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Labor Standards In The Sex Industry: One Sex Worker Shares Her Work and Vision

By Shayna Plaut, Contributing Editor, Human Rights

Female, with tattoos peeking out of her shirt partially covered by a black and white striped apron, Susan Davis is anything but a Hollywood image of a butcher. When you check out her Linked In profile you see she is much, much more: born and raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia she moved out to Vancouver in 1990. Her father was an environmental conservationist and her mom a marine biologist. Childhood summers were spent tracking down snails on the Atlantic seaboard or polishing rocks for her grandfather, the head of the Geology department at Dalhousie University. A conservatory trained musician, she’s played the piano, French horn and the flute for nearly 40 years. Susan has also practiced sex work since 1986, and she has been an advocate for sex workers internationally, nationally and locally for the past twelve years.

I sat down with Susan in her apartment in Vancouver above her butcher shop, which she runs with her partner. Bookshelves line the wall near the kitchen. I asked her if she had read Sin in the Second City, one of the most accessible texts about the clampdown on red light district and high-end brothels in Chicago. She pulled it off her shelf and a pack of lube serving as a bookmark fell out. We both laughed.

Memorabilia for a forthcoming sex workers museum 10 years in the making, including a parson’s bench and women’s bust from an old brothel, were placed throughout the apartment.  

Shayna Plaut: So, tell me who are you?

Susan Davis

Susan Davis: I am the daughter of two scientists. I grew up in a really great home. Girl Guides. Synchronized swimming. I was a lifeguard. I finished the Royal Conservatory of Music. I played music all my life and punk rock hit and I was a teenager when Metallica came. I had a Mohawk, painted my face. After a while you realize your classical music training isn’t going to do anything and I was playing guitar and stuff. But it was expensive and you don’t get paid to do it. So a friend of mine, who I really respected, became a massage parlor worker and told me about it, and it sounded easy enough for me. So that’s when I started. And we did really well out there. Just at the end of my high school I was dabbling and when I graduated then I started to work for agencies. It is a much more open industry and we didn’t really feel the impact of the legal framework.

SP: When you are talking about “we” and using the term “community,” who is “we” and what is “community?”

SD: Well it could mean sex workers but it is broader than that. It’s sex buyers and business owners and drivers and security guys and booking girls as well as people from across different genres of sex work including exotic dancers. It could be the people working in adult films or people working in a sex toy store. These people are often overlooked in policies but they are part of our community and in anything we do we try and engage as large a population as possible. It depends on what context you are using it. Truthfully, as a community we are still trying to define these terms. Some women would prefer courtesan and some males would prefer hustler. Some don’t like hustler because it sounds too sneaky and they want more honor with the name of what they do.

We try and make sure we are not leaving any gaps because if we exclude people or don’t think of something, inevitably a crack will reveal itself and someone will be harmed, especially with this new legal framework.

SP: Explain the legal framework, especially because a lot of the folks reading this may not be familiar with that term.

SD: In those days and up until December 20, 2013, it was illegal to communicate for the purposes of sex work in public and it was illegal to engage in procuring – you can’t help someone get a job or learn how to be a sex worker. No brothel keeping. So any place where prostitution was occurring in an ongoing way was considered a brothel. And although the Canadian Supreme court has now struck down the laws, at the time all that was illegal.

So over time with the “white slavery fears” and now the “immigrant slavery fears” [the belief that all women are vulnerable and are being tricked into prostitution and held against their will as slaves] they have justified taking action against brothels, which are some of our safest work environments. This has a trickledown effect of bottlenecking the number of jobs. Now there are so many people competing for different jobs within the sex work industry.

There are some agencies in town where you will make $600/hour, really high end, but you have to be a certain demographic. You have to be willing to dye your hair and get breast implants.

SP: Dye your hair what color?

SD: Blonde, for sure. They want all blondes.

And the women who are there are happy. They have access to a high-end clientele and generally don’t have to spend much time in the industry. They can make their money, achieve their goals, and move on.

SP: There is often an assumption that when someone is in the sex industry they become a prostitute, and that is all that they are. It sounds like you are saying people go in and out of the sex industry based on economic need.

SD: Absolutely. Sometimes they need to make the money, they need to pay their student loans – that was their goal and they do it. They pay their student loan and they go into their chosen field. Then down the road they figure out their chosen field wasn’t what they thought it would be so they go back to sex work to reevaluate and have some income at the same time.

And people migrate between genres. For example, in Vancouver they are closing all the show lounges based on some organized crime ordinance, so this means that dancers have had to choose escorting over exotic dancing.

