Myths and Facts

by Lara Purvis, Emily Symons, Chris Bruckert and Fred Chabot

MYTH: All sex workers are the same and share the same experiences.

FACT: Everybody’s circumstances are unique. It is crucial to recognize that we have many communities we belong to and that this informs our experiences, the support we get, how criminalized we may be, and what resources we are able to access. Some of us refer to ourselves as ‘sex workers’ while some of us do not. Our experiences in the sex industry vary greatly. For some of us, sex work is just a job. For others it may include violence, coercion, survival, getting by, empowerment, a source of pride, and everything in between.

MYTH: Violence is part of the job.

FACT: We refuse to accept that violence is a part of our job. While Canadian sex workers experience disproportionately high levels of violence, this is not inherent to our work. Vulnerability to violence can be attributed to criminalization and stigma. The criminal laws in Canada inhibit sex workers’ ability to work in safety. For example, many of us do not feel comfortable reporting violence against us to the police because we fear that drawing attention to ourselves may result in a criminal charge. The stigmatized nature of sex work means that violence against us is often not taken seriously. Sex workers are vulnerable to predators who target us. We can reduce violence against sex workers by challenging stigma and decriminalizing sex work.

MYTH: Sex workers are victims who need to be saved.

FACT: People often regard sex workers as victims, despite the fact that many current and former sex workers consider themselves to be nothing of the sort. Not only does this reinforce the notion that we are incapable of making and taking responsibility for our own decisions, it also invisibilizes the context in which our choices are made. Such a paternalistic view denies the agency of sex workers. When people are doing sex work when they’d rather not be, the problem is the lack of options, not sex work itself. Painting sex workers as victims is detrimental to improving our working conditions and it furthers stigma and marginalization. We demand rights, not rescue.

MYTH: All sex workers are survivors of childhood sexual abuse and sexual assault.

FACT: One in three women, and one in six men will experience sexual assault at some point in their lifetime, often before age 16. Like many people, some sex workers have experiences of sexual violence. The majority of people who experience sexual abuse or assault do not become sex workers. Sex workers often express frustration when service providers draw links to past or current experiences and sexual violence. We are the experts of our own lives, and if there is a connection, that is up to us to define.

MYTH: Sex workers are drug addicts.

FACT: Relationships to drugs vary with each individual. Some sex workers use drugs occasionally, some may identify as being dependent, and others choose to abstain completely. Some sex workers will tell you that there is no correlation between their work and drug use and that if they stop using, they will continue their work. The Toolbox: What Works for Sex Workers 5 Others will tell you that they engage in sex work primarily to buy drugs and if they cease using, they will choose to no longer do sex work. For those of us who use drugs, the criminalization of our work restricts our access to resources and harm reduction services. For example, most needle exchange programs are located in areas that are inaccessible to sex workers who are given boundary restrictions when they get arrested.

MYTH: Sex work is degrading.

FACT: Degrading is a relative concept. Let us name our own experiences; we are the experts of our own lives. As artist and sex worker Sadie Lune says, “Stop punishing me, just because you may not be able to imagine being me.”

MYTH: Sex work is easy money.

FACT: Different aspects of sex work demand different skills including interpersonal skills, business management skills, and technical skills. These skills are often not recognized. Sex work can also pose numerous challenges in terms of personal relationships, financial instability, negotiating stigma, and dealing with the stress of possible criminal charges. The lack of recognition afforded to the work and the skills we use and develop in the course of our work is a challenge if/when we transition into another line of work.

MYTH: Sex workers lack the education and skills for other job opportunities.

FACT: Sex workers come from all socio-demographic backgrounds. Many sex workers choose to work in the sex industry because it offers a relatively high level of income while affording us a flexible schedule. Regardless of a person’s reasons for doing sex work, we are worthy of the same human and labour rights as everyone else.

MYTH: Street-based sex workers want to leave the street.

FACT: Research shows that working indoors is safer and some of the most marginalized sex workers work on the street because they do not have access to the Internet, a secure home, or a telephone that would allow them to work indoors. That said, not all street-based sex workers are hyper-disadvantaged; some of us prefer the flexibility, autonomy, and unstructured nature of this sector.

