Sex Work: What is it? Is it legal?


Sex Work: What is it? Is it legal?

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 sex work.

We also avoid describing sex work as “selling sex”, or saying that sex workers “sell their bodies”. That’s because sex workers 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 or some strip clubs.
  • 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.

Is sex work legal?

It depends on the kind of sex work!

In Canada, escorting or FSSW is a “de facto” illegal line of work. 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. That 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.

How risky it is legally to pay or get paid for sex work can depend on a few different things, including:

  • 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, an escort, or working for another business or organization. This could include a strip club or an adult film production studio!
  • The immigration or other legal status of the person doing sex work, and their clients.
  • If the sex worker has family members, partners, or children who could be considered to be living off of their profits from sex work.

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 more on sex work and the law, you can check out Stella’s publications on the legality of paying and getting paid for sex!

More info


Stella is an organization run by and for sex workers in Montreal. They maintain a Bad Clients List for local sex works and have a…

Sex Work in Canada – CPHA [PDF]

A proposition paper by the Canadian Public Health Association that provides information such as the stigma surrounding sex work, the situation of the legality of…


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