Fran Shaver
Notes from my presentation at:
When Sex Works
(c) 1996

Traditional Data Distort Our View of Prostitution

Notes for my presentation during the panel "Demystifying Sex Work," When Sex Works: International Conference on Prostitution and Other Sex Work
September 27-29, 1996, UQAM, Montréal (Qc)

Frances M. Shaver
Department de sociologie et d'anthropologie
Univeristé Concordia

Over-reliance on official crime statistics, police reports, as well as clinical and social agency samples provides an incomplete and misleading portrait of prostitution and prostitutes. Field study interviews with sex workers present a different picture. Unfortunately, very few have been conducted in Canada and most -- like the 10 field studies conducted for the Justice Department -- are little known. (1) When results from the official and anecdotal data are compared to these field studies, it becomes clear that the former distort the picture by grossly over-estimating women's involvement, misrepresenting the conditions of work, and exaggerating or overstating the disadvantaged backgrounds of sex workers. (2)

The Sex Work Research Project at Concordia University is one example of a field study approach. (3) During field work conducted over four summers in three different cities in North America (San Francisco, Montreal and Toronto), we interviewed 325 women, men and transgender persons involved in street prostitution. This research has provided information which is empirically grounded, strictly sampled, and more representative of street prostitution than crime statistics, police reports, and clinical samples alone.

Our field work strategy entailed a week or two of introductions and public relations activity that served to legitimate both the study and our role as researchers. We worked in pairs, introducing ourselves to people who appeared to be working. Introductions were straight forward and always accompanied with an open, extended hand and direct eye contact: "Hi, I'm Fran Shaver, this is my assistant Jane. We're letting people know about the research we are conducting over the next few weeks." We then explained the nature of the study and handed out my university business card. We usually exchanged a few more words before moving on.

Subjects were later drawn into the study by encouraging them to help us identify existing stroll boundaries, friendly restaurants, and the population characteristics of the regular and non-regular workers. This permitted us to validate our field observations, legitimate our note-taking while in the field, and enhance the accuracy of the data base and sampling technique. In order to preserve the integrity of the data base, we only interviewed people we had seen working on several different occasions and who were not under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of asking. We also took care to ensure that the distinguishing characteristics of those interviewed reflected as much as possible the characteristics of the stroll population in question.

The results from such field study samples present a different portrait of prostitution and prostitutes than other sources. Enforcement patterns inherant in police activities focus almost exclusively on the public manifestation of sex work: street prostitution. In Canada as elsewhere, however, field study estimates indicate that it represents only a small proportion of the market. Estimates vary from 10% to 15% of the total in the United States, to 30% of the total in England. According to studies conducted in Toronto in 1983 and 1992, street prostitution represents only 20% of all the prostitution in the city. (4) Reports from other Canadian cities are similar.

Crime statistics also imply that women are much more likely than men to be involved in prostitution. Field studies show that women represent only a very small proportion of the individuals involved. Conservative estimates based on the ratio of female to male street prostitutes in Montreal in 1991 (4:1) and the average number of male clients they service each week (20 and 10 respectively) indicate that only 4% of those involved (or at least potentially involved) in communicating for the purpose of prostitution are women. The remainder -- a full 96% -- are men, and of those, the vast majority (99%) are clients. (5)

The tendency to see prostitution as a female crime and prostitutes as female, conceals three important gender differences which are evident in the field studies. First, men do sex work: estimates of men involved in street prostitution alone vary from 10% to 25%. Second, male hustlers earn substantially less than do female prostitutes. The average weekly earnings of the men we interviewed in Montreal was $600 - $800 compared to $1800 - $2000 for women. Finally, male hustlers run less risk from on-the-job hazards than do either women or transgender prostitutes. In all four of our samples they report fewer rapes and fewer beatings than either of the other two groups and are less likely to be arrested for prostitution-related offenses. When they are assaulted, it is more likely to be related to their alleged homosexuality than their involvement in sex work. (6)

Gender differences prevail with respect to the pimp factor as well -- they are rarely if ever involved in same sex prostitution. Even so, findings from all the Justice Department field studies indicate that the extent of pimping is exaggerated. Many women work for themselves: 62% in Vancouver, 50% in Toronto, and 69% in Montreal. The presence and influence of pimps is more extensive in the Maritimes (where fewer than 25% worked for themselves) and on the Prairies (where most of the white women but only a few of the Native women did so). (7) Our data from Montreal and Toronto indicate that between 50% - 70% work for themselves. In San Francisco all but 4% said they worked for themselves.

The data from police and court samples, as well as clinical and agency data, also portray prostitutes as young, single, addicted, under-educated, and from backgrounds with a history of poverty and abuse. The first three impressions are partially corroborated by field studies. Regardless of their gender, prostitutes are young and begin their careers at an early age: the mean age of the prostitutes interviewed for the Justice Department varied from 22 to 25, depending on the region, and the majority began their careers between the ages of 16 and 20. Although young, this is far above the 13 and 14 year olds emphasized in the popular media.

