Mark Rendell

Sex on the Fly: YK’s Secret Escort Scene

Yellowknife has had prostitution since its beginning. We discover a new way the profession services the town today

“Where are you?”

“Fourth floor. Room 4**. Stick to the side when you come through the lobby to the elevator. They can be nosey.”

“Ok, see you in a minute.”

I rifle through my stack of $20s for the fourth time in half an hour – 15 bills, $300, check – and rehearse my lines: I’m a government worker; the spark has fizzled with my girlfriend of four years; this is my first time doing anything like this, and I really shouldn’t be here.

I’m wearing my baggiest grey pants and a green geriatric cardigan as I amble sheepishly into the hotel lobby and catch the elevator to the fourth floor. “Dress down and all that. And don’t be tempted,” my actual girlfriend had texted me ahead of the rendezvous.

Room 4**: I can hear muffled pop music through the door. Three knocks. Deep breath. The door opens inwards onto a large hotel room with two beds. I step inside and Jane (not her real name), closes the door furtively behind us.

“I was trying to pick something to wear but I couldn’t think of anything,” Jane says with a giddy laugh. She’s standing there in nothing but a pink, lacy thong.

Earlier that day I’d spoken with local historian Ryan Silke about the history of prostitution in Yellowknife. “There wasn’t anything official in terms of brothels, they were never legalized, but there were subtle things in tents and cabins, a very backroom seedy thing,” he told me. “Even up to today, it’s the same situation. It still happens, just no one talks about it.”

Turns out he was right.

***

EDGEYK.com stumbled into the world of Yellowknife’s traveling escorts several weeks ago while scrolling through #Yellowknife on Twitter.

March 13: “#Yellowknife: Hey guys, picture this… sweet, sinfully delicious dark coco sliding all over you. I’m everything you want and to much more…” With the tweet was a picture of a curvy lady in lingerie; not the usual fare you find alongside weather updates and aurora photos on the PG-rated hashtag.

And there were more: “In Yellowknife TONIGHT – Sat Peace River 16-18-25 – #Yellowknife: 5’2 110pounds 32DD-23-22 brown eyes.”

“*Visiting * Yellowknife * March 18th to 21st In Call @ The Hotel Only…”

These tweets came from a single account appearing to advertise the services of roaming escorts from Yellowknife to Detroit, Burlington to El Paso. Each linked back to a website advertising dozens of “classy” and “seductive” brunette dream girls, Russians and “mocha beauties” who were either coming to Yellowknife or had been through town recently.

I’d heard about fly-in escorts in places like Fort McMurray, where (at least until recently) the money was flowing, and young guys spent their cash liberally on new F150s and visiting sex workers. But roaming escorts in Yellowknife?

There’s little doubt our northern capital has its fair share of prostitution; in every city across the country prostitution exists, whether it’s happening on the streets or in the “massage parlours” of larger cities. And Yellowknife itself has a documented history of the sex trade.

“It wasn’t celebrated like the wild-west Klondike,” Silke told me. But when the gold miners started pouring in in the 1930s and ’40s, purveyors of the more sensual arts inevitably followed. The area in Old Town around Ragged Ass Road and Bretzlaff Drive was known as Glamour Alley, and there was a short-lived tent brothel on the Con Mine property run by a couple of “southern investors” before the mine manager drove them away. There were even attempts in the late 1930s to convince the government and the RCMP to legalize prostitution. Government and RCMP officers shot the idea down, not wanting the NWT to become the first jurisdiction in the country to sanction the sex trade.

This fly-in thing, however — with social media-savvy escorts showcasing their wares in high resolution — seemed pretty new.

***

I first made contact with Jane on a weekday earlier this month. In preparation, I’d been reading Paying For It, about Canadian cartoonist Chester Brown’s experiences being a John, and had learned you’re meant to start by asking for rates. I texted Jane on a number posted on her website.

“Hey is this [Jane]. Saw you’re in town. What are your rates?”

“300hh 400hr” replied a text an hour later.

“Interested in half hour. When can I make an appointment?”

“What time hun.”

“You free around 6?”

“Yes”

“Cool. Whereabouts?”

“Call me 30 mins b4 for hotel.”

And there it was. I’d booked my first date with an escort.

Leading up to this moment, we’d had extensive conversations about covering the subject at EDGEYK.com. Was this a real story, or just sensationalism? What were the moral, ethical and legal issues involved in covering it? And was the entire thing perhaps  just an elaborate phishing scam? (in which someone masquerades as something like an escort to rip credit card info.)

Based on some initial research, it seemed like the fly-in escort business had genuinely gone through a drastic growth spurt in recent months. There was really only one way to find out, we concluded. Go on a date. And just a date. Somehow, I had to get in the room with an escort, get as much information out of her about her business, and then get out — without having sex. We discussed being up front with Jane about me being a journalist, but the consensus was I would likely get thrown out, and there was no guarantee there wouldn’t be a pimp in the next room ready to chase me with a baseball bat. I’d just have to play it cool, we decided, and deal with the ethical qualms by withholding all identifying details and being open to readers about how we approached the story.

