Debate sheds light on students in sex work

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      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




      Apr 29, 2010 at 6:15pm

      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.

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      Jim Martin

      Apr 29, 2010 at 7:40pm

      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.


      Apr 29, 2010 at 9:06pm

      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.

      Madame Scarlett

      Apr 29, 2010 at 10:55pm

      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.............!

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      Ingrid Nevin

      Apr 30, 2010 at 2:45am

      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.

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      Apr 30, 2010 at 12:51pm

      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.


      Apr 30, 2010 at 3:37pm

      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.

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      Apr 30, 2010 at 4:05pm

      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.

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      Let It Rain

      Apr 30, 2010 at 5:41pm

      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.


      Apr 30, 2010 at 5:45pm

      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.

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