Originally published in Hazlitt Magazine
My favourite examples of sex worker advertising are from Pompeii, which was destroyed by a volcano in 79 AD and then recovered over a series of digs in the 18th and 19th centuries. Pompeii was a tourist town, its economy fed by the actors and soldiers who charged in on their flush days, looking for wine and gambling and well-priced sex. One early excavator estimated that there was one brothel for every 286 people in the city.
In this ancient Vegas, sex was marketed unapologetically, with a directness that would shame the most mercenary of modern advertisers. Independent sex workers used graffiti to advise clients of prices and locations (“At Nuceria, look for Novellia Primigenia near the Roman gate in the prostitute’s district.”), while erotic frescos functioned as non-verbal signage for brothels, luring in passersby. Pornographic paintings in the public baths may have also been linked to sex workers, indicating that they were available in rooms on the upper floors.
The sex work ads of Pompeii were ingenious, but what makes them relevant now is the way they provoked and confused excavators many centuries after the fact. These were men of their time, and their aesthetic interest in the ancient world was throttled by Christian prudery. Among the fine artifacts of white-marbled antiquity—perfectly engineered aqueducts and Doric colonnades—were baldly erotic frescos; lewd graffiti; and penises everywhere, strung from wind chimes, arcing out of walls, clustered on the paving stones like mushrooms.
Administrators resolved this by dividing up their finds, displaying the glorious colonnades while bricking up the frescos and dick pottery from public view. As if the former could exist without the latter; were not financed by it completely. As the sex worker ads of Pompeii reflect the hedonism and market savvy of that era, so their censorship reveals the priggishness and naïvete of generations that followed.
In June, the Stephen Harper government tabled Bill C-36, a series of laws surrounding prostitution that would place the most stringent restrictions on sex work advertising in Canada’s history. The bill would criminalize the buyers of sex as well as people who work with sex workers (known as third parties), in place of the workers themselves. This means that “third party advertisers”—online and print media, mostly—will be breaking the law. (The most recent amendments to Bill C36 removed a provision that would prosecute sellers—sex workers—for advertising their own services when these ads could be seen by people under the age of 18. Third-party advertisers remain liable.)
Jean McDonald, Executive Director of Maggie’s, The Toronto Sex Worker’s Action Project, explains: “Prior to Bill C-36, sex workers had a variety of options for advertising. They could use a variety of third-party advertisers that link back to their personal websites, they could advertise via social media such as Twitter and Facebook, and they could also advertise in newspapers. Additionally, they could advertise their friends/duo partners on their own sites.” Now, McDonald adds, “many [workers] are worried that if they cannot advertise online or in newspapers that they will need to move to the streets to find clients.” One 2005 Canadian study found that 90 percent of street-based sex workers had been assaulted. Limiting sex workers’ ability to find their own clients could make them reliant on exploitative managers or pimps.
There’s another issue too, as McDonald sums up: “It won’t work.” It won’t do away with the demand for paid sex, which is the bill’s purported aim, but it also won’t eliminate sex work advertising. And there will be consequences that stretch beyond the adult industry, into licit spheres that are propped up, whether we realize it or not, by the invisible economy of sex work.
Take The Grid, an acclaimed Toronto alt-weekly owned by Star Media Group, which folded due to revenue shortage this June after only two years on newsstands. The Grid had succeeded Eye, a stale-feeling free weekly owned by the same corporation; the rebrand included souping up the design, expanding lifestyle coverage beyond the city’s music scene—and eliminating the paper’s adult classifieds section. “Given what we’re producing editorially, which I think is really quite beautiful and innovative, I think it would be really incongruous to have those nasty looking things in the back of the book,” publisher Laas Turnbull told Canadian Business magazine in 2011.
The Grid was also, in Turnbull’s words, “really a city of Toronto magazine”—as in, geared towards liberal downtowners, most of whom are at least sympathetic to the sex workers’ rights/decriminalization movement. And so, for its run, The Grid engaged in a very incongruous bit of editorial NIMBY-ism, publishing all manner of stories in support of sex workers (full disclosure: I wrote one of them) while refusing to run their ads.
It was more nuanced than that: according to Ed Keenan, a longtime staffer at Eye and then the Grid, the late ’00s recession, and the growth of online adult listings, had meant that sex workers were more selective about ad placement. By the end of the decade, whatever income Eye was still receiving from sex ads was compromised by the “reputational cost” of running them—“there were many many national advertisers, companies like Apple and Microsoft, who did not want to publish in a newspaper that was running [sex] ads,” Keenan says. Excising them, he says, was more of a business decision than a moral one.
But Eye/Grid competitor NOW, whose robust adult classifieds section reputedly accounts for 40 percent of its revenue, did not suffer the same fate. According to Keenan, sex workers tended to choose NOW over Eye when placing print ads—in part because of NOW’s stronger identity as a countercultural paper, but also, perhaps, because publishers had been unequivocal in their support for sex workers. In 1990, Metro Toronto Police attempted (unsuccessfully) to bust NOW’s publishing company and four directors for soliciting prostitution via ads in the back pages. “Prostitution doesn’t disappear if the ads in NOW Magazine do,” publisher Michael Hollett later wrote, explaining that sex workers without venues for advertising are forced to find clients on the street. “[Sex workers] say NOW helps keep them safe, especially by helping eliminate or reduce street prostitution. In addition, NOW works with sex worker organizations and provides weekly tips in the magazine to ensure safer services.”
While the equation isn’t as simple as “Grid cuts adult classifieds, goes under,” sex work ads contribute crucially to the health of print media. And the less secretive publishers are about this relationship, the better they seem to do: the Grid is dead, but NOW—despite a defiantly untrendy design—is holding strong.
