In the early morning hours of Dec. 13, 2018, Nadia Guo made an alarming discovery. A Toronto newspaper had published details of her job as a sex worker — along with her full name.
She had been outed publicly.
Guo was scheduled to appear before the Law Society of Ontario (LSO) that morning for a “good character hearing.” It would examine four complaints about her conduct as a law student in 2015, all related to allegations of negative statements she made about other lawyers, and details about cases she had shared on social media.
The fact she worked as an escort wasn’t on the LSO’s docket; Guo said they had been made aware of her profession and didn’t consider sex work as a reason for denying a call to the bar.
Yet, a photo of Guo and the headline, “LEGAL ’NYMPH,” had hit the Toronto Sun’s front page, falsely claiming the hearing was centred on her “double life as an escort.”
Toronto Star columnist, Rosie DiManno, wrote a story about Guo’s hearing, and led with details about her escort work — while at the same time stating it had nothing to do with the hearing.
As Sun reporter Sam Pazzano told Canadaland, the escort angle added “spice” to his story. That spice cost Guo: initial coverage and follow-up columns took a toll on her health, she told HuffPost Canada over email. She suffered fitful dreams and intrusive thoughts about death and disappearing.
Guo's family already knew about her sex work, but the public scrutiny was nerve-wracking for her parents. Guo worried their colleagues would find out and judge them.
"I wanted to protect [my dad] and my mom from the viciousness that I was experiencing more than anything," she said. "I feel like I can handle whatever shit I have to deal with, but the hardest thing has been how the media is making my family deal with it too. They're innocent to all of this."
Like many sex workers, Guo made great efforts to conceal her identity online. She blurred her face and identifiable body parts in many ads. She went by a pseudonym, Dawn Lee.
Guo gave permission for HuffPost to use her real name for this story, and said she wouldn't have been bothered by coverage of the hearing itself, which was public record. However, she described the framing of her escort work as a detriment to the law profession as a "smear campaign."
Sex work isn't something she's ashamed of.
What is sex work, and who does it?
A sex worker is anyone who consents to providing sexual services in exchange for money. As an umbrella term, sex work covers escorts, cam models, phone operators, adult entertainment performers, strippers, erotic masseuses, and street-based workers. Around 77 per cent are women, according to a 2014 report funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.
While "prostitution" is Canada's legal term, many activists prefer the term "sex work" for being less loaded with societal disapproval.
Sex workers come from all walks of life, yet according to Caressa Renoir*, an escort and board member of sex work activism organization, Maggie's: Toronto Sex Workers Action Project, perceptions of who they are fall under two extremes.
"I find it's either, 'Look how hard their life is' or, 'Look how many red-bottom heels she has.'" she said. "A lot of us occupy a space in between that — we have secondary jobs, or kids, or go to school."
HuffPost Canada spoke to several Canadian sex workers about their experiences with stigma. What kept them up at night isn't the services they provide. "Whorephobia" — a term sex work activists use to refer to hatred and discrimination against sex workers — was their biggest enemy.
Stigma against sex workers, they said, creates barriers to their labour rights, endangers their safety, and puts them at odds with legislation that outlaws how they operate.
The fear of being outed
The effects of outing can devastate lives, said University of Ottawa professor Chris Bruckert.
"The implications can range from losing contact with your family, friendships, your job, and losing housing," she said. "The problem, ultimately, is that there's so much stigma in being a sex worker."
Andrea Werhun, author of Modern Whore, a memoir of her escort work, was outed twice: among strangers in a fraternity and then by her uncle to her family. Before and after those experiences, the idea of not being able to control who knew about her sex work terrified her; at one point, it led Werhun to leave her life in Toronto and work on a farm for two years.
"Getting outed is your worst fear realized," she said. "It's having to deal with the possibility you will no longer have access to opportunities that were once on your doorstep, because people know that you're now a whore."
Carissa Renoir's mother discovered her sex work and outed her to other family members. She then convinced a doctor to institutionalize Renoir at a psychiatric hospital.
"[It] was beyond humiliating," Renoir said. "That was a traumatic experience, to say the least. It took me a while to speak to her again."
Kharisma*, who uses they/them pronouns, had been in the sex work business for 20 years. As a dark-skinned person of colour, they said they had experienced abuse from police officers when they were doing survival sex work.
After they were outed in court during a child custody dispute in 2018, they feared their unborn daughter would be taken by child protection services. The document was later withdrawn, but the damage to their sense of safety was done.
"It was a tactic, that's what bothers me. I live with a lot of fear now," Kharisma said. That fear has caused them to leave the sex work industry and move to another city.
Sex work isn't a crime, but it is criminalized
Bella* is an escort who envisions a future where her profession is considered ordinary.
"I would be able to talk about my work like it's work," she said. "I could debrief with my friends about amazing days, shitty days; instead, I'm in a situation where I can only talk to select people."
The infrastructure of sex work includes mundane tasks, as in any other industry. Work days may include administrative duties like answering emails and screening potential clients. Many elect to work independently, while others choose to hire assistance.
Anyone who helps a worker sell services is a third party, such as an agency that assigns clients or an accountant who helps file taxes.
