The Question of Choice

I wanted to follow up on yesterday’s post with a bit of a discussion on the question of “choice” when it comes to a career in the sex trade industry.

The bulk of sex workers in Canada are very young girls, well below the age of consent, and/or foreign women brought to the country essentially as slaves and/or other women in desperate straits. Read Canada’s Status of Women publication, Migrant Sex Workers from Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union: The Canadian Case for a very comprehensive picture.

Recent research shows that over 90% of women who are in the sex trade in Canada are not there voluntarily, they have become sex workers due to trafficking, drug abuse and other social problems.[1]

Some of yesterday’s commenters included links to blogs allegedly owned by women in the sex trades. These blogs were supposed to support the idea that lots of women become strippers and prostitutes because they love the work and feel empowered by it. I’ve read through these and other blogs in the past and all I see is a lot of pain and bitterness and sadness. Yes, they’re trying to work through this with their blogs; trying to convince each other and themselves that there is power in what they do, trying desperately to uplift themselves, to heal their wounds.

When I lived in Toronto, I volunteered with Covenant House, working with street kids who eked out a living by panhandling and prostitution. They came to the city to escape abusive homes or maybe just because they weren’t getting along. Covenant House offered them food, shelter and the infrastructure to get on their feet, go back to school, find a job, whatever suited them. Some took advantage of the opportunity. Many, many more “chose” instead to stay on the streets.

The pretty, and older looking girls and boys were recruited by agents who worked them out of strip clubs. The less attractive were picked up by pimps and worked the streets.

Many of them kept themselves high so they could keep doing the work and then they kept doing the work so they could stay high.

From the outside it looks like these kids had a choice to connect with the opportunities Covenant House presented or stay on the street and become sex workers. I don’t pretend to understand why a physically strong, reasonably intelligent 14-year old boy would forgo the chance at an education or a job in a restaurant in favour of blowing old men in their cars for a few bucks – most of which he’ll fork over to the older boy who’s “looking out for him”.

For those of us who do not come with the life experiences of the men and women in this industry, it is simply not possible to comprehend the concept of not having any real choices.

We can’t compare this to choosing to work at Wal-Mart or McDonald’s or a call centre. These jobs offer some sort of future, some skills training to build a resume, there is EI eligibility, there is recourse if the employer is abusive, your fellow employees don’t turn up buried on some pig farm. You can leave whenever you want to.

I see sex trade workers as victims. They are victims long before they are drawn into the profession. And they’ll continue to be victimized until we, as a society, recognize this and focus on healing our wounded and preventing more women from being victimized so they will have choices in their lives.



** There are spin-off discussions on this topic at Bandobras blog as well as at Pie Palace