Sex Worker Stigmas
What is a High-Class Escort?
What is a Street Worker?
"I started acting out after that," Diane said. "I eventually got into drugs and alcohol, and I started working in bars and going to strip clubs."
In an attempt to run from her escalating addiction to drugs, Diane backpacked to Ontario where she said she was saved by a man that would eventually become her husband. Worried about their daughter, Diane's parents offered to help the newlyweds get back home to Airdrie. Little did they know, coming back home would make things worse for both Diane and her husband.
"I was back around my friends again and I ended up getting back into drugs, then my husband started getting into it," Diane said. "I ended up in a really bad domestic situation where social services was called and he was apprehended. I decided to walk away from everything and went to the streets."
Some see sex workers as beautiful, long-legged companions, also known as the "high-end escort" type. Others see them as homeless, drug-addicted street workers. While some do fall into either category, most are just ordinary women in unordinary situations, who tend to go unnoticed by society.
Amanda Baxter, who requested we not use her real name, works at Shift Calgary. A subset of AIDS Calgary, Shift is an organization that provides support services for those involved in the sex trade industry.
"I think people have these images of sex workers as either people on the street, or this really vampy, sexy escort," said Baxter. "In reality, those are both extremes of the spectrum."
In regard to the "extremes," Baxter explained women who are exploited and vulnerable will generally have a much different experience as a sex worker than the high-class escort type of woman who typically has the ability to control and manage her work environment.
Whether they are nursing students, single moms or just individuals trying to make ends meet, Baxter maintained that most are just "very ordinary women living very ordinary lives."
Scharie Tavcer, an associate professor in the department of justice studies at Mount Royal University, said she "knows some girls who started sex work because they didn’t have the money to buy their little kid winter boots."
Tavcer's academic research has focused heavily on feminist criminology theory, and she has worked with many women over the years who have been involved in prostitution, sex trafficking and sexual victimization.
"They think, okay, I'll just do it a couple of times so I can get my son some shoes and have a freezer full of groceries," Tavcer explained. "It starts becoming an addiction in itself. We all know minimum wage doesn't get you far, especially if you have a kid, medical issues or are in grad school. Life gets expensive."
Diane, a former sex worker in Calgary who requested her real name not be used, resorted to working the streets after she was kicked out of her home. Diane was adopted by a family from Airdrie, and described her life growing up as "normal and middle-class."
Photo courtesy of Sandy Manase
Photo by Anna Brooks
"Are you really making a choice when you have absolutely no other option?"
Detective Paul Rubner from the Calgary Police Service has worked with the VICE unit for the past four years, and said the majority of sex workers he encounters "have all been victims of some form of unwanted sexual contact at a young age."
"It just adds to their lowered sense of self worth," Rubner explained. "One youth I dealt with was abused by her father. He said that was all she was good at while he assaulted her. She will never be the same, and that's the same for a lot of these girls, even after they exit."
Her parents had adopted two other children, and Diane said she thinks her perception of sexuality started to change after she was molested by one of her brother's friends when she was only 10-years-old.
CLICK HERE TO HEAR FROM DIANE
Another stigma commonly heard regarding sex workers is that "it's their choice." For some, it is. But for the majority, it is not. Researcher Tavcer said what makes this particular debate so interesting, is when "adults of sound mind" are being discussed, then yes, it can be said they are making a choice. But, "are you really making a choice when you have absolutely no other option"?
"It is a choice, or is it a default because it all comes down to survival?" Tavcer added.
Diane said because of the sexual abuse in her youth, she discovered that the only way to get what she wanted from men was to be promiscuous. When she finally became involved in street sex work, she explained that she was "already having it taken all the time," so she thought, why not start charging for it?
In her mind, she was making a choice.
"The other choices I saw were robbing people or stealing," Diane explained. "But I didn’t believe in either of those things, so I thought at least this way [sex work] I’m making people happy."
In general, those who do not know much about sex work
lump women in the industry into two polarized, and often inaccurate, stereotypes of what it means to be a sex worker.
"I became agoraphobic, I had become so scared of society.
I was afraid that they just knew..."
— Diane, former sex worker