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Prostitution – Another escort death has sex trade workers debating how to stay safe

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In the early hours of Jun 30, 20-year-old Chantel Brittnay Robertson, an
escort, went missing. Days later, Robertson’s remains were exhumed
from the yard of an Edmonton residence, and the medical examiner concluded
that she had been strangled to death. 
 

Reports of Robertson’s murder, the second death of a sex-trade worker
in less than a month, immediately renewed calls to crack down on those who
buy sex and do more to get the women who sell sex out of the
business.
 

However, others, like Carol-Lynn Strachan, counter that this
anti-prostitution or abolitionist approach is actually the root of the
problem.

“It has murdered. It has killed women. It has had them beaten. And it
has driven them out of the city. If this is what they hoped to accomplish,
then good, they’ve done it!” Strachan exclaims,
indignantly.
 

A prostitute for over 20 years before retiring from the business to pursue
other interests, Strachan is also a member of the Sex Trade Workers of
Canada, a group of about 500 prostitutes and human rights activists
concerned with the rights and safety of those involved in the sex
trade. 
 

“[The abolitionists’] whole thought of eradication is one of
the top reasons women are found out in the Strathcona County fields. If
this [approach] is working then how come we find so many women
dead?”
 

There are already anti-prostitution measures in place in Edmonton, Strachan
notes, pointing to the prohibitive $1700 licensing fees women must pay and
the criminal background check that women must pass in order to get an
escort license.
 

The problem with these measures, Strachan argues, is that if a prostitute
wants to operate indoors, more often than not they turn to street-level
prostitution first, in order to get enough money to pay the exorbitant
fee. 
 

Furthermore, women who want to escape the often violent streets to work in
what Strachan describes as the safety of an escort agency often cannot get
a license to do so, because they can’t pass the criminal record
check. As a result, these women continue to work on the streets, hoping
they don’t get killed, or they advertise themselves illegally on
internet dating sites and hope the authorities don’t catch them and
slap them with a hefty fine. 
 

What we should be moving towards, Strachan says repeatedly and with
exasperation in her voice, is legalization of prostitution and all the
activities surrounding it, for the safety of all the women who want to be
in the sex trade. 

 

For some, the idea that any woman wants to be in the sex trade may be hard
to swallow. But it is an idea that Strachan unwaveringly defends. She
believes that about half of women involved in street-level prostitution
want to be there. When asked about indoor prostitution through businesses
such as escort agencies and massage parlours, Strachan says the figure is
probably even higher, maybe even in the area of 99 per cent.
 

However, a 1998 report, “Prostitution in Five Countries: Violence and
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” states the opposite, saying that 92
per cent of women involved in prostitution want out of the trade. A
different report examining prostitution in about a dozen countries,
conducted in 2003, agrees, saying that 89 per cent of prostitutes want out
of the business but cannot leave for various reasons, including not having
other means of economic support, threats of violence against them if they
leave, mental health issues or problems stemming from drug and alcohol
abuse. 
 

Statistics like this can’t be trusted though, Strachan says, because
they’re usually conducted by organizations whose business it is to
get women off the street and thus have a financial investment in the
matter, or they are conducted by groups morally opposed to the whole
business of prostitution.
 

The perception that most prostitutes are mentally ill, or abused, or drug
or alcohol addicts or were all forced into the business, is also false,
Strachan argues. She points to herself as an example of someone who
consciously chose to be a prostitute, until, she says, she “just got
bored of it.” There are some drug-addicts, mentally ill and victims
of human trafficking in the sex trade, Strachan admits, but she says they
are the exception and not the rule.
 

The real problems aren’t drug addiction or mental illness, Strachan
says. One of the problems is when sex trade workers fail to follow safety
protocols. The death of Chantel Robertson probably could have been avoided,
Strachan says, if Robertson’s driver had stayed outside the
client’s house instead of driving off for an hour and leaving her all
alone before coming back. Alternatively, some kind of call-in procedure
could have also been followed, meaning that if Robertson hadn’t
called her driver by an agreed-upon time, someone would have come to
Robertson’s rescue within minutes.
 

The other problem, Strachan says, is that prostitutes who report violent
men to the police are often not taken seriously. 
 

“You have to force the police to press charges,” Strachan
gasps, but she hopes legalization could change that.

 

Tristine White advertised herself illegally on internet dating sites for 10
years, before finally “finding some self respect” and getting
out of the profession. White agrees with Strachan that the $1700 fees that
escorts are forced to pay is nothing more than “legalized
pimping” by a city that offers sex trade workers little assurances of
safety in return. 
 

