they can work with a studio and a director on larger productions.
So… is it legal?
Whether or not sex work is legal or illegal can depend on a lot of things. These things include:
- What kind of sex work someone does
- Whether or not the kind of sex work they do involves having direct physical contact with another person
- Where they live, where they work, and if or how they travel between those places
- Whether they have a spouse or family members who they support with their income
- Their age, immigration status, or legal history
In Canada, escorting or FSSW is a “de facto” illegal line of work. That means it’s illegal to pay someone for sexual services like oral, anal, or vaginal sex. Advertising those services is also illegal. And, it’s illegal for someone to live off of money that’s made from those services. This all means that there’s no way to sell or pay for sexual services as an escort without at least one of the people involved breaking the law.
However, in many parts of Canada, like Montreal, people still pay and get paid for sexual services. Just because something is illegal doesn’t always mean that people stop doing it! There’s also some types of sex work, like adult film acting, that are legal when done in specific circumstances.
For example, it is legal in Canada to do cam work, and to pay someone for camming. It’s also legal to work as a stripper, and to watch someone perform as a stripper. And, it’s legal to act in, produce, sell, and watch pornographic films, as long as everyone involved is over the age of consent.
For these reasons, people sometimes say that sex work as a whole is a “legal grey area” in Canada.
How risky is it to pay for sex or do sex work? Can you go to jail?
How risky it is legally to pay or get paid for sex work can depend on a few different things, including:
- Whether or not you’re paying or getting paid for a type of sex work that is legal (see above).
- What city or province you’re in, and how local law enforcement chooses to handle enforcing the laws around sex work.
- Whether someone is an independent sex worker, or working for another business or organization. This could include a strip club or an adult film production studio!
It’s not risky legally to pay a cam model or subscribe to their OnlyFans. It’s also not legally risky to tip a stripper at a club, or to pay for and watch porn made by consenting adults. Hiring an escort and paying for direct sexual contact, however, does have legal risks for both people! The legal consequences for this can vary, but it is possible for someone to go to jail for paying for sex.
For more on sex work, the law, and risk, you can check out Stella’s publications on the legality of paying and getting paid for sex! They have guidelines for making sure that if you do pay for sex, you’re lowering your own risk, and any risks for the person you might hire, as much as possible.
Being a sex worker can also come with specific risks, especially when sex workers aren’t given legal protection. It’s common for sex workers to take measures to protect their safety, like sharing “bad date” lists. Stella has resources by and for sex workers to help people in that line of work stay safe! For more on sex workers’ rights, you can also check out Pivot Legal Society or CATIE!