Debate sheds light on students in sex work

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

Comments (32) Add New Comment
Yes, it's true that there are people in prostitution who aren't getting hurt. But so many are getting hurt. What if someone published a similar article on minors having sex with adults? After all, not all of them get hurt either.

I agree that the prostitutes aren't the ones who shouldn't be ashamed or stigmatized. Except when they promote an industry in which so many get hurt, and they don't care.
Rating: -5
Jim Martin
Any analysis of the short term benefits should be weighed against the risks, not only of being found out by family but also present and future friends and employers. Anyone with concerns in this area should run the other way as fast as they can, otherwise you leave yourself vulnerable to extortion. If things go bad who can you turn to, the police? Then there is the risk of serious injury or even death. The internet also poses a threat to being found out long after you may have left the business, since it is likely that information will be archived and searchable for your entire life.

Don't do it: Don't risk injury, std's, a criminal record, and replacing friends with pimps,drug dealers, organized crime figures, and celebrities who leave their phones lying around with intimate messages, that a wife or more importantly law enforcement will find.

P.S it is never too late to get out. Try the Salvation Army, old friends might not undertsnad.

Rating: +3
At least they are starting realize the levels and dept of this industry. it's alot more then lying on our backs and taking money.
Rating: -5
Madame Scarlett
With the Sexual Revolution more or less behind us, very few adult women are concerned about having some kind of a 'past' many potential husbands think their fiances are virgins, any more, or that they have not had several lovers, for that matter? Whether the lady concerned had lovers, 'with benefits' (meaning financial), or not , almost all women these days have 'experimented' and are, for all intents and purposes Adults in charge of their own bodies, and sex lives! Wow, that would mean they are probably on a par with their male counterparts.............!
Rating: +3
Ingrid Nevin
Thank you Shadi for a wonderful article that begins to shed light on the depth of the industry. The comments, unfortunately, already begin to display the tired cliches of "but so many get hurt" and "why risk it?" from people who are afraid to think outside the stereotypes. So many women end up in abused marriages. Should we not marry? So many people are trafficked into agriculture. Should we strive to eliminate agriculture as an industry?

