An escort and student, Lindsay is an outspoken advocate for sex workers’ rights in Ottawa. She works with POWER (Prostitutes of Ottawa/Gatineau Work, Educate, Resist), a local non-profit organization open to people who self-identify as current or former sex workers, to help raise awareness about sex workers’ rights. Lindsay worked on POWER’s most recent report, Challenges: Ottawa Sex Workers Speak Out, which addresses the issues facing sex workers in Ottawa.
I’m Lindsay. I’m currently a student doing my second undergraduate degree – this one’s in women’s studies – and I’m a working escort. I’ve been living in Ottawa now for almost five years. I’m very passionate about feminism, and I’m really into identity politics and sex work theory – that’s something I’d like to pursue in grad school, if I ever get there.
Where are you from?
I grew up in Owen Sound, which is, I guess, about an hour and a half west of Barrie and about three hours north of Toronto. If you’re looking at a map, it’s the elephant’s asshole. It was an okay place to grow up. It’s a place for newlyweds and nearly-deads – it’s not so great when you’re 15. Your options are, you know, drinking in a field. Not so much my thing. I’ve always been a super nerd. I love to read, although school doesn’t allow me to do as much reading for pleasure as I like.
After high school I went to Wilfrid Laurier in Waterloo and that’s where I did my first degree, which was in archaeology and classical history. I graduated in 2006. During my last year of university I had gotten involved in a long-distance relationship with my current partner, and we agreed that once I graduated I would move to Ottawa to be with him. I moved to Ottawa in May of 2006, and I’ve been here ever since.
After sort of wallowing for a year, not knowing what I was supposed to with myself, exactly – and learning how hard it is to get a job in Ottawa if you don’t speak French – I decided that my passion was feminist politics, so I went back to school. I’ve always, always been into feminism. I’ve been a feminist for as long as I can remember.
Now that you’re here in Ottawa, what keeps you here?
Well, I’ve kind of gotten settled a little bit. My boyfriend’s family is here, I’ve made friends. I’ve been working long enough that I have a regular clientele. Really, though, it’s mostly because I’m tethered to school. Once I’m done school, I think I’ll be gone. I mean, truthfully, my six degrees of separation is practically non-existent here. Everyone just overlaps so much. Each time I meet someone new I either know them, or they know people I’m sleeping with or they’ve slept with people I’m sleeping with. It’s just too small.
I like Ottawa itself – like, the physical location. It’s a beautiful city, but it’s a little too boring for me. It doesn’t seem that there’s a really big alternative community. Most people work for the government, and I’m pretty anti-government. Well, I’m pretty anti-work in general. People always misunderstand me when I say that, but I just mean that I don’t believe in compulsory production enforced by either political or financial means. I’m not down with wage slavery.
That’s part of the reason that I became an escort – it’s something that I want to do, and I’m not doing it for anyone else. It’s just for me. I’m not making or selling a product for someone else’s profit. I’m the only one profiting. Also, I can choose my own hours, which, as a student, is really key.
That’s a pretty good segue into talking about your life as an escort. How did you get started?
Well, I’m of the mind-set that I don’t have a problem with two consenting adults engaging in sexual activity where one person gets paid. It’s just not a big deal or an issue. Everyone else is just giving it away for free, and I’m getting paid! I like sex and I’m not ashamed of that. I like having it, and I like variety. I was sleeping with a lot of guys anyway, and I just thought, well, I should be charging for this!
Really, the big catalyst for my entry to sex work was when I was sleeping with a guy from Montreal, and I was seeing someone local in a more serious context – beyond my primary partner. I ended up cutting off the guy in Montreal, and he asked if he could pay to keep seeing me. And, I mean, why the hell not! Of course I wasn’t going to say no – I had already been sleeping with him for free.
It was really easy. It wasn’t anything like what I had imagined it would be, or what the media says sex work is supposed to be like. I really liked it, so I kept doing it. I started out just doing it when I needed extra money, but it’s now evolved to the point where I do it full time. It’s my sole source of income, it’s my job. I mean, honestly, it has never seemed that unusual to me. When I was in undergrad for the first time and really broke, sometimes I’d trade sexual favours for money. So I guess it just kind of happened. It’s never been hard for me, and I’ve never had problems separating myself from it emotionally. I do occasionally get really, really hot guys and those are the moments where I’m like, “I can’t even believe I’m getting paid for this right now!”
Do you see yourself continuing as an escort?
Oh yeah, I’ll probably continue with this until no one will pay me anymore, until I’m saggy and wrinkled. I mean, I hope to not always do it as a full-time job. I’ve always wanted to be a professor, so right now being a sex worker is a means to getting that position.
It’s sort of my own personal activism. I feel that a lot of people’s perceptions of sex work are really misconceptions based on stereotypes. It’s a lot harder to act like I don’t have rights when I’m standing right in front of you. It’s hard to say, “Oh, you know, prostitutes are all just cracked-out street whores” when I’m right here, the complete opposite of that. If people take the time to get to know me, they’ll realize that I’m really no different from anyone else, and sex workers are really no different from anyone else. If I can change one person’s mind, that’s a start. It means dealing with a lot of people’s projected shame and their own hang-ups about sex work and sex. It becomes difficult to not absorb that, but I feel that it’s worth it. I surround myself with people who love me and care for me, and that stuff doesn’t matter.
Is being a sex worker something you’re open about in your daily life?
