I’m Cleo, a 30 year old entrepreneur living in Toronto with a B.A. in Criminology, a B.A. in Sociology and a Masters Degree in Professional Communication — that’s right, I went to school for a long time and I loved it. I’m originally from Alberta, where my parents still live, and they’ve been together for more than 30 years. My dad is Jamaican, my mom is white-Canadian and I have a younger sister who is an actor.
Oh yeah, and my parents owned an Escort Agency for 25 years.
I’ll give you a moment to make the face that everyone makes when I tell them that nugget of information. I say the words, they blink 3 times, they look at me and say “pardon me” and I look at them and say “yes you heard me correctly”, and then the shock sets in. Mostly, people think they misheard me when I say it, so they don’t really know what to do. It’s always a bit of a comedic experience because people generally have a preconceived expectation about those who work in the sex-industry and what the children of those people must be like and I don’t fit that mould.
It’s even funnier when they have met my parents, because they are two of the most amazing humans on earth. My mom, whom we affectionately refer to as “Jenny from the Block” is an introvert, (should be extrovert), with zero filter. She’s a 5’3 white lady and gives zero f*cks — she’ll tell a stranger at a restaurant to get their elbows off of the table because it’s impolite. “Black-Barry” is my dad, and the best way to describe him is that he is A LOT. I mean this in the most literal sense — this man can talk and he has a personality that is larger than life. I don’t just mean he’s a chatty Cathy, I mean he will talk you into submission and take you on an intellectual journey that fires at 150 rounds a second.
So Your Dad Was A Pimp?
The number of times I’ve been asked this trash question in my life is absurd *facepalm* — and the worst part is that nobody ever stops to think about how stupid a question that is. Please allow me to clear this up for those in the back who are judging. MY DAD WAS NOT A PIMP, NEITHER WAS MY MOM.
I want to talk about why people think this, but in order to get to that, we all need to have some fundamental understanding of a few things. If you don’t want to understand the legal piece and how agencies work, then skip the next two sections (but don’t because it’s important K?).
Prostitution in Canada is not illegal: Shocking right?
The catch is that everything tied to prostitution is illegal. Before the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) decision R v. Bedford in 2014, there were 3 primary laws around prostitution (note that these are paraphrased):
- You cannot solicit for the purposes of prostitution: i.e., a woman can’t stand on a street and ask anyone to pay for her sexual services
- You cannot live off of the avails of prostitution: i.e., If you give someone $20 for their sexual services, that person cannot go and spend that $20 on food – that’s a criminal violation
- You cannot operate a common bawdy house: i.e., if two women are selling their services, they can’t go anywhere and sell those services out of that space. Even if it’s a space for them to keep safe and warm
In 2014, the SCC struck down two of these three laws as unconstitutional because they violated a person’s Section 7 rights to life, liberty and security of the person. Basically, you can’t put people in a position where they are routinely exposed to harm in order to make a living; that harm doesn’t necessarily have to be physical. It could mean preventing someone from buying food for themselves. Before these laws were struck down as unconstitutional, they put sex workers, particularly those who worked on the streets, at risk in terms of their own safety while working.
In Canada if anyone wants to sell their sexual services, they are absolutely free to do that. You can’t solicit anyone to sell them, but you can sell them. Since 2014, there have been new laws put in place that focus on targeting the buyers rather than the sex-worker. Here is a great article that sums things up succinctly if you want to learn more, since we don’t have time for a more nuanced discussion on this.
Back to the pimp thing. According to the supreme court of Canada, “[a pimp] is the person who lives parasitically off a prostitute’s earnings”. (R. v. Downey, 1992 p. 32). In other words, pimps are people who exploit vulnerable populations and coerce women into prostitution to live off them. This is disgusting and not even remotely aligned with anything my parents believe in or stand for — so people can miss me with this trash assumption that my parents are pimps until the end of time *rolls eyes*.
Over the years, people have made the faulty assumption that my parents were pimps and deviants. What nobody ever bothers to ask is why they got into this business in the first place. Believe it or not, it was because my dad is a feminist.
