Research Study in Canada Shows Needs of Rural Sex Workers

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North America and Caribbean Regional Correspondent

On the 20th of May in Brantford, Ontario (Canada), a report was released by Dr. Stacey Hannem and the organisation REAL that assesses the needs of rural sex workers. The report is called “Let’s Talk About Sex Work: Report of the REAL working group for Brantford, Brant, Haldimand and Norfolk. Assessing the Needs of Sex Workers in Our Communities.” The full report is available here.

Hannem believes the “study is important to get a better sense of the differences (and similarities) between rural and urban sex work and to shed some light on how the small-town context affects sex workers’ experiences of stigma and their ability to engage with the community.” Hannem says, “for the larger community, it is also an important step toward opening up a frank and non-judgemental conversation about sex work and becoming more inclusive as a community.”

A key issue that came up in Hannem’s research was the need to recognise the prevalence of voluntary travel for work (which often involves third parties) in the rural context, and to ensure that this kind of travel for work is not conflated with trafficking by local authorities and social service providers. As Hannem says, “in this context, travel may be due to market demands (i.e. temporary travel to larger urban markets), or it may be to avoid identification and stigmatisation as a sex worker in a small community.”

Another key point that was raised by this research is in connection to the relationship between sex workers and law enforcement. “Given that this is one of the first studies to be conducted following the implementation of Bill C-36 [new anti-sex work legislation that was passed in Canada in December 2014], it is important to note that many sex workers in our region are unaware of the changes in the law and do not know that they can no longer be charged with communicating (except under certain circumstances) and that the changes in the law have not engendered any more trust in law enforcement or made sex workers more likely to approach the police,” says Hannem. She notes that, “although it is early days, the legal changes do not appear to be having the effect of encouraging sex workers to report assaults. This points to the fact that a simple legal change does not itself improve the treatment of sex workers by law enforcement, nor does it undo years of mistrust and abuses of power.”

The report was released in conjunction with REAL’s website launch and a workshop that brought together social service and health service providers. Hannem was pleased with the number of people who attended and their engagement with the workshop material. Arlene Jane Pitts, a sex work activist from Toronto, spoke at the workshop about her own research, Remembering Bedford: Impacts of Criminalisation of Street-Based Sex Work.

Alex Tigchelaar, a sex work activist from Toronto, was a research assistant on the study. Tigchelaar spent the summer of 2015 with fellow research assistant Betty Williams driving around rural southern Ontario interviewing sex workers. She notes that exchanges with health service providers were occasionally strained as they shared divergent views about sex work being labour but was also pleased to meet health service providers with more sex work positive views. While interviewing workers for the study, she says, “it was clear that stigma posed an issue in seeking social and health services and that those who did have open, non-stigmatising relationships with their service providers were more likely to seek help with issues directly related to their work.”