This is not a comprehensive investigation of the Toronto sex work industry, but rather a review of personal observations and lessons that defined my experiences as an independent sex worker. I am still trying to unpack the intricacies of this industry through learning, unlearning, and of course, fucking.
The business of sex work isn’t something that is taught in school. It most certainly wasn’t something that was presented as an option in my tenth grade Careers class, although I strongly believe that my university experience would have been significantly better if I had entered sex work a few years earlier rather than trying to juggle two to three part-time jobs and a full-time course load.
I started out working at an agency with a large roster of escorts, but “companions” was their way of putting it—a word choice largely influenced by the changes caused by Bill C-36, the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act. Everything on the business side was taken care of by the owner and bookers—from photos and advertising to organizing the bookings and hotel rooms. Working with an agency was essentially a crash course in learning about the service part of being an escort, but offered me little insight into the administrative and business side of things.
Many established independent escorts get their start with an agency. It seems like a natural path of progression for many in the industry. Some independent escorts are independent from the get-go. Working independently compared to working with an agency has its own set of pros and cons. Based on my own experiences with an agency, the pros of working independently outweighed the cons drastically. Independent companionship provided me with a great sense of flexibility that working with an agency didn’t give me. At the agency, I would spend about two to four days a week working six- to eight-hour shifts. Some days, I would be busy. Other days, I would spend hours watching TV and napping. Regardless of how busy you were, you still had to give the agency a cut of whatever you made that day, plus a cut for the driver (if applicable) and hotel room.
The biggest issue I ran into when I quit my agency in favour of being an independent provider was figuring out where I belonged in the Toronto market, price-wise. I was offered two suggestions: $250/hour and $300/hour—the former price point is in line with many agencies in Toronto, whereas the latter comes with its own implications that $250/hour does not have. The suggested numbers are considered standard rates in a part of the Toronto escort industry, where advertising boards and reviews are a critical part of the escort and client culture. These numbers do not capture the entirety of the industry here in Toronto; there are escorts who charge higher or lower rates.
The biggest issue I ran into when I quit my agency in favour of being an independent provider was figuring out where I belonged in the Toronto market, price-wise.
The $300/hour rate is, for the most part, exclusive to independent escorts who have to take into consideration a lot of operating costs that agency escorts don’t have to worry about. Costs such as advertising (a month on the local board runs about $110), photographs, maintaining a website, and booking a hotel room to host clients, for example, are all expenses agency escorts do not have to worry about. There’s often a more tailored marketing and promotional strategy employed by the $300/hour service provider that suggests they are here to offer a more upscale, elite experience that you cannot find with an agency escort. Many of the implications surrounding those who offer their services at $300/hour versus $250/hour are steeped in generalizations, and often do more harm than good when it comes to supporting sex workers. Some clients believe that those who charge more are less likely to be seeing multiple clients a day, reinforcing the age-old idea that escorts who see many clients are more likely to be having more sex and, therefore, are not as “clean” as an escort who sees a fewer number of clients a day.
I realized that most of the work in sex work lies in the boring, administrative stuff that I cannot avoid if I want to be successful. While right now I take about ten hours worth of pre-arranged appointments a week, I spend about two to three hours each day answering emails, text messages, and other inquiries from clients and other sex workers. As part of my business I also have to maintain my website; mailing list, where I inform interested individuals of my travel plans to different cities; as well as Twitter, where being active helps further strengthen your brand.
It didn’t occur to me that being the only sex worker of colour amongst my small group of sex worker friends would cloud my observations and my attempts at figuring out my business. I also did not take into consideration how my personal identity as an Asian provider in Toronto affected my place in the market, and what clients expected when it came to visiting Asian companions in Toronto. Many of my white sex worker colleagues never had to consider stating their whiteness in their marketing or website copy. However, as an Asian provider, it was an unspoken rule that I state my ethnicity. On one of the more popular advertising platforms for Toronto-based sex workers, the categories of difference for white providers boil down to hair colour. For sex workers of colour, it’s race. The services associated with many Asian escorts in Toronto are different than what I have been providing as a standard girlfriend experience (GFE). Through browsing review forums and discussion with clients, I got a better understanding of the different services offered by Asian agencies versus the other agencies in Toronto. For instance, clients who go to an Asian agency pretty much expect that the companions will take a shower with the client—the industry lingo for this is Shower for 2 (SF2). With the agency I started out with, I was told that some clients would come to me expecting this service, but I was in no way obligated to say yes. Still, as an independent escort where much of my time is spent arranging sessions with future clients, I have lost a lot of potential business because I do not offer SF2. Even so, I recognize my privilege in being able to be selective with my clients and services; there are some providers who can’t afford to lose business given their own personal situation and place in the industry.
I quickly learned that sex workers who do not fit into the mold of being a white, able-bodied, conventionally pretty companion meant that your hustle was very, very different.
As a provider who doesn’t necessarily fit into the standard mold of Asian escorts and the larger escort industry, I existed in this grey area where my marketing strategies became a series of hits and misses.
I quickly learned that sex workers who do not fit into the mold of being a white, able-bodied, conventionally pretty companion meant that your hustle was very, very different. The privileges of race, gender, class, and other indexes of identity exist within the sex work industry, and they are amplified in a way that furthers the privileges afforded to white sex workers in comparison to other sex workers.
When I first started, I kept any mention of my racial and ethnic identity to a minimum in my ad and website copy. This quickly changed when I began to receive clients who were surprised to learn that I was an Asian provider.
Mostly I learned about these privileges through Twitter, which proved to be a fantastic medium for not only marketing but also networking and engaging in discussions with other sex workers in the local and global community. A few sex workers price themselves at rates that are double and sometimes triple the standard rates in Toronto. The providers with higher rates often follow the same kind of rhetoric when it comes to marketing—descriptors such as “luxury” or “high-end” are followed by the idea they are selling an experience, rather than sex. The escorts who use this kind of marketing are cis white companions whose looks echo traditional notions of beauty. If I were to price myself at anything higher than the acceptable standard, it would not be received well, as there is little precedent for Asian sex workers with rates significantly higher than the local standards. Plus, the sexualization of racialized bodies is amplified in the context of sex work. Sexualized racism harms those it marginalizes, and it further stigmatizes sex workers and sex work as a whole. Noah Berlatsky notes that “high class” is synonymous with “affluent and white passing,” whereas other sex workers, especially Black trans sex workers, are perceived to be “lower level.” Therefore, it’s difficult for them to charge higher rates than other sex workers.
It makes me quite uncomfortable at times when I look back at the realities of being an Asian sex worker. When I first started, I kept any mention of my racial and ethnic identity to a minimum in my ad and website copy. This quickly changed when I began to receive clients who were surprised to learn that I was an Asian provider. Now, my marketing and branding rely heavily on my identity as an English-speaking Chinese provider. Despite the fact that I stress my upbringing in Toronto, I still get clients who insist on asking me if I was born here. If you look at the marketing of white providers, you don’t often see them having to reinforce their racial or ethnic identity as a means of marketing.
Obviously, sex work doesn’t exist within a vacuum. The inequalities that exist in this industry reflect the greater society and culture we live in, and the dated thinking that continues the process of othering racialized sex workers. How we run our business is a reflection of sex work’s position in our current social and political climate. You might encounter some sex workers who argue that they are selling an experience or their companionship, but in the end we are all in the same industry regardless of how we choose to market ourselves.