How women are flipping the power dynamic and owning their sexuality
Content Warning: This article contains mentions of sexual assault and disordered eating
Mornings for Sarah Liu* look, for the most part, the same: a pair of grey sweatpants, a soft, loose-fitting T-shirt. Face wash, eyebrow pencil, chapstick. In the winter, she pulls on boots and a black puffer jacket. She leaves her black hair draped over her shoulders, clean, but not styled.
When she arrives at work, a shiny, high-rise condo building in downtown Toronto, she takes the elevator to the penthouse. In the closet, her bodyguard stands, silently listening for a safe word. She folds crisp, white towels into perfect squares, lays them out on the bathroom counter. She sheds her coat, her boots, her grey sweatpants, her underwear. When she hears a knock on the door, she opens it, naked, smiling.
At the time, Liu was an 18-year-old escort, working 12-5 and making $500 an hour while studying at Ryerson. In the mornings, she received a client list that put names to the knocks on the door. And one by one, hour by hour, they would come: some wanted to lie in bed and watch the presidential debates, others preferred more intimate sexual encounters. Nonetheless, it was lucrative: most days, Liu would commute home $2,500 richer. But it was also empowering: a way for her to reclaim her sexuality.
Growing up, Liu felt the pressure of a judgmental and appearance-focused culture. “My aunts and grandparents would poke at my belly and laugh when I was only 10,” she recalls. “It always seemed like being chubby was a joke.” Liu’s parents worked long hours, leaving her and her sister home alone most days and nights, “I didn’t have much support during my childhood,” she says.
This, coupled with a violent incident of sexual abuse, led Liu to develop anorexia nervosa when she was 12. “I felt inadequate: I had very low self-esteem and I was depressed. I realized I needed to regain control over my body.”
For a long time, sex workers have fallen under a carefully constructed stereotype of helpless girls in tight dresses, leaning into car windows, lining the streets of seedy neighbourhoods, fishnet stockings ripped down the seams. They are browser pop-ups of women in dark eyeliner and fake eyelashes, telling you that your wife will never find out if you click, click, click. Julia Roberts in latex boots and Richard Gere swiping his credit card, again and again, erasing her daddy issues with each designer bag. They are a less glamorous Cinderella, still a damsel in distress, but the kind your parents don’t dress you up as for Halloween.
In reality, escorting can function as a personal sexual revolution for those that partake in it. Stephanie Hunter Jones, a clinical psychologist and sex therapist, first started studying the role of sex work in female empowerment in 2015, while obtaining her PhD in human sexuality. “Sex work can be both empowering and healing for the worker. It often gives a voice to some who have at one time lost, or never believed they had one,” she says.
While consent has risen to the forefront of many important conversations, it still remains a strange, grey area for many. A 2018 survey found that only 28 per cent of Canadians understand what it means to give and receive consent.
For sex workers, consent is the driving force behind everything. The way they maintain autonomy, keep their practices safe, and leverage their bodies. Jones found that negotiating consent was empowering for the sex workers she studied, especially those who had experienced neglect or abuse during childhood.
“I was able to turn down clients that were rude or disrespectful at any time of the session,” Liu says, “I could always turn down sex.” As a rape survivor, her no’s had been silenced, stolen, and thrown into oblivion. She never felt as though she had a choice in what her body was made to do, and this ability now, with a bodyguard hidden in a closet, waiting to spring into action if needed, was game-changing.
Historically, women have had little say over how they’re represented in society. From fast food ads that feature supermodels eating quarter-pounders, sucking spicy mayo off their fingers, to porn that is often violent and degrading to the female actors, a woman’s place in society seems to rest more on their ability to please than anything else.
A 1997 study on the objectification of women found that society had effectively separated a “woman’s body, body parts, or sexual functions” from her person, as if her legs, stomach, or vagina were capable of representing her. In turn, women often end up internalizing this idea of the “male gaze” — subsequently adopting a stranger’s perspective into their own view of themselves. This can lead to a host of problematic responses, such as depression, sexual dysfunction, and eating disorders.
Sex work allows the women who engage in it to flip this dynamic by owning their sexuality. Liu describes her services as “your mileage may vary,” an escort term for “it depends how I’m feeling that day.”
Setting boundaries, having bodyguards and security cameras, clean working conditions, and STD tests are some of the ways sex workers can feel safe and respected. “Many workers report … their experiences as providing them feelings of control, power, of being desired, and knowing they can take care of themselves,” says Jones.