White disagrees, however, with the idea that the majority of women working
in the sex trade made an educated decision to do so. As an Aboriginal woman
who looks Caucasian, White explains that during her childhood she was
accepted by neither her Aboriginal nor her white peers. As a result, White
got involved in drugs and alcohol with some fellow misfits and eventually
started to have underage sex. As she puts it, she was presented with a way
to finally fit in, and what she thought was a great way to make
money.
 

“After a while, you lose your self respect and think, ‘Well, I
might as well charge. I mean, I’m giving it away for
free,’” White says.
 

When it comes to legalization, White is adamantly against the idea. First
of all, she points out, the business is inherently unsafe.
 

“Unless there’s someone sitting on that couch with you, or in
the room with you, you’re not safe. If he’s going to kill you,
he’s going to kill you no matter what.”
 

For this reason, some organizations fear that legalization will only result
in more women getting into the sex trade and, as a result, more women being
hurt.
 

“By legalizing prostitution, you’re saying its okay to buy
someone else and do whatever demeaning thing you want to them,” White
says. She then demands, “How much do you think you’re worth?
What’s your worth to be fisted? And would you want your daughter
working in the brothel?”
 

In a worst-case scenario of what legalization could bring, White is afraid
that women will one day go to an unemployment office to collect welfare,
and be turned away because prostitution will be considered a legitimate way
of earning a living.
 

“They’re going to be told that they can go work at
Billy’s Brothel because they have a vagina! They’re
employable!” White exclaims.

Monica Valiquette has worked as a street-level prostitute and an escort for
30 years, and has no plans to quit. Legalization, she says, is something
that she definitely supports.
 

Over the phone, as she cheerfully drives to a client’s apartment, she
says that government officials should consider adopting a model like the
one that was adopted in New Zealand a few years ago.
 

In New Zealand, prostitution between consenting adults and everything
surrounding it has been legalized.
 

“They’ve basically built a brothel [the size of a city
block],” Valiquette explains. “The girl can still market her
wares on the street. And when the fellow is prepared to hire her, he goes
[over to an attendant], shows his ID, rents the place for $15, and gets the
room for the hour. They do their thing and he leaves.
 

“Basically, somebody is watching the girl at all times in the sense
that they know she’s there—they know the room’s been
rented.” Valiquette summarizes.
 

The idea sounds great in principle, but according to some critics, it is
White’s nightmare come to life. Impoverished New Zealand Aboriginals
make up a disproportionate number of the prostitutes in brothels like
these, and while legal prostitution has doubled under such systems as this,
illegal prostitution is thought to have quadrupled. 
 

Furthermore, a recent report on the sexual exploitation of children notes
that “the presence of a thriving adult sex industry in a community
[has] the effect of increasing child prostitution in that same
community.”
 

In addition to this, police records show that in the Nevada state counties
in which prostitution is legal, the rape rate is roughly 50 per cent higher
than it is in the rest of the United States, even when compared with other
major urban areas like Los Angeles.

And so, the debate about what to do about the world’s oldest
profession rages on. And with a hint of sadness in her voice, White proclaims
that it will probably continue to do so, forever. V 

4 Comments

  • Safety is always a concern when a woman is working as an escort. I agree that legalization of prostitution will contribute to safer working conditions. Many women working in this trade did not plan to take on the profession, but whether it’s a job out of necessity or by choice, all sex-trade workers deserve a safe environment.

    • should go without saying, but apparently needs to be said, that this does nothing to address the safety concerns of women in prostitution or the inherent contributing issues. That is an overwhelming simplistic understanding of the entire issue.

    • Prostitution IS legal in Canada. It is legal to prostitute ones self here; that is a common misconception. What is NOT legal is living off the avails of prostitution (pimping) and the purchase of a persons body for sexual use (Johns). What is being proposed is the legalization of Johns to purchase the sexual “services” of a prostituted person, and in effect, a third party to legally profit off of the avails (pimps/ brothel/ massage parlour owners etc) It should go without saying, but apparently needs to be said, that this does nothing to address the safety concerns of women in prostitution or the inherent contributing issues and dangers applying to both indoor and outdoor prostitution. That is an overwhelmingly simplistic understanding of the entire issue.

  • should go without saying, but apparently needs to be said, that this does nothing to address the safety concerns of women in prostitution or the inherent contributing issues. That is an overwhelming simplistic understanding of the entire issue.

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