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 away from what you see in Pretty Woman.
I used to work at a community mental health team in Vancouver’s downtown eastside—Canada’s poorest postal code. It’s a neighbourhood full of horrific trauma, addiction, and other forms of mental illness. There’s also extreme poverty and sometimes 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. Why wouldn’t they view their own bodies as disposable when that’s the message they’ve been given their whole lives? While most women are working at night, some also work during the day. It’s not uncommon to see workers 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 considered fair game for those looking to buy sex.
This area is sometimes referred to as the “low track”. This is 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. While he was convicted of 6 killings, he confessed to 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 doesn’t get 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.
Supporting the vulnerable
A couple of blocks from the office where I worked, there 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 worked 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 and security camera
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 that she was really unwell. 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 less available an option for desperate men. 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.