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In 2007, I published the findings of a three-year exploratory project on women's experiences in the off-street or indoor sex industry in Vancouver, British Columbia. (2) The research focused on the rates of victimization for women working in massage parlours, for escort agencies, and as independent sex workers. In surveying 39 indoor workers, I found that the majority of the respondents (67%) had never experienced any violence related to their sex work. These findings stand in stark contrast to the victimization experienced by women who work from the streets of Vancouver, where researchers report rates of violence as high as 98% of women experiencing violence in their sex work (Cler-Cunningham and Christensen 2001; Currie, Laliberte, Bird, Rosa, and Sprung 1995; Shannon, Kerr, Strathdee, Shoveller, Montaner, and Tyndall 2009). This study was not the first project to find such differences between the experiences of street-based and those of indoor workers in Canada: Lowman and Fraser (1996) similarly found that 60% of their respondents had never experienced violence while working in off-street sex work venues in Vancouver, and other Canadian studies consistently identify indoor sex work as being "safer" than street-based sex work (Benoit and Millar 2001; Bruckert, Parent, and Robitaille 2003; Jeffrey and MacDonald 2007).
Researchers from other countries have also found different rates of victimization for different prostitution venues. In the United Kingdom, Jeal and Salisbury (2007) reported that 79% of their indoor sex-working respondents had never experienced violence, while Sanders and Campbell (2007) found that between 76% and 79% of their indoor participants had never experienced violence. Jenkins (2009: 185) surveyed 483 indoor sex workers in England and found that 6.7% of the male respondents, 15.7% of the female respondents, and 40.9% of the transgendered respondents had experienced physical violence due to their sex work.
Given that researchers suggest that off-street sex workers constitute between 80% and 90% of sex workers in Canada (Benoit and Millar 2001; Lowman 2005; Pivot Legal Society 2006), it is apparent that many people engage in prostitution without experiencing violence. We can no longer simply assume that violence is an inherent part of prostitution; therefore, we must examine the issue in far greater detail to determine why some sex workers face inordinately high levels of violence, while others are able to work safely.
Advocates of sex workers' rights have long argued that violence is not a necessary component of prostitution; rather, they argue, a society's formal system of regulation facilitates exploitation and victimization in sex industries (Allman 1999; Bindman and Doezema 1997; Goodyear and Cusick 2007; Kempadoo and Doezema 1998; Lewis, Maticka-Tyndale, Shaver, and Gillies 2005; Marino, Browne, and Minichiello 2000). In Canada, prostitution is legal: both the provision and the purchase of services of a sexual nature are legal. However, communicating in a public place for the purpose of prostitution is criminally prohibited under s. 213 of the Criminal Code. Similarly, it is illegal, under s. 210, to use any place, on a regular basis, for prostitution (the bawdy-house laws); to transport anyone to a bawdy house (s. 211); to encourage or facilitate anyone to engage in prostitution for the purpose of gain (s. 212); and to live on the avails of prostitution (s. 212).
The cumulative effect of this system of criminal prohibitions has led many researchers and others to conclude that the laws, rather than the nature of prostitution, have created the current situation of street-based sex workers in Canada facing violence (Canadian HW/AIDS Legal Network, 2005: 45). After two decades of research into violence and prostitution, Lowman (2000: 1006-1007) outlined four general effects of "quasi-criminalization" in Canada. First, Canada's system of regulation contributes to victim-blaming by institutionalizing the attitude that sex workers "deserve what they get." Second, the system ensures prostitution remains firmly entrenched in illicit markets by requiring sex workers to offend the criminal laws in order to work in safety (in indoor venues or by hiring third parties to act as security or otherwise provide assistance). Third, criminalization appears to facilitate the link between prostitution and other illicit activities, such as drug use. Finally, the enforcement of the criminal laws results in sex workers' being forced to adopt oppositional roles in relation to the police and therefore being unable or unwilling to tutu to police for protection.
Many of these research projects addressing the impact of the prostitution laws in Canada gathered their evidence from samples of street-based sex workers. In Vancouver, street-based communication charges form approximately 95% of ai1 charges related to prostitution; off-street sex work is effectively ignored by law enforcement (Benoit and Millar 2001; Lowman 2005). Nevertheless, the criminal prohibitions have a variety of serious effects on indoor workers. Since indoor workers are the majority of sex workers in Canada, it is imperative that we understand the ways that the criminal laws affect and shape off-street sex work, too. Unfortunately, we know very little about off-street sex work in Canada. To begin to fill this gap, this article shares the findings from research with female off-street sex workers in Vancouver, BC. I will discuss the views of the 10 participants interviewed as to how the criminal laws affect their work in the Canadian sex industry. The interviewees contributed much needed detail to discussions about regulating the sex industry by explaining specific incidents and practical ways in which sex work is affected by criminalization.
The research project was created in collaboration with a team of current and former sex workers in Vancouver, BC. The project received ethics approval in July 2005, and the research was carried out during a nine-month period beginning in November of 2005. The project comprised both a survey component and in-depth interviews. The interviews were semi-structured; I was looking for specific information relating to victimization and the general experience of working in off-street prostitution venues. Participants were provided with a list of 17 potential interview questions prior to the meeting; however, the questions were simply proposed starting points for discussion, and the participants were advised to guide the interview to the topics that they identified as important.
The sample was self-selected using a non-probabilistic technique: I advertised the research via online escort directories and a secure Web site, by placing hard copies of surveys and contact information in the staff rooms at two local massage parlours, and by word of mouth. All potential participants were directed to a Web site containing the online survey as well as complete information about the research together with my contact information. Participants were given the option of completing the anonymous survey, which dealt specifically with experiences of victimization, participating in an interview to contextualize the data from the survey, or completing both the survey and the interview components of the research.
Participants were given three options for the interview: an in-person interview at a place of their choosing, a telephone interview, or an email-based interview. Eight of the participants chose in-person interviews, one elected the phone method, and one chose the e-mail-based communication. The interviews ranged from 1 to 4 hours in length. Like all research in this subject area, the data from the project are only reflective of the particular experiences of the women who participated in the study; the project's sampling methodology does not lend itself to statistical generalizations. However, for the exploratory purpose of discovering how different women experience prostitution in Canada, the sampling methodology does not pose any serious limitations to the study.
The interview participants were between the ages of 22 and 44 years old; rive were over 30 years old. The period of their involvement in sex work ranged from 2 to 20 years. For the most part, the women worked as independent sex workers (n = 9), though all but one had experienced multiple venues during the course of their sex-industry careers. One of the interviewees was no longer working as a sex worker; instead, she owned and operated a massage parlour. Two of the 10 began their sex work before the age of 18 and three had worked from the street at some point. Seven of the 10 had at least some university education with rive interviewees having completed a university degree. Only two of the participants were mothers.
In contrast to the over-representation of First Nations women in street-based sex work in Vancouver, none of the participants in either interview sample or in the survey sample self-identified as Aboriginal or Metis. The demographic results from my study indicate that very different socio-economic conditions exist for women in different parts of the off-street sex industry. Further, it appears that marginalized women (whether due to poverty, enduring racism in Canada, or other factors) may not have access to the safer venues of sex work in Canada.
The experience of sex work varies remarkably across venue and jurisdiction. In fact, the only conclusion that can be safely generalized across the industry is that there is a great deal of variety in all aspects of prostitution: the people involved, the types of services offered, the expectations related to the transaction, the reasons people sell sexual services, and the impact of selling sex on their personal lives. While the variation within the sex industry is considerable, the interview data of this project did allow the identification of a number of common concerns and …