I am grateful to see thoughtful pieces that explore different circumstances and factors that could reduce stigma and improve conditions and choice within the sex industry - because as a former escort, I deeply and strongly believe that's what we need.
Rating: -3
Prostitution is the Paid rape of women and children, mostly Aboriginal women and girls.
I reject that any Government should support the buying and selling of women and girls. Any attempt to legalize prostitution will further increase the racialized sexual violence that has led to the murders and disappearances of over 500 Aboriginal women and girls across Canada. It is also an open door for trafficking of Aboriginal women as well as targeting out girls.
The promotion and rationalization of prostitution as a “choice” for women and girls benefits pimps, John’s and traffickers. This notion does not ring true for the women and girls trapped with in prostitution.
Prostitution should be viewed as a part of the spectrum of violence against women, alongside with rape, wife assault, and incest. Prostitution is violence against women. I know you will be told otherwise many women have told me that they did not choose prostitution and they would get out if they could. And all of the women I know have experience violence in prostitution.
90% of young girls in prostitution have been sexually abused about 82% were incest and child abuse victims, these have been found to be a strong predictor of prostitution involvement for girls increasing the chance of young girls running away from home and right into the commercial sex trade
Girls in prostitution can be as young as 5 years old. Out of183 women involved in prostitution in Vancouver that Melissa Farley interviewed 52% had turned their first trick when they where younger then 16 years old, and 70% had turned their first trick before they where 18 years old.
200-300 juveniles in prostitution in Vancouver are routinely arrested on prostitution related charges. Hundreds of children under 17 years old are being prostituted in Vancouver. Middle aged male buyers are increasingly seeking girls as young as 11. The police are not trusted by the girls, who have targeted them for arrests rather than the john’s.
Children in prostitution are charged 59 times more often than are the male buyers in Vancouver. In 6 years, only 6 men were charged in Vancouver for buying children in prostitution. 2 were convicted; during that same time period 354 children were charged for involvement in prostitution.
There is no Evidence to show that indoor prostitution is any safer than outdoor prostitution, and Violence is intrinsic to prostitution, and decriminalization CANNOT change this.
Specifically, the view of prostitution as a choice made by women and girls is false, and this can be demonstrated by examining women’s status in society, histories of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse, and human trafficking,
Lets not forget that the average age of entry into prostitution in Vancouver is between the ages of 12 -14 years old. Prostituted women are 60 – 120 times more likely to be murdered than the general public. 70 - 80% of those involved in Prostitution in Canada began as children, and 80 – 90% are fleeing sexual abuse that usually began at home.
Prostitution IS NOT sex work IT IS VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN It exists because it is a last ditch survival strategy not a choice.
We don’t want prostitution for our selves, our grandmothers, mothers, aunties, sisters, daughters, or grand daughters. Prostitution is not what most women who have prostituted or who have never prostituted want.
Rating: -6
Hello Rain, thank you for contributing your opinion on this topic. I agree entirely that violence against women (and others) must stop; however, we differ in approaches to ending violence. I believe that violence is far more complex (especially violence towards female street-based sex worker) than your comment provides for. The fact that sex workers experience different rates of victimization does not diminish the importance of ending the violence and exploitation that does occur- what discovering the different rates allows us to do is learn about the conditions and factors that enable violence to be done- which is something I believe we have an obligation to explore so we can make progress in ending violence at all levels.
I am not so keen on allowing misrepresentation of academic findings to go unanswered, though. I would like to point out a couple of recent research studies that support the fact that there is a wide array of experiences for women, men and transgendered individuals who engage in erotic labour. There is actually quite a significant body of research that demonstrates strikingly different rates of violence for those who work from the street and others in the industry. For example, Rosie Campbell and Teela Sanders each found that approximately 80% of their participant sex workers had never experienced violence (off-street workers). Jeal and Salisbury (2007) also found quite a difference between street-based workers and massage parlour workers, too (4/71 masseuses had experienced violence where 15/71 street-based workers had experienced violence). Jenkins (2009) also found that approximately 80% of her 500 participants had never experienced violence in their sex work. These studies were conducted in the United Kingdom, though, and most of us know how differently the law has been enforced in Canada in comparison. This kind of evidence is why many of us Canadians place some degree of blame on the current legal regime for the violence facing our more vulnerable sex workers.
Further, the suggestion that the average age of entry into sex work is 14 is inaccurate. First, when youth are involved, we agree that the term, "sex work" is inappropriate. I also consider this to be a form of sexual exploitation. However, that statistic was originally produced in Canada due to a research study which involved street-based youth between the ages of 12 and 17. It simply cannot be used to generalize across adult experiences (the focus of this article) nor across the entire industry since it only focused on street-based youth. I am not denying that many youth are sexually exploited, nor am I contradicting the idea that many street-based workers became involved via forms of sexual exploitation. I am asking you to be a little more discerning in using statistics that simply do not represent the majority of those involved in the industry, since we know that street-based workers make up between 10 and 20% of sex workers in Canada. Our treatment of those workers is deplorable, though- and Aboriginal women have been targeted for violence at much higher rates than others in the sex industry. This speaks to the enduring racism in Canada, something else I believe we agree must be ended. I think it is clear that there are many issues that quickly come to the forefront whenever the topic of sex (an particularly sexual labour) is raised. Much more debate and public discussion is clearly needed so we can support evidence-based legal and social reforms.
Rating: -2
Prostitution is not and should not be a choice for women. It is not a job or a profession, it is slavery. Women will not be equal until sex slavery is stopped. Where is the study on why this very small percentage of women "choose" to have their bodies sold to rapists? The public stigma should not be against the girls and women in prostitution, it should be against the sex criminals ("johns") who buy the bodies of young girls and women and the Pimps who sell the bodies of women and children. Saying that "a lot of women in the sex trade are highly educated and enjoy their work" is absurd. Women are forced into sex slavery by economic inequality, racism, sexism, oppression, and violence. To take a small percentage of women who perhaps have some post secondary education and make it look like this is a full and fair representative of women and children in prostitution is extremely irresponsible. We need to look at prostitution for what it really is and stop making it look like a viable option for women.
Rating: -9
Let It Rain
Prostitution is the paid rape of women and children, mostly brown, and poor, in cultures that are determined to keep them poor. And when others object, they are accused of tired cliches. Except that "so many do get hurt" is not a cliche at all; it's the reality.