Now, I don’t consider myself a prude, but slick I am not. In a pre-rendezvous conversation, one of my bosses had called me a goober; I can’t really argue with that.

I’m also not a great actor. My last role was Elvis in a grade 12 musical. Now I’d been tasked with playing some sorry dude looking for female company, while having a sufficiently big moral crisis in the heat of the moment that I wouldn’t have to go through with the deed.

Thirty minutes before my date, I called Jane and got the name of the hotel, though not the room number. Fifteen minutes later she called back to see if I’d like a drink when I showed up. I declined.

***

The details of my undercover date are more mortifying than titillating – that is, beyond the initial shock of seeing Jane almost totally naked. From the get-go, my well-rehearsed lines poured out.

It’s my first time visiting an escort; I don’t know what I’m doing here; my girlfriend would kill me if she found out; I’m having second thoughts about this whole cheating thing … This and more spluttered out pathetically as I sat on the edge of the bed listening to the trebly sound of Nicki Minaj through a mini-speaker laying on the other bed.

“Do you have the donation?” Jane asked coyly.

I dug into my pockets and passed her the wad of cash, which she counted with meticulously manicured nails. To keep the scene going, I stripped down to my boxers (purposefully leaving my socks on) and proffered my back for a massage.

“Oil or lotion?”

“Oil, please.”

For several minutes it was a pleasant-enough massage — and then out came the condom. Ok, time to ramp up the guilt-ridden cheater act. With some more bluffing and blustering, we got back to the massage, and after a few more offers of less-extreme ways for me to get my money’s worth, she gave up. So there we were, both lying on the bed in our skivvies, having a very expensive heart-to-heart about how to spice up my sex life.

“Have you tried buying her a vibrator?” she asked with earnest concern. “How about going to the strip club together? Or trying a threesome?”

Throughout our conversation, I was trying to glean as much information as I could about the world of Yellowknife escorts, without being too obvious. In Jane’s case, she runs an independent operation. She advertises online and books her own hotels. She’d flown up to Yellowknife for the week — which is one of the reasons the cost was so high. Down south, $300 for half an hour would be steep; but there are a lot of men making good money in Yellowknife, she said, and she has to pay the airfare somehow.

“I do what I want to do,” she said, adding that she’s in this line of work willingly and is saving to buy a house.

If the Twitter accounts and online advertising of some of the other escorts coming through Yellowknife are to be believed, not everyone flies. Other travelling escorts drive up, stopping in places like High Level and Peace River en route. And while Jane told me it was her first time in town, other escorts appear to have come through Yellowknife several times in the last six months.

***

It seems that travelling escorts, at least high-priced professionals like Jane, are reasonably new to Yellowknife. Certainly the scale on which they are visiting is new. Delving into the seedier depths of the internet, I came across a forum where people, hidden behind pseudonyms, were busily discussing Yellowknife’s escort scene.

On the first Yellowknife thread from 2010, several users bemoaned the lack of escorts. “Nothing, absolutely nothing. There was one girl I talked to last year said she was going to open shop, but ended up changing her mind,” posted one user.

“I’ve given up hope on any talent visiting us,” said another in 2011. And from 2013: “Been hoping for years. Only one SP [service provider] came up the whole time and I didn’t get a good vibe from her. I think it’s the SPs loss, there is a literal tonne of cash here just waiting to be taken.”

In a 2014 post, someone purporting to be an escort gave her rationale for why escorts stay away from Yellowknife: “It is expensive to get there. So for a lot of ladies, unless there are prebookings and even prepaid deposits, it is too risky. For myself, it’s $1100 for the flight and another almost $600 for hotel and cab. Then there’s food!!! That’s likely almost $2000 realistically … so no interest, no prepaid deposits, no touring Yellowknife.”

Yet things appear to have changed over the past year. Since September, there have been 93 posts on the website we initially came across. And while many of those posts are promoting the same escort, there appear to be dozens of different women advertising on the website. What’s driving this increase is unclear. It’s not really as if there’s more disposable income kicking around than there was two or three years ago. So who knows? Perhaps the Spectacular NWT tourism campaign is working.

***

Over email I reached out to an escort — we’ll call her Alice — who’d spent a year in Yellowknife several years back but was now living back down south. She agreed, on condition of anonymity, to talk to me about her experience in Yellowknife and about the industry in general.

“Yellowknife is cheap to get to from Edmonton and has a huge number of single men and male-oriented fields,” Alice responded. “Escorts go where the money is, and where the industry has at least a foothold. This means that any mid-sized town with a large male population is a good bet, eg. Yellowknife, Fort Mac, some towns in Ontario like Timmins, etc. Women travel there because there is no competition yet and they can charge a premium. The downside is that the clientele is inexperienced in dealing with escorts, or women generally, and can be crude, disrespectful, and rough.”

