My job at an Etobicoke rub-and-tug
I was 23, broke and desperate, barely getting by on my office salary, so I changed professions
After high school, I left my small hometown in Nova Scotia to study aviation, and later ended up in Australia. In a distant continent, where no one knew me, I decided to try stripping. I’d always been curious about what it was like and wanted to see how much money I could make. The first night, the bar supervisor taught me a simple routine, which I performed while Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack” played in the background. It was hard to get undressed while still looking sexy, and even more so to climb offstage gracefully with a fistful of lingerie in one hand and a wad of $5 bills in the other. But it was exciting. By my third performance that night, I felt like I’d been stripping forever. The strip club was my playground—a place where I could shamelessly flirt and get attention from men without having to perform sex acts. By the end of the night, I’d come home with as much as $800.
At 23, I moved back to Toronto and got a desk job. My salary was barely enough to pay my rent, and I yearned to be earning stacks of cash like I had in Australia. So I started stripping again. But the Mississauga club that hired me was more like a brothel. I was expected to perform sex acts in the lap dance rooms—something I wasn’t prepared to do at the time. I quit, resolving to never work in Toronto strip clubs again. Instead, I decided to try the erotic massage industry. I would only provide massages and hand jobs—no “extras,” which, in industry parlance, meant intercourse and blow jobs.
I took a job at a newish spa in a rough part of Hamilton, where the owner claimed I didn’t need a licence. From the outside, you’d never have known it was a spa. The building was nondescript, without any signage or branding; the owner advertised the place on Craigslist. Inside, there was a dim lobby and five small treatment rooms, each with its own shower. Prospective clients would pick one of the spa attendants out of a lineup. In between clients, we’d wait in the “girls’ room.”
When a man chose me, he’d be shown into a room to shower. As the massage progressed, I would undress and give him a hand job. I made between $40 and $80 per session and saw up to eight clients per shift. Despite the “no extras” rule, many clients pressured me for sex. They’d beg to just “put it in for a second,” as if I were a walking and talking microwave. Treatment room doors were left unlocked so a law-enforcement officer could open them at any time. Our only recourse for safety was the onsite manager—also the receptionist—who oversaw operations and monitored security cameras.
The place in Hamilton closed after a few months, and I started working at a so-called “holistic” spa in Etobicoke. But first I needed a licence. Ideally, a rub-and-tug would operate under a body rub licence, but the city has capped the number of those establishments at 25. As a result, many erotic massage spas operate using holistic licences, outraging the legitimate holistic health community. To get my holistic licence, I got a full criminal background check, acquired a phony health care practitioner certificate and faked evidence that I belonged to a holistic health association. All told, it cost over $500.
Within a few months, I’d quit my desk job to work at the spa full time. But the honeymoon period ended quickly. My bosses would dock my pay for a variety of unpredictable reasons: not convincing enough walk-in clients to stay, not cleaning the treatment room to their satisfaction, being late, being sick. The rules were inconsistent: one day, no one would notice a wrinkly bed sheet; the next day it would earn me a $40 fine. I was often fined upwards of $100 a shift, even when I followed the rules. The owners made me work 60 hours a week, claiming I owed them for not seeing enough clients. They’d malign other spas, telling us how much worse it would be if we worked anywhere else.
The spa had one rule that never changed: I was never to be caught naked or performing sexual acts of any kind by bylaw officers. Doing either of those things in a municipally licensed establishment is a definite no-no, and often resulted in tickets or fines. Rumour had it that if an attendant was ever issued three tickets, she would get a permanent record. The attitude at the spa was “just don’t get caught.”
It took a few years and stints at several spas to find one that was, dare I say, pleasant to work at, where I was allowed to make my own schedule and received clear and consistent instruction on how to avoid fines. This spa was thoughtfully decorated and had a relaxed atmosphere, and during my first week, we had a training session where expectations were clearly outlined, both in and out of the treatment room. The place focused on the clients as individuals instead of just walking dollar signs. For the first time, I felt comfortable enough at work to make friends with my colleagues.
