You know, a photo of an emaciated, probably drug-addicted woman leaning into a car like the one above is about as realistic a portrait of prostitution as is Breakfast at Tiffany's, the Audrey Hepburn classic based on a much-baser novella by Truman Capote.
The truth is, the lot of most sex workers is somewhere in the middle.
And while some may work at the low end of the business while others live the high life, a brand new study co-authored by researchers at Montreal's Concordia U. (my alma mater) and the University of Windsor paints a more accurate picture of sex work.
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.
After 450 face-to-face interviews with sex workers and 40 more with law enforcement and public health types, the researchers come to the conclusion that sex work has to be decriminalized -- and destigmatized.
“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 sex workers,” 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.”
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.”
The research explodes some of the most commonly-health myths about sex work, all of which appear to have arisen from judgemental tut-tutting and/or the conviction that sex workers "are in need of saving" and/or couldn't possibly have a will of their own.
The negative perceptions and behaviors behind these failures reflect
moral discourses that hamper good policy development ... and—as our informants reported—justify discrimination and marginalization of sex workers.
Which only puts them at greater risk.
As a public health worker noted regarding an attempt to get funding for
health-based outreach into strip clubs, ‘‘I was there when the United Way
said to us, you meet the criteria . . . but you don’t really think that the
United Way is going to want to be known for funding dancers’’
In order to receive the highest attainable health services, health-care providers need to know all facets of a patient’s life, including their work life. However, a number of the
(sex workers) we interviewed reported that they prefer to keep their work ‘‘a secret’’ from health providers to avoid ‘‘being judged.’’ A combination of personal experiences and stories from colleagues and friends lead them to expect that most health providers are unprepared to accept the work they do. In order to avoid ‘‘discriminatory attitudes’’ they remain silent about their job.
Now, over the past couple of years, I have come to know some women in the trade and I can assure you that, unless they're flat out liars, and I doubt they are, they see themselves as independent business women or contractors for agencies. While I might not go down the same path -- although I have had tempting offers -- I respect their choices.
But whether on the streets or in Queen's Quay condos, all are in danger -- which is why sex work must be decriminalized.
Indeed, in a lengthy, thoroughly-considered decision rendered in December of 2010, Justice Susan Himel of Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice did just that.
Of course, the pearl-clutchers in Ottawa appealed and now everything is in limbo.
Meanwhile feminists are divided over the decision, with some saying sex workers are victims who must be protected from themselves, the johns and the sex traffickers (for which there are separate laws anyway.) Others (like myself) feel that prostitution will never go away and the state has no say over what consenting adults do.
Remember, prostitution is perfectly legal in Canada. What's not legal is the ability to engage in it safely.
That makes it a human rights issue.