For Liv Marcus*, sex work takes on a different form. She is 20 years old, living in Toronto, attending Ryerson, and occasionally having sex with 40-year-old strangers she meets on the internet. She meets them in expensive hotel rooms, restaurants with extravagant chandeliers, their Mississauga, stone-brick mansions.
All of these men are different. Some are married with children, others live alone, doomed to the incessant repetition of their 9-5 jobs. But what they have in common is what draws Marcus in: they are all filthy, stinking rich, and they are all looking for sugar babies.
“I thought it would be nice to live without the stress of money,” Marcus says, dragging her finger across the table in a figure-eight pattern. “So, I put some effort into a search for a sugar daddy.”
On a drunken Tuesday, Marcus swiped right on Tinder with a man who was offering her $200 up front for a night of her companionship. She took an Uber (which he paid for) to his house, let him make her a drink (soda water, Don Julio tequila, and lime), accepted cash (four $50 bills), and had sex with him.
According to Seeking Arrangements, one of the most popular sugar daddy websites, the average net worth of North American sugar daddies is $5.2 million. Most of the men who populate the website are over the age of 45, and most women looking for sugar daddies are around the age of 26.
Some need their student loans paid off, or their apartments financed. Others want luxury items: Louis Vuitton bags, six-inch patent leather Yves Saint Laurent heels. Others just want to be able to afford to eat.
While being a sugar baby started as a way for Marcus to pay her way through school, she began to notice her confidence building. She is tall, with mousy brown, curly hair, cut close to her head. She has wide, blue eyes, framed by thick eyebrows. “I grew up not conventionally attractive,” she says, “which led to a lot of social anxiety.”
Slowly, she began to realize that her time and body had a price, that she had a voice, a say in who she gave herself to. “These men are paying to spend time with me, they desire my intimacy,” she says.
In a 2017 study by the University of Kentucky, researchers found that sexual activity positively correlates with body image, meaning that women who engage in more sex may actually feel better about how they look. As well, the study found that a desire to feel close to another person is a powerful force in sexual decision-making: meaning that participating in sexual activity may fulfil feelings of intimacy, a vital way of avoiding the “dangerous consequences of isolation,” which can lead to severe personality dysfunctions.
“Knowing that I chose to do this and have the ability to make money with my body has a certain power,” she tells me, looking up from her lap. “It definitely made me appreciate my body more, too.”
While it isn’t completely gone, Marcus says that being a sugar baby helped relieve some of her social anxiety. Before, Marcus would shy away from uncomfortable situations, scared of the outcome. Now, after leaving her comfort zone to meet with sugar daddies, she feels more confident in taking social risks.
“When it works out, it works out. When it doesn’t, it doesn’t,” she tells me.
Liu found the support she was lacking for most of her life through working as an escort. The girls she worked with were welcoming, generous, and kind. At the end of the workday, they would walk to nearby bars, order whiskey sours, and laugh about the obscenity of everything. They taught her how to fold towels like five-star hotels, how to put on a condom, how to properly curl her hair. Most importantly, they taught her how to survive.
When she began escorting, Liu was newly 18, thin like tissue-paper, and enrolled in remedial classes. When she talks about her childhood, her voice shakes and falters, the familiar sounds of someone who is unsure if they will make it through. But now, her voice stands strong, firm in the belief that she’s alive, that she’s here, that she’s OK.
She tells me that she’s a straight-A nursing student, that she brought her rapist to court and sent him to jail, that she defeated her anorexia, no longer living in fear of the consequences of having fat on her hips.
“I gained all the confidence in the world from the people I met through escorting,” she tells me.
In my last interview with Liu, she tells me about what her life looks like today. She is no longer in the industry, and lives with her partner, an ex-client, and his children. Money-wise, she is surviving, but she doesn’t live in the luxury that she once did. “I blew everything on rent and necessities, since I support my partner and his children,” she says.
Nonetheless, she still seems happy. When she answers my questions, she is enthusiastic, flushed with the joy of being in love and living a stable life. While her job, and the money that came with it, gave Liu a car, an apartment, drinks at expensive bars, and clothes to wear, it seems what stuck with her the most is that it saved her.
“Honestly,” she tells me, “I don’t think I would be here today without it.”
*names have been changed to maintain confidentiality