Q & A: What Does Prostitution Really Look Like?
It may be difficult to fathom how prostitution could ever be considered glamourous, but in recent years, a combination of popular media and prominent sex workers has begun to change the face of prostitution. High-class call girls like Samantha X, who were fortunate enough to work for agencies that vetted clients, speak openly about the empowering nature of their work. Belle De Jour, later revealed to be a PHD student trying to make easy money, published a blog and book that painted a glossy, alluring portrait of prostitution as a get-rich quick strategy with an edgy side.
Meanwhile, the media has capitalized on the image of prostitution as a profession for sexually powerful people who love their work and, of course, make plenty of money doing it. From the fictionalized version of Belle de Jour in Secret Diary of a London Call Girl, to the student-turned-escort from The Girlfriend Experience, to the sweet-faced protagonist of Pretty Woman, the media offers palatable, seductive depictions of the world’s oldest profession, selling empowerment, agency, and a healthy side of glamour.
DECSA’s Kathy Brown, manager of our Transitions program, tells a different story. Having
worked closely with women in the sex trade, she’s witnessed the ugly, undignified, and exploitive side of prostitution—the one both media and activists don’t necessarily discuss. Using her outreach experience among sex trade workers as a guide, she joined DECSA to make a difference to victims of sexual exploitation.
Here, she deconstructs the popular view, giving us a glimpse of the real face of prostitution.
Q: What is your background?
A: My previous job was the director of the Women’s Outreach of the Salvation Army Crossroads Church in downtown Edmonton. For the past three years, I was the volunteer team lead for the Women’s Outreach Van, which travelled through the hotspots for the sex trade in downtown Edmonton on Monday nights. A team of four or five women went out from 9 pm to 2 am to provide bag lunches, clothing and community to the homeless, addicted and/or sexually exploited on the streets.
Q: The media often presents sex workers as either drug-addled victims or icons of feminine power. Is either of those close to the truth?
A: Neither of those is a very apt description of the people I have met in the sex trade. For the most part, I have met workers who are simply doing what they have to do to get by while living in a very expensive area of the world. Just like everyone else, they have dreams and aspirations that have not come to fruition. The family and/or community of their childhood most often was broken, causing trauma that often goes unattended and unhealed. There is a deep desire for community and belonging that is often perceived to be a chasm too large to attempt to cross. They are not to be pitied or glamourized. Their resiliency, however, is admirable.
Q: What kind of women did you meet?
A: Our target population was sexually exploited women and we would see anywhere from 10 to 50 women in a night. The majority were Aboriginal and the age range was 15 to 65 years of age. Most did not have stable housing and were clearly socioeconomically disadvantaged, since they were hungry and needed clothes. Typically, women on the streets suffer with drug addiction as well.
Q: What led them to the sex trade?
A: In terms of women on the streets, we found that a common story was that most if not every one of them were sexually abused as children by someone in their immediate or extended family. Then usually by the age of 13, an older man would approach her, tell her how much he loved her, and ask if she would come with him. He might even promise they would get married. The girl would leave with the man and begin living with him. He would introduce her to drugs and she would get addicted. Then, the man would either claim he did not have enough money for rent and ask the girl to “work” to earn the necessary money, or he would tell the girl she owed him money for rent and drugs and threaten her with harm if she did not go “work”.
Q: The media and pro-prostitution activists talk a lot about choice. Do you think sex work can ever be a real, informed choice?
A: This is difficult to answer as there are many different opinions, even among those who work in the sex trade. One of the most impactful events I have been involved in was at City Council when they were deciding whether or not to lift the moratorium on body rub parlours earlier this year. I was there to tell the story of one body rub parlour worker who was working minimally in the parlour to earn enough money to get diapers and formula. I brought her diapers and formula the following week, and she exited the business. She entered school to train to be an aide in the health care field.
At the same City council meeting, there was a body rub parlour owner who spoke as well. This owner claimed that those working in the parlours made an informed choice, but she said that, of course, no one wants to work in the sex trade.
Q: So, what proportion of the women you’ve worked with want to exit the sex trade?
Q: If they want to leave so badly, why do they stay?
A: When I think of the young woman in the story above, and others that I know, I believe that most do not have marketable skills and are unable to find alternative employment. I also believe that many simply don’t know how to go about getting into mainstream employment and education. There is often a great deal of healing that needs to happen in the person’s life, along with life skills, understanding the trauma that they have often been subject to, and assistance in becoming employment/education ready. The employment climate in Edmonton is dismal right now and we do not have sufficient affordable housing and transportation, in particular, to inspire this population of women to make a choice to leave their current work.
Q: Would you say that the public view of the sex trade is inaccurate?
A: When I was recruiting volunteers to minister on the street, the most common misconception they had was that women working in the sex trade would be glamourous like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. They were quite surprised when women would sit and talk and be dressed just like most of the volunteers were dressed. I remember the first time one of my friends came out with me – she thought there would be lots of drama and fighting among the women. She ended up in tears most of the night as she realized how different the reality was from her misconceptions.
I would like the public to know that most if not all sex workers arrived at this point not through a series of choices, but through a series of traumas.
DECSA’s Transitions program, which has been running for over fifteen years, aims to bridge the gap between sex work and conventional employment. The program helps clients learn life and employment skills so that they can begin to rebuild their lives, adopt healthier lifestyles, and find employment that will lift them out of poverty. Meanwhile, we help our clients work through trauma, understand their worth, and free themselves from sexual exploitation.
If you or someone you know needs assistance exiting the sex trade, contact us. We are here to help.