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September 14, 2000 Sex Workers will be helped by major study




The health and well-being of sex workers, a domain affected by public policy but usually overshadowed by rhetorical discourse over morality, will be the subject of a three-year field study by Concordia sociologist Frances Shaver and two of her colleagues at the University of Windsor. The project has secured a research grant from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of more than $350,000.

The study will chart the impact of public policies on the health and well-being of workers in the sex industry, including street prostitutes, escorts and exotic dancers. Shaver and her colleagues, Jacqueline Lewis and Eleanor Maticka-Tyndale, will also conduct interviews with sex workers in Montreal and Toronto. They are working in partnership with four community organizations, including the Exotic Dancers' Alliance of Ontario and Stella Montreal, a group advocating sex workers' rights. Ultimately, the researchers will formulate guidelines to maximize the health and safety of workers in the sex industry.

Shaver, Vice-Dean of Student Affairs in Arts and Science, said that the health and well-being of sex workers need closer examination because "the voice of this group of people isn't being heard." In order to develop "sound legal and social policy, we really do need to gather the knowledge of what's happening," she said. The fact that the study is being federally funded is "a good sign," she added.

Shaver, who has written about the sex industry and has done research in the field since 1985, emphasized that "health and well-being concerns around the sex trade don't begin and end with STDs [sexually transmitted diseases] and AIDS." They may, in fact, include matters ranging from being underdressed in winter to encountering verbal and physical abuse, and from being evicted from an apartment to losing custody of children because of the job, she said.

A situation of risk

In fact, sex workers are sometimes affected differently by public policies than other citizens, Shaver said. An example is the Victims' Compensation Act, which offers recourse to victims of injury or theft while at work. To a prostitute who is beaten or robbed on the job, such recourse might not be available because she is deemed to "have put herself knowingly in a situation of risk," Shaver said.

A more direct example of public policy impact on the health, safety and well-being of sex workers is the so-called Pilot Project in Montreal's centre-south, which was recently scrapped following a public outcry. The project would have seen guidance by social workers towards prostitutes, rather than arrests by police — in Shaver's view "an interesting, non-criminal approach to try and deal with prostitution."

The fallout of the cancellation of the project has been felt on the street scene, Shaver said. Police have started "a more repressive campaign," she explained, and "others have taken it as a license to get more aggressive." The entire uproar, Shaver said, "has had a negative impact on the sex workers, with an increase in violence, physical and verbal abuse."

Another example is the licensing of escorts. In Ontario, for instance, working for an escort agency requires a license. But, as Shaver pointed out, "everyone pretends that sexual services are not a part of that package," making it impossible to adequately address health concerns over sexual contact. This "hear-no-evil, see-no-evil attitude" prevents rational discussion of appropriate health measures.

A similar problem affects anti-prostitution policies in general, Shaver said. They tend to be "short-term quick fixes," like clean-up campaigns. "In my opinion, they'll do nothing except move prostitution around, displace it to another area," she said. "We've been doing that for 200 years, [but] it only increases the risks to those men and women who are working in the business. It's time we learned to do something different."

Shaver and her colleagues aim to compile as complete a list as possible of policies that affect jobs in the sex industry, and analyze their impact. The fact that they have received an SSHRC grant to study the issue indicates that "there's a clear sense that it's a really complex problem," she said. "It's not a simple problem with a quick-fix solution."









Copyright 2000, Concordia University