UVic study challenges conventional sex work narrative

Campus News

A new UVic study reveals sex work as an occupational choice, challenging the stigma that entry into the adult industry is by “predisposing factors beyond sex workers’ control,” reads the paper published with Sage Publishing on Jan. 30.

Funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the study found that sex workers—like most workers—choose to enter their industry, rather than ‘drift’ or be forced into it.

It also found that the motivation behind sex work mirrors ‘conventional’ work: economic desires, job satisfaction, and employment suitability.

Across six urban centers in Canada, UVic researchers conducted 218 in-person interviews of sex workers of mixed genders — 76 per cent identified as women, 17 per cent as men, and 7 per cent as transgender or transsexual. The participants ranged in age from 19 to 61 years old, averaging 34 years in age.

“Sex work carries a social stigma, primarily because prostitution is typically understood as outside of wage labour,” said UVic sociologist, and lead author of the study, Cecilia Benoit.

The stigma surrounding sex work makes it a difficult issue to map and manage, and sex workers continue to be one of the most marginalized groups in Canadian society.

Studies on sex work, including those by UVic, break down the stigma to facilitate a health-based approach to reduce workplace violence and drug use, and promote STI protection, among other issues related to sex work.

In 2014, Benoit was the lead author of a working paper on the sex industry which found that sex workers “have much in common with other Canadians”—many are Canadian- born, in their 30s and 40s, and have formal education.

Among other findings, the paper stated that sex work conditions needed improvement. Fifteen per cent of sex workers had at least one sex-work-related injury, yet only 1 per cent had submitted a claim to the Workers Compensation Board.

Of the sex workers surveyed in the 2014 paper, 69 per cent reported using a condom every time they had sex with a client in the previous month, echoing the concerns raised in the 2017 study where participants reported difficulty in maintaining their terms of service as they were conducting their business in different locations and conditions.

In 2013, the federal government passed the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, or Bill C-36, which explicitly outlaws the buying, but not the selling, of ‘sexual services.’ It’s drawn criticism from sex workers for painting them as victims.

Participants in both UVic’s 2014 and 2017 studies reported that the measures to regulate and police sex work such as Bill C-36 were ineffective.

“Most sex workers do not feel exploited and most sex buyers are not oppressors,” says the 2014 study. “Efforts to reduce stigma, increase social integration, and reduce barriers to services and supports will decrease conflict and violent victimization. This will require attention to changing the structural axis of power.”