Understanding the complex world of sex work and framing it in the web that is a society full of hypocrisy, prejudice and discrimination, in relation to those who build their daily lives in this type of work, has been a matter of investigation for Dr. Cecilia Benoit, over the years. Her deep knowledge, based on a lot of field work, helps us to understand where we are and what remains to be done for society to accept and regulate this type of service.
Milénio Stadium: According to your studies, what can you tell us about sex workers in Canada? Who are they; which ethnicities are more prevalent; what are the main characteristics of the people working in this field?
Cecilia Benoit: Between 2013-2017, I led a national research program, Team Grant on Contexts of Vulnerabilities, Resiliencies and Care among People in the Sex Industry, funded by the Institute of Gender and Health (part of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research). The research program brought together a heterogeneous team of knowledge users, collaborators, scholars and trainees to identify key social and individual factors linked to violence and vulnerabilities in the Canadian sex industry. Compared to other Canadian workers, sex workers are younger, more likely to identify as women, Indigenous and non-heterosexual, less likely to have finished high school, own their own home, and be married or living common law. They also reported poorer physical and mental health, higher unmet health needs, and are more likely to have a long-term disability. In their struggle to pay monthly bills, one-third said they were currently employed outside of sex work, largely in part-time, gig economy work, or temporary jobs in personal services that cannot be done remotely, including retail, restaurant, and hospitality work—largely fields that have been deemed non-essential and ordered to close during the pandemic. Regarding material hardship (a non-income measure of poverty), two-thirds of sex workers interviewed said in the last 12 months they received free food or meals, half shared they borrowed money from friends or family to help meet bill payments, and one-third said they had not paid the full amount of their rent/mortgage, nor the full amount for utilities.
Only four participants (1.8%) said they were HIV-positive. The majority of participants reported trying out different work locations concurrently and over time, and so we avoid using binary categories such as outdoor/indoor or on-street/off-street as they fail to capture the wide range of locations (including escort agencies, massage parlours, home, hotels, motels, studios, bars, vehicles and parks) where participants negotiated and delivered sex work services. During the 12 months preceding the interview, one-third of participants had delivered sexual services in an outdoor location (‘park/outdoors’ or ‘vehicle’), while almost everyone (99%) had delivered services in an indoor location such as their own residence, in a hotel room or in an escort agency. Licensed sex establishments (massage parlours and escort agencies) and own homes were viewed by participants as providing the best health and safety for sex workers.
MS: Who is looking for this type of service? Is there research that allows us to categorize these people?
CB: Our research shows that most buyers are not oppressors. While there are a small number of people who prey on the vulnerable in the sex industry, just as there are in almost any other industry, most of the buyers we surveyed are simply individuals seeking to purchase a service they feel they need. Most do not see themselves, nor are they perceived by those they pay, as exploiters or even as enjoying a position of power in the transaction.
MS: This is a type of work that has always existed, but which has also been stigmatized. In your opinion, what is missing for this work to be accepted like any other service provision?
CB: Stigma, discrimination, fear and isolation increase the potential for interpersonal tensions between sellers, buyers and managers to develop into conflict and escalate. Efforts to reduce stigma, increase social integration and reduce barriers to services and supports will decrease conflict and violent victimization. This will require attention to changing the Criminal code and other social structures of power. Findings from across our projects show that punitive laws operate in a number of ways to reduce the safety of people connected to the sex industry: buyers are reluctant to inform police when they see a sex worker being harmed, managers cannot easily make condoms available in managed sex environments due to fear of being charged with running a bawdy house, intimate partners of sex workers find it difficult to enhance their partner’s safety for fear of being charged with contributing to prostitution, police are constrained from reaching sex workers in need by the workers’ fear of being charged, health and social service organizations find it difficult to reach many sex workers who prefer to remain hidden for fear of being apprehended or belittled, and legislators remain confused about who to help and who to punish.
MS: There is a notion that sex workers enter prostitution out of necessity or because they are forced into it, turning them into victims. To what extent does this idea correspond to reality?
CB: The two most commonly cited reasons for first selling sexual services are money and flexibility. The evidence suggests that many sex workers choose to sell sexual services because they are able to make more money and sex work provides them with more flexibility and autonomy compared to other jobs available to them. For many this means being able to care for themselves and their children. It is important to consider how this story of opportunity – often opportunity to meet basic human needs – operates across the age spectrum for those who engage in selling sexual services. Sex work has increasingly become a career option for migrant workers, students pursuing higher education and sex workers working online to make a living. Sex work is thus similar to other feminized workplaces where sexuality is capitalized on, including bars and restaurants. The over-representation of women in sex work is because it is one of the few occupations where women tend to have an economic advantage over men due to the high value placed on the female body within the current commercial market. For some working class-women and migrants, sex work in licensed establishments is often a viable economic strategy, while also offering sufficient flexibility to accommodate their family and other commitments.
MS: Violence and abuse are often associated with sex work – to what extent is this true?
CB: Tensions involving sex workers, buyers and managers occur in the sex industry, but they are not endemic. Tensions and conflicts occur in all service industries. In the sex industry, whether interpersonal tensions develop into conflict and whether they escalate into violent victimization depends, to a large extent, on the service context that shapes the interactions between sex workers, buyers and, in some cases, managers. Violence is relational and multi-directional and shaped by factors at personal, social and societal levels.