As far as having a "past," there is a huge difference between having had lovers, privately, and having been graphically depicted in a given rape scene, and knowing that your future husband, your uncle, your professors, your future employer, might already have masturbated to that sexual abuse scenario. What kind of future do you have when you are found out? What level of sexual harassment protection are your co-workers going to think you deserve? (And while they're wrong, you of course deserve protection, does it help to be right and shunned -- or unemployed?)

No, talk with women who are out of the industry, not those who are representing it and thus still performing when only talking. When it's your source of income, objectivity (or honesty!) isn't the point.
Rating: -5
What if we educate women FIRST then ask them if they want to rent out their vagina. Why don't we do that? Probably because all would say no, I like being a dentist better, I like being a lawyer better, I like being a _________ better.
Just because women have education or are on the way to achieving higher education does not make it any less exploitive. It further entrenches the idea that women are for sale, further entrenches the belief that men have the right to cum as they want all the time. Further entrenches women's subservience.
There is a great study out of London called Men Who Buy Sex; Who they buy and what they know.

We need to know that this is the behavior we are supporting.
Rating: -2
Tamara, in your response to Rain. Nothing like getting a little classicism in there to make it all OK.

And yes the current legal system is partial to blame. Which is why the responsibility should be put on the one person in the transaction who has total free choice, the buyers, pimps, procurers and traffickers. De-criminalize the sold. Men do NOT have to buy sex, but there are MANY MANY reasons why women are forced into selling sex and desperation should not be able to be purchased.
Rating: 0
"... 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.”..."

(From Feminst Philosophers)
"...Perhaps the most interesting aspect from a philosophical point of view is captured in this passage”¦

many believed men would “need” to rape if they could not pay for sex on demand. One told me, “Sometimes you might rape someone: you can go to a prostitute instead.” Another put it like this: “A desperate man who wants sex so bad, he needs sex to be relieved. He might rape.” I concluded from this that it’s not feminists such as Andrea Dworkin and myself who are responsible for the idea that all men are potential rapists – it’s sometimes men themselves...."

Rating: 0
As long as they are over 18, legally in Canada and provide consent, it is nobody's business but the girl's (and her clients'). Good to see the 'stigma' is going away and ambitious young women are losing their inhibitions to advance their lives and careers.
Rating: -7
Granted that any time there's talk about prostitution, it gets derailed into talk about rape which quickly degrades into male-bashing, as the post from Curious lays out in perfect format.

A couple of things from Erin Pizzey, the woman who pioneered women's shelters:

"I dared to say publicly that women can be as violent as men and that women were a great deal more psychologically violent than men. "

"...I have never been a feminist, because, having experienced my mother's violence, I always knew that women can be as vicious and irresponsible as men."

"Feminism, I realised, was a lie. Women and men are both capable of extraordinary cruelty. Indeed, the only thing a child really needs - two biological parents under one roof - was being undermined by the very ideology which claimed to speak up for women's rights.

This country is now on the brink of serious moral collapse. We must stop demonising men and start healing the rift that feminism has created between men and women.

