Stigma worst barrier for sex workers leaving the industry, study finds

VANCOUVER -- When Cheryl's manager discovered the 38-year-old used to work in the sex trade, she says he joked that a name plate on her desk read "pubic relations.

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Kayla, 61, was in a new job too when she says a police officer informed a colleague she had formerly been a "prostitute and a junkie." She lost the job and saw no option but returning to the sex industry.

Both women encountered the degrading treatment when they attempted to leave sex work for new occupations, an obstacle that a recently published study calls the "whore stigma." The women were among 22 Vancouver sex workers interviewed for a peer-reviewed article in the Canadian Review of Sociology.

The women, whose names were changed in the study to protect their identities, reported challenges from name calling to violence, identifying the stigma they faced as the most challenging barrier to leaving the sex trade, said researcher Raven Bowen, who studied criminology at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C.

"It's like there's no escape from this," said Bowen, whose study was published in November.

"Sex workers would expect from predators this hate speech and this rage and all that stuff. But they wouldn't necessarily expect it from a co-worker five years after they transitioned out of the industry."

The participants, ages 20 to 61, were either no longer working in the industry or leading "dual lives" by holding two jobs, concealing each from the other. None of them had worked on the streets.

Bowen gathered their stories in 2012 in a period after Ontario's Superior Court struck down key prostitution laws. At the time, activists were girding for battle in Canada's top court that was ultimately decided in their favour.

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 2013 that Parliament can regulate the sex trade, but not at the expense of the safety and lives of sex workers. However, the former Conservative government responded one year later with Bill C-36, which banned the buying of sex.

Advocates argue the revised law makes the trade even more dangerous for workers, and that a $20 million government transition fund created in tandem wasn't enough and was saddled with too many restrictions.

Making the career switch is like shifting from playing jazz music to dentistry, said Bowen. Former sex workers also feel compelled to keep secrets, she said, which makes accessing resources, education and job opportunities more difficult.

It took two attempts for Vivian, a retired sex worker now making strides toward a professional career, to leave the industry.

Government-funded transition programs ask participants to supply their social insurance number and require pledges never to return to the industry, said Vivian, who was not part of Bowen's study. Employment insurance often isn't an option, she added in an interview.

"It's so brutal. I'm always checking my words," said Vivian, 34, whose name was also changed to protect her identity. "If people ever were to find out about you, everything you have is gone."

The stigma is pervasive throughout society, said Bowen, who spent two decades as an outreach worker and executive director for Vancouver's PACE Society, which promotes safer conditions for sex workers.

"It's everywhere," she said. "I guess we like oppressing people, or maybe we gain some personal value or elevate ourselves by devaluing somebody else."

Bowen emphasized people join the sex trade for a variety of reasons and only an estimated five to 15 per cent actually work for survival. One single mother named herself a "hockey ho" to describe selling sex to afford her son's sports activities, she said.

Vivian identified herself as part of that silent majority, noting she is middle class and always had options.

"Everything I did was a choice," she said. "I refuse to say 'I did what I had to do.' But that's the only way to avoid stigma."

Society asks people leaving the industry to erase their pasts, she added. But she said she knows many empowered sex workers.

"We're not horrible people or victims," she said. "My story is the most common, but you never hear from people like me. I would completely ruin my future."

Advocates including Bowen are calling for the government to enshrine violence against sex workers as a hate crime, noting that occupation is not a protected category. They're also recommending more funding for evidence-based transition programs.

"It starts with legislation, unfortunately, and the social values will shift later."


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