The Quick and Dirty
Back in the early 80s, there was no word for “escort agency” — they weren’t a thing. My dad knew women who “worked” (colloquial term for ladies in the sex industry) and many of these women were also his friends. Several of them confided to him that they would often have to fellate their bosses to keep their jobs, or their bosses would want to “test drive” them regularly *GROSS*. Many of the women who were interviewed would have to go in and sit there naked and humiliate themselves to get their job.
Naturally, my dad felt that this was disgusting and abhorrent and that no matter what anyone did for a living that they should never be subjected to such treatment — regardless of whether or not anyone has a moral issue with the work itself. So he thought that if he could provide a safe space for these women to work where they didn’t have to be sexually assaulted by their boss or come to work and be humiliated, that they would want it. And he was right.
This was the moment their business was born. They grew rapidly in the late 80s through the 90s and at the height of their business, were the largest agency in Western Canada. They had a beautiful office in the downtown core where both my parents went to work at daily. They had many employees — receptionists, accountants, graphic designers, computer techs, escorts, and just about any other regular type of employee you could think of.
How Does an Escort Agency Work?
Or rather, how did they work back then*
You might at this point be wondering how the hell an escort agency works and if it is legal. The answers are fairly simple: yes they are legal and they work much in the same way a taxi cab company does. Again, there are some minutiae that you need to understand for this to make sense:
- Escort agencies sell companionship and that companionship may be with a very specific type of lady (busty, ebony, redhead, trans, crossdressing — you get the picture). But they do not sell sex. That said, whether an escort has sex with her date at some point is nobody’s business but their own.
- Escorts and escort agencies are licensed through municipal governments, just like your local pub is licensed to sell liquor. They pay fees and taxes just like the rest of us.
Now that you understand those critical points, I can walk you through how an agency works (or rather, worked — my parents have been out of the game for a long while now). Essentially, a client calls the agency and requests a lady of their preference to meet them at their chosen location and time. The agency collects a transportation fee from the client and lets them know that rates are agreed upon with the lady when she arrives. Note that back in the day, their agency used drivers for each of the ladies for protection — this way there was someone with them and nearby at all times until their call was over. The lady collects payment from her client, spends the agreed upon amount of time and leaves. Done deal.
If you think of it using the taxi dispatch comparison, this is simple. You call the cab company, they send a cab — when the cab arrives the meter starts at $5 and that $5 is the agency’s fee. Whatever the cab charges after that point is their take away; not including the fees the cabbie has to pay monthly to the agency and to operate their business. The cab takes you to your destination and then leaves.
Agencies make money based on fees they charge the ladies monthly for managing everything. The agency handles their advertising, reception, payment processing, drivers, and other such things. The lady, who is an independent contractor by the way, pays a fee to the agency for managing all of these things based on the number of calls she went out on that month. The rest of the money is hers to do with as she pleases, and let me tell you — this was a lucrative business for all those involved.
This is more or less how most agencies functioned back then, but the difference between my parents and the other kids in the playground was morality. The other agencies would allow their contractors to go on dates while high or drunk, bosses were sleeping with their contractors, partying with them, and pretty much behaving poorly all around. My parents on the other hand had clear rules in place to protect the women working for them that included: never ingesting drugs or alcohol on a date and always having a driver present for protection. The ladies had an office to work from if they wanted it, receptionists to handle their calls, their advertising was taken care of and the critical point, there was no fear of losing their job if they didn’t have sex with their boss. They reported for work just like you would at your job and clocked out when they were done. Like any other workplace, there were issues with the employees, but business was business.
But What Was Your Life REALLY Like Cleo?
Ahhh yes. Another question I get so often from people it makes me laugh. I hate to disappoint everyone but my life was about as run of the mill as they come. I lived in suburban Northside Edmonton. We ate supper as a family, went to movies, and to be totally honest my parents were quite strict. We had a full time live-in nanny who was like a second mom to us and she was also the boss when the parents weren’t home.