Yeah. When I meet people and they ask what I do, I tell them. I’m an escort, that’s what I do. I’m a sex worker. Responses really depend on the person. Being in university, and in women’s studies, I’m surrounded by people who are relatively open to it in the first place, or who have at least been exposed to some sort of theory about sex work. Even if it’s abolition literature, people have read about it and thought about it. I find that I occasionally get abolitionist theory cast on to me – you know, I’m the victim, I’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy, it’s a false consciousness. All that stuff. Mostly, though, people feel it’s a legitimate life choice and path. Personally, it just makes sense – it’s like an extension of the pro-choice movement and rhetoric. If it’s my body and I can choose whether or not to get an abortion, why can’t I choose whether or not to charge someone for sex? I mean, pornography is legal. Those people do it in front of tons of people and get paid – I do it in private and suddenly I’m demonized. It’s a big moral panic over nothing.
What are some of the issues that sex workers in Ottawa face?
The big thing for me right now is that it’s illegal to work out of your house. If I were to work out of my apartment, I could be evicted, my partner could be charged with “Living off the Avails.” You know, what really pisses me off is the insistence that the “Living off the Avails” law is supposed to protect me, but in reality it just incarcerates friends and family and lovers. It’s so hypocritical. The criminalization of sex work in general is terrible – if people view you as a criminal, it’s like you’re automatically cast as someone outside of the realm of human rights.
I’ve never had any problems with the law, but for street-based sex workers the law is a huge deal.POWER just released a report, and one of our big findings was that police abuse of sex workers is really systemic. I personally hope that our letter to the Human Rights Commission will affect some change. Right now, the situation with Ottawa Police [PDF] is atrocious. It’s completely egregious. I don’t have words for it, it’s just awful. I mean, I’ve never personally had contact with the police, and I hope to keep it that way, but I have to assume it will happen some day. Just being out about being a sex worker makes me slightly worried I might be targeted, but I’m extremely careful to work within the law. I mean, it’s so tempting to do work in your house. It’s easy, it’s safer, but it’s illegal.
You can do out-calls legally. That means that I can go to a client’s house or hotel room. I prefer hotels; there’s measure of safety in that. You can get to know the layout of hotels pretty easily. I’m less safety conscious than I probably should be, but I’ve been doing this long enough that I’ve developed something like a sixth-sense about it. I’ve always been pretty intuitive anyways, so you just learn to read people and if you get a bad feeling, don’t do it. Trust your instincts. I’ve never been in a violent situation, but I’ve been in situations where you’re not really sure how someone is going to react. I was working for an agency for a while, and their screening methods weren’t as rigorous as my own. For example, on my own, I would never go see a client who is on drugs, but I’ve seen a ton of clients who are on drugs through the agency. It’s a safety thing – I don’t know how someone who’s coked out is going to react. Are they going to respect my boundaries? Are they going to be violent? Are they going to try to force me to have unsafe sex? There are a lot of potential issues.
Can you tell me about your involvement with POWER?
Yeah, sure! POWER has been around now for about three years. I came in about a year or so after I started escorting. A friend of mine told me to get in touch with them. At that point I had only a very peripheral understanding of what sex workers’ rights were. I went to check it out, and it was just so cool that there were all these people who feel the way I do – that sex work is a legitimate thing. It’s legitimate work and a valuable contribution to society. It was so freeing to meet those people. I was very isolated. Up to that point, I didn’t have a support network of other sex workers, or people to talk to. It was really just my boyfriend, and he’s not a sex worker – he didn’t understand all of the complexities of the industry.
It was really great to get with other people who understood exactly what I was going through, while fighting for rights at the same time. I got involved right away, doing a lecture at the University of Ottawa. I was also hired as a research coordinator for Challenges: Ottawa Area Sex Workers Speak Out. I recruited participants and scheduled interviews. It’s a big piece of research that was a couple of years in the making, and I’m really proud of it. We really wanted to avoid the pitfalls of previous research, which is primarily street-based and ignored male and transgender perspectives. We tried to get a very good cross-section of the sex worker population. It did end up still being almost half street-based.
Are street-based sex workers a large population?
No, the thing is that street-based sex workers account for maybe 5 to 20% of the sex worker population. About 85% of us work indoors, but that’s the population that’s hardest to access. We’re the most private and discreet, and what we do is all behind closed doors. You would never know, really, so that’s the perspective that never gets talked about.
I feel like it’s always the two extremes – you hear about the Eliot Spitzer high-class escort, or the drug-addicted street-based sex worker, and I think that does the whole industry a real injustice. It also perpetuates the awful stereotypes. Even perspectives on the “drug-addicted sex worker” are often wrong – I mean, they’re not addicted to drugs because they do sex work. A lot of them did drugs before that, and then sex work became a way to facilitate the habit. Drugs aren’t inherent to sex work.
We did your photos at the Tech Wall on Bronson – why is that an important place to you?
I love the graffiti wall. It’s one of the only places where you can legally do graffiti in Ottawa. I think it really vibes with my personality. I love to look at it in the summer because it’s constantly changing, a space in perpetual transition.
Thank you, Lindsay! To find out more about POWER (Prostitutes of Ottawa/Gatineau Work, Educate, Resist), visit http://www.powerottawa.ca. To read more about the issues facing sex workers in Ottawa, read POWER’s most recent report, Challenges: Ottawa Area Sex Workers Speak Out, which addresses challenges of working in the sex industry in Ottawa with exclusive quotes and interviews from Ottawa-area sex workers.
Update: Lindsay also did an amazing interview with Toronto-based podcast I Like You, where she talks about how she came out as a sex worker to her mom, what her clients are like, and more. It’s definitely worth a listen! I Like You Episode #51: Money Up Front.
Update 2: Because there have been a number of contact requests since this piece was first published, Lindsay has asked that I provide her email address here for anyone who would like to get in touch with her. Lindsay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.