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Demi gets up at two. She draws a bath, shaves her legs and brushes her teeth. Sitting at the computer, she selects a picture: today’s has her kneeling on the edge of a bed, sinking into the white duvet. All is exposed, save her face, which is cut off at her sly smile.
Her fingers hover over the keyboard as she contemplates a title.
“WHAT EVERY MAN DESERVES,” she types, and wanders into the bedroom to pack her bag: lingerie, bikinis, hand sanitizer, toothbrush, mouthwash, magazines, deodorant, lube, condoms, dildos, handcuffs, gag, and a knife. Last to go in is a small satchel, filled with good-luck charms.
Her phone begins to ring: a trickle at first, becoming a torrent by 11pm.
“What are your restrictions?”, ”Do you do anything bareback?”, “Do you like what you do?” they ask.
“Depends what you look like,” she replies, her frankness causing some of them to hang up.
Others are emboldened. Others still are masturbating. Occasionally, someone calls wanting more than just her voice; and by 7am, she’s made three appointments and $1,000. Opting to pass on the rush of pre-meeting quickies, she retires to bed, one of over 800 women using the internet to prostitute in Vancouver.
Born in small-town Ontario, Demi moved to Coquitlam six months ago to live with a boyfriend. After being beaten and locked in a closet, she left him, but decided to stay in the city. Without a job, and without a safety-net of friends and family, rent loomed. The prospect of quick and easy cash proved irresistible.
“As a beautiful girl I get hounded all the time,” she says, “I just decided to take advantage of it.”
Demi is 24, Caucasian, and what seems a world away from the horrors of survival sex that play out on the Downtown East side. For her, there is no strutting on street corners; she posts an ad on Craigslist, and 15 minutes later her phone is ringing.
The free classifieds site has long been a tool of the sex trade, and was described as “the largest source of prostitution in America,” by Illinois Sheriff Tom Dart during a 2009 lawsuit to shut down the ‘Erotic Services’ section. The suit was thrown out, but the publicity it generated, along with the subsequent murder of a Boston masseuse who used Craigslist to find clients, compelled the company to act. In the United States the ‘Erotic Services’ section was replaced by the ‘Adult Services’ section, which requires a $10 credit card charge per ad, and has a manual approval process for every post.
In Canadian cities the Erotic Services board remains; users pay no fees and validate their account with a phone number rather than a credit card. In Vancouver, the board sees an average of 1,100 advertisements a day — which is more than any U.S. city, and bested only by Toronto — but the count paints a slightly misleading picture: Demi posts up to a dozen ads a day.
Craigslist didn’t respond to a request for a count of active users, but a computer program written by The Dependent revealed, over a one-month period in the Vancouver area, over 800 unique numbers.
For Demi, Craigslist is the only source of business; it generates 2-3 clients a day, and upwards of $1,000.
“It’s unbelievable the money you can make,” she says.
Demi tries to operate like a business, and found that her Coquitlam location was holding her back.
“It’s nice inside, but from the outside, it’s a crack shack. I’d see the Porsches drive up and then leave,” she tells me. She hired a driver so she could meet clients on their own terms.
For $40 an hour, she’s chauffeured through the city in a late-model Jeep Cherokee. Connected to the internet through her iPhone, she continues to post advertisements, respond to messages, and answer phone calls.
“I get lots and lots of calls,” she says, “most of them just want to hear my voice or get more pictures, or jerk off. The more questions they ask, the less likely they are to make an appointment. If they’re really interested, I tell them to text me their name, number, address, and buzzer. Before I started that I used to get stood up a lot.”
Once a client confirms, the driver punches the address into his GPS. They agree on a pickup time and he drops her off.
“You walk in, take a deep breath, knock on the door, and hope for the best – that it’s a clean gentlemen, decent looking, and not ready to kill you,” she laughs.
“I’m not scared, but I’m cautious.”
“The driver’s supposed to add security,” she says. “If you’re not out there, it’s his duty to come get you.”
Amazingly, the driver is the only criminal in Demi’s operation.
Prostitution itself is legal in Canada. The peripheral activities, such as operating a common bawdy house, communicating in a public place for the purposes of prostitution, or living off its avails are all crimes, but by visiting clients rather than using a regular in-call location, Demi skirts the bawdy house law; and by communicating over the internet or telephone, instead of the city streets, she also avoids the communication law.
