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.

See Full Article


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."


Latest Canada & World News

  • Fire at Manila hotel and casino kills at least 3 workers

    World News CTV News
    MANILA, Philippines -- A fire engulfed a hotel and casino in the Philippine capital on Sunday, killing at least three employees, trapping two others and forcing the evacuation of more than 300 guests, some by helicopter, officials said. Source
  • AP Exclusive: Kushner Cos. filed false documents with NYC

    World News CTV News
    NEW YORK -- When the Kushner Cos. bought three apartment buildings in a gentrifying neighbourhood of Queens in 2015, most of the tenants were protected by special rules that prevent developers from pushing them out, raising rents and turning a tidy profit. Source
  • In Africa, Trump's firing of Tillerson a new sign of neglect

    World News CTV News
    KAMPALA, Uganda -- Ask some Africans what they think of U.S. President Donald Trump and they just shake their heads. That sense of indifference appears to have deepened after Trump fired his secretary of state at the end of Rex Tillerson's first Africa tour last week. Source
  • Bodies of 2 French skiers found after Swiss Alps avalanche

    World News CTV News
    BERLIN -- Swiss authorities say they've recovered the bodies of two French skiers killed in an avalanche in the Swiss Alps but two other skiers remain missing. Police from the Valais canton, or state, said the bodies of the two skiers, aged 20 and 25, were found buried under six metres of snow in in the Vallon d'Arbi area of southwestern Switzerland near the borders with France and Italy. Source
  • Turkey says its forces now control Syrian town of Afrin

    World News CBC News
    Turkey's president said Sunday that allied Syrian forces have taken "total" control of the town center of Afrin, the target of a nearly two-month-old Turkish offensive against a Syrian Kurdish militia, which said fighting was still underway. Source
  • Four Chinese pandas to be moved to Calgary after 5 years in Toronto

    Canada News CTV News
    TORONTO -- Today is the last chance to see the giant pandas at the Toronto Zoo before the bears head west to Calgary. Two of the pandas -- Da Mao and Er Shun -- arrived at the zoo on loan from China in 2013 as part of a global giant panda conservation breeding program, Source
  • Britain, Russia trade blame over poisoning of former spy

    World News CTV News
    LONDON -- Britain's foreign secretary said Sunday that the trail of blame for the poisoning of a former spy "leads inexorably to the Kremlin," after a Russian envoy suggested the nerve agent involved could have come from a U.K. Source
  • Amid spy row, U.K. accuses Russia of stockpiling a nerve agent

    World News CTV News
    LONDON -- Britain's foreign minister said Sunday that he has evidence Russia has been stockpiling a nerve agent in violation of international law, after a Russian envoy suggested the toxin used to poison a former spy in England could have come from a U.K. Source
  • Russia votes to hand Vladimir Putin 4th presidential term

    World News CTV News
    YEKATERINBURG, Russia -- Vladimir Putin's victory in Russia's presidential election Sunday isn't in doubt. The only real question is whether voters will turn out in big enough numbers to hand him a convincing mandate for his fourth term -- and many Russians are facing intense pressure to do so. Source
  • Russia votes but outcome is clear: 6 more years of Putin

    World News CTV News
    MOSCOW -- Russia's presidential election was tainted Sunday by unprecedented pressure on voters to turn out and incidents of suspected ballot box stuffing -- a barely democratic exercise that will grant Vladimir Putin another six years of power. Source