Tamara O'Doherty

Lack of violence among off-street sex workers

June 28, 2007

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By Marianne Meadahl

Contrary to popular perceptions about prostitution and violence, more than two-thirds of off-street sex workers who participated in a recent SFU study say they don’t experience violence while working.

Sixty-three cent of the study participants—who work in massage parlours, for escort agencies or independently out of their homes—have never experienced violent behaviour.

Those who did said the majority of incidents were related to a client’s refusal to pay or to wear a condom.

School of Criminology grad student Tamara O’Doherty, who conducted the study, says her findings suggest that the off-street sex trade is safer than it is for the 10–20 per cent of prostitutes who work at the street level.

"The lack of violence as shown in this study doesn’t reflect what many people typically fear about prostitution in general—that it is a dangerous profession," says O’Doherty, who surveyed 39 off-street sex workers and conducted in-depth interviews with 10 women involved in the sex industry.

The women were mainly Caucasian, aged 22–45, and earned an average of $60,000 annually working four days a week. Ninety per cent had some post-secondary education and more than a third had a university degree.

O’Doherty says the findings suggest that potentially violent men target street prostitutes.

That "should be no surprise," she says. "Street sex workers, forced to work in isolation with little or no protection from police, are ideal prey for violent men."

O’Doherty argues that exploitative working structures and the quasi-legal status of prostitution severely compromise sex workers’ safety.

Instead of protecting these vulnerable women, she says, "we have enacted laws that further marginalize and expose them to harm."

O’Doherty’s thesis supervisor, criminologist John Lowman, says the research is at odds with the Conservative government’s prohibitionist approach to prostitution.

"This research suggests that Canadian prostitution law exposes street prostitutes to extreme violence, while many women in the effectively legal off-street trade are working violence free."

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