MYTH: Arresting sex workers will get us out of the industry and/or connect us with resources.

FACT: Arresting sex workers creates bad relationships with police and others involved. A sex worker with a criminal record may have difficulty securing different employment, should they choose to transition into another line of work. Additionally, jail time disconnects us from our community, our support networks, and social services, and it may also threaten our housing.

MYTH: Sex workers are responsible for the spread of HIV and other STIs. 

FACT: Sex workers use safer sex supplies such as condoms at a higher rate than the general population. Criminalization increases our vulnerability to HIV and other STIs. For example, when sex workers are given drug and paraphernalia conditions upon arrest they can be charged for carrying clean needles or other harm reduction equipment. When condoms are unofficially used as evidence of sex work, there is a 6 POWER disincentive to carrying barrier protection. In order to maximize the health of sex workers as well as the general population, we must support harm reduction and decriminalization.

MYTH: The clients of sex workers hold negative attitudes towards women.

FACT: Sex work does not happen in a vacuum where misogyny and sexism automatically disappear. That said, a client is someone who seeks out a sex worker for any number of reasons including adventure, loneliness, sexual insecurity, companionship, kink play, or gender/sexual orientation exploration. Many sex workers have meaningful relationships with clients. Predators may or may not present themselves as clients but their intention is to inflict harm—not to purchase a service. They may seek out sex workers specifically because they perceive us to be easy targets due to criminalization and stigma; we are less likely to report an assault to the police, and if we do, we are less likely to be taken seriously.

MYTH: Sex workers suffer from low self-esteem.

FACT: Engaging in sex work is not an inherent barrier to a healthy self-esteem. Like any other occupational category, sex workers have varying levels of self-esteem. For some sex workers, the ability to be financially compensated for sexual services is a source of pride, while others find it challenging to maintain a healthy sense of self-worth in the face of the rejection and judgment we experience because of our work.

MYTH: Targeting and arresting clients will help fight violence and exploitation.

FACT: Clients are already criminalized under the Criminal Code of Canada. When clients are targeted and arrested, sex workers are further marginalized. For example, many of us who work indoors rely on information given by our clients such as their names, phone numbers, or a reference provided by another sex worker in order to increase our safety. When clients are targeted by the criminal justice system, it is challenging to ask for and access that information. Those of us who work on the street protect ourselves by working in well-lit and well-populated areas, working with others, and taking time to assess clients before getting into their vehicle. When clients are targeted by the legal system, they are less likely to access the services of sex workers who implement these safety strategies as it may increase their visibility and likelihood of being arrested.

MYTH: Fighting sex work will help to reduce human trafficking.

FACT: Many people confuse human trafficking with sex work. Policy makers, police services, and media sometimes use the two terms interchangeably. Sex work involves the consensual exchange of sexual labour for money or other goods. Human trafficking involves coerced or forced labour that may or may not involve sex. Even though trafficking into non-sex industry sectors arguably accounts for a bigger proportion of trafficking activity worldwide, anti-trafficking laws and policies have focused on the sex industry. Groups who have anti-prostitution or anti-immigration agendas sometimes use the umbrella of ‘human trafficking’ to garner support, ignoring the realities of sex work. Anti-trafficking laws and policies often harm sex workers and lead to the deportation of migrant sex workers. Clients and sex workers may be aware of instances of human trafficking and can be key allies. In order to fight human trafficking, we need to work with sex workers and their clients, not against them. 

MYTH: Sex workers are under the control of pimps.

FACT: The majority of sex workers, including street-based workers, work independently. Research has shown that there is a vast diversity of arrangements sex workers may have with third parties. Some choose to associate with colleagues to share resources, such as a workplace. Others prefer working for employers who can offer valuable services including equipment, protection, health and safety measures, contacts, advertisement, a workplace, and information. Some sex workers who work independently choose to hire third parties such as drivers, security, and photographers. However, in a criminalized and invisible industry, we lack the protections afforded to other workers in Canada such as the Labour Code. The procuring law criminalizes a wide range of our personal, business, romantic and sexual relationships and does little to protect us against violence and exploitation.

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