SFU graduate student Tamara O’Doherty can tell you some secrets about the sex trade. In an interview with the Georgia Straight, the prostitution researcher said that some women in the sex trade enjoy their work. She also says that a lot of sex workers are highly educated.
Most women in the sex trade aren’t willing to come forward and share their stories. “It’s entirely a double life,” O’Doherty said. “You do not disclose that to anyone.”
O’Doherty, who teaches a course called “Prostitution in Canada” at the University of the Fraser Valley, recently completed her master’s thesis exploring women’s experiences working in off-street prostitution venues in Vancouver. As part of this research, she conducted a survey of 39 off-street sex workers. Ninety percent of respondents indicated that they had some postsecondary training, while 35 percent had earned a bachelor’s or master’s degree.
There is growing academic debate over whether significant numbers of women are working in the sex trade to finance their postsecondary schooling. A new study in the U.K. suggests that the number of young women turning to sex work as a method of paying for their education may have increased dramatically in recent years. Over 300 undergraduate students took part in the study, titled “Participation in Sex Work: Students’ Views” and published in the May 2010 edition of the journal Sex Education, which found that 16.5 percent would “consider” working in the sex industry.
Ron Roberts, a senior lecturer in psychology at Kingston University in London and one of the authors of the study, told the Straight he found that percentage “worrying”. He suggested that high tuition fees in the U.K. are causing student debt to spiral out of control.
“I think it used to be the case that people might have gone to university in order to avoid this kind of life,” Roberts said by phone. “Now it seems like people are having this kind of life in order to go to university.”
But O’Doherty isn’t convinced that the number of female students engaged in sex work is on the rise. She said that the general increase in women attending university—women account for 58 percent of Canadian undergraduate students, according to Statistics Canada’s 2006–07 figures—along with more research being done on off-street sex workers, have created a perception that the percentage of female students working in the sex trade is going up.
As for Roberts calling the U.K. study results “worrying”, O’Doherty thinks that’s just a reflection of how society continues to view the sex industry. “I think we need to take a few steps back and look at how we are structuring the experience of sex work to be one of victimization,” O’Doherty said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be that way.”
Both Roberts and O’Doherty are quick to point out the financial benefits to students of work that features flexible hours and a bigger financial payoff than many other jobs can provide.
In both studies, the primary reason participants gave for the attractiveness of the sex trade was financial. But to Ada Sinacore, an associate professor of counselling psychology at McGill University, the issue is much more complex than students wanting to make money.
Over the past two years, she’s been doing research on students who pay for their education through sex work. According to her, engaging in this line of work is a last resort.
“It’s not to say that all women think it has a negative impact in their life,” Sinacore told the Straight in a phone interview from California. “But it’s not something they are choosing because they think it’s a great way to make a living.”
Sinacore added that women who fund their schooling this way face consequences both during their studies and after they finish. Her research indicates that this could include everything from not developing their résumé in their area of study to having a fear of being discovered and stigmatized by potential employers to possible legal ramifications. The above were cited as reasons why women were reluctant to speak openly about their participation in the industry.
O’Doherty sees the stigma associated with sex work as a type of public shaming and a way to control women and their sexuality.
“I think until we start to expose that more, we’re not going to get anywhere,” O’Doherty said.
You can follow Shadi Elien on Twitter at twitter.com/shadielien.