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


39 responses to “The Question of Choice

  1. Wife, mother, sister, daughter, since lots of people find no problem with stripping, I suppose they would be happy to see their significant others doing the work
    I forgot to mention that before.

  2. It’s a complex issue, and no broad sweeping statements about it can be made. I am sure there are women forced into this by lack of other options and may be considered victims, just as I am sure that this represents a deliberate choice by some others. You may have never met those that embrace this lifestyle willingly, but that doesn’t mean they’re not out there.

    I will concede that probably far more are victims than not.

    I respectfully submit that you need to acknowledge the truth that not everyone embraces the same moral standards that you do with regards to this issue. When women engage in a lifestyle that you don’t understand or approve of and can’t see yourself in doesn’t mean they are all, without exception, sad, victimized, and degraded.

  3. Bandobras – No, I’m sure they don’t.

    Susan – Where in all of this did I ever say I don’t approve of “the lifestyle”? When did this become a question of my moral standards? I am not casting judgment on a “lifestyle” here. People are absolutely free to choose whatever lifestyle they wish. I have no problem with “lifestyle choices”. And I wish only the best to the 10% of women who are in the sex industry voluntarily and hope they stay safe and healthy. It’s the other 90% I’m concerned about here. The ones who aren’t there voluntarily. And this 90% is an actual, statistical figure, not an opinion. Look it up. Should I be approving of women being forced into the sex industry?

  4. I inferred your disapproval from the overall tone of your last article in this vein; my apologies for apparently reading too much into your vehemence.
    I don’t doubt your figures, and I wasn’t in the least implying that anyone should approve anyone being forced into anything.

  5. I agree. We live in an area of the city where street prostitution was an issue. It’s more or less under control now.

    Some people have a vision of Julia Roberts standing on a street corner. That’s far from the truth. The fact is all (and yes, they were known) prostitues were drug addicts — most of them crack addicts looking for a way to subsidize their habits. Usually looking far older than they actually are. Some my sing the song of having chosen this life. But I know many many haven’t…

    (Then there is the entire side issues of all the others impacts of prostitution on the affected neighbourhoods.)

  6. Susan – No need to apologize. I like a little heated debate now and again. My vehemence was because people seem to be looking at this whole industry as harmless fun — guys get their rocks off & the gals get big bucks; where’s the problem — The reality is it’s a scary, dangerous business run by some very nasty people. It’s a profession that’s been around forever and I don’t for a minute expect that’s ever going to change. It would just be nice if it wasn’t quite so dangerous and if we could leave the nasty people out of it and that the men and women who do the work are really there because they want to be. And I certainly don’t look down or think less of anyone who has done this work for whatever reason.

    Nat – I would imagine that if you’re in that life you have to find a way to cope with it and convincing yourself that it’s your choice and that you’re in charge is a way of coping — as are drugs and alcohol. Shuffling prostitutes out of neighbourhoods is certainly not dealing effectively with the problem. They just move elsewhere to ever more dangerous areas. The prositute on the streetcorner is not the problem; the problem is the social/economic issues that put that prostitute on the streetcorner in the first place.

  7. I guess I’m confused…yesterday’s post was about strippers. So, my comment on yesterday’s post was in regards to strippers, NOT prostitutes. Maybe it’s different in Canada, but where I am, there is a huge difference between a stripper and a “sex worker” i.e. prostitute.

    I am not naive enough to assume that there is never any hanky-panky going on behind the scenes at a strip-club, but it seems a little unfair to group strippers and hookers into the same category.

    In most clubs I’ve been to, there is more a similarity between a runway model and a stripper than there is between a prostitute and a stripper. Models and strippers use their bodies to make money. Both are shown in various forms of undress. You can’t touch a runway model, and you can’t touch a stripper. (Again, here…not sure what it’s like in another country.)

    Both can have addictions and other issues, but not all of them do.

    I just wanted to clarify that I was commenting on strippers, not prostitutes…

    ~Ann O.

