Identifying Research Gaps in the Prostitution Literature

Research on Prostitution in Canada (continued)

Research on Prostitution in Canada (continued)

Research Priorities

1. Information about off-street prostitution.

One of the most conspicuous gaps in research on prostitution concerns the off-street prostitution trade in escort services, body rub parlours, massage parlours, steam baths, private advertising and various kinds of "exotic dance" establishment[1] (for important exceptions, see Lewis 1998, and Maticka-Tyndale, et al, 1999).

In the early 1980s, concern about the nuisance aspects of the street prostitution trade provided the main stimulus for prostitution research funding. When the federal government initiated research, public nuisance concerns shaped research questions. While many researchers were interested in including men and women working in off-street venues, most of the surveys of the 1980s and early 1990s involved street prostitutes. In the 1990s, the bulk of survey research was devoted to youth prostitution, most of which occurs on the street. The image created by these studies is of an inseparable link between prostitution and victimisation. But is this an intrinsic feature of prostitution, or an artefact of research methodology? One Dutch commentator (Vanwesenbeeck 1997) suggests the latter:

Prostitution … and victimization are often almost equated with each other. Many people assume that 9 out of 10 sex workers have been victimized sexually and/or physically, in childhood and/or in their adult lives, and that that must be the reason why they enter sex work in the first place…

Some of you may be familiar with American or Canadian studies that have come up with a very high prevalences. Silbert and Pines, for instance, interviewed 200 (current and former) street-prostitutes in the US in the beginning of the eighties, and found that 60% were sexually exploited as juveniles with an average of two perpetrators each. Bagley and Young in Canada … found 73% of 45 women to have been sexually abused as a child.

These figures are in sharp contrast with my own findings in the Netherlands. We found a bit more than 15% of some 130 sex workers (who were still working at the moment of interviewing) to report sexual abuse by a family member or acquaintance before the age of 16. All of these cases involved multiple and severe abuse… However, the picture is by far not as grim as the one sketched by Silbert and Pines and Bagley and Young. My explanation for this is that the American and Canadian studies focus mainly on street prostitutes, often recruiting their respondents in jails, and in so doing, often have investigated those prostitutes who are worse off. Indeed, our findings for the women working on the streets were comparable to those in these studies. But, when a diversity of prostitutes is taken into account, when sex workers are recruited in all different working sites to form a more or less representative sample, figures are clearly not as high. If one wants to say something about sex workers as a group, women working in all the various forms of prostitution will have to be taken into account in order not to confirm stereotypes about sex workers that are not even half true.

Much the same can be said about the findings of research on violence against prostitutes. Canadian research has shown that street prostitutes are frequently sexually assaulted, physically assaulted and robbed. A series of studies funded by the Department of Justice Canada in the mid-1990s revealed high levels of victimisation of Canadian prostitutes (Brannigan 1996, Fleischman 1996, La boîte à qu’on-se-voir 1996, Lowman and Fraser 1996). However, levels of violence may differ substantially in different areas of street prostitution (Lowman and Fraser 1996, Lowman 2000). Also, they vary greatly in different prostitution venues. For example, in a study of prostitution in Birmingham England, Kinnell[2] found that "violence was overwhelmingly associated with street work" and that off-street work was much safer by comparison.

While street and off-street populations are not mutually exclusive, many escorts and others working indoor venues have never picked up clients on the street. It appears likely that in many Canadian cities, far more people work in the off-street prostitution trade than the street trade. It is not clear whether the social profile and background of these women and men is anything like the profile of the "sexually procured youth" provided by Canadian research on street prostitution.

Some recently completed and on-going research[3] will begin to provide information about prostitution in off-street venues. However, it appears that there is important geographic variation in the way that off-street prostitution operates in different cities.

Research priority

A geographically comprehensive program of research on the men and women involved in the off-street prostitution trade across Canada. This should be co-ordinated with research already in progress.

2. Paucity of Research on Managers, Recruiters and Owners of Prostitution Businesses

When it comes to Canadian prostitution law, the word "pimp" does not appear in the Criminal Code. Instead, section 210 prohibits owning or running a bawdy-house, section 211 prohibits anyone from knowingly transporting someone to a bawdy-house, and section 212 prohibits "procuring." Section 212(j) makes it an offence to "live wholly or in part on the avails of prostitution" of another person. In combination, the bawdy-house and procuring laws make third party management of prostitution a criminal offence.

Currently, while much is said about "pimps," Hodgson's Games Pimps Play: Pimps Players and Wives in Law (1997) is only academic study of the men and women involved in the "management" of prostitution. The only other work on managers is Jessome's (1996) journalistic account, Somebody's Daughter. Also, there is one short paper (Gibson, 1992) on laws relating to pimping. As in news media, reference to "pimps" in the academic literature is mainly to the men who control street prostitution strolls, but very little of what is said is based on primary research. And there is virtually no information about the managers and owners of the multimillion-dollar off-street prostitution business in escort services and body rub parlours etc., who no doubt outnumber street pimps many times over.

Research priority

A geographically comprehensive program of research on the facilitators and organisers of the off-street sex trade across Canada.

3. Research on the Interface of Criminal and Municipal Law

Although it is an offence to live on the avails of prostitution and own or operate a bawdy-house, it is obvious that a huge off-street prostitution business is flourishing in every city across Canada. However, from 1974 through to the mid 1990s, the number of charges for bawdy-house violations fell from roughly one thousand a year to 200 a year. Now, municipal governments license the off-street prostitution trade and appear to exercise a form of wilful blindness when it comes to enforcing the criminal law against these establishments. One of the likely reasons is the experience of Toronto and Vancouver in the mid-1970s when, by putting prostitution on the street (cf. Lowman, 1986, Brock, 1998), police helped create the "prostitution problem" -- i.e. the street prostitution problem -- that came to the fore in the 1980s. Since the enactment of the communicating law in December 1985, 95% of all prostitution offences have been for communicating. The visibility of prostitution appears to be the primary concern driving law enforcement efforts.

