Understanding the Diversity of People in Sex Work: Views from Leaders in Sex Worker Organizations
2. Integrated Conceptual Framework
3. Materials and Methods
3.1. The Study
3.2. Interview Procedure
3.3. Thematic Analysis
3.4. Locating Ourselves
4.1. Intersections of Diversity of People in Sex Work
“The two cis men who were in the group were feeling really ostracized, or under-represented. Which, there’s a certain irony in that. But yeah, they didn’t feel entirely comfortable in the group even though we had some, I think, some good group guidelines in place, but they were just feeling like kind of outnumbered. … And like, we didn’t have any nonbinary, or Two-Spirit folks, it was all like cis men, cis women.”
“We’ll work with men who have worked as women. But we don’t work specifically with cisgender men, who work as men. … Ah, you know, you know, if men wanted to organize around their own mobilization in sex work, then, you know, we would like to support that. But we need to, for the sake of the safety and the work of [SWO], and our resources, we need to keep it centered on women, and, ah, trans women.”
“We just did our strategic planning, and that was one of the top things that came out, was the desire to foster more Indigenous leadership within the organization. Recognizing that statistically, the folks that are accessing services at [SWO], um, you know—I can’t remember the exact number, but maybe it’s around forty percent or something, identify as Indigenous. So just wanting to have more staff, more peer-leadership, more, um, you know, recognizing. [L]ike even in terms of some of our intake forms, like asking people for example where they’re from, to talk a little bit about who they are, not just are you Indigenous or not. Like that kind of thing; like just having more conversations as opposed to checklists. … [And] of course doing territorial acknowledgments, and trying to just create a more respectful space.”
“I think especially in Canada, [members of] the sex worker movement … they have like more education background, and more experience of involving mobilization, or lobbying, or advocacy, or having the organizational experience. I think it is important to mobilize the grassroots sex workers that may not have that access of language or access of like, the information and knowledge.”
“There was a couple of people in the room who don’t have fancy educations, and who live in the [downtown], and then maybe another three or four people who don’t live in the [downtown], are in a way higher tax bracket, have a couple of jobs, and they do sex work on the side.”
“We have women in the group who are homeless and are sleeping in the bush and coming in to get to meetings. [T]hey’re not coming into the meeting showered and put together in the same way that someone who’s securely housed and has access to running water and all those things is able to show up.”
“Living with HIV or hep C … it’s Indigenous women, it’s women who are using or have used drugs. It’s ah … you know, women who have mental health challenges, that you know, are trying to work through that. And then, you know, women who are precariously housed. And these are all, these are really the key issues in our community.”
“Sometimes there’s tensions around stuff that’s happened outside of [SWO]. Personal relationships among the group. Because some of the women, or many of the women in the group, have known each other for, since they were teenagers. And, you know, the majority of the women in the group are in their late thirties, early forties, or fifty even. Like … there’s lots of history there. Lots of really complex challenging history.”
4.2. Creating Safe Spaces for Mobilizing Diversity at the Community Level
“Just as a kind of balancing point around respect and, and, and um, respecting diversity, and recognizing diversity … exploring and sharing and creating space for people to share that, even in the different kinds of sex work people are doing. Whether they’re doing street level, or what some people might call survival sex verses … folks … may be doing escorting or different kinds of sex work. … [J]ust making space for people to share where they’re coming from and trying to kind of break down those kind of stigmas within sex work.”
“If folks haven’t experienced homelessness, or they haven’t experienced dire poverty, I can understand why coming down here can be, like, difficult. But at the same time, if people are coming here to access our services, but they think that they are somehow better than the people who live in the [downtown] or who work outdoors, then they’re not safe to be in that space, because they are going to harm our other members.”
“We’ve had special groups that have come together to create space, safe space for specific populations. So, for example, a trans/nonbinary group, an Indigenous group, a men’s program and group, indoor workers group. And um, you know also doing um … really trying to work with the Indigenous agencies and nations to bring in some more Indigenous ways of knowing.”
“We asked the community, ‘what’s the best way that we should tackle these tensions?’ And some of our community advisory members said that they would like to see a workshop hosted about language, and how to use inclusive language. And then we actually had a pretty good turnout. We had about half sex workers and half … people living with HIV attend our workshop, and we had a discussion about inclusive language with both groups. And we used that information to inform some of the language that we use here in our space. And then we also used that, actually then piggy-backed off, we started having peer-led workshops on language after that.”
4.3. Mobilizing the Diversity of Sex Workers at Multiple Organizational Levels
“How can we have entry points to doing this work and becoming involved, that reflect where people are at, without launching [them] prematurely into employment situations where they don’t do well, and then it becomes another source of stress or failure in [their] life?”
“How we offer services, and how we articulate our politic is based on what happens on the ground. [A]nd ‘by the ground,’ I just mean like the outreach team comes back and says, ‘Okay, this is what’s needed,’ and then we respond to that”.
“I think what tends to happen, though, is positions of power in organizations tend not to be led by people of more marginalized groups, and that’s because organizations are … organized in ways that maybe don’t represent, they elect, or, sort of like, a colonized model?”
“There are so many different options of engagement, so many different ways to tap in. … That there can be art, there can be social media, there can be written components, research components. We make sure to offer so many options, even descriptively, that do not require your name and your face to be attached”.
“We have created a working group that holds meaningful contribution, um, regardless of whether you want to be out on stage and identify yourself as someone who has lived experience, or out on stage and identify as an ally, or, you know, just at the table doing art and contributing to the conversation in that way or showing up and identifying as an ally.”
“We are giving different ways people can identity. So people can come [and] identify as a volunteer, they can identify as a worker, they can identify they work in [a] massage parlor, they can identify they are [a] sex worker.”
“There’s huge tension around whether sex work is something that is understood as work and a decision people make, or if it’s only understood as exploitation and violence. So working with youth often is, working with people under eighteen is, often very difficult for, I think, sex worker organizations because there’s not a consensus on what under-eighteen experiences are like. What they need. What that advocacy should look like. So we really rely on connecting with people who had experiences under eighteen who are now over eighteen and can share with more agency and more awareness, what they would have needed, what that was like for them.”
“We’ve existed for twenty-five years now, and there have been times when the makeup of the organization itself is not diverse in any way, really. With regard to race or class or work positions. And sometimes extremely diverse with regard to all of those things.”
Institutional Review Board Statement
Informed Consent Statement
Data Availability Statement
Conflicts of Interest
“Two-Spirit is a way for Two-Spirit communities to organize—in other words, a way to identify those individuals who embody diverse (or non-normative) sexualities, genders, and gender expressions and who are Indigenous to Turtle Island” (Devor and Haefele-Thomas 2019, p. 134).
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Mellor, A.; Benoit, C. Understanding the Diversity of People in Sex Work: Views from Leaders in Sex Worker Organizations. Soc. Sci. 2023, 12, 191. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci12030191
Mellor A, Benoit C. Understanding the Diversity of People in Sex Work: Views from Leaders in Sex Worker Organizations. Social Sciences. 2023; 12(3):191. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci12030191Chicago/Turabian Style
Mellor, Andrea, and Cecilia Benoit. 2023. "Understanding the Diversity of People in Sex Work: Views from Leaders in Sex Worker Organizations" Social Sciences 12, no. 3: 191. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci12030191