Nora is a craftivism enthusiast.
“It’s the feminist movement that uses traditional craft technique like knitting… and uses it as a platform for social change,” she says, leaning forward and smiling broadly.
It’s a frigid March morning, and the twenty-eight-year-old McMaster University grad student is curled up in the corner of a dusty, brown leather couch in the back of a bustling James Street North coffee shop.
With her facial piercings, thick-rimmed glasses and stylish undercut, Nora looks like a creature occupying her natural habitat in the exposed-bricked, wood-floored café.
Thoughtful, articulate and an avowed feminist, Nora speaks enthusiastically about a wide range of social justice issues, and seems genuinely passionate about her academic work.
“I used to work in childcare so I’m very interested in looking at the dynamics in the work-life balance and how child-care, specifically universal child-care, can really help towards that.”
But when asked about her finances, Nora hesitates, blowing on a steaming mug of London Fog.
She says that she lives on her own in downtown Hamilton, and the bill for her graduate studies isn’t cheap. Her bank account is always a concern.
For most young grad students living on their own, money is tight. Many, like Nora, have part-time jobs to make ends meet.
But Nora’s job pays considerably better than tending bar at a campus watering hole, or slinging vanilla lattes at Starbucks.
“In a typical week I make about $1000. Maybe more.”
Nora is an escort.
The new part-time
On elegantly manicured, ivy-covered college and university campuses across Ontario, students are writing essays, studying for exams and having sex for money.
It’s difficult to determine exactly how many students are escorting. Sex work, historically, is a notoriously difficult industry to monitor, but it’s clear that some learners, gay and straight, male and female and trans, undergraduate and graduate, rural and urban, are engaging in sex work while studying for degrees.
For those who attended an institution of higher learning, the existence of student sex workers might seem an incongruous situation.
It’s a surprise to exactly no one, of course, that sex and drinking and drugs are rampant on college and university campuses. But sex work might seem a little other-worldly, somewhat disconnected to the hallowed halls of the ivory tower; prostitution might be discussed abstractly as an ‘issue’ in a third-year sociology seminar, but surely not something Ontario’s brightest young minds are actually doing.
It’s a reality that university administrators, high school guidance counselors and provincial politicians might be uncomfortable acknowledging, but it’s a reality nonetheless.
The motivations and factors that contribute to a person’s decision to engage in sex work are complex and highly individualized, of course, but each of the student escorts interviewed for this article said the same thing when asked what initially led them to sex work: money.
Tuition and rent are expensive in Ontario, and escorting, for them, is a way to pay the bills. And then some.
‘I was broke.’
Jason is trim and wiry, with wavy brown hair. In black glasses and skinny jeans, the twenty-seven-year-old looks like a typical urban dude.
He’s a Burlington native, master’s student at a university near Toronto, and four-year veteran of escorting.
Jason’s entry into sex work stems from a long weekend trip to New York City. He and a friend had planned a trip to the Big Apple, but his friend found herself a little low on cash. She attempted to sell a pair of her underwear online, but when that didn’t work she decided to hook up with a man to finance her trip.
Her experience, according to Jason, was a positive one and his own often-precarious financial situation as an undergrad living downtown led him to follow his friend’s lead.
“I was broke. Living off OSAP is an impossible feat.”
The first time he met with a client, Jason was nervous.
“You hear a lot of stuff about all the possibilities. You see these movies and TV shows that make it look terrifying: I’m going to get buried in a pig farm or something.”
“But once I did it…my first client was the sweetest, nicest guy. It was a kind experience.
He was a lonely man, and he wanted a companion. He just got out of a really long-term relationship and he wanted to be with somebody again. And that sort of, like, moved me. I’m making it sound really altruistic…of course the money was great. I went to the bar after and I was like, ‘sweet!’ But at the same time it was just really lovely to be able to give that to someone.”
Throughout his undergrad and into his graduate studies, Jason built up a regular client base.
He says that his clients are a diverse group, but his most loyal regulars are married men. And married men are willing to pay handsomely to live out their (perhaps) secret sexual fantasies.
