"It's like there's no escape from this," said Bowen, whose study was published in November. "Sex workers would expect from predators this hate speech and this rage and all that stuff. But they wouldn't necessarily expect it from a co-worker five years after they transitioned out of the industry." The participants, ages 20 to 61, were either no longer working in the industry or leading "dual lives" by holding two jobs, concealing each from the other. None of them had worked on the streets. Bowen gathered their stories in 2012 in a period after Ontario's Superior Court struck down key prostitution laws. At the time, activists were girding for battle in Canada's top court that was ultimately decided in their favour.
"Sex workers would expect from predators this hate speech and this rage and all that stuff."
Bill C-36 makes sex trade more dangerous: advocates
Government-funded transition programs ask participants to supply their social insurance number and require pledges never to return to the industry, said Vivian, who was not part of Bowen's study. Employment insurance often isn't an option, she added in an interview. "It's so brutal. I'm always checking my words," said Vivian, 34, whose name was also changed to protect her identity. "If people ever were to find out about you, everything you have is gone." The stigma is pervasive throughout society, said Bowen, who spent two decades as an outreach worker and executive director for Vancouver's PACE Society, which promotes safer conditions for sex workers. "It's everywhere," she said. "I guess we like oppressing people, or maybe we gain some personal value or elevate ourselves by devaluing somebody else."
"If people ever were to find out about you, everything you have is gone."
Bowen emphasized people join the sex trade for a variety of reasons and only an estimated five to 15 per cent actually work for survival. One single mother named herself a "hockey ho" to describe selling sex to afford her son's sports activities, she said. Vivian identified herself as part of that silent majority, noting she is middle class and always had options. "Everything I did was a choice," she said. "I refuse to say 'I did what I had to do.' But that's the only way to avoid stigma." Society asks people leaving the industry to erase their pasts, she added. But she said she knows many empowered sex workers.
"I guess we like oppressing people, or maybe we gain some personal value or elevate ourselves by devaluing somebody else."
"We're not horrible people or victims," she said. "My story is the most common, but you never hear from people like me. I would completely ruin my future." Advocates including Bowen are calling for the government to enshrine violence against sex workers as a hate crime, noting that occupation is not a protected category. They're also recommending more funding for evidence-based transition programs. "It starts with legislation, unfortunately, and the social values will shift later." — Follow @TamsynBurgmann on Twitter
"We're not horrible people or victims."
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