Academia: The New Face of Prostitution?
Gerald Hannon told the Montreal Mirror last June that although he never talked about his off-campus sex-trade work in class, "I often think I should have." Hannon, a teacher at Ryerson University's prestigious journalism school, was promptly dumped that month by the university when he admitted to The Toronto Sun that he was working in the sex trade in his off hours."RYERSON PROF SAYS: I'M A HOOKER" screamed the ensuing headline, and Hannon was out the door shortly thereafter. Prostitution would not be tolerated in the ivory tower. Hannon, however, had no regrets: "People are interested in freelance work and this [prostitution] is a good way to do it." But Hannon is not the only person on Canadian campuses to moonlight in the sex trade. The Mirror has interviewed several sex trade workers, all of whom are working toward a university degree. Deciphering if this is truly a new development or merely some anecdotal evidence of something that's always gone on is tricky.Statistics on students in the sex trade don't exist. Soliciting for prostitution is still illegal, and as Hannon's case proved, the sex trade is still frowned upon by many. Sgt-Det. Pierre Giroux, of the MUC police's morality squad, says they don't keep statistics on the vocations of sex workers. "When we make an arrest, we don't know what the person does for a living," says Giroux.The Mirror called a random selection of escort agencies -- considered a front for prostitution and a common workplace for students in the profession. Spokespeople at two agencies said at least 25 per cent of their employees were students. Four agencies said they never hire students, one said they were expecting to hire a student although they hadn't in the past, and three other agencies said they didn't know whether or not they had students working for them. One massage parlor said two of their 15 employees were students. Given the Hannon case, however, it's understandable that many people aren't too eager to come forward and be counted. In fact, several of the interviewees, despite guaranteed anonymity, canceled their involvement with this article at the last minute.But some people are willing to talk about their experiences. Lydia says her financial situation had nothing to do with her beginnings in the sex trade. Currently a graduate student, she studied feminist philosophy and theory while working toward her bachelor's degree. It changed her way of looking at sex-trade work. "Old-school feminists tend to be quite puritanical," she says, noting that in the past decade or so a new strain of pro-sex feminism has arisen, helping to cast the old stereotypes aside."I went to see [performance artist and sex worker] Annie Sprinkle when she was in town, and she just blew me away. The way that she's so open about her sexuality and everything sexual. As much as I respect someone like [Margaret] Atwood, I can just relate so much more to someone like Susie Bright or Annie Sprinkle." Though she says there's no direct correlation, it was shortly after seeing Sprinkle do her act that Lydia decided to work in the sex trade. "I was working in a restaurant at the time, and the boss was a complete asshole," she recalls. "I quite liked the idea of setting my own hours-something that would be much easier to juggle with classes. I placed an ad for erotic massage and bang! I got a few clients. My first time was a bit scary, but I got into it."Though massage has been her bread and butter, Lydia also says she occasionally will do nights with some customers, "but only the better looking ones." She says she gets all types: academics, doctors, lawyers, politicians and plenty of married men. "Sometimes I feel odd about the whole thing. I mean, by selling myself in this way I am making a commodity of sex, which is weird. But I don't mind the work, and the men are generally very nice. I haven't held down any kind of relationship since I've started, but I think that has more to do with the time constraints created by school than the job."It's this sort of openness which shows that not all sex workers are forced into the profession, says Mini Alakkatusery, a member of the Quebec Public Interest Research Group (QPIRG), who coordinated last September's "When Sex Works: International Conference on Prostitution and Other Sex Work" at UQAM. In fact, adds Alakkatusery, within student circles, sex work is becoming more of a means for people to "explore sexuality." As a result, student sex-trade workers find there's more acceptance on campuses for their profession, says Alakkatusery. That makes it difficult to decide whether students are entering the profession in increasing numbers and out of sheer necessity. "I would question whether it's really increasing," she says."It's simply more acceptable now." Michel Dorais, an associate professor of sociology at UQAM and the author of Les Enfants de la prostitution, a book on youth and the sex trade, says "it's a lot more common" to hear of students prostituting to pay their way through school. Though he is also wary of declaring this a burgeoning phenomenon, one of his anecdotes is telling: one of his female students confided in him recently that her parents couldn't afford to finance her university fees, so she went into prostitution. As government commitment to higher learning evaporates, tuition fees have climbed. Meanwhile, jobs have become even more scarce. In a city as recession-weary as Montreal, it isn't