2 – The varying levels of prostitution and location

SPL Article The varying levels of prostitution and location

When people discuss prostitution, they usually have a particular idea in mind about what that is and what it looks like. For many people, that mental image is of women working street corners, as this is the most visible manifestation of prostitution. However, sex work comes in many different forms, and this truth is an extremely important one. Often, when we make laws to regulate one type of prostitution, it winds up having unintended effects on other types, and in our legislative thinking we need to bear the realities of all levels of sex workers in mind. To aid in discussion of this, I’ve attempted to categorize prostitution into differing levels and location-based methodologies.

Of course, these levels are are not absolutes. Any given sex worker might move between these different categories during her career, have characteristics from several of them, or even have a situation that can’t be readily defined by this hierarchy. However, the levels which I’ve laid out describe common situations with some different legal, practical and ethical implications, and as such I believe that they are pertinent and useful to discussions about sane prostitution laws.

The levels of prostitution are listed in rough order of most consensual (those who are capable of consent and could arguably choose to leave sex work if they decided to) to least consensual (those who are incapable of giving consent or who are arguably unable to choose to leave sex work). I would consider levels 1 and 2 to be essentially consensual, level 3 to be borderline and levels 4-6 to be essentially non-consensual. Of course, questions of choice become blurred when it comes to poverty, addiction and other situations of desperation, making questions of consent relative rather than absolutes. However, while there can be some level of discussion and disagreement about exactly how to categorize the severity of the issues with different types of prostitution, I think that there is value in recognizing the types of prostitution as existing on a relative ethical scale, so that we can focus legal efforts primarily on targeting the worst forms.

By criminalizing the acts surrounding the more consensual levels, all of prostitution is driven underground, and when all prostitution hides from the police it becomes very hard for police to tell the difference between the different types. This make it harder for police to find and target the worst abuses, such as human trafficking and child prostitution. Hiding from the police also makes sex work less safe for everyone. In general we need to be cautious about the effects that laws aimed at one level may have on those who practice sex work on other levels.


Level One: Kept Woman/Man

This level refers to someone whose livelihood depends entirely upon being sexually and romantically available to one wealthier patron, and they would typically not explicitly view this relationship as prostitution or sex work. The relationship may be monogamous, or may involve being an extramarital mistress, and may be open or secret. The early portion of 50 Shades of Grey is an example of this type of relationship.

Level Two: Sex Work by Choice.

This level refers to someone who isn’t in a situation of financial desperation and who could work a job outside of sex work if they chose to, but who choose to engage in sex work because they can make more money and have a better lifestyle by doing so than by working in a more conventional job. The vast majority of sex workers fall into this category. A high-end call girl typically charges over $300 an hour and books multiple-hour visits, making thousands of dollars a week. Even at the lower end of this category, demanding lower fees and working more hours, these sex workers are making substantially more money than they would be working a minimum wage job. What defines this category is that they could leave sex work if they chose to, but that they would suffer a reduction in lifestyle (and in some cases in perceived freedom) by entering a more conventional line of work.

Level 3: Survival Sex Work

This is the lowest level that might be considered consensual sex work. These sex workers are typically in a situation of complete financial desperation and often have some sort of substance abuse and/or mental health issues. While there are no concrete barriers in terms of threats of violence etc. blocking them from leaving sex work, level 3 sex workers don’t have any other real options to turn to. This is the kind of sex work that is most likely to be street-based, and most likely to be visible to the public. This is also the hardest level to regulate and needs the most help of any of the more consensual types, as they are very vulnerable to exploitative pimps and Johns. These women are at the highest risk of sliding down into level 4 non-consensual prostitution.

Level 4: Sex Workers Exploited by Pimps

This level refers to sex workers who are essentially under sexual slavery to abusive criminal pimps. Typically they do not see much to any of the money being brought in by their sex work, and are under threat of violence if they try to leave the relationship. Very often, they are controlled using drug addiction and don’t have anything to turn to outside of the relationship with the pimp. This is the non-consensual level that contains the largest number of people (although still a small portion of sex workers overall), and is typically what is thought of when people talk about the negative aspects of sex work.

Level 5: Foreign Trafficked Sex Workers

This level refers to foreigners brought to Canada specifically to work in the sex industry. They are often tricked and don’t know why they are being brought to Canada. This is a very hard group to find and protect in the current climate as there are typically language barriers and they are usually in hiding from immigration officials as they are in the country illegally. The human traffickers often have connections back in the enslaved sex worker’s country of origin and can threaten reprisals against their loved ones if the victims go to the authorities.

Level 6: Underage Prostitution

This level refers to sex workers who are too young to legally or meaningfully consent to a sexual interaction. As having sex with somebody underage is illegal even outside of the context of prostitution, this is the level of prostitution that tends to be the furthest underground. Sometimes the pimps are parents or family members. In the case of older teens, it may not be obvious to Johns that the sex worker is underage.