Over the next several years, I tried to leave the spa industry four times. While I was able to secure some freelance blogging gigs, I had trouble finding regular office jobs. Employers would point out gaps in my resumé—the years I’d spent at strip clubs and rub-and-tugs—that I couldn’t explain. Discouraged, I’d always return to the spa world. Sometimes I’d come back intending to work as a receptionist, determined not to rely on fast money again. But within a couple of months, I’d always end up back in the rooms as an attendant.
By the time I hit my 30s, I’d accepted my spa job as a career rather than a temporary cash fix. As I got older and gained weight, however, the glory days of “no extras” were over for me. The rules and standards I’d always valued so dearly became barriers to making money. So I decided to provide full sexual services for some of my clients. But I kept my boundaries clear. I always used condoms for intercourse and never engaged in sexual acts with clients if I felt uncomfortable. If I didn’t like how a client was behaving, or felt I wouldn’t be able to control the session, I didn’t offer anything more than a hand job. I would expertly apply makeup and wear silky lingerie; by 10 a.m. on a typical weekday, I looked ready for a photo shoot. I specialized in the girlfriend experience: I kissed clients and feigned desire.
Soon, I’d developed genuine relationships with some of my regulars. I looked forward to seeing many of them, and I knew they felt the same way. Many clients came to see me at least once a week. One of my favourite clients was a property developer, much older than me, who visited once, sometimes twice a week. We’d finish the sexual portion of the session early, then spend the rest of the time catching up and updating each other on our lives and families. Sometimes I wonder how he is doing, but I respect the boundaries between us, the same boundaries that allowed us to share so openly in the first place.
As I developed my craft, my shame around sex work evaporated. I was making a difference in my clients’ lives. But I suspected that people still judged me, so I started conducting some experiments. The next time I went apartment hunting, the prospective landlord asked me what I did for a living. For the first time, I told them the truth. They hung up on me immediately. Another time, I signed up for an aromatherapy course. When the instructor asked me why I’d enrolled, I told her I wanted to make natural soaps for myself and my co-workers, who had to shower several times a day. She booted me from the class.
There were many days that I didn’t feel safe at work. At one point, I started suffering extreme headaches and violent vomiting after long shifts. I suspected I had mould poisoning. Another time, a client assaulted me in an unlocked treatment room while I screamed for help. When I told my fellow attendants, they said they heard what happened but figured I could handle myself. “If it was me, I would have just punched him in the face,” one co-worker said nonchalantly.
After working in the massage industry for about nine years, I was painfully aware of its dark side. I became a kind of den mother in the break room, offering contacts for accountants who were sex work–friendly and safe sex tips. I would listen as young women would list the benefits of having a pimp with unshakeable bravado. Their so-called “boyfriends” would drive them to work, help them get housing, finance a car loan. I couldn’t blame them. They wanted someone to take care of them.
I became involved with Maggie’s, a charitable organization that provides a safe space for sex workers. It was there that I met other people in the trade who took their jobs seriously and cared about the Canadian sex work industry. I sat around a table with escorts and massage workers, enthusiastically discussing how to overcome challenges in our lives and in the industry as a whole. Some of them were students, or daytime office workers, or parents, ranging from their early 20s to their 60s.
Earlier this year, I left the massage world for good. I moved back to Nova Scotia to be with my aging father and started working full time as a web copywriter. Less than a week after arriving, I matched on Tinder with an old classmate. He proceeded to tell me the rumour-mill version of my history as a sex worker that had been spreading around town. I quickly realized I needed to be honest about my past, especially if I wanted to help people with similar experiences.
I knew I had to tell my dad before someone else did. He knew nothing about how I’d been paying my bills for the past decade. Outing myself to the person who loved me most was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. But I believed the benefits would outweigh my discomfort. I prepared myself for the worst, sat him down and told him my story through streams of tears. He nodded and told me he was glad I was home. Then he took me out for Swiss Chalet.
Heather Williams is a copywriter in Nova Scotia.
Email submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org
An earlier version of this story numbered the city’s cap on body rub establishments at 30. The correct number is 25.