“I don’t want to glorify it. I don’t want more young dudes to get into the industry, but [I make] enough to take care of my basic needs and then some. In a typical week, I make about $1000 or so” admits Jason.
“I went from asking my parents for money every week to taking them out to dinner.”
Kylie, a nineteen-year-old second-year psychology student at York University, claims to do even better.
“In a week I make, like, $5000.”
Blonde and petite, Kylie is an Oshawa native that charges $200 an hour for sex therapy, as she euphemistically puts it.
She says that her paycheque from a week’s worth of work covers her tuition bill in full.
“It wasn’t a very tough decision [to begin doing sex work] because in my mind, girls go around having sex for free. And it’s like, ‘I could be making money off that.’ When I see girls having sex for free, I’m thinking ‘Do you know how much money you could be making?’”
The high cost of higher education
It’s becoming increasingly difficult for Canadian families to afford the costs of post-secondary education, according to Erika Shaker of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
Her research shows that tuition fees at Canadian universities have tripled since 1990 (even with inflation taken into account), and that in Ontario, average tuition fees will within three years climb to $9517 from this academic year’s $8403 total.
Shaker says that the sharp increase in student fees is taking an enormous toll on students.
“Students by and large are saying the number one stressor is not academic, it’s financial. You have this hanging over your head the entire time you’re actually in university, and then when you graduate you panic because you have to find a job, pay it off as quick as you can or at least be able to make payments before the student loan folks start calling and calling and calling.”
Shaker says that graduating with debt “is not new,” but the amount of debt has never been higher and, crucially, it is far more difficult today to begin making student loan payments than it was a generation ago.
“Where the difference lies is that we have completely decimated employment opportunities for young people. While we graduated with debt, we could get jobs right out of school and we could start making payments. By and large for young people today, that’s not a reality.”
Jason agrees with that analysis. He says that even with a master’s degree, it will be difficult finding a decent job upon graduation.
Will his gloomy job prospects encourage him to continue escorting?
“Probably, yeah. Unless something better comes along.”
To Christine Bruckert, college and university students are part of the silent majority of sex workers.
The associate professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa says that the idea that many of us have of what a sex worker ‘should’ look like is all wrong, and that escorting “isn’t uncommon” for students.
“The reality is that there is an image of who a sex worker is, but it’s actually quite at odds with the diverse people you actually have in the industry. Our image immediately goes to someone in the street…who we feel might be homeless, or drug addicted…or very marginalized. And that’s a really small proportion of the industry, about 10 to 15 percent at most. Most of the sex industry is indoors, it’s out of view. And there have always been women who have supported their school by doing sex work.”
Bruckert also says that sex work is most often temporary, and “that people just move out of the industry when their circumstances change, when they no longer enjoy their work or when they no longer need to do it.”
That’s what Lucy had in mind when she started doing sex work while an undergrad at York University eight years ago.
On a bright and chilly Tuesday morning, Lucy crosses a busy west end intersection, hesitates, and enters the nearly empty Starbucks. She quickly walks past the counter without stopping to buy coffee or tea.
Lucy is thin and pale, with reddish-blonde hair and delicate features. She’s wearing bright red lipstick, an oversized ski jacket and overalls. In her hands are two cans of A&W root beer. It’s 9:00 AM.
She’s nervous about sharing her experiences in the sex work industry, but after a few sips of her root beer she begins to open up.
Lucy says she used to be a dancer at a strip club, but was drawn to escorting because she could keep her own hours and make more money.
When she graduated from York with an English degree, however, she had difficulty finding steady work.
“I couldn’t find anything. I could only find retail. The best I could do was selling dildos at a sex shop.”
She’s now 32 and back at York, doing a masters degree in English literature. She’s still escorting, and claims she makes $4000 in a typical week.
But when asked if her friends or family know about her job, she looks out the window and sighs.
She opens her mouth to answer but a woman walks by, laughing into her cell phone.
Lucy waits for the woman to pass, and begins again.
“Hardly anyone knows…there’s a stigma attached to it.”
“If I had known I was going to be a sex worker I probably would have cried about it. Because I do now.”