There’s a certain idea of the prostitute in our collective cultural consciousness. She’s the woman pictured above most articles about sex work, often wearing fishnet stockings, standing on a street corner or leaning into a car. However, University of Victoria sociologist Chris Atchison says that is an extremely limited understanding of sex work. “The street-level sex industry is about 10 percent of the population—but more realistically five percent.”
Alice Ayres, a local sex worker, isn’t keen on the popular trope of the prostitute. She works as a licensed-body-rub practitioner at two salons in Edmonton. Far from being miserable, Ayres says, “It’s something I would say I enjoy.”
Ayres has been working in the industry for a year. She, like many others, didn’t know that sex work was legal in Edmonton—if you are over 18, it is not illegal to work for an escort agency, or as a licensed body-rub practitioner in a body-rub salon, and neither is it illegal to loiter—until a case challenging the country’s prostitution laws made it in front of the Supreme Court last year. In the Bedford Case, retired dominatrix Terri Jean Bedford was influential in Canada’s highest court, striking down the country’s anti-prostitution laws in a unanimous 9-0 ruling in December. One year was given for new legislation to be written. Curiosity about this case led Ayres to look into sex work as something she could pursue for extra income. “A lot of my exes used to joke I’d make a great dominatrix,” she says.
The executive director for the Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation, Kate Quinn, says there are many types of people who work in the sex industry.
“I would say there is a continuum and there are some at one end of the continuum who say, ‘I’m a sex worker. I’m self empowered and I’m self employed.’ Along that continuum there would be others who have no options because there are economic drivers in their lives such as being in debt and having no viable other way to earn a living.”
Part of CEASE’s outreach program involves text messages sent to sex workers found on Backpage, an adult classified website. Ayres says she finds these messages annoying and mentions a time when, as a test, she sent a request for help. The reply came four days later. “What if I actually needed help?” she asks.
But Quinn explains the texting project has had four, four-week campaigns since last year and involves messages written by a former sex worker being sent out to let current sex workers know about bursaries available for them to go to school and crisis lines if they ever need to talk. People who ask not to be contacted again are removed from the list.
“We are not 24-7,” Quinn says. “We have five full-time staff—and I’m one of them—so our staff person may not have been able to get back as quickly as the person may have desired.”
The public’s perceived ignorance about prostitution combined with the lack of voices from sex workers themselves is something that Atchison is working to change through Understanding Sex Work, the largest and most comprehensive single investigation of Canada’s sex industry since the field studies done for the Fraser Committee inquiry in 1984.
“While females may represent 70 to 80 percent of people selling sex, very little is known or said about the 20 to 30 percent who are male or transsexual/transgender,” Atchison says. “We know even less about the attitudes, beliefs, experiences and behaviours of the people paying for sexual services who, even by the crudest of estimates, must outnumber the people providing sexual services by a ratio of 10 to 1.”
Now, with Justice Minister Peter McKay introducing a new bill on June 4 (as of press time no announcement had been made) that will most likely be based on regulatory regimes from Sweden, Iceland, and Norway—known as the Nordic Model—where selling sex is legal but purchasing it is not, all parties who are involved with sex work are anxiously waiting to see what will happen.
Ayres is against the Nordic model. “It further stigmatizes and harms sex workers,” she says.
Atchison isn’t fond of it either. “Now, while I would love to drink the Kool-aid that is being passed around by those campaigning for the so-called ‘Nordic Model’ which calls for the criminalization of a class of people based on their single shared characteristic of having purchased sexual services, I think that it would probably be wise to first understand a little bit about who these people are, what attitudes they hold, and how they behave,” he says. “I’m not an advocate for any particular thing, but I am sure as hell in favour of harm reduction.”