Harriet Harman's insidious and manipulative philosophy that women are always victims and men always oppressors can only continue this unspeakable cycle of violence."
Rating: +2
Actually Tamara I have not misrepresented my stats or use of stats and the study I referred to Is not based on Youth 12-17, also the studied and stats that I have quoted are all based on Vancouver BC where as yours seem to be predominately based in the UK and I’m assuming you’ve never sold your body to a man for money to feed your child, or to have a place to sleep, or because it was simply safer then going home to a man who was going to beat you till you where black and blue. I’m assuming that your knowledge comes form text books and reports and other people’s studies. So until you’re a poor Aboriginal women who grew up in 27 different homes due to colonization of your people and forced every night to service 12 guys a night for next to nothing to pay of a debut or find your freedom, to make sure you have formula for you baby, to stay alive. I refuse to move over and call it SEX WORK because it is PAID RAPE. And it is the PAID RAPE OF CHILDREN. And lastly I am not free, my sisters are not free, our daughters, mother’s aunties, and grandmothers are not free from rape or paid rape until the white middle/upper class educated women/men decided it is not ok to buy/rent our bodies for sex/rape.
Rating: +4
Ingrid Nevin
@ Rain and others:

I agree - what you describe is not sex work. That is survival sex, coercion and paid rape. And that should not exist - we need better education and support services to prevent it from happening and help them out if they find themselves there. Just as we do with domestic abuse. If one only knew about marriage from battered women's shelters and never saw many content families, wouldn't they want to eradicate it too?

But sex work is not what you describe. Sex work is by definition, a choice. So why do all of you insist on conflating coercion with sex work? On derailing the dialogue from any - absolutely any - discussion of the other sides and aspects of the industry?

Should hundreds and thousands of us who work in sex trade have no room for discussion of safety, best practices, ways of dealing with good or bad clients, stigma, isolation, and double-life? Because we don't experience it as rape, we experience it as work with its good and bad sides, we have no right to talk about it in public? No right to discuss how to stay mentally and physically healthy and actually like our work? Because we don't suffer like those victims, our voices don't matter, and the public and feminists make certain we experience at least some pain by stigmatizing and discarding us? And yet, I have never seen a sex worker rights activist who didn't acknowledge the problem of survival sex and coercion, that it exists and that it must be dealt with.

I am very grateful I met some amazing women early on who taught me some basic mental and physical balance and safety principles, and that I am generally diligent in my research. But it's pretty to hard to find such information when so many people deny it exists in the first place. When people deny that systematic internal (attitude, approach, perception) and external (freedom to choose your own model of business, freedom to screen clients) conditions for good experiences could exist. And what does that do for a woman who is financially struggling, has experience with casual sex, so she figures she'll try her first ad on Craigslist anyway - but doesn't know anything about screening clients, her absolute right to set comfortable boundaries and limits, a variety of approaches to clients and her work, safe-calls, burn-out symptoms, etc.?
Rating: -4
When saying:
“Sex work is by definition, a choice.”
Perhaps this is where all might, in some circumstances, agree on the term “choice” at least.
It could be the place where abolitionists, ex-prostituted and prostituted women have at least some common understanding or agreement.

When asking:
“Should hundreds and thousands of us who work in sex trade have no room for discussion of safety, best practices, ways of dealing with good or bad clients, stigma, isolation, and double-life?”
It seems as though this is the language of labour standards and unionization. This is could be and generally is seen in many countries as the legalization of prostitution – which almost no women want because of the regulations.

So, it sounds like the language of choice and legalization/total decriminalization is being conflated here. It is confusing to those who are truly trying to educate themselves on the issues in prostitution.

(These are short hand definitions – but they are clear and not meant to confuse anyone).
Legalization of prostitution is government controlled.
Total Decriminalization means there are absolutely no laws on prostitution.
Partial Decriminalization or Abolition is criminalizing the buying of sex, not the selling.

