London Community News
Part 2 of a three-part series documenting the sex trade industry
By Paul Everest/For London Community News
They are mothers, sisters and wives.
Some come from poverty where they experienced abuse and violence, others come from stable homes where they had the opportunity to go to university or build a family.
There really is no typical profile for the women in this city who work in the sex trade, but one common challenge they all face, said Treena Orchard, an assistant professor at Western University’s School of Health Studies, is the “problematic assumption that these women are entirely different from everybody else.”
“They’re a lot of different kinds of people and that’s very important to contest very simplistic stereotypes that are, unfortunately, very powerful,” Orchard said. “They’re lives are just as complex as ours.”
Orchard is conducting ongoing research on London’s sex trade to learn more about who the women are who engage in sex work, what issues they face and what their needs are.
One part of her research was interviewing 23 different women in 2010 and 2011 who have worked in several different aspects of sex work, ranging from street-level survival sex work to exotic dancing to massage parlours.
The interviews focused on a “cluster of issues,” she said, such as how women became involved in sex work, what kinds of sex work they are engaged in, what their childhoods were like and what their experiences and needs are when it comes to accessing health and social services.
From these conversations, Orchard found many women entered the sex trade due to “factors that destabilize” their lives such as addictions, violence from family members or partners and homelessness.
The majority of the women taking part in the study started out in the sex trade from the allure of the money available through exotic dancing, or other forms of “exotic labour,” as well as the extra cash they could make on the side having sex with customers, Orchard said.
A “significant percentage” started off working independently without a manager or pimp, but some were kidnapped, pimped out, or coerced into the sex trade by members of organized crime who introduced the women to drugs and partying.
The lowest rung of the sex trade ladder is street-level survival work, where women sell sex primarily to stay alive or support their addictions.
Street-based sex work makes up 10 to 15 per cent of the sex trade in any city, Orchard said, while other forms of “indoor sex work” comprises 75 to 80 per cent of sex trade activities in Canada.
Most women interviewed for Orchard’s research have ended up having to resort to street level survival sex work at one time or another.
But she said the role of drug addictions in the sex trade varies from case to case.
Some women had experience with drugs prior to becoming sex workers, while others were not introduced to narcotics until they entered the trade.
Generally speaking, however, the addictions “deepened” after the women began engaging in sex work, Orchard said.
“Part of that, of course, is a way to deal with what they’re doing.”
She also found through her research that the role of pimps or managers in the sex trade is declining and many more women, at least those not working in strip clubs or massage parlours run by motorcycle gangs or other organized crime groups, work independently.
Such independence, Orchard said, makes the women more vulnerable to violence.
She couldn’t provide an answer as to why such a shift was taking place, but said most of the sex workers she spoke with wanted to keep the money they made and preferred to “be their own boss.”
Another aspect of Orchard’s research included “social mapping,” where women working in the sex trade were asked to indicate on a map of London’s “east of Adelaide” area where they live, work, access services, buy and use drugs and places they avoid.
“The social mapping is designed to get a sense of how geography shapes human activity,” Orchard said. “The east of Adelaide neighbourhood is very stigmatized terrain.”
Through the exercise, which was completed by 10 women, Orchard found that most women accessed social services in the area east of Adelaide Street and the “main strolls” for sex work were clustered in the Dundas Street and Hamilton Road areas.
The women tended to avoid the downtown area, especially the intersection of Richmond and Dundas streets, as they did not want to be triggered by the high availability of drugs in that area.
Orchard said the avoidance of this area is a problem for some sex workers, however, as many of the organizations offering financial assistance to the women are located in the downtown core.
Part of Orchard’s research also includes looking at just what kinds of services sex workers need and how accessible those services are.
She said the women she interviewed identified mental health, addiction treatment, affordable housing, social assistance and the availability of social or case workers as the services they need the most.
When asked how they would like to see such services expanded or improved, the women said they wanted to see an increase in the number of staff who have experience interacting with sex workers, extended hours at services such as health care and addiction clinics, more services outside the east of Adelaide Street area and more safe, clean affordable housing in the city.
One organization striving to fulfill such needs is My Sisters’ Place
(MSP), a local support service for women.
Susan Macphail, the facility’s director, said 20 to 30 per cent of the women coming through MSP’s doors are actively involved in street-level survival sex work and the facility has set up a number of programs to assist and support these women.
Such programs include education on harm reduction, anger management and healthy relationships, outreach services specifically aimed at sex workers who have spent time at the Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre and need help re-establishing themselves in the community after their release, and the availability of a nurse practitioner — since many women often cannot, or will not since they feel unwelcome, access more mainstream health care services.
Macphail said women working in the sex trade often have very “acute” health care issues such as infections, sexually transmitted diseases, poor nutrition and a high proportion of cases of untreated hepatitis-C and HIV.
Beyond these services, MSP is open to women who may simply need to come in for a nap or a shower or talk to someone.
“Our whole point is to engage, rebuild trust and then start to make those inroads and interventions,” Macphail said.
One of the biggest and most common underlying issues for women who work in the sex trade and use MSP’s services is the presence of “trauma” in their lives.
Cass Wender, a transitional support worker based out of MSP who works with women in the sex trade, defines trauma as a violation of a person, such as acts of neglect or physical abuse, usually in childhood, that disrupts a person’s emotional, physical and mental well-being.
It can create depression, anxiety or mental illness and is often the “ground from which substance abuse springs,” Wender said.
“Because people seek substances to calm all the chaos and hurt and distress that they are experiencing.”
Dealing with that problem, she added, is the core focus of most of the services and support offered by MSP and other local organizations that help sex workers.
This series concludes next week.
Night shift: The human side of London’s sex trade industry (Part 1 of 3)