3 – Common Misconceptions About Prostitution

SPL Article Common Misconceptions image 2


When most people think about sex workers, the first thing they think about is generally a lower-class prostitute who works a street corner and likely has an exploitative pimp. Because in the context of street prostitution Johns and sex workers seek each other out in public places, it is this form that is most visible to to the general public. Because street prostitution is generally speaking the least safe, private and comfortable form of prostitution, it tends to be a last resort that only attracts lower-class and more desperate sex workers. This makes the lower end of the socioeconomic scale of sex work disproportionately more visible to those not involved in prostitution than the middle and higher segments.

There is no census of sex workers, nor any way to get accurate numbers on the number of sex workers in Canada, the type of work they do or the amount of money they make. As discussed by the applicants in the current Supreme Court case1, lack of information is one of the major difficulties in having a productive discussion about prostitution in Canada. However, what credible anecdotal evidence does exist, such as the expert opinion of Libby Davies provided by the applicants in the Supreme Court case, tells us that street prostitution actually only “makes up a very small part of prostitution in Canada”2. What most people picture when they they think of sex work is actually one of the less common forms of sex work, according to most of the available evidence. According to a recent  3-year study conducted at Simon Fraser University and reported in the Vancouver Sun, “80 to 90 per cent work as off-street prostitutes running their own businesses through newspaper and online advertisements, bawdy houses and massage parlours”3.

Another factor that can be confusing when it comes to understanding the prevalence of different kinds of sex work is that the most common types of sex workers and the most common types of acts of prostitution performed are often treated as interchangeable, when in fact these statistics would likely be very different from one another. Higher-end sex workers get paid much more per interaction than lower-end sex workers, and as such those sex workers on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum typically have to service far more clients. The higher number of clients that lower-end sex workers service make them disproportionately more visible to Johns, the police and society at large. This makes it seem as though most sex workers fall into this category when in fact there are a lot more sex-workers at the mid to high section of the scale than many would think.

There is also a common misconception about prostitution that most or even many sex workers are under the heel of coercive pimps. However, the most reliable available research, such as the report of the Fraser Committee4 and the previously mentioned Simon Fraser University study, suggests that the vast majority of sex workers in Canada are independent operators, either working alone or via a non-coercive escort agency. This rarity of pimps is unlikely to be the result of our prostitution laws, as there is a similar lack of a culture of pimps in the areas of Australia where prostitution is legalized, with Australian Parliamentary Secretary to the Attorney General John Hyde saying “The reality is that Australia does not have a culture of pimps involved in the sex industry”5. Of course, abusive pimps still remain a problem for a minority of sex workers and laws should be in place to protect exploitatively pimped sex workers, but we must also be conscious on the effects these laws have on the non-pimped majority of sex workers.

In general, the public perceptions about sex work  – and the laws regarding it – tend to be mired in the 1980s, ignoring the changes that have occurred in the last quarter-century. Of course, one of the most impactful and dramatic changes that has occurred in this period is the explosion of the world wide web. The internet has revolutionized many different industries, and sex work is no exception. Increasingly in first-world countries, prostitution has moved from the streets of low-income areas to the information superhighway, with online escort agencies now being essentially the norm for hiring sex workers. Of course, proponents of the anti-solicitation laws would like to credit these laws for the dramatic reduction in street prostitution that has occurred since these laws were introduced in the 1980s. However, it is likely that the new technology has played at least as large a role, and quite possibly the primary role in this change. Despite the dramatically changing reality of where communication about prostitution tends to happen, we’re still relying on solicitation laws drafted in the ‘80s that fail to take the internet into account.

There is an inaccurate and misleading statistic floating around that is sometimes quoted in debates about prostitution, stating that the average starting age for sex workers is 13. This statistic comes from a study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania,  “The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children In the U. S., Canada and Mexico”. The study in question looked only at underage prostitutes, and did not include anyone of age 18 or older. Sex workers who entered that line of work as adults were not studied or included in this data, and attempting to take this statistic from the sub-group of underaged prostitutes and apply it to sex work as a whole is inaccurate and irresponsible. “Prostitution in Canada: An Overview”, a paper put together by the Canadian Library of Parliament, more accurately pegs the typical starting age of a Canadian sex worker at between 16 and 20. Of course, underage prostitution remains a real and pressing problem in Canada and worldwide, but holding a misconception that most sex workers started at a very young age only hampers our ability to make reality-based laws to address this problem.

Inaccurate perceptions about sex work in Canada – namely that it is uniform rather than diverse, that lower-end street-level prostitution is typical, that most sex workers have pimps, that most communication about prostitution happens face to face rather than online and that most prostitution is underage prostitution – can lead to distortions in our attempt to create sane laws to govern sex work. Laws intended to help the street-walking minority, or to make that minority less visible to the public, can make things less safe for the already nearly invisible majority of sex workers. Our blanket law about living off the avails of prostitution prevent the non-pimped majority from hiring any sort of security staff in an attempt to protect the exploitatively pimped minority, whereas laws specifically targeting abuse, coercion and exploitation could target pimps without criminalizing legitimate security. Our laws about solicitation, intended to reduce the public nuisance and visibility of street prostitution, are ambiguous in terms of how they apply to websites and other online communication and they are making it harder to communicate with clients up front about exactly what services a sex worker is willing to offer and at what price. The ability to have these conversations would help prevent the kind of on-site misunderstandings about what exactly is being paid for that can so often turn into assaults, but online escorts who provide no publicly visible nuisance are being denied the safety that these conversations bring because of decades-old outdated laws designed in a time before the internet as we know it was a reality. Imagining that adults are rare rather than the vast majority in sex work can hurt our efforts to focus on underage prostitution by vilifying all prostitution equally.

Of course, the more vulnerable sectors of the sex trade – such those working the streets, in financial desperation, under the thumb of abusive and exploitative pimps and/or underage – do absolutely need laws designed to protect them, more than anyone. However, in creating laws to protect the more vulnerable minority, we need to be conscious of the less visible majority as well and being sure that we’re not blindly creating laws that put most sex workers in danger. Sane prostitution laws require a willingness to see that sex work comprises a far greater variety of people than the stereotypical pimped street walker, and to create laws that make things safer for that whole range of people involved in sex work.



  1. Bedford et al., pg 54 []
  2. Bedford et al., pg 55 []
  3. Reported in the Vancouver Sun, June 18 2007 []
  4. quoted in Bedford et al., pg 162 []
  5. quoted in Bedford et al., pg 133 []

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