  8. In a former life I was an outreach worker and counselor to people suffering from abuse, addictions, homelessness, etc. The hardest part about my job was trying to get my clients to understand that they really did have choices. It always amazed me how quickly someone could fall into such a mess and get so entangled. The effort required to untangled was more than they could bear.

    So many of them were caught in a horrible Catch-22. To make proper choices and have the energy needed to put things back on track, they needed to be living a life that was free from abuse, addiction, etc…which obviously isn’t where they were or they wouldn’t be in that kind of mess.

    I got so burned out, I had to leave the profession. *sigh*

  9. Ann – You must live in a very unusual place. As Lebowski noted earlier, the industry here has been taken over by organized crime. There is no such thing any more as a stripper that just dances without touching. They make their money on tips and they only get tips if they do lap dances and work the back rooms. Then they have to split those tips with the DJ, their “agents”and often with the house as well. Not a lot of these women are there because they want to be. That’s why I’m grouping them together as sex trade workers. I’m glad there are places where this work doesn’t appear to be as dangerous.

    CP – YES! Like women who are victims of domestic abuse. “Why don’t they just leave?” is a question that confounds us all. We think they’ve made a conscious choice to stay with their abusive partners, but they haven’t. They no longer know the meaning of the word “choice”

  10. Everytime I look at an old really gross dollar bill I think to myself: I wonder where you have been.

    Then I go and wash my hands with Alcohol, somtimes I will drink some other kind of Alcohol just to make sure nothing got on the inside I would have to worry about.

    I don’t got a lot to add to this subject.

  11. Oh yeah I got one more thing, John McCain dated a stripper and was very proud of this fact. Maybe he can get Palin a pole for her V.P. Office. Just a couple of Mavericks, you Betcha.

  12. Have been. Dont go anymore as it is pointless to me.
    Dont want my wife or grown kids there either. They want to go, I wont approve and since I went I can’t say much about it other than how I feel.

    To each it’s own but not for me.

  13. Cedar – Alcohol is definitely called for across the board. Why was Mccain proud of dating a stripper?

    Hunter – What exactly do you mean, you won’t let your wife go to see a stripper??? How do you stop a grown woman from doing something she’s interested in doing?

  14. I banged a stripper for a while but it was back in the good old days when stripping was more like burlesque.
    She was a whore – just not a pro.
    I never mentioned organized crime did I????
    However I was always amazed at the caliber of the women from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia who were stripping in the Niagara Region….. so many Med students and Law school students from there come here!

  15. When I spoke to my ‘stripper friends’ my one time at a Strip club (with women) most of them were in grad programs and were paying their way through by stripping. I remember one saying, “it’s not that bad! the pros out way the cons big time.”
    She went on to add that she only has to work two, maybe three nights a week to pay all her bills, including school and the job gives her the ability to be able to study.

  16. I’m curious about the 90% stat. How many of that 90% are actually strippers? Sex trade workers is a large category and I’m not sure you can apply it directly to this conversation with out it broken down by actual “job”.

    I would think that 99.99% of street prostitutes are not there by choice, and I would think that the percentage for strippers is a lot lower.

  17. I didn’t really have a comment for this before, except to say that in the U.S. every citizen has a right to an education. If they choose not to take advantage of that, that is their choice. I hadn’t thought of foreigners. And the thing is, for every sad story you hear about how someone ended up on the street, you hear a story of someone who came from the street using education to make a better life. School is free, libraries are free. It’s all about choices.

  18. Lebowski – You’re such a romantic. If she was a whore, what did that make you? And yes, it’s amazing how many strippers are grad students from away.

    Helen – Okay, I surrender. Strippers are mainly students working their way through school.

    MG – Yes the 90% covers all sex trade workers – prostitutes, massage parlour girls, etc.. There isn’t much difference.

