By Gabrielle Shirley (a pseudonym to protect author)  

I have been working in the sex trade since November 2008. Like the sex workers featured in Selling Sex, a documentary presented by The Passionate Eye, I also find my job to be lucrative, enjoyable and empowering.

There’s a negative stigma around the industry that desperately needs to change. Many people view sex workers as victims who have been pushed into this work by circumstances beyond their control or sheer desperation. I am neither; I do this job by choice.

But for more than a decade, I didn’t talk about my work much with others — mostly because I didn’t want my family to be afraid for me, but also because I found my job made other people uncomfortable.

In the film, British filmmaker Louis Theroux presents the stories of sex workers with respect, compassion and humanity. Documentaries like this are integral in helping to dispel stigmas against those who willingly work in the sex industry.

Breaking those stigmas is the reason that I decided to come out as a proud sex worker to my community of friends and family a year ago.

Why I became a sex worker

In my early teens, I aspired to be an Olympic-level figure skater, a fashion designer, a teacher, and a mom but never a prostitute.

By 2008, I was working as a clothing department manager at an adult store and living alone in a two-bedroom apartment. I couldn’t pay my rent and wanted more freedom in life. And sex work seemed like an appealing way to meet my financial needs in a way that gave a good return for my time and energy. 

I reached out to a good friend who I knew was working as an escort, and she (somewhat reluctantly) gave me guidance on how to safely enter the business. Initially, I felt ashamed. Fortunately, my first appointment was wonderful, and the initial pangs of shame I felt melted away as I re-counted my money at home.

Sex work has also served as a vehicle for my own sexual self-discovery. Most of my co-workers prefer heterosexual, monogamous relationships in their personal lives, but I am bisexual, love kink and am definitely not a monogamist. Sex work is a perfect way for me to nurture all these aspects.

How I find empowerment in sex work

Like two of the three women interviewed in Selling Sex and many sex workers in the industry, I have a history of sexual and psychological abuse. I find commodifying my body a way to take back power both physically and psychologically. Men enjoy my company and tell me that I’m bright and attractive. I feel confident and worthy.

What’s really empowering is knowing I help clients feel good about themselves, too. Some of my clients are also sexual abuse survivors, and with them, I ensure that they aren’t participating in any sex acts that are harmful.

I don’t want to add to another person’s trauma, so I treat all my clients with the same respect and dignity I, and all people, should be treated with. I’m proud of the role I play in teaching clients all the ways to have a healthy and enjoyable sexual connection.

Understanding how laws affect sex workers

In England, it’s legal to “sell sex” so long as it doesn’t involve coercion, exploitation or abuse, isn’t causing a public nuisance, and doesn’t involve a brothel. But not in Canada.

Here, Bill C-36, called the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, makes it legal for workers to sell sex but illegal for clients to pay for it. We’re restricted in how we advertise our services and need to work indoors in small (but hidden) brothels, our own homes or travel out to a client. This puts us at risk because we need to be discreet. Although most of our clients are safe, the law makes it difficult to screen clients to protect ourselves against sexual predators. And if there is a problem, calling the police often isn’t an option.

Telling stories of women who are involved in sex work from a positive viewpoint is important to change people’s attitudes. Once we change our perceptions about sex workers and the people who seek our services, I hope that the laws will change to make our working environment safer.

After all, who wouldn’t want to be paid well to do something that makes them and others feel good?

Watch Selling Sex on The Passionate Eye.