I know you’re about to ask one of the following two questions: “what did you tell your teachers and your friends about it” OR “what did your parents tell you they did for work”. The simple answer here is, they told me the truth. Now, let me be transparent, when I was 7 my parents weren’t divulging the innermost details of escort agencies and how they worked. When I was a kid and asked them what they did, they told me they owned a company; my mom answered the phones and did banking and my dad did the marketing, business and computer stuff — all of which was true. You see, they never told me about the nature of the business they ran, but they did tell me about the day-to-day work they did. So when my teachers or friends would ask me, I told them exactly what I knew: they owned a company, my mom answered phones and my dad did the other stuff. All factual information.
You might at this point also be wondering if we ever got down to the actual conversation about the nature of the business – the obvious answer being yes because I am sitting here talking to you about it. But the way I found out was accidental. I was about 13 when I needed to lookup a number in the phonebook. I picked that 10lb sucker up and opened it to somewhere around the middle and happened to flip to an ad under the “ESCORTS” tab of the phonebook and on that ad was my parent’s work number in big bold letters. Naturally, I was like “umm what’s this?” and I showed my cousin. We obviously had no idea what escorts were and the artwork on these ads were hilarious (in hindsight). Anyhoo, my cousin told her mom, who told my mom, who told my dad… and voila, the conversation was had. Albeit, it was a very PG conversation. My parents explained to me that escorts were companions and sometimes people pay for companions or dates to come to events with them — again, not a lie, but not the whole truth. I wasn’t really troubled by this information because honestly, it made sense to me, so I carried on with my tween life and listened to Destiny’s Child every day like normal. This information didn’t cause disquiet because we were allowed to go to their office, which was in downtown Edmonton in a beautiful historic building with exposed brick loft space. Both my parents had offices with beautiful cherrywood desks. There was a pool table, computers, phones, fish tanks. It was for all intents and purposes, a normal regular office with receptionists and they conducted business as usual. In hindsight the funny names on the whiteboards like “Star” and “Bambi” with “Redhead, White, 36DD” written beside them should have been an indicator, but whatevs.
When People Started Finding Out
We all knew this story would PIVOT *Ross voice* at some point… and here we are. Somewhere mid high school, maybe Grade 11 or so, people started finding out what my parents did for a living. If memory serves, a friend of my cousin started running her mouth because their aunt had worked for my parents some years before — my name came up in conversation because she and I didn’t get along and her aunt decided to enlighten this young girl as to the “kind of people” my parents were.
At that point, it got awkward, but not for the reasons you would think. I was already a fairly “cool” person — no beef with anyone, well liked etc., and this somehow made me cooler. People thought it was the bee’s knees. That said, I had a fair amount of friends whose parents forbade them from ever coming over to my house again, but overall it wasn’t actually that bad; more annoying than anything else. The thing that got me was that for a little while, I felt ashamed of my parents because people kept saying such silly things like my dad is a pimp, my mom is a working girl and they were in the business of prostitution (neither of which was true of course), but it made me feel ashamed.
Luckily for me however, that shame quickly dissipated. I’ve mentioned this before, but I am a deeply rational person, so I question myself and my feelings often. I went through a period where I asked myself “but why are you ashamed Cleo?” I had to take the time to think about how I could ever be ashamed of these people. My parents were present, they disciplined me, they loved and supported me, I was well travelled. I was in sports and I had a car (91 Olds Toronado that had no heat, but who cares). I was a good kid, with an exceptional life and was literally cocooned in love. In that moment, I said f*ck that, I’m not ashamed of my parents or what they do and IDGAF what anyone has to say about it because I’ll correct their asses faster than they can blink.
I’ve spent a great deal of my adult life educating people on this business, my experiences and facilitating conversations. You don’t have to agree with it, you don’t have to like it, but before you make a judgment about it, I hope that people try to understand it. So, in the spirit of education, let’s talk about this — send me your questions!
Stay tuned for Part II (and possible Part III) of this story. I want to do this justice, so sound off in the comments with your questions and thoughts — who knows where the next iterations of this conversation will take us!
Until next time my loves,