At this time, there is no research on the history of the development of municipal regulation relating to various kinds of sex industry establishment, including "exotic dance" bars, escort services, massage parlours, body rub parlours, steam baths, etc. However, a preliminary investigation of city by-laws shows that, for example, in Vancouver there is a crucial distinction in the licensing laws relating to massage parlours, health enhancement centres and body rub parlours, and between escort and dating services (see Appendix A). In Vancouver, it would appear that there is a deliberate attempt to limit prostitution to escort services and body rub parlours. Other municipalities use similar tactics to regulate prostitution.

Research priority

To understand the way municipal by-laws and policies shape and facilitate the off-street prostitution trade, we need a research program on the development of municipal by-laws in different jurisdictions across Canada to see how municipal law meshes and/or conflicts with criminal law relating to prostitution.

4. Research on the Clients of Prostitutes

To date there has been very little research on the clients of prostitutes. The first research program devoted exclusively to clients was funded by the Province of British Columbia (see Lowman et al, 1996, 1997; Atchison et al, 1998). There is now a series of new studies underway, the result of the research opportunity created by the establishment of "John Schools" in at least twelve municipalities across Canada. However, the strategy generally being used is to give the men attending John School a self-administered questionnaire to fill out during or just after the session they attend. It is unclear how much the setting and timing of the questionnaire will influence the results. Also, because men attend John School after having been charged under the communicating law, the information generated by these surveys will be restricted to the clients of street prostitutes.

Research priority

In order to counteract the biases that will be created by research on men attending John School, there should be a geographically comprehensive research program on clients using the contact methods that were developed in the British Columbia study, which yielded 36 phone interviews and 80 self-administered questionnaires. One purpose of this research would be to examine the influence of John School on client behaviour independently of the research being done on John School students.

5. Program Evaluation Research

In general, there is very little research evaluating different kinds of social services for prostitutes. Indeed, as far as I am aware, there is not even an inventory of the programs for prostitutes, such as there are, developed in different provinces.

In 1999, Alberta passed the Protection of Children Involved in Prostitution Act, empowering police and social workers to place in "secure care" any person under the age of eighteen years who is thought to be involved in prostitution. This program has been implemented without any provision for an independent evaluation of its impact. Under recent revisions to the Act, a youth may be placed in secure care for up to seven weeks. There is no limit on how many times a youth can be recycled through the program. Similar legislation has been introduced in several other provinces. If the experience in Alberta is anything to go by, far from being a last resort for youths involved in prostitution, it will become the first resort. While other provinces are following Alberta's lead in instituting secure care, it is not clear whether there are plans to independently evaluate the programs being introduced.

Research priority

A comprehensive inter-provincial evaluation of secure care and other programs for youths and adults involved in prostitution is needed to ascertain whether these programs are effective.

6. Research on Criminal Code s.212(4): offering to purchase or purchasing sexual services from a person aged under 18 years.

In January 1988, following the recommendations of both the Fraser and Badgley Committees, a new law was enacted making it an offence to purchase or offer to purchase sexual services from a person under the age of eighteen years. However, despite revisions to this law in 1998, it appears that it is still rarely enforced.

Secure care is controversial for many reasons, not the least being whether it will make problems of youth prostitution more intractable by driving it under ground. One question that critics ask is why a province like Alberta is locking up the victims of a crime in the name of protecting them, but doing little or nothing to prosecute the offenders. In Vancouver, social service agencies on the Downtown Eastside have been involved in a long-standing campaign to encourage local police to enforce s.212(4). Their campaign, along with the seeming paradox that secure care is "punishing" the victim, raises a more general question about provincial variations in patterns of s.212(4) enforcement -- or lack thereof.

Research priority

a geographically comprehensive study of police practices and Crown counsel policies in relation to s.212(4) is needed to establish whether there are significant provincial differences in charge rates and, if there are, what accounts for them.

7. Longitudinal Studies

Almost all research on prostitution in Canada has involved cross-sectional rather longitudinal analysis. In general, longitudinal studies provide much richer data than cross-sectional studies and, when a series of interviews at different time periods are planned ahead of time, allow the research participant to create data by, for example, keeping diaries that would be unavailable otherwise. The only longitudinal study being funded is Cecilia Benoit's five-year panel study just beginning in Victoria, B.C.

Research priority

Longitudinal designs in all areas of prostitution research.

8.Studies of Exit from Prostitution

Canadian interview research on prostitutes has focussed on the entrance into prostitution. There is very little research on the exit from prostitution. One notable exception to this pattern is Sue McIntyre's current study involving interviews with the persons she originally studied in the early 1990s as part of her doctoral research (McIntyre, 1996). Her follow-up study will be particularly valuable for the information it provides about the experience of some of her research participants in exiting prostitution and will provide a model for future research of this sort. Such research should examine the experiences of males and females in different styles of prostitution, and pay particular attention to the entrenchment of aboriginal women in prostitution.

Research priority

A comprehensive study of exit from male and female prostitution in different venues, both street and off-street.

9. Transgender and transvestite prostitution

While several studies have focussed on or included male prostitutes in their samples (e.g. Badgley, 1984; Visano, 1987; Capital Regional District, 1997), no Canadian study has focused exclusively on either transgender or transvestite prostitution.

Research priority

Anational study of transgender and transvestite prostitution.


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