Shining a red light on the world's oldest profession

September 1, 2000

Canadian researchers are delving into the daily realities of prostitutes' lives. Philip Fine finds out why

Laws governing prostitution have too often been based on data from crisis situations, says a Canadian researcher, who is embarking on a health and social study of the profession's more stable practitioners.

The joint study, from Concordia University in Montreal and the University of Windsor, will look at how the health and well-being of sex workers is affected by policy. The teams will be cracking open the law books and gathering stories from the streets in the hope that they can make legislators understand the effect their laws have on prostitution.

Frances Shaver, a Concordia sociology professor and sociological authority in the field of prostitution, is asking the question:"What kind of policies can we have that protect sex workers?" She is hoping that the three-year study will not only translate into better laws but will also help change public perceptions of street prostitution, escort services and nude dancing. She would like to see the public go beyond the stereotype of seeing sex workers as "16-year-olds being abused by dirty old men".

Dr Shaver, along with Eleanor Maticka-Tyndale, Jacqueline Lewis and Leigh West (all from Windsor), will receive a C$352,424 (Pounds 161,000) grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to, in part, study the working conditions of prostitutes, information that, she says, never makes it to the often-cited statistics culled from police stations and psychiatric facilities.

"Some women will come to work, park their cars and then drive back home after their shift. It's more heterogeneous than we are led to believe," Dr Shaver says of sex workers. "Some want to stay in the business, but they need safe working conditions."

Shaver, 55, does not shy away from taking a stand on the decriminalisation of prostitution. She would like to see the Canadian law on prostitution taken off the books. Federal law makes it illegal to negotiate or solicit for sexual purposes. She knows some researchers may not be as categorical as her and she says it is up to the individual academic to take a stand on laws with which they disagree. She believes that it is most important that her work remains empirical.

Her advocacy began when she was young, doing socially committed work for the United Church in Vancouver and later visiting prisoners, many of whom were prostitutes. In 1983, she was asked to join an advisory council for the federal justice department. Her credibility among Montreal's prostitutes has been helped by what she describes as a "non-splashy approach to prostitution" and helping community groups that have helped her - some of which have been let down by the academic community.

"They have been burned before by researchers who rush in and get their article published," says Dr Shaver, who is trying to raise additional funds for her non-academic partners who are not eligible for money from the SSHRC.

Claire Thiboutot, the director of Stella, a Montreal outreach project run mostly by current and former sex workers, is happy that Stella is one of the four community groups working on the study.

She says the information on working conditions, which will partly be gathered by her fellow counsellors, will help her lobby government for better laws, as well as help to educate the public better.

30 researchThe Times HigherJseptember 1J2000 Sex workers: academics hope legislators will understand the effects of their laws photonica stone

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