Dangerous and under the radar: New study examines ways to protect sex workers

June 7, 2011

Sex work is unprotected, increasingly dangerous and needs to be decriminalized, according to a new report published in the Canadian Review of Sociology. Co-authored by Concordia University and University of Windsor researchers, the study calls for sweeping changes to sex work performed on and off the streets.

"We must not only change our laws, we must also revamp our attitudes and implement policies that protect the social, physical and psychological rights of ," says first author Frances Shaver, chair and professor in Concordia's Department of Sociology and Anthropology. "Regardless of where and how they conduct their business, sex workers are left on their own to ensure their health and safety on the job."

Along with colleagues Jacqueline Lewis and Eleanor Maticka-Tyndale, from the University of Windsor, Shaver compiled data from over 450 interviews conducted with sex workers. The team also gathered intelligence from 40 and public health advocates on the perils of the trade. "Even when victimized by others, sex workers are not afforded the rights of protection and redress that any other person in Canada can expect," Shaver observes.

Marginalized and denied protection

In 2007, sex workers launched in the Ontario and British Columbia Superior Courts against sections of the Canadian Criminal Code. They sued, claiming federal laws put them at higher risk, intensified their marginalization and violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. While a ruling in the B.C. case is pending, the Ontario court agreed the provisions in the Canadian Criminal Code deny sex workers protection and resources to ensure their well-being.

"Sex workers are out of sight and out of mind," she deplores, noting assaults include rape, gay bashing, robbery and harassment. "They've been pushed into industrialized or isolated neighborhoods, where lighting, access to public places and even people are sparse."

Shaver says the 2010 Ontario ruling brought to light issues most people never consider. "The public needs to be educated on this industry. Canadians generally don't know much about sex workers and that's created unwarranted fears," she says. "What little is known comes from media reports on crises, such as underage girls forced into sex rings. The reality is only a small number are in crisis."

The vast majority of sex workers are consenting adults who enter the field in order to pay their bills. "Most get into the business because they know someone who knows someone," says Shaver. "It's rare that boyfriends force girlfriends into sex work."

Most sex work conducted off streets

By most estimates, only 10 to 20 per cent of sex workers solicit clients off the street. The majority — 80 to 90 per cent — work from home, brothels and private establishments such as escort agencies, strip clubs or massage parlors.

That's why federal laws need to be amended. "Sharing and referring clients to each other makes the world safer for a sex worker but both involve procuring," she says, adding home-based practice is illegal, too. "That's considered operating a bawdy house. Indoor sex work is safer yet it involves breaking our current laws if the location is fixed or shared with others."

New Zealand decriminalized its sex industry without negative consequence, although Shaver cautions against adopting that model. "You can't just pick policy from another county and move it in," she says. "It has to be developed as it was in New Zealand: in consultation with all stakeholders including sex workers, the ministry of health, other government organizations, police and citizens."

As for the number of sex workers who operate in Canada, no figures have ever been put forward. "It's hard to know just how many sex workers there are across the country, since many work under the radar," Shaver says."But one thing's for certain — until new rules are in place, it will continue to be dangerous under the radar."

Explore further: Study: U.S. rule is hurting HIV fight

More information: onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1755-618X.2011.01249.x/pdf

Related Stories

Study: U.S. rule is hurting HIV fight

July 24, 2007

A new study suggests the United States is hurting the fight against the human immunodeficiency virus with its anti-prostitution rule.

Inexperienced prostitutes most at risk of sexual infections

December 12, 2008

Less experienced prostitutes are more likely to have sexually transmitted infections (STIs). A study of more than a thousand female sex workers in Cambodia, reported in the open access journal BMC Infectious Diseases, has ...

Study examines risk of heterosexual HIV transmission in China

November 8, 2010

A new study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health examines the burden of HIV and sexually transmitted disease among male clients of the commercial sex industry in China's Sichuan province. ...

Recommended for you

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jun 08, 2011
A number of times I read the reports for STDs for the US Navy. The results were interesting. You stood a better chance of getting a STD in San Francisco than you did in Alongapo, PI.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.