The middle ground here could be Abolition, in its truest meaning. Decriminalize the selling of sex – criminalize the buying of sex. Abolition also calls for an array of social services that will help and assist women who want to leave prostitution all together.
Rating: -1
Ingrid Nevin
*This is could be and generally is seen in many countries as the legalization of prostitution – which almost no women want because of the regulations.*

Agreed. From what I have seen, legalization and rigid external regulation (eg. Nevada or Amsterdam brothels), are not desirable as they take away choice of finding ways that work for you personally. However, doesn't the idea of sharing experiences and best practices apply to every environment? Yes, I am guilty of bringing in some of the language of labour standards. But a lot of that language and discussions (eg. screening, good versus bad clients, etc.) are also what you see when you go to places online where people who self-identify as escorts/service providers/sex workers go for support and advice from their peers.

*The middle ground here could be Abolition, in its truest meaning. Decriminalize the selling of sex – criminalize the buying of sex. Abolition also calls for an array of social services that will help and assist women who want to leave prostitution all together.*

From what I have seen, arrays of social services exist in virtually all regimes currently present on the globe - be they as vastly different as North America, Sweden (criminalized purchase), New Zealand (complete decriminalization) or brothels and communities of India. So I don't see them as tied to abolition alone. But vital need for those services is definitely something everyone likely agrees to - as well as general poverty reduction and education opportunities, elimination of systemic discrimination to help those most vulnerable, such as aboriginal women.

However, there are arguments against blanket approach to criminalizing all purchase that suggest instead, increasing enforcement for coercion, abuse, and assault themselves. To date, it is very hard for someone in the business to be taken seriously when they report such incidents to police. Some Swedish prostitutes argue that existing laws push good clients away, whereas the predators actually remain. People who self-identify as providers/sex workers, rather than prostituted women, usually try to build a stable regular client base that pay their bills and are well-known and predictable. Why would they support a policy that treats a dangerous violent client and an unattractive but sweet older man who makes you home-cooked dinner absolutely the same? Why is such a policy fair? And since resources of enforcement are limited, what makes it more effective than actively targeting violent clients or generally focusing efforts on people who are involved in survival sex?

I really wonder if there are feedback loops here. If the public image of a typical client as a rapist leads men to believe it is okay to behave in this way towards women in the sex industry... And if we had an alternative image of a respectful client who wants company as well as sex and obeys your rules and comfort levels - something that's actually pretty common, both according to lived experiences of middle-class escorts and Chris Atchinson's research sample of 900+ men - what if that image could make the culture of violence less acceptable? I don't think this has ever truly been tried since clients are virtually always described as predators.
Rating: +1
sick of the argument
Scarlett I quote "Adults in charge of their own bodies"
So you are saying that the anorexia, bulimia,pressure to stay rail thin, breast implants (to the extreme end), nose jobs, full pubic hair waxing, anal bleaching, fake nails, and young, never forget young, men demand their women in porn/prostitution/ stripping young. So what we see women in porn and prostitution subjecting themselves to in the name of being attractive to men, are in charge of their own bodies?
I don't even know where the hell their real bodies went!!
So they look like that because of male driven demand for them too and work for male run porn companies/ brothels/strip joints and forced/coerced/ won't get paid if they don't perform acts men want to see and do.
So tell me again how they are in charge of their own body?
When from birth they are pressured to look, talk and act like men want them to? Men who own the advertising want them to. Men do not encourage us to have big minds and big vocabularies.
They encourage us to have breasts bigger than our mind, a snatch that looks like a 12 year old girls and to refrain from using words bigger that f**k me, more, harder, faster, yes daddy, oohhhhh.
They don't want to hear the enlarged vocabulary we have after graduating from University, I notice there is no real mention of the emotional & mental harms of this after women are all used up and done.
Have many had to go into counselling years after they were done? How many years later would they find out the problems that they were having in their life was in fact PTSD? How many would have trouble having/maintaining healthy relationships? How many women would in fact develop substance abuse issues?
You like to paint a very pretty picture on this, shame on you. You forgot out the MAJORITY of women in prostitution & porn in this study.
Rating: -11
i wish this had a dislike button i could hit a thousand times.
Rating: +6


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