For me, as a person who was aspiring in art, it allowed me the flexibility to work on art and have some income. My husband at the time played in a heavy metal band that toured all over the world and that allowed me to go and see his band play because they never actually played here. So it was like going to Europe and things like that. You can’t afford that on a regular minimum wage job.

People do migrate in and out but it may get more difficult because new laws put people in conflict with the law. It puts the police in such an adversarial position to sex workers. It’s not cool.

Sex Worker′s History Project (Simon Fraser University)

SP: Over and over again, what Minister Peter MacKay keeps saying is about “protecting sex workers” and, I see you rolling your eyes. This is not new, this is what was happening at the turn of the century, right? Protecting the potentially “vulnerable white slave.” So what would protection of sex workers actually look like?

SD: Well, we, [members of the sex worker communities organized into the BC Coalition for Experimental Communities] worked really hard and developed a two-tiered approach. One was for localized community development through co-ops and collectives, so each different segment of sex workers could work in a cooperative collective together doing a number of things. We were starting with the workers in the downtown east side, a very poor area of Vancouver that also has a high number of social service agencies. The community has a lot of old hotels that have cheap rooms that you can rent for the month for the exact amount of welfare – $350 a month. A lot of people who were on welfare moved into those hotels. Shared bathroom and of course you get your slumlords but generally pretty clean.

The Drake Hotel had a show lounge in it and the city wanted to buy it and turn it into social housing. Well, the show lounge had been voted the #2 best place to work in all of BC by the exotic dancers and we didn’t want to lose yet another place for exotic dancers to work. So the idea was to take over the Drake Hotel as a cooperative. We brought in people from all the different genres: workers from the street, people with mental health issues, exotic dancers so that we could have cooperative exotic dancing, cooperative drag shows, a cooperatively run sex work site. Here in Vancouver we have a safe injection site, so we all joked around and called it the safe erection site.

We also wanted to have housing for some of the more senior workers. Some of the women on the street are over 60 and pushing 70 and we wanted them to feel safe and comfortable, surrounded by their own community and things they understand: sex workers and all the mayhem that goes with them.

We want to provide contact points for people, harm reduction supplies like condoms and lube but also the “Bad Date Sheet,” a chart that details who the violent clients are, who they target, where they operate, what they look like, all that kind of stuff, so we can look out for each other.

SP: Is this an internal sheet or is it shared with the police?

SD: Yes, absolutely it is shared with the police. And we have what we call the mobile access project, a van that drives around to visit the workers on the street all night long and provides harm reduction supplies like condoms and needles and lube. They often have sandwiches and hot chocolate and they will carry some clothing just in case. Sometimes the workers get stripped or have to jump out of a car because things are not safe and then they are naked on the street. So the van will always have some clothes to put on. Anyway, the sheet is distributed through them. And yes, we give it to the police.

In Vancouver we actually have a pretty decent relationship with the police after a long fight. They are working together with WISH Drop-in Centre to create a database where they are putting in all the bad date [data] going back for as long as they have them. We are hoping to find patterns. Maybe we can connect the dots, part of a license plate number here or a better description there, to find some of these guys who are serial offenders against women on the street.

SP: So the question is what protection would look like, because the Minister keeps saying that protection is criminalizing johns. What is the protection? Did the cooperatives happen?

SD: Some parts did. We got the sex workers consultancy to happen because we believe in placing the voices of sex workers first when it comes to this issue. Other parts we are still working on but we have no funds. We haven’t given up but it is hard without any financial support.

The cooperative show lounge would have housed our History of Sex Workers exhibit. They wanted to do walking tours…there’s still brothels operating…wouldn’t it be great to have a “Sins of the City” tour run by a sex worker? They also wanted to have a kitchen. People could get their Serving It Right [British Columbia’s bartending license] and work within a community that understands them. To put it simply – talking about exiting is one thing but people need specialized services that work within the culture of sex workers that understand their trauma etc. In addition, we’d have other things to make ourselves safer and cooperative websites to increase our business.

But like I said, it is two-pronged. On the other side of the scale is industry association development. We need labor standards and we need to hold business owners responsible for the way they are treating us: issues of debt servitude and demanding that workers perform unsafe services or unprotected services with clients.

SP: Who are these demands coming from?