Being a sex worker isn't against the law; however, core aspects of the industry are criminalized. It's illegal to pay for sex, or to run a brothel. Advertisers who publish their ads may face prosecution. Many third-party agreements are illegal.
WATCH: How sex work laws work in Canada. Story continues below.
Reform looked promising in 2013: the landmark Bedford case saw the Supreme Court strike down anti-prostitution laws as unconstitutional.
A year later, the Harper government replaced the overturned laws. Disregarding the Supreme Court's findings, Parliament amended the Criminal Code to treat sex work using the "Nordic" model, which positions sex work as a social ill, sees workers as victims, and punishes clients.
Many workers and activists disagree with this framework; they view sex work as a profession that a consenting adult should be able to engage in under safe conditions. They call for decriminalization, not legalization.
If the Canadian government were to legalize the industry, Bruckert says, any new laws would be informed by existing stigma.
"[The laws] will pin on assumptions that sex workers are a risk, bad for the neighbourhood, that we will need to regulate disease. All these things of trope end up becoming embedded in the laws," Bruckert said. "You end up with laws that become highly discriminatory because you are pivoting off these myths."
Potential pitfalls include invasive health checks, zones that restrict where sex work can be conducted, and a federal registration system. With any line of work, exploitation and unfair business practices exist, Bruckert said. However, the current laws ignore and endanger the diversity of circumstances in the sex-work industry.
Anti-prostitution legislation from south of the border has affected Canadian workers. Following the passing of two U.S. anti-trafficking bills, which were supposed to help trafficking victims, Bella's advertising sites were shuttered, despite her operating across Canada.
"Imagine waking up and your employment was gone. There was no way for us to advertise what we were selling ... We have bills and families to feed; I was in a situation where I was taking bookings I never had to before," she said.
To get by, Bella had to see clients she wouldn't normally be comfortable with. One who gave her a "bad gut feeling" locked her in his garage, she said.
Sex-work stigma affects health and safety
The Nordic model hasn't improved health outcomes for Canadian sex workers. University of British Columbia researchers found a 41 per-cent reduction in sex workers accessing health care following the 2014 law's implementation.
Wary of stereotypes about diseased sex workers, many choose not to disclose their jobs to doctors. A Canadian Public Health Association study found that sex workers are nearly eight times more likely to avoid health care because of a fear or dislike of doctors. Additional disclosure concerns are compounded for trans workers and workers who are survivors of sexual violence.
Those on the street make up the smallest percentage in the industry, but face the brunt of violence, as well as the highest levels of incarceration and involvement with law enforcement. Nearly 300 sex workers were murdered from 1991 to 2014, according to Statistics Canada, and a significant number of those were Indigenous women (34 per cent of female workers killed from 1997 - 2014). A Centre for Addictions Research paper reports that the targeted brutality can be traced to a colonial history of devaluing Indigenous women.
"We still assume that because they are sex workers, they have put themselves in risky situations where rape and murder are occupational hazards," said Werhun.
"Even if people are lauding our bravery, ingenuity and getting out of these dangerous situations, they're still using our stories as entertainment, while not supporting our right to live."
The community offers support
Guo was surprised by the community that rallied around her after she was outed. Fellow escorts reached out to offer their support, helped keep the articles off escort review forums, and defended her on social media. Her clients have sent her encouraging messages as well.
"I never felt the full strength of the sex worker community until all of this unfolded. The way even strangers went out of their way to show support and concern for me was something I hadn't experienced before from the legal community," she wrote.
The solidarity Guo experienced speaks to a workforce that understands how sensationalizing or belittling one of their numbers can negatively affect them all.
That interest in working together manifests in alliances. Through whisper networks, many share advice and warnings about dangerous clients. The Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform unites activist organizations. And sex workers from specific communities have formed groups that combat isolation and advocates for themselves, such as Butterfly for migrant women and Maggie’s Indigenous Sex Workers Drum Group.
But a Canada where stigma and whorephobia are eliminated is still a long way away. Until the laws prioritize them, workers said there will continue to be situations where someone like Guo can become the face of a newspaper cover overnight.
What can change in the present, they hope, is perception. That starts with civilians, buyers, health-care providers, lawmakers, and media outlets treating sex workers as everyday Canadians.
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On Wednesday, the LSO tribunal made a decision on Guo’s hearing. Guo was found of good character and deemed eligible to pursue her dream of becoming a lawyer.
She said she’s “much less stressed” because of the decision, but is wary about the profession’s current disposition towards individuals like her.
“I want to run my own practise someday. I want to help foster a kinder, more understanding legal community that is more accepting to people who don’t conform and are more accepting of those with diverse perspectives and backgrounds,” Guo said.
“I also want to help facilitate the public’s understanding of sex work and reduce stigma against sex workers by sharing my own experiences, my outlooks, and my truths. I want to help lift up other sex workers when I can.”
*Due to their concerns over their safety, Kharisma, Bella, and Carissa Renoir asked us to refer to them by their former or current working names.
CORRECTION - An earlier version of a photo caption misstated that Nikki Thomas was a Bedford case applicant.
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