“This [advertising ban] could dramatically affect the revenue of papers like NOW, that still have significant income from sex work ads,” Keenan says. “Especially as it is a sudden change. They won’t have the opportunity to adjust to a new business model over time.”
A common refrain of anti-prostitution activism is that sex work is now almost entirely online, a claim than employs the technophobic narrative of decline to make the sex industry seem more dangerous than ever (one commenter called Internet-based sex work a postmodern form of abuse). There is no question that online advertising has transformed the sex industry, but in fact, ads for sexual services are far from endangered, and appear in print publications as diverse as the Toronto Sun and the New York Review of Books (which runs them alongside personals ads).
The ad situation at these major publications is highly regulated but little-discussed. “We carry so few personals ads, and those we do run are not for escorts: phone sex and erotic massages, yes, but none that are explicitly for escorts as you say,” says Catherine Tice, Associate Publisher of the New York Review of Books. Across the US, it’s illegal to advertise prostitution, but not services like stripping and massage, which means euphemism is the rule: there’s no way to know if those sensual massage providers are escorts or not. In Canada, many major dailies and magazines require a business license from advertisers in the adult industry, limiting them mostly to large escort agencies and massage parlours, plus the odd independent worker who’s gotten licensed.
And so the main venue for print sex work advertising is still the free daily or weekly, where regulations are looser, and the price is right—as little as $10 for a few lines in NOW. While most sex workers are online—even street-based workers place ads—many also use free dailies and weeklies to reach markets that aren’t as amenable to the Internet. “A lot of the [clients] that read our [adult] classifieds section wanted to [find sexual services] over the phone,” Ed Keenan tells me, thinking back to Eye’s heyday. “Maybe they didn’t have access to a computer, or their computer was at work, or they were travelling without one.”
Emily Rushton, an escort in her 30s who tours both cities and smaller towns around Ontario, explains that region is a factor, too. “In major cities such as Toronto and Vancouver, I only use online advertising, but in smaller places (St. John’s, Corner Brook, Gander, Timmins, Sudbury, North Bay) I use a combination of both online and offline (papers). In the smaller cities many clients don’t know where to look online, so my bookings come from the paper publications. There’s a wide range of clients who find me via my print ads, but the majority are more mature. They can peruse the paper over coffee, and no one knows.”
Fiona White, who co-runs Toronto agency Payper Princess Escorts with her husband, Bobby, explains that even pre-legislation, online ad sites were especially vulnerable to government shutdowns (in recent years, both myRedbook.com and the Craigslist Adult Personals sections were closed by authorities). Some agencies and escorts see print advertising as more reliable than online media—less likely to be suddenly shut down, or hacked, or exploited by scammers—and are willing to pay extra for the peace of mind. Print also has a certain cache that might appeal to both sex workers and clients. “Because it’s more public/expensive, [print] can also give more clout to indie girls,” White says. Clients who are wary of online transactions are liable to see escorts with print ads as less likely to cheat or scam them.
Katrina, who has been escorting in the Vancouver area for over 10 years, spends $200 of her $300 monthly marketing budget on print advertising in the free weekly Georgia Straight. “At $50 [a week], it’s more than I spend on online advertising, but it obviously pays off and is well worth it,” she explains. “The clients who come from the paper ads don’t use the Internet, or if they do, they don’t use it all the time. They include older guys who are used to paper ads and like to have a phone conversation.”
Within weeks of the C-36 Justice Committee hearings, Metroland Media shut down escort ads in 42 of its publications across Ontario, including such titles as The Beach Mirror, Bloor West Villager, Parkdale Liberty, Markham Economist Sun, Barrie Advance, and Huntsville Forester. Inevitably, more publications will follow, though rumour has it that NOW is planning to hold strong. For an industry struggling to retain revenue, the revenue loss will be significant; there will be layoffs, if not total paper shutdowns. While online media will be affected, the legislation will be difficult to apply to the digital world. As McDonald tells me, third-party advertisers on the Internet are already moving their sites to countries where the legislation can’t affect them.
Sex work supports economies beyond publishing. It’s likely that businesses in the hotel, transportation, and tourism spheres will be hurt by the bill, too.
“The sex industry is huge, especially when you consider that it’s not just sex workers, but everyone involved with them—clients, drivers, porn consumers, sex bloggers… the list goes on and on,” says Carolyn, an agency escort in downtown Toronto (her name has been changed on request, to protect her anonymity). “Our clubs bring in tourists, our lived experiences sell books and magazines, and sex workers buy food and clothes and cars and houses just like everyone else. But we don’t talk about that. We’d rather have this illusion that sex workers are different from non-sex workers, and that what we do isn’t real work.”
“It’s hard to admit that sex work isn’t just happening in certain zones or neighbourhoods, and that any normal person you see around could be a sex worker,” she continues. “I think if people were to realize that, it would be much harder to criminalize and dismiss us.”
To believe that we can eliminate sex worker advertising without it affecting other industries isn’t just naïve. It’s also revisionistic, in line with displaying the colonnades but bricking up the pornographic frescos of Pompeii. It operates on the assumption that sex work happens in isolation—that what happens on the back page doesn’t affect the front, when, in fact, it’s financing the whole operation. C-36 will do a lot of harm—mostly to sex workers, to be crystal clear—but it might also clarify how central sex work is to our economy and culture. Only some of us are doing the work, but we’ve all got a stake in the hustle.
Alexandra Kimball is a writer living in Toronto. Her work has appeared in The Walrus, Toronto Life, Hazlitt, This, and The Guardian.