“I had a client every couple of weeks. Generally the client was from out of town. Of all ages, but primarily white. A couple of locals. Clients were primarily from out of town because there is no elegant way of advertising in YK, only backpage [a classified-ad website], which is gross.”

She said escorts try to ensure their personal safety in a number of ways: “Pre-screening is the best way to go. Get real names, phone numbers, job titles, etc. Don’t accept clients under 30 or clients who are vague, explicit, or use ‘text-speak’ in emails.”

She also pointed out that the escort industry works like any other industry.

“We sell a luxury product, some can afford it, most can’t. Some women are agency but many aren’t. Yes, we are independent, we work and advertise for ourselves. We create our own websites. The best escorts are extremely talented businesswomen who are skilled in marketing, interpersonal relations, accounting, and media. The girls who work for agencies tend to be unskilled or uninterested in these areas. Some independents travel, some don’t. They follow the money.”

Alice finished her email by writing eloquently about the women who work in her industry.

“Escorts are usually exceptional people with real jobs and families. They have an incredible sense of pragmatism, and generosity towards men who are generally rejected by society. This is just a job and a means to an end. I’m not sure how your article will portray us but please keep in mind that we are not money-hungry vixens roaming the country for gold coins : ) Prostitution is the toughest job in the world and requires strength and an extreme capacity to withstand. We wouldn’t exist if men didn’t enjoy buying, owning, and sexualizing women, if only for an hour.”

***

Along with Yellowknife being a wealthy and underserved market, the apparent increase in travelling escorts may have to do with the legal flux Canada’s prostitution laws have been in over the past year and a half.

In December 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada, struck down several parts of the Criminal Code, including laws prohibiting brothels, living on the avails of prostitution and communicating in public with clients, saying they violated section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees the right to life, liberty and security of person.

“The harms to prostitutes identified by the courts… such as being prevented from working in safer fixed indoor locations and from resorting to safe houses, are grossly disproportionate to the deterrence of community disruption. Parliament has the power to regulate against nuisances, but not at the cost of the health, safety and lives of prostitutes,” wrote Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin. “The purpose of the living on the avails of prostitution prohibition… is to target pimps and the parasitic, exploitative conduct in which they engage.  The law, however, punishes everyone who lives on the avails of prostitution without distinguishing between those who exploit prostitutes and those who could increase the safety and security of prostitutes, for example, legitimate drivers, managers, or bodyguards.”

The court gave the Conservative government one year to come up with new legislation — in the meantime the unconstitutional provisions would remain active. On Dec. 20, 2014 the new laws were announced in a bill called the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act. The bill, which has been roundly criticized for going against the demands laid out by the Supreme Court, makes it illegal to pay for sex, receive “material benefit” from other people’s work in the sex trade (i.e. pimping) and to “knowingly advertise” for someone else working in the sex trade.

The new laws don’t make selling sex illegal (only buying it) and allow women to advertise their own services. But still, women close to the industry have lambasted the laws; criminalizing Johns still means sex trade workers will have to operate covertly and in potentially dangerous situations.

Alice made the point succinctly: “The new laws are basically a semantics war. With a good thesaurus, any sexual term can be described. The laws prohibit certain words and phrases, there are ways around it. As with many things Harper, the law is more style over substance. He gets to say he created the most comprehensive and moral approach to eradicating prostitution but has allocated absolutely no money, manpower, or second thought to it.”

According to Const. Elenore Sturko, the Yellowknife RCMP is aware things are going on, but it doesn’t sound like they’re gunning to shut down the escort trade, only the sleazier things that sometimes accompany it: “Internet prostitution is seen in many cities in Canada and Yellowknife is no exception. The G Division Federal Investigations Unit has a mandate to investigate complaints of human trafficking, which is often associated to the prostitution trade. The public is encouraged to provide any information in relation to this, or any other serious crime.”

***

In a fittingly strange (only in Yellowknife) turn of events, a friend of mine was in a local bar the next afternoon, when she ended up chatting with a woman there.*

My friend knew I was working on this story, and had a hunch this woman might in fact be my date from the day before. After a few drinks, Jane, for it was indeed she, came clean about her profession. She told my friend much of what I’d heard: it was indeed her first time in town and she operated independently.

In the course of the conversation, it came up that she’d seen this strange, rather pathetic “cry baby” the day before. Apparently she didn’t go into details (and I didn’t cry … I swear). But I can’t help but think Jane was referring to me.

“I really messed up my first experience didn’t I?” I had asked the previous day, after Jane emphatically pointed out my half-hour counseling session was over.

“Yup, you did.”

“Is this the strangest thing you’ve seen?”

“Not at all.”

I put my clothes back on and straightened my hair in the mirror. Jane and I hugged awkwardly. Then, with a painfully apologetic fist bump I was out the door.