Despite what some people might think, sex work does exist in Guelph. It may not look the same as it does in other larger cities, but it’s here.
Usually when people think of sex work, they think of someone (usually a woman) working some seedy street corner, hanging over the side of some vehicle in the shadows. Although it happens, this is not necessarily the face of sex work. It is diverse, just like the reasons people get into it, and people’s experience within it.
What is sex work, you might ask? Well, UNAIDS describes sex work as the acquirement of money, shelter, or goods in exchange for sexual services, either regularly or occasionally. The people offering the services may or may not consciously define those activities as income-generating. This of course, is part of the problem in identifying sex work and what it looks like in a community. People involved may or may not consider themselves as having done sex work. Is it sex work if you’re living with and having sex with a much older man whom you don’t really like, but he provides you with shelter and food? Is it sex work if you’re having sex with your kinda boyfriend who supplies you with free drugs?
It’s complicated. Even though it is the oldest profession, it’s also one of the most stigmatized, and therefore underground professions there is - which makes it harder to learn about, which in turn can make it harder to deliver appropriate services.
That is precisely why ARCH wanted to conduct a sex workers needs assessment in our community - in order to help identify barriers as well as opportunities to improve access and uptake of sexual health and HIV prevention resources in the community. So last winter ARCH conducted twelve face-to-face semi-structured interviews with service providers and women who self-identified as currently or formerly engaging in sex work in Guelph or Wellington County.
As mentioned, we wanted to identify some of the needs and barriers and well as opportunities for improved service delivery and new programming ideas that could help meet the HIV prevention needs of sex workers in this community. Additionally the assessment also aimed to identify opportunities for other service providers to create more supportive environments.
Often people in Guelph do not believe that there is sex work happening here. That is mostly because they cannot see it I think if anything comes out of this needs assessment, my hope is that it allows service providers to gain a better understanding of what sex work looks like in our community, and therefore how to effectively respond to the sexual health needs of those engaging in it. And to get people talking about it. And not talking about whether sex work is really work, or moral, or that sex workers need to be saved - but talking about what we can do to help meet people’s sexual health needs. Because for a lot of us, that is our job. And let’s not forget that a lot of us wanted to get into this work to help people. So…
What does sex work look like in Guelph?
According to the participants, sex work in Guelph is characterized as being less visible, and while street-based sex work does exist, it was perceived, both by the sex workers and service providers, to be less common than other types of sex work. Participants believed that the majority of sex work in Guelph is conducted through strip clubs and massage parlours (including dancing/giving massages but also through transactional sex that takes place in those venues), sexual exchanges and survival sex based on the need to acquire drugs, food, or housing and, less frequently, through sex work with regular clients or with peers from one’s own community (such as a drug using community). As well, two service providers reported having clients (including one child) who had been historically trafficked and one person with lived experience reported her own experience of having been historically trafficked. These experiences of trafficking predated the participants’ experiences of sex work.
There were several key issues identified in the interviews that were related to these types of sex work, which not surprisingly complicate the uptake of, and application of, HIV prevention and sexual health resources. These include addiction, housing insecurity and food insecurity, challenges associated with condom negotiation, and wait for it…..stigma!
Yet again, stigma puts people at risk of HIV and has other detrimental effects on people’s health. Sometimes I feel like a broken record.
At risk of going off on a rant, I will stop now. However, please stay tuned for my next blog(s), where I will discuss these barriers in more detail, using some telling results from the assessment. Also, on October 3rd I will be sharing the results of this assessment with the community at a free event where we will also be discussing next steps. If you’d like to attend please register at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/793306.
Expect more blogs after this event on the future of sex work services in our community.