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The Exploitation of Sex Workers in the Erotic Massage Industry

Opinion Piece: these opinions are my own and do not represent the sex work community as a whole.

First - I’d like to just preface this post with the understanding that I support all sex workers along their journey, no matter the services offered. My opinions on the current state of the erotic massage industry are not targeted at the Massage Attendants (MAs) who choose to work in these establishments. In fact, I want these establishments to grow, to be better and do better for all parties involved.

To begin (and for those of you who may be new here) an erotic massage parlour (commonly referred to as a spa, club or even “rub and tug”) is an establishment that facilitates the services of an erotic full body massage with a “happy ending”, typically a hand job release.

(For the sake of simplicity I’ll be referring to them as MPs in this article)

Although they are not “legally” allowed to advertise or condone other sexual services, these services do often take place as well and are commonly referred to as “extras”.

Why do I say “legally” ? Well that’s because as the law is currently written, these MPs often operate within a very grey area of the law, or outside of the law completely.

While I don’t agree with many of the laws put forth by Bill C-36 and don’t support laws which emulate the Nordic Model , it does have some provisions which I think, when applied correctly can safeguard MAs from certain forms of exploitation.

Here are specific examples of where exploitation and manipulation have occurred in my personal experiences while working within the MP side of sex work. (These examples are not specific to a particular MP but rather across all MPs I have worked with):

The MP collected money on behalf of and for the services provided by the MA

Collecting a “door fee” from the client is one thing, it grants access to the establishment and that’s where it ends.

Collecting payment for the services of an MA is another thing entirely and here’s why this is problematic for a few reasons.

First it directly contravenes the laws set out in Bill C-36. Anytime a third party is involved in accepting proceeds for the sale of sexual services they are breaking the law.

Legalities aside, this can also cause problems (as we’ve recently seen on Twitter) when the MA and MP have a dispute over the correct payment of services.

This can also turn into a situation of control over the MA.

One such example: I was working at a spa and at the time had incurred fines due to missing shifts. The spa told me that in order to return to work (be put back on their schedule) I had to pay these fines. I was completely broke at the time and only had enough money for gas in my car, let alone 200$ in fines. I told them I couldn’t afford the fines, I didn’t even have enough money for food and needed to return to work ASAP. They allowed me to return for a shift but with the exception that I paid those fines at the end of my shift. On the day of my shift, I made 150$, not enough to cover the fines and hardly enough to pay for food. I asked them if I could pay half and then the remainder on the following day. I went home with 50$ in my pocket, and the hopes I would make more the following day. I woke up the following day to discover I’d been removed from the schedule “for not paying my fines in full” and was left with absolutely no where to work and 50$ to my name.

The MP has classified the MA as a “independent contractor” but also treats them as employees. And The MP levies fines.

Because MPs are not “Employers” and MAs are not Employees the MPs get away with tactics that would otherwise be against the Canada Labour Code:

Technically an MA is considered to be an Independent or Dependent Contractor and in that capacity they work for themselves.

So while an independent contractor does not have any of the same rights as an employee, they do however have the right to negotiate the contract between themselves and the “company” (MP) they have a business relationship with.

When a MP threatens to terminate your “contract” or threatens to impose fines, you can either refuse or negotiate those terms. You are NOT legally required to pay them any fines.

“If an employer misclassifies a worker who is a legal employee as a contractor, and if that worker takes legal action, the court may order the employer to pay the employee’s retroactive overtime and vacation pay, and in some cases, compensation in lieu of reasonable notice after termination.An employer could also be ordered by an Ontario court to pay additional benefits, taxes, interest, fines, and other penalties for worker misclassification”

MPs are counting on the naïveté of their MAs to not know their rights, not feel comfortable to question or complain about mistreatment, and also not want to risk losing their ability to work by complaining or demanding fair treatment.

Because of the nature of the industry, not many sex workers will even attempt to challenge these rights in a tribunal or court setting as it would require them to out themselves as a sex worker. So the rights of MAs (and all sex workers) often get little to no recognition or enforcement from the courts or government.

The MP imposed a “supply/cleaning fee”

While in most cases an independent contractor will have overhead costs to cover in the course of their work, they should not in my opinion be supplying another business with the means to pay their own business expenses.

A business’ expenses (supplies) are typically tax deductible and will lower their gross yearly income. By charging MAs a fee to cover their supplies they are essentially “double dipping” as they are now making a profit and saving on tax.

It’s especially unethical when they’re also counting on the MA not knowing they could be calculating this expense and claiming it on their own taxes.

MAs are expected to stay after their shift has ended to “deep clean” the building.