    Cedar – Him and Lebowski

    Geewits – A kid who comes from a family where he/she’s abused, neglected, taught he’s worthless, never encouraged; or where there’s no money for the basics of survival, doesn’t learn, doesn’t seek out higher education because he barely learned to read. He’s on the streets at a young age hustling to stay alive. Yes, some amazing people turn their lives around even through all this, but most don’t. Choices are easy for people who feel they’re entitled to make them, who can envision a brighter future, who know they’re worth something. You’re strong, smart, gutsy. You probably can’t thing of an instant when you were forced to do something because you just couldn’t see any other options. Too many people live day in and day out full of fear — fear of starvation, fear of violence, fear of illness. The free library isn’t even within their realm of consideration.

  19. Terrific discussion.

    I think most ‘decent’ human beings who want to go to make use of sex workers (strippers or prostitutes) need to convince themselves that the myths are true (eg, that most of the sex workers are grad students putting themselves through school, that they’re making tons of money, or that they’re all nymphos who love their work). To allow themselves to understand what’s really going on would take all the fun out of it and be incompatible with their concept of themselves as decent human beings.

    As XUP said earlier, there’s nothing wrong with sex trade work per se. It’s only because so many sex trade workers are doing it because they feel they have no choice and no way out, that it is ugly and exploitative and wrong.

  20. “MG – Yes the 90% covers all sex trade workers – prostitutes, massage parlour girls, etc.. There isn’t much difference.”

    I think that’s a little naive. There is a huge difference between someone giving dancing and giving lap dances at a club vs someone having sex in a dirty back alley.

    My original point was that if you say 90% of all sex workers are not there voluntarily and apply that across the board, that means 1 in 10 women having sex for money in dirty back alleys are there by choice.

  21. Got to agree with Zoom all these people trying so hard to believe that the sex workers are doing it cause they want to.
    I still don’t understand though why all the gangs, pimps, and hustlers out there have to have so much control of all these workers who love what they are doing.
    Wake up people there are very few in the industry working this way because they want to. There are very few students getting through school with this. If you are patronizing the industry you are helping to abuse and degrade the vast bulk of the people working in the industry and you are putting most of your money in the pockets of the scum who run the industry.
    If you want to do that that’s fine just have the balls to admit it and don’t try to gloss over your part in the abuse and degradation.
    Like I said before since you think its ok it must be okay for your sisters and daughters to. Think how easy it will be for them to work their way through school catering to customers like yourself.

  22. I just read this and the previous post, plus the other blogger’s post that triggered it. I would never go to strip clubs, don’t even want to see a strip club scene in a movie, and would leave a man who went to one. I don’t care what people say about women “empowering themselves” – in my book, strippers are simply particiating in their own degradation. I could not tolerate a man taking part in that. I’m not a prude about sex and what people do in their own bedrooms doesn’t concern me in the least, but sex, ANY kind of sex, for sale disturbes me greatly.

  23. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again and again, street level prostitution is rape. A girl is forced onto drugs, or beaten until she’ll have sex with a man so she won’t be beaten anymore… how is that not rape? If a man beats a woman and forces her to have sex with him it’s aggravated assault and aggravated sexual assault. If a man has sex with a girl who has been beaten by someone else and who is only willing because otherwise she’ll be beaten again or deprived of the drugs she is addicted to suddenly it’s considered something else entirely… instead of being convicted as a rapist and spending serious time in jail and maybe acting as a serious deterrent, suddenly he’s a “john” and gets to go to “john school”.

    Selling young girls on the street to the highest bidder is not an industry, it’s slavery, assault and rape…

  24. Zoom – I appreciate your input as something of a subject matter expert. And I suppose it never occurs to “clients” either that if the sex workers were telling their actual stories instead of the “grad student getting through school” stories, they’d lose most of their “clients”??

    MG – There’s no difference in women being forced to perform naked in front of, on or with a client. Why do you find it impossible to believe that someone would choose to prostitute themselves in “dirty back alleys” yet find it completely plausible that someone would choose to prostitute themselves in dirty back rooms of strip clubs? Surely you don’t believe that strippers make money by dancing?

    Bandobras – I think the idea of someone not having free will is very foreign to many people. I, myself, can’t personally relate to the idea of not being able to decide important things for myself, but I can understand it intellectually. Still it’s very hard to grasp, especially with strip clubs since they seem to be legitimate businesses and everyone pretends it’s all just a bit of fun.

