We’re all familiar, at least to some extent, with the sex trade. If nothing else, you may have seen the movie Pretty Woman. The level of desperation in the survival sex trade, though, is galaxies removed from what’s portrayed in Pretty Woman.
I used to work at a community mental health team in Vancouver’s downtown eastside, the location of Canada’s poorest postal code. It is a neighbourhood full of horrific trauma, addiction, and other forms of mental illness, along with extreme poverty and often atrocious living conditions.
It is sadly all too common that women desperate to feed their addiction will turn to the sex trade. Chances are they’ve experienced sexual abuse from a young age, and why wouldn’t they view their own bodies as disposable when that’s the message they’ve been given their whole lives. While there are more women working at night, there are still some working during the day, and they can be seen getting picked up by men with car seats in the backseat. Often the women are obviously dressed for work, like the woman in the picture above, but not necessarily. Almost any vulnerable woman is seen as fair game for those looking to buy sex.
This area is sometimes referred to as the “low track”, in contrast to the “high track” that doesn’t really exist anymore (at least at street level) where women were relatively less desperate and charged more. Many women from the low track have gone missing or have been found dead over the years. In the 1980’s and 90’s multiple sex trade workers became victims of serial killer Robert Pickton, who was convicted of 6 killings but confessed 49 murders to an undercover officer.
The local bad date list, currently released by a local organization called WISH and based on worker self-report, shows the violence that sex trade workers are regularly subjected to. The list is published and distributed on a regular basis to locations where sex workers are likely to frequent. It’s not something that gets posted online, so the image above from Getty Images in 2002 was all I could find to give you a hint of what women are exposed to.
Despite getting raped and beaten, the call of addiction is extremely powerful, and a $5 blowjob will buy a hit of crack cocaine.
A couple of blocks from the office where I worked was a unique supported housing program. It was ultra-low-barrier all-women (trans-inclusive) housing for women who were highly vulnerable. Many of the residents were engaged in the sex trade. The residents were allowed to do dates in their rooms, but as they brought men into the building, they had to walk past the staff office. They were also captured on camera as they entered the building.
While some might argue this made the building a brothel, it was a tremendously important way of keeping the most vulnerable women safer – not only safer from their dates, but it made it easier for them to avoid being trapped under the control of a pimp.
I had a client who lived there. Like all of the women there she had a horrific history. She had a drug-induced movement disorder, and it was immediately obvious to anyone who looked at her that she was really not well. Yet she might do 20 dates a day. Had it not been for that supported housing program, I don’t think her life span would have been very long.
While some males are forced into the street-level survival sex trade by addiction, from what I understand the demand tends to be for younger men, so it’s not necessarily going to be as available an option for desperate men as it is for desperate women. For desperate women, it seems that regardless of any personal factors there will be demand within the street-level sex trade.
While there may be some people who engage in sex work by choice, the survival sex trade is not a choice. But despite the dehumanizing treatment that these women are subjected to, they’re still people who are remarkable survivors. And they deserve society’s compassion rather than judgment.
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