Whether on the street, within massage parlours or at a strip club, sex is a commodity to be sold in Kingston.
Touch of Class, an erotic massage parlour, is located on Princess St., not far from the Plaza Gentleman’s Club on Montreal St. — Kingston’s only strip club. The two locations offer strikingly different services, but they both fall under the broad spectrum of sex work.
Sex work describes the payment of any person for the performance of a sexual service. Acts ranging from lap dances to intercourse and professions from pornography to prostitution fall under this umbrella.
While most students don’t encounter this side of Kingston, some students do engage in sex work.
One male Queen’s student told The Journal that he’s had sex for money in the past to help him pay for tuition. The undergraduate student requested to remain anonymous due to concerns about future employment.
“It’s not like I do it every day all the time,” the student said. “It’s every once in a while, when I feel like I need more money. It’s more of a secondary thing than my primary source of income.”
He first received an offer on Grindr, a gay dating app, to get paid for sex in July 2014. Because he was already interested in having sex with the other man, the student decided to take him up on his offer.
“I thought ‘why not have sex with him and get paid for it?’” he said.
After the initial encounter, the student said he included a note on his Grindr profile that he was interested in receiving payment for sex, though the profile included a fake name.
He said he has now stopped receiving money for sex after entering into a relationship with another man. He has told his partner about his past, and said his partner understands why he did what he did.
The student said his style of sex work was different from sex workers on the street, because he had control over who he met. Through Grindr, he could base his choices on men he found attractive instead of accepting any offer. This also allowed him to practice in a safer environment, he said.
“I haven’t felt uncomfortable in any situation yet,” he said, but added that he does worry about the potential of something going wrong.
One Queen’s student The Journal spoke to received
payment for sex multiple times after originally getting
an offer on Grindr, a gay dating app.
(Photo by Kendra Pierroz)
Sex workers in Canada have been victims of violent crimes, including victims of serial killer Robert Pickton. The student said the possibility weighed on his mind.
“There’s a little caution or fear when meeting up with someone,” he said. “I feel that it’s heightened when we’re talking about sex work.”
To ensure his safety, the student said he tells a close friend to check out the situation if he doesn’t contact them by a certain time afterwards. He also tries to get to know potential clients better by messaging them beforehand.
He added that 60 per cent of the conversations where offers were made didn’t end in sex, either because he felt unnerved by the potential client or they backed out of their original offer.
The Plaza did not respond to repeated requests for comment. While the student felt comfortable in most situations while working, a group in Kingston exists that offers support and advocacy for sex workers.
The Sex Worker Action Group (SWAG) was founded four years ago by allies of sex workers, including members of Kingston HIV/AIDS Regional Services (HARS), and since then the organization has focused on providing aid for sex workers in Kingston for a variety of issues.
SWAG is run by Sarah Johnston, Women and HIV/AIDS coordinator at HARS. She said sex workers have recently contacted her to seek help with problems such as landlord-tenant agreements and cases of harassment.
SWAG also seeks to decriminalize sex work. According to Johnston, “sex work is real work and should be treated as such.”
She added that the group advocates for sex workers who may not feel comfortable seeking help on their own. “It’s not safe to be vocal about it,” she said. “So we just kind of stepped in as a voice. We don’t have to worry about the pushback in our lives, because we’re in a position of privilege where we’re working in a different type of job.”
Johnston said the founding of SWAG has provided sex workers with the knowledge that people outside of the industry are willing to offer support.
While SWAG advocates for sex workers’ rights in Kingston, the national legal landscape is also changing. Many of Canada’s old prostitution laws regarding the sale of sex were struck down as unconsitutional by the Bedford Decision — a 2013 Supreme Court ruling. In December 2014, the Canadian government passed Bill C-36, which established new laws surrounding prostitution.
Selling sex is legal under the new laws, but purchasing sex and advertising for the purposes of sex work are illegal. It’s also illegal to profit from another person’s sex work, such as working as a driver for a worker.
Johnston said these laws have made sex work more dangerous for those involved in the trade, because it puts sex workers in a position of vulnerability and opens the door for violence against them.
“Not being able to advertise and not being able to work with people — that increases the danger because you don’t necessarily have a co-worker with you,” she said. “And if you can’t advertise through legitimate means, it makes it very hard to have a conversation with that person and kind of feel it out and see how things are going.”
Johnston said most of the sex workers she’s talked to have experienced some form of violence — either sexual or physical — at some point while working in the industry.
The frequency of violence against sex workers has led to changes in the enforcement of the prostitution laws. Kingston Police (KP) Media Relations Officer Steve Koopman said the emphasis for police has shifted from charging sex workers to stopping people with the potential to exploit them, such as pimps.
“Once you’re getting to the pimps, in terms of those who are controlling the workers,” he said, “that’s where you get to the oppression aspect in terms of abuse, assault, sexual assault and so forth.”
Koopman added that sex workers are often charged with drug offences, while pimps are arrested for more serious and often violent crimes.
When police do investigate prostitution, they focus on underage sex workers or victims of human trafficking. Koopman said the KP hasn’t charged anyone with human trafficking, but it has happened elsewhere in Ontario.
He added that the KP has closed down several escort services and other illegal “bawdy houses” over the last 10-15 years, but said police don’t have solid numbers on how many sex workers operated in Kingston during that time.
While sex work still faces legal challenges, Koopman said police have recently focused more on creating an environment where sex workers are able to reach out to the police if they’re in a potentially dangerous situation.
“We find some of them are vulnerable or being taken advantage of, and that’s where you’re seeing the shift occurring within the policing structure,” he said.
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