    Citizen – I hear ya. And not, as Zoom says, so much as a concept, but because the people selling and profiting from the bodies being sold are not the people to whom the bodies belong.

    Gabriel – Very true and good illustration. But why stop at street level prostitution? Any woman (or man) who’s forced into performing sexual acts (initimate massage, lap dances, porn movies, etc.,etc.) by their circumstances is being sexually assaulted/raped, no?

  25. There’s a big difference between a seventeen-year old girl being convinced she’s moving from Halifax to Ottawa to live a better life only to find herself living in a single room with only a mattress and no clothes except the ones her pimp gives her when she’s being forced to have sex with strangers so her former best friend and now pimp won’t beat her with his belt and an adult woman walking into a strip club with a resume.

  26. Lebowski – no you were a john.

    Gabriel – except the point I’ve been trying to make it that for the most part women don’t go into strip clubs with resumes, they’re trafficked from eastern block countries (and other places and sent to strip clubs by their “agents” –under aged girls as well & in order to make the big bucks for their agents they have to spend a significant amount of time in the “private dance rooms”. I don’t think we’re disagreeing here, maybe just have a different idea of what being a stripper is all about

  27. I would let her go, as I can’t stop her and wouldnt try to stop her. But my preference is that she doesn’t.
    Really, if she wants to go ….get with it and go…I am SURE there is a benefit there for me in the long run. Again, I have been and she has too, but it is just a bit pointless to me. For her it may not be pointless, so more power to her.

    !\_ _/!

  28. What an interesting thread. Not much to add to it, just wanted to say I enjoyed reading it, makes a good diversion from running.

  29. I posted that link to to illustrate that some strippers may not be victimized by their work. The statement “I don’t believe for an instant that a woman with a solid sense of self would choose to do this for a living” isn’t fair to the dancers – they may enjoy things completely alien to you or me. I was not suggesting that “ lots of women become […] prostitutes because they love the work and feel empowered by it.”

    On my blog you tell me that I “believe all the cards are stacked in the [dancer’s] favour” which is news to me. My point is that some strippers may choose to do that job. Helen commented on this post that a stripper told her “the pros out way the cons big time”; both Anonymous #1 and JB from your previous post said similar things.

    XUP – It’s an interesting conversation, but there seems to be a bit of miscommunication going on. I’d be grateful if you quote my posts to illustrate what I’ve said, rather than putting words into my mouth.

  30. The “90% of women who are in the sex trade in Canada” doesn’t seem applicable to stripping. It’s from an article that deals solely with prostitution and brothels, and doesn’t mention stripping. As MG said: there’s a big difference between stripping and prostitution.

    Even the Migrant Sex Workers from Eastern Europe study mentions that the sex worker(s) on the committee “found the word ‘trafficking’ inappropriate since it portrayed all sex trade workers to be helpless victims who did not choose their work” (and they also thought it might scare off interviewees).

    I’m trying to say is that there may be strippers who don’t feel degraded by their jobs. The only websites I can find that deal how women feel in sex-related jobs talk about prostitutes, hence my link yesterday.

  31. Last post before I hit the sack… (honest!) =)

    XUP – You asked me how I’d feel if a close relative became a stripper. Inherent in that question is “what would I do if a rellie became a stripper?” You know my answer.

    Let’s turn the question around: what would you think (and do) if a close relative of your decided to be a dancer? Just for kicks, consider a coercive and a non-coercive establishment…

  32. Hunter – Okay, just curious

    UA via Jazz – Nice to have you stop by! I guess you gotta stop running some time.

    Erigami – I think/hope I know my daughter well enough to know she would never chose to work in this industry. If she were, somehow to end up there, I’d know something was very wrong and I’d do everything necessary to help her.

  33. I could probably write a book on my experiences of living on the streets, and what I’ve seen and heard (well, fortunately not literally on the streets).

    It’s been ten years ago since, and I haven’t written about it or mentioned it to very many people, and yes, I did stay at Covenant House a few times. =P