SD: Business owners, escort owners, madams. Like the “girlfriend experience” which generally implies oral sex without a condom and deep kissing, so fluid exchange. As a person who came up at the beginning of AIDS, which is when I became a sex worker, that’s impossible. I will not, and have never done that. For me, I just can’t. Well, one madam told the workers that all the clients had been tested, which is absolute bullshit. I mean you can’t say that, that is a lie, and then said if the worker did not do bareback oral sex she wouldn’t make any money. So we need to be able to hold the business owners accountable for doing things like that.

The idea has emerged to have an industry association under which trade guilds would form.  You would have the dancer’s guild and the escort’s guild and the voice of workers on the street. In that way, they could negotiate with one another and use the industry association as a shield.

We also need to have standardized occupational health and safety training. As any laborer, it is our right! So we could have this certification symbol – a red lipstick kiss – and we can get business owners to take part by saying, “use this symbol in your advertisement and we’ll educate the consumers what it means: you can purchase ethically from this business.” It would be a way to determine which business owners are good and which ones aren’t. And that would help the police narrow down which ones are the potentially not good business owners so police have a smaller pool to investigate.

SP: Like the Oceanwise symbol that you see to say that fish have been caught safely?

SD: Yeah, we named it the Canadian Adult Entertainment Council. CAEC and it has the kissy-lips next to it, a voluntary certification that could go on the corner of someone’s ad. Then we can go through an educational campaign with sex buyers who, despite what people say, are extremely concerned if they are contributing to exploitation. They don’t want to hurt anyone. That is not what they are after.

Granted, there are predators among sex buyers but I wouldn’t consider them clients. I would consider them predators. They are criminals.

SP: So how did it work – the standardized occupational health and safety – did it take off?

SD: We are still working on it. We worked with the police on a community group called Sex Industry Worker’s Safety Action Group. And we set terms that we would work towards, the safety of everyone in the community together. We learn from different countries and different communities of sex workers. We find ways we could improve reporting to the police by sex workers. It was very successful on many levels. In the Vancouver Police Department where the Vice Squad used to be, they have changed the name to Counter Exploitation. And there are guidelines, it’s called the Sex Industry Enforcement Guidelines and it explains that you need to treat everyone with dignity during enforcement action.

SP: It sounds like you are saying all this in a very political way, like a political movement.

SD: Absolutely, this is very political, to the point where I have been deemed organized crime and I am not allowed to speak to my little brother who is an officer in the Canadian Army because it would be a breach of national security. I am somehow a risk to the nation.

Trying to engage community when you have criminal status is very difficult. Why are crimes against sex workers labeled differently? Why is violence against sex workers any different than violence? Are we somehow a separate class of citizens?

I’ve been at meetings where the policeman will look at the non-sex working women and say “how do you deal with these people” when I am sitting right there.

I am that person.

SP: I know you worked on making a collage focusing on the history of sex work and in that collage you included arrest records and census from the turn of the century. But you also included own arrest record. Why?

SD: With all civil rights movements you need to know your history and understand where your community has come from, things that have happened in the past. In that way we can plan how to go forward.

To pay tribute to the labor movement and all working people, Praxis Center is dedicating our weekly blog posts to labor issues for the month of September.


Read our previous posts: 


“On Possibilities and Organizing: An Interview with Labor Activist James Thindwa”

Beyond Economic Development: A More Inclusive Immigration Reform Movement”  

Remembering May Day on Labor Day: Five Lesser Known Facts of Radical Labor History


  1. Donald MacPherson

    Susie, I stand in awe of your work, your compassion, your intelligence, your guts, your tenacity, your sensitivity to others and your incredible ability to see the whole picture and how the laws being proposed by this government are damaging to the heart and soul of real community in Canada. An honour to know you.

  2. Very important and very useful article. Important because the public needs to hear from sex workers on their goals and their working conditions. Useful because it so helps people understand how complex sex work and how sex workers live this complexity every day and are, without question, the best placed to help government develop policies that will actually make a difference to sex workers and the broader community.

  3. Big kisses to you as always!! Strong and inspiring, with the memory to keep all this alive with getting bogged down in to much rhetoric. You keep it together for so many of us! OOXX

  4. Well done Susie! You are the bravest person I know and this was a fantastic explication of the sex worker rights movement goals, stigma, grassroots organizing, state oppression, social exclusion, I could go on. Most importantly you have communicated that sex workers and their allies have clear strategies to increasing health, safety and wellness. Susie, the only risk you pose to this nation is in your holding leaders accountable to ensuring that ALL Canadians benefit from our legal, human rights and labour protections. You inspire all of us to reject misrepresentations, resist oppressions in all its froms, and to remain steadfast in the fight against legislative changes that have been imperically proven to foster the predatory violence that leads to harm and death for sex workers.