The police across Canadian cities also need to improve their treatment of people in sex work. We asked participants in our recent study about their confidence in police so we could also compare their answers to those of other Canadians. Two-thirds said they had little or no confidence, which is over four times higher than what other Canadians report. Participants mentioned three main reasons: their first concern was discrimination. Half of them had experienced judgmental treatment by the police or courts, which they linked to prostitution and other stigmas. Their second concern was fear of being arrested. Participants also said they avoided going to the police because of fear of being arrested for selling sexual services. Their third concern was targeting of their workplaces. Participants said that the police make their work ‘‘harder and less safe” by targeting escort agencies and other safe workplaces when they should be going after traffickers. Such actions undermine trust and increase suspicion of law enforcement and discourage future contact when they or someone else is in danger. Passing laws that Police targeting escort agencies and other commercial sex locations leaves participants feeling less safe and forced to find alternative ways to work that increase the likelihood of victimization. It also wastes police time and resources that would be better used to find human trafficked victims and their traffickers.
MS: An issue that is associated with the sex trade is the underworld of human trafficking. Can this social problem be eliminated?
CB: I am not aware of sexual exploitation and human trafficking in licensed establishments in any of the Canadian cities I conducted research in across my career. Despite sensational claims that human trafficking is rampant in sex work, my research suggests that this crime is very rare among this population. In fact, it appears most adults who sell sexual services in Canada have freedom of movement to work and are not coerced or exploited by others. In our recent study in which we interviewed 214 individuals from six Canadian cities none of those interviewed were currently being controlled by a procurer or what is commonly called a “pimp”. The vast majority said the main reason they got involved in the work was the need or desire for money, similar to other Canadians. Other reasons included difficult life events and attraction to the work. We found that many of our participants belong to informal networks where they have friendships with other workers, share safety strategies, develop regular clientele and create connections with those operating escort agencies and massage parlours. This increases the health, safety and well-being of individuals engaged in prostitution. Further, these networks mean that when human trafficking is happening in their neighbourhood, our participants would most likely hear about it. Even though their past negative experiences with the police and in the Justice System are major barriers to reporting activities that may involve human trafficking, they were very frank in interviews with us. Our recent study also revealed their awareness of criminal behaviour and the nature of their interactions with protective services.
MS: Sometimes sex workers are seen as people who are committing a crime. What can be done to end this stigma?
CB: Canada’s current prostitution law, Bill C-36, the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA), bans the purchasing of sexual services and receiving material benefits from prostitution and procuring services. It also makes it illegal for newspaper/magazine publishers, website administrators, and web-hosting services to publish advertisements for any sexual services and prohibits communicating for the sale and purchase of sexual services in a public place next to a school ground, playground, or daycare centre. This legislative framework thus directly criminalizes sex workers and also bans most activities linked to the sex industry. The law’s greatest negative impact falls on more disadvantaged sex workers facing other intersecting stigmas, including Indigenous and trans sex workers, non-status migrants and those who use substances. The PCEPA is one of the most extensive instruments of criminalization globally, and leaves sex workers in a precarious victim-criminal position. Similar to others restricted to precarious employment in capitalist markets and lacking a social security net, sex workers also need access to redistributive social policies, including comprehensive education, secure employment, quality health care and protected social welfare programmes that have the greatest impact on overall social inequality, and societal-level interventions to combat occupational stigma that is worsened by punitive laws, such as those currently in place in Canada.
MS: What is your opinion about adopting the example of Amsterdam and creating Red Light Districts in Canadian cities?
CB: In a recent paper (Benoit, C. et al. (2019).‘The prostitution problem’: Claims, evidence, and policy outcomes. Archives of Sexual Behavior. 48 (7), 1905–1923) we report:
Restrictive policy responses are based on the understanding that sex work will continue to endure regardless of legislation and so “tolerance” is recommended. Such policies result in the sex work sector becoming partly legal/partly illegal and sex workers may receive partial occupational and human rights (Östergren, 2017a). Conventional restrictive policies include mandatory registration and health testing for those wishing to enter and maintain sex sector work, control over the location of sex work businesses via zoning laws, licensing, and special fees (a “sin tax”) for individual workers and sex establishments, and regular inspection by authorities. Countries that are usually featured as examples of this approach are the Netherlands and Germany, both of which have become more “rule heavy” in recent decades. In 2000, the Dutch government legalized the selling of sexual services but imposed limits on where selling could occur and who could sell. In the Netherlands, any European Union citizen age 18 and older can legally work in prostitution, pending possession of the proper permits. Cities are permitted to use zoning laws to create “tippelzones,” areas where people can sell sex, while restricting the sale of sex elsewhere. Many tippelzones include features to enhance the safety of street-level selling, such as easy access to police, shelters, condoms, and STI testing. Research findings vary significantly in regards to the situation of sex workers’ rights in the Netherlands in the current restrictive climate. In contrast to domestic workers who are legally permitted to work and have protection by the police and the law, the situation of those without work permits is much more precarious. Domestic workers also face challenges. In Amsterdam, for example, legalization and limiting the number of brothels has not led to the expected improvements of working conditions for sellers. On the contrary, they now have to comply with industry rules and regulations and pay taxes but do not receive the same benefits attached to other jobs. With fewer brothel owners owning more businesses, the power of managers’ vis-à-vis sellers has increased. They are often hired as independent contractors with limited job security, working longer hours for less money, and without benefits. These conditions have resulted in many Dutch sex workers moving out of the red-light district brothels to seek a job in the independent escort business or leave the sex industry entirely. They have been increasingly replaced by migrants from outside the European Union.
Instead, we should be working with sex workers organizations to develop strategies to fully decriminalize sex work and empower workers in licensed establishments and other work locations through integrative labor regulations and other social policies.