Simply put, this is exploitation at its core. An MA is not paid an hourly wage by the business owner and therefore is not obligated to stay late after their shift for any reason at all, let alone providing free labor for the MP.

In all reality, the MA should charge the spa/club a fee for this work that is outside their normal duties.

Keeping your room tidy and clean after your own session is polite and respectful. However, deep cleaning outside your “contracted” hours to “help out and be a team player” is actually exploitative.

Especially when the MP has the means to hire professional cleaning services and also file that away as a business expense.

MPs are counting on you to be a “team player” because it increases their profit margins and saves them a lot of money.

Don’t even get me started on the WHIMIS (health & safety) violations that occur in these workplaces. If you think these massage parlours are unsafe solely due to unsavoury clientele, then I'm afraid you've never seen chemical burns or a staph infection from being exposed to these work conditions.

The massage parlours who expect and enforce these MAs (inexperienced in proper handling of cleaning products and safety precautions) to use harsh chemicals in enclosed spaces (ie glass showers), inhaling all sorts of toxic chemicals, while also not providing proper PPE (gloves/masks); would make a safety inspector's head spin! Not to mention the cherry on top, exposure to biohazards such as semen, blood, urine and faeces.

All Massage Parlours should be legally obligated to hire professional cleaners especially for the health and safety of not only the MAs but patrons as well.

The MP restricts the MAs from using their unpaid “downtime” while on shift as they please (ie: napping, running an errand, eating meals, etc.)

Again this echos back to the Canada Labour Code, as well as the The Employment Standards Act of 2000.

You as an independent contractor, define the conditions of your working relationship with the MP. They can not dictate your breaks, what you choose to do in your downtime or enforce consequences for not meeting their expectations. If they want, they can terminate you from your “contract” but you are not obligated to follow their “rules” or do anything you don’t want to do outside the paid time you have with your clients.

Never let anyone tell you when you can eat, or to skip a meal because they want you to see a client! You choose if you want to forgo that meal to see that client. Never the other way around.

If you’re tired, SLEEP!

They aren’t paying you to sit there. Use your time how you please. If you’re in school, study… if you’re exhausted from school and work, sleep when you can.

Don’t let anyone shame or guilt trip you into thinking you owe them your unpaid time.

MPs create a facade of “safety & security” while also discouraging MAs from working outside the MP by instilling fear.

From my own experience here’s where the biggest manipulation comes into play in the MP side of sex work

Working at the MP, the idea that it was “safer” to work at an establishment was drilled into my mind. We couldn’t do it safely without them. They had a camera out front and “screened” clients at the door. There was always other people there who could hear you scream for help in case the worst case scenario unfolded.

I was told working outside the MP would put me at risk of being robbed, pimped, trafficked or worse - arrested! I was told it was safer to be an MA because being an actual “whore” was illegal.

All of these things I’d be told by management, and also regurgitated by other MAs who had worked there for years created a dependency on the MP for a “safe place” to work. It created a sense of false security.

It wasn’t until I finally met and interacted with experienced sex workers who had transitioned from MAs to independent providers that I realized how sheltered and indoctrinated the MP environment truly could be. After all, the only times I had actually been assaulted was behind the doors of a massage parlour. And somehow after all that, I had still put my faith and loyalty in them to protect me.

So how can Massage Parlours do better?

I think the most important part of the equation is by giving MAs knowledge and support. Empowering them as the independent contractor that they are and providing them with the skills and resources they need to thrive in this industry.

I’m not suggesting we cut out the middleman here. These establishments serve a purpose. They do provide a relatively safe space to work from, however they need to reevaluate how they operate their business and how to respect MAs as independent contractors not employees, and not as expendable.

MAs deserve representation via a union or non profit organization who will ensure they have the tools to negotiate their contracts with MPs.

I support a model where MAs rent a room from MPs and are able to either opt in or out of services the establishment may charge for (ie: advertising, scheduling, etc.). This gives the MA the autonomy to conduct their business as they see fit, while also giving the MP the ability to operate within the framework of Bill C-36. This also ensures the massage parlour does not have the ability to control or coerce MAs financially, with manipulation or threats of termination.

While it’s been many years since I worked with a massage parlour, I still feel very passionate about protecting this part of our sex work community.

If you’re an MA reading this, and you’d like support or mentorship, or have questions, please reach out!

If you’re a client and ally, please support a more ethical model of business. Ask questions and make sure you know who your money is going to!

As always support decriminalization, and rights not rescue!

It won’t be easy! But there is a way to have an ethical relationship between massage attendants and massage parlours that isn’t exploitative and lets everyone walk away with a happy ending!

With love and support to the community,


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