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New study to shed light on sex trade

Researchers interviewing Canadians who buy sexual services

Credit: ThinkStock

A new study that will collect firsthand accounts from people who purchase sexual services could help fill a gap in what is known about the dynamics of the commercial sex industry in Canada.

By creating a safe venue where participants can share their experiences without fear of judgment, persecution or prosecution, researcher Chris Atchison, of the University of Victoria, hopes these perspectives will lead to the development of more effective policies and programs.

“Our gauge has been almost uniformly placed upon street-based survival sex workers,” he explains, referring to a form of prostitution engaged in by those in extreme need.

“And when it comes to developing effective policy and intervention — whether that be in the form of legal or social intervention or just educational programs or outreach — they are being developed on this partial knowledge, which dramatically impacts the likelihood of them being effective.”

While a lot of research has been done on individual female sex workers’ experiences, little has been collected about the other players and how they interrelate. These consumers of sexual services are commonly perceived to be linked with presumed, as well as documented, harm and violence.

Atchison’s study — Sex, Safety and Security — aims to create a more complete picture by reaching out to a wide range of buyers from different sexual and socioeconomic backgrounds. It engages these individuals and couples through self-administered questionnaires and in-depth interviews.

Chris Bruckert, a board member of POWER, an Ottawa sex workers’ rights group, and a professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa, says there is a need to develop empirical proof of what’s happening. “It’s really important to fill out the picture and get us away from ideology and presumptions and into an area where we’re talking about what’s really going on here,” she says. “It’s also just respectful, and appropriate, to go to the actual people who are engaging in the behaviour you’re interested in and ask them about it.”

While sex work is legal in Canada, most activities relating to it are not. For example, it’s prohibited to communicate for the purpose of prostitution in public. This means sex workers can’t offer their services in public spaces, like on the streets. Prostitutes are also forbidden from offering their services in fixed indoor locations like brothels or their homes.

In March 2012, the Ontario Court of Appeal deemed this last law to be unconstitutional, saying it placed restrictions on sex workers’ ability to protect themselves and compelled prostitutes to work in dangerous isolation. Canada’s top court issued a one-year suspension on the ruling after announcing it would be reviewing the decision, and then extended it until the date of the trial. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the prostitution challenge in June 2013.

Atchison says that by providing solid evidence and specific information about the people who purchase sexual services in Canada, his research could eventually influence these kinds of legislations and policies. “We want to be able to say, ‘Here is the body of evidence. Here are the varieties of experiences. Here is how it can impact the policy or program or strategy that you’re developing, and here is what you need to consider,” he says.

This study is one of several projects currently looking at issues of gender, conflict and health in Canada’s sex industry. It’s funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

For more information or to take part in the study, go to