Study says off-street sex work can be safe

Cheryl Rossi
Vancouver Courier
Friday, February 27, 2009

A local study on the off-street sex trade soon to be published in an American, peer-reviewed academic journal concludes it’s possible for women to work safely in the sex industry.

Sixty-three per cent of the women who participated in Off-Street Commercial Sex: An Exploratory Study, reported they had never experienced violent behaviour.

Tamara O’Doherty, a graduate student in the school of criminology at SFU, surveyed 39 off-street sex workers and conducted in-depth interviews with 10 women with numerous years in the trade. They worked at massage parlours, for escort agencies and independently, and earned a minimum of $200 an hour and up to $10,000 a night for work that could take them to New York City and France.

Women working for escort agencies reported facing the most serious violence. Almost 30 per cent had been threatened by a client at least once while working in the sex industry. Twenty-five per cent reported physical assault and theft. Theft by co-workers was the most common problem faced by workers in massage parlours.

Independent sex workers reported the least violence. They mostly faced threats from clients, at a rate of 15 per cent. Independent workers and escorts most commonly face clients refusing to wear condoms. But they said they renogotiate with the client or refuse service.

Seven of the 10 women O’Doherty interviewed identified online review boards as major sources of abuse. Clients can review sex workers online and some threaten to post bad reviews unless a woman gives free sessions or otherwise relaxes her rules. Women reported clients had posted the women’s home addresses and other details of their personal lives.

O’Doherty became keen to learn more about sex workers after she worked with women at PACE, or the Prostitution Alternatives Counselling and Education Society, which offers programs and services for those in the survival sex trade. The workers “blew every stereotype” she’d ever held.

She chose to focus on off-street workers, who are estimated to comprise at least 80 per cent of the industry and are under represented in research.

What she learned surprised her.

“The people that I spoke with, these were very independent, very strong business women who said, ‘Hey, it’s a job. If you like your job, what’s the big deal?'”

All of the interview participants told O’Doherty they consciously choose to work in the trade. They reported favouring their high wages, freedom of operating as an independent and confidence or self-esteem they said can be gained from sex work.

Dealing with social stigma is the biggest downside, they said.

The women identified escort agencies as potential sources of exploitation, but many understood that agencies require high rates because of the costs of operating an “adult entertainment” establishment. Advertising, licensing and rental fees can all be higher for businesses in this sector. “Agency operators, municipal governments, advertisers and landlords all reap additional profit out of the sex business because of its marginal legal status; ironically, in the process they all appear to live partly on the avails of prostitution, a criminal offence,” the report states.

O’Doherty asked respondents how sex work could be made safer. The women wanted employment standards developed by people in the sex trade. They wanted to see more information on how to work safely and training for women getting into the business, including health and safety and customer service skills.

The majority of the women interviewed balked at the idea of legalization and licensing. They feared losing their independence, being “pimped by the government” and being more easily identifiable.

O’Doherty says more research is needed to determine how reflective her data is of off-street sex workers.

“Before we do any form of legal policy change–decriminalize, criminalize, Swedish model, Netherlands model, whatever we choose to do–we need to know more about how incredibly varied the experiences are,” she said.

Link to original story on Vancouver Courier

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