It’s very important to remember that even after the recent Supreme Court decision that struck down 3 of Canada’s most significant prostitution laws, the 3 non-consensual levels of prostitution (exploited by pimps, trafficked and underage) will remain entirely illegal, as these situations also involve breaking other serious laws that are unrelated to those that are currently being challenged in court. No matter what legal approach that we take toward prostitution moving forward, it will remain illegal to exploit someone with threats of violence, to engage in human trafficking and to sexually exploit minors. It isn’t necessary to criminalize activities surrounding all types of prostitution in order to go after these worst types of abuses.

In fact, there’s a definite argument that criminalizing activities that occur at all levels of prostitution makes it harder for police to go after the worst and most abusive levels and makes these more consensual levels of prostitution far less safe. As previously mentioned, pushing all prostitution underground and in hiding from the police makes it easier for the non-consensual types to hide among the consensual types. Police time and resources are also finite, and any time they spend dealing with consensual prostitution is time that could have been spent focusing on the worst abuses. Finally, sex workers and Johns won’t report abuses to the police if they fear reprisals for engaging in the basic acts of prostitution. This lack of reporting of crimes, including suspicion of abuse, human trafficking and the exploitation of minors, also severely hampers the police’s ability to effectively target these more egregious crimes.

It can be very difficult at times for a potential client to know which type of sex worker he’s encountering. It’s not always clear whether someone is under the thumb of a pimp or human trafficker who is threatening and exploiting them, and it’s not always easy to tell at a glance whether someone in their late teens or early twenties is over or under the age of 18. Some manner of regulation, oversight and/or certification/identification undertaken by the government could certainly help clarify these issues.

There are some key distinctions to be made about the types of location and methodology in prostitution, which are distinct from but related to the different levels of prostitution. Once again, these location-based methodologies can overlap and have their own significant internal divisions, and a given sex worker will often use multiple methodologies or switch from one to another over time. However, there are some broad and common situations in sex work with different legal implications, which it is worthwhile to discuss.



Brothels are locations where usually multiple sex workers operate together in a long-term fashion for mutual protection and convenience to clients. In some cases, appointments are made ahead of time, but usually the business is primarily walk-in. A brothel is arguably the safest situation for a sex worker to work in, with others to watch their backs and usually some sort of security staff. The laws recently struck down in the Supreme Court made technically still make brothels illegal (as “common bawdy houses”) until these laws go out of effect in a year, but brothels still exist in every major Canadian city. In order to do so, they typically masquerade as massage parlours or similar businesses and cannot advertise their real services openly. This masquerading can cause problems for both the brothels and the types of non-brothel businesses that they masquerade as.


In an in-call, the John visits the sex worker at a location that the sex worker has selected and arguably controls. This is often the sex worker’s home, but can also be a hotel room etc. that the sex worker has arranged for this purpose. In-calls are organized in advance, typically via an escort agency and often online. Under the struck laws currently in the process of being removed, the laws are such that any location where prostitution happens on an ongoing basis is a brothel. Therefore in-home prostitution controlled by the sex worker is considered a  as “common bawdy houses” even if there is no one else at the location other than the sex worker.


In an out-call, the sex worker visits the John in a location that the John selects and arguably controls. Once again, this may be the John’s home or a location like a hotel room that the John has arranged for this purpose. Out-calls are also organized in advance, often through an escort agency and usually online is involved. The difference between an in-call and an out-call is who selects and arguably controls the area where they meeting occurs, and while these two types of calls are in many ways very similar, this distinction can have significant implications in terms of the safety of the sex worker.

Street Prostitution

In street prostitution, sex workers and Johns seek each other out on an impromptu basis in public areas. Sexual services are typically rendered in Johns’ cars, often in a different location, but can also be rendered in alleyways, etc. This can be the most dangerous prostitution methodology, as if a street sex worker goes missing there is typically no record of where she went or who with. As contact is made in public places, this is the form of prostitution that is typically most visible to those not actively seeking it, and it is as such what many people picture prostitution as being.


In this article, I’ve only scratched the surface of the different situations in which sex work occurs, but hopefully I’ve provided a useful framework that will facilitate a discussion which takes into account the full variety of situations involved in sex work. It’s easy to think of prostitution as consisting of just one kind of person, in one kind of situation, and the national conversation about prostitution is very immersed in this kind of thinking. This can lead to a lot of disagreements, as when each person is talking about “prostitution”, they may actually be meaning something very different than one another. It also can and does lead to laws aimed at trying to address an issue with one type of prostitution that end up creating all kinds of other issues for other types of sex workers. The recently struck living off the avails law, intended to help police target exploitative and abusive pimps, is a prime example of this. This law indiscriminately prevents sex workers at any level from hiring any manner of security, making their jobs much more dangerous, in order to make a relatively ineffective attempt to help solve a problem that applies to a relatively small subset of sex workers. In order to be effective, our discussions and legal approaches need to recognize that prostitution encompasses an extremely wide variety of different types of sex workers, with different needs and different challenges. We should be striving for laws that protect all sex workers as well as society, rather than harming some while trying to help others.

Leave Your Response

* Name, Email, Comment are Required