difficult to understand why this combination could lead students to ponder work in the sex trade. "It's a job where the hours aren't fixed," says Dorais, "and there is always work.""I know there can be exploitation in this business, but I like to think of my work as liberating -- for me it has been," says Lydia, adding, like many of the sex workers interviewed, "It beats working at McDonald's." Lydia also feels she's at the vanguard of reclaiming certain terminology around the trade. Many sex workers reject words like "prostitute" and "whore", considered pejoratives by people in the profession. Lydia says she likes the terms and uses them to describe herself. She has come out to her friends and family as a sex worker, and even some of her profs know about it. But even as she discusses "whore pride," she isn't willing to be named for this article, and spoke on the strictest condition of confidentiality. "Look, telling my friends is one thing but having my name in the paper is another altogether," she adds. Lydia charges $80/hour, for a whole night she asks for $200. But prices may vary, she says, depending on the season. Cost is precarious and demand seems to change weekly.John says his work as a hustler grew out of a love of the sex act itself. "I just really enjoy having sex," he says with a smirk. Handsome, bright-eyed and muscular, John says his massage gigs have been a great way to earn money while going to university. Currently working on an undergraduate degree, John says he services three to four customers a week. He started about a year ago when his job fell through and he had trouble finding another. "A few of my friends have done this in Toronto for years," he says. "I thought I'd just try it and see. It's worked out well."For me, it's a bit of an ego trip. I get lots of trolls, but every now and then I get a cute guy. If I find them hot I don't just jerk them off, I have sex with them. "I don't really think of myself as 'a sex worker.' It's just something I do. I couldn't see myself attending a conference about it or anything -- the idea of the rights of prostitutes isn't something that occurs to me. I don't work the streets and I've never had trouble with the police. I don't tell a whole lot of people though-it's not like it's something I'm intensely proud of. And I don't see doing it forever. Your shelf-life really isn't too long in the gay community."I had a boyfriend when I started doing this. He really wasn't that wild about the idea, but we worked it out. We've since split, but that was because he moved to Toronto, not because of the work I do." John charges $80/hour. "The money is pretty good. I live fairly well on it." But the pride people like Lydia and John show isn't the same for other students like Susan. "I am not proud of what I do," says the graduate student. "I've grown much more comfortable with it in the years that I've done it, but that doesn't make it admirable. I've seen films about it, like Hookers on Davie [a documentary shot in Vancouver about sex workers who solicit on the street], and Working Girl. People have a real double standard about it. On the one hand, you see all these movies with hookers in them, like Trading Places or Leaving Las Vegas, where they're really glorified. But in reality people are pretty disgusted with it." Unlike other student sex workers, Susan was forced into the profession.After Susan's parents cut off her financial supply five years ago, she was pretty desperate for money. "I didn't start fucking for tuition, I was fucking for food," says Susan. But she's not bitter about her parents' decision. "They're thinking about their retirement years," she says. "But it was really tough. I was in the final year of my undergrad and exams and papers were piling up. I had a growing student loan, which was only going to get worse. Our department was grappling with cuts, so there was very little research work around. What there was had already been taken. A friend of mine had done some hooking and recommended it to me. At first I thought she was just making a very unfunny joke, but eventually I tried it. I was a bit repulsed by the whole thing, but the money was so good that that was the payoff. I managed to clear up a lot of my debt -- including three months back rent -- in a matter of weeks."Susan used to work out of her home, but after one client hit her, she signed up with an escort agency. "They treat me well," Susan says of the agency. "And I feel much safer with them." Susan isn't likely to get another job either. "The pay is just too good," she says. "I can make as much as $400 on a good day. There's virtually no money for teaching positions in my graduate program. I often feel stuck." Susan looks up at that point: "And no morality lectures, please." But Susan says once she completes her degree, she intends to dump the business and move on. "I've told very few friends about this. If my father ever found out, he'd kill me. I've intentionally kept very few strings attached to the business. Eventually I'll get into a different career, something directly related to the degrees I'll have. And I'd like to get married and have some kids, though I'm not seeing anyone right now. "I worry about job prospects, though. There's very little out there in my field. And I couldn't see myself going on and getting a PhD. I hope not, but sometimes I feel like I might be stuck with this for the long haul." Additional research by Chris Sheridan and Suzanna Starcevic