Statistics Canada data shows that the communication law accounts for 98% of all prostitution-related charges. Its intention is to address the nuisance associated with the street trade, and almost all of the efforts of Law Enforcement are focused there. SFU professor John Lowman, who has spent the last decade researching the local sex trade, estimates that over 80% of Vancouver prostitution occurs indoors — in massage parlours, hotel rooms, and private residences.
The City of Vancouver issues licenses to escorts, escort services, and body rub parlours — the latter for “manipulating, touching or stimulating … a person’s body or part thereof”. It is the only questionable license in the city that doesn’t explicitly forbid prostitution on site, and its $7,891 fee is the third most expensive, behind only the PNE and Hastings Downs.
PIVOT Legal Society, a local non-profit, has launched a charter challenge in B.C. Supreme Court, claiming this two-tiered status of prostitution in Canada contributes to the violence perpetrated against sex-trade workers. Centered in their suit is the communication law.
“It forces workers into isolated areas to avoid police, and into cars before they’ve had a chance to size up a date,” explains Katrina Pacey, of PIVOT.
Pacey also argues that bawdy-house laws prevent sex workers from operating in safe and sanitary conditions, and that the procuring and avails laws prevent them from working together, or with security.
For Demi, the hiring of a driver was less about safety than business. While it was an improvement over her Coquitlam location, she found herself paying $40 an hour to be carted from tanning salon to shopping centre, nail parlour to restaurant during the slower afternoons. She began renting a Yaletown condo for $1,900 a month, in addition to her $700 a month Coquitlam residence.
“You make better money in Yaletown,” she says, “the guys are there. The money’s there. They call when they’re coming out of their office and they’ll be like, 15 minutes.”
Bouncing between the two apartments for work and sleep, she rents the Yaletown location out to other escorts when she’s not working.
“I never enjoy the sex,” she tells me, “but every day of my life is fun. I love walking in, click, click, click with the heels, and seeing the guy’s jaw just drop. Most of my job doesn’t even involve sex. I shake my ass, slip the condom on and it’s over — three pump dump — $300 in 15 minutes,” she laughs. “Ahh, the world of looking at men as suckers.”
Two weeks later and I’m calling with some follow-up questions.
“Hey,” she says plainly; in the background: voices, and the periodic burst of an intercom, “I’m in the E.R.”
“Swine Flu?” I ask, hopefully.
“No, I fell off the wagon—” she says, “crack. I went to detox but they wouldn’t take me, I was so fucked-up. They sent me here.” She pauses. “You show strong for so long, but you can only do it for so long. I was abused as a kid, and it’s all coming back to me… everytime… it just got on top of me. I’m going back to visit my family in Ontario; I’ll call you in a bit.”
Two days later: “I’m getting some wind,” she says. She sounds tired.
“I had a boyfriend who was using and kept leaving me to do it. I asked him, ‘if you use here, will you leave me tonight?’ He said no, and so he stayed and I used.”
She says she won’t return to the sex trade.
“But, I don’t regret it. We all fuck up — we do. For me, it was easier money than a real job, and when you’ve got low self-confidence, you think that’s all you can be. I don’t have an education. I wasn’t raised in a normal way. I’ve been running my whole life not knowing what I’m looking for or where I’m going, but I don’t regret it. I can’t regret it. I take it, absorb it, learn from it, and move on. Reflecting on what I’ve done is hard, you know? It’s not the purest of things.”
“Do you think it should be legal? I ask.
“No,” she says, emphatically, “we’re sick for taking their money and they’re sick for giving it to us.”
She says talking is a part of the recovery.
“I’m not ashamed of it. It goes in the memory box.”
Three days later, she’s upbeat and energetic. She’s playing cards with a friend, the phone pinned between her ear and shoulder.
“I’m going to be a counselor,” she tells me, “I haven’t given to society and I want to.”
Her future in the sex trade is less certain.
“Now that I’m clean, I know I’ll still do calls. I’ve got a guy in Vancouver who calls me, begging to pay me three grand to do an ass smoothie.”
“What’s an ass smoothie?” I ask.
Her friend laughing in the background.
“Well if you don’t know…” she says.
And I never hear from her again.