The majority of prostitutes we interviewed were single. However, this status was more likely to be the case for men than for women (fewer than 10% of the men across all four samples were married or cohabitating compared to one third to just over half of the women). In addition, the women were more likely than the men to share in the financial support of a child or another adult (excluding pimp). This female responsibility is also reflected in the Justice Department data: in Vancouver, 29% supported children financially; on the Prairies, 68% had children; in the Atlantic provinces, 35% reported having at least on child.

The data regarding substance abuse vary substantially by region and gender. It is highest in the Atlantic provinces (50% of both women and men admitted to drug abuse) and the lowest in Quebec (only 16% were heavy users). On the Prairies, 42% said they had a problem with illicit drugs. The gender breakdown available from our Montreal data indicate that the use of illicit drugs is extremely low among the women (less than 7% used hard drugs such as heroin, crack and other forms of cocaine in the week before the interview), but high among the men (just over 50% used such drugs in the same period).

At first reading, the data we collected regarding level of education and family background also tended to reinforce the legal, clinical and social agency portrait of persons involved in prostitution. Most had not gone beyond high school: in fact, 43% of the women and 50% of the men we interviewed in Montreal in 1991 had not completed high school. The 1984 field studies reported similar levels of educational attainment. Up to one third of the sex workers indicated that they came from poor or needy homes: in 1984, 38% in Quebec and 16% in Vancouver stated their origins were poor. A gender breakdown on our 1991 Montreal sampled revealed that the men were more likely to come from poor homes (30%) than the women (17%). These traits do not necessarily set them apart from the Canadian population at large, however. Overall in 1989, 37% of adult Canadians had less than a high school diploma. In the Atlantic provinces, Quebec, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan, the proportions of individuals with less than high school were even higher, ranging from 41% to 48%. The poverty rate for Canadian families betwen 1984 and 1986 -- when many of our respondents left home -- was 14.5%; the rate increases to 60% for single-parent mothers with children under 18. Since a high proportion of the respondents in the field studies conducted for the Justice Department indicated they grew up in single-parent families, this latter figure is probably the more appropriate statistic to use when comparing family backgrounds. (8)

Many sex workers also recollected that they had been victims of abuse. In the Vancouver study, 67% stated they had been victims of physical violence in the family and 33% had suffered sexual abuse. In the Maritimes, 40% said they were victims of physical abuse, 28% said they had been forced to have sexual relations with one or more members of the family and 33% had been victims of rape before entering prostitution. (9) A history of violence and abuse may not be peculiar to those entering prostitution, however. Results from a national population survey indicate that 54% of th female respondents and 22% of the male respondents had been victims of unwanted sexual acts. (10) Although these data are somewhat problematic in that the definition of abuse included a wide variety of sexual acts -- some more serious than others -- they do demonstrate that more research must be done before concluding that the level of sexual and physical abuse of working prostitutes when they were children is higher than the level of abuse in the general population.

These findings do not challenge the validity or the integrity of the more traditional data bases. They do, however, indicate that using them as the exclusive or even primary source of data is likely to result in inappropriate social and legal policy interventions. Traditional data must be combined with field samples in order to provide a more representative portrait of the situation. Not all prostitutes are victims and not all prostitution involves coercion: the majority of prostitutes work for themselves and do not necessarily have less education or more abusive backgrounds than others. More importantly, the differences between female and male prostitutes regarding job hazards and earning power suggest that the most undesirable aspects of prostitution are linked to broader social problems rather than the commercialization of sex. These findings should challenge us to reevaluate our thinking about prostitutes and prostitution. If we hope to improve the working conditions, reduce the injustice related to the service, and provide acceptable alternatives to street prostitution, we must do so with an accurate view of the situation.


  1. The studies conducted in 1984 include: N. Crook, A Report on Prostitution in the Atlantic Provinces; J. Fleishman. A Report on Prostitution in Ontario; R. Gemme at al., A Report on Prostitution in Quebec; M. Lautt, A Report on Prostitution in the Prairies; J. Lowman, Vancouver Field Study of Prostitution: Research Notes; and D. Sanfacon, Prostitution in Canada: A Research Report. The studies conducted on 1989 include: A Brannigan, L. Knafla, and C. Levy, Street Prostitution: Assessing the Impact of the Law -- Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg; R. Gemme, N. Payment, and L. Malefant, Street Prostitution: Assessing the Impact of the Law -- Montreal; F. Graves, Street Prostitution: Assessing the Impact of the Law -- Halifax; J. Lowman, Street Prostitution: Assessing the Impact of the Law -- Vancouver; S. Moyer and P.J. Carrington, Street Prostitution: Assessing the Impact of the Law -- Toronto; Canada, Department of Justice, Street Prostitution: Assessing the Impact of the Law -- Synthesis Report. All were published by the Department of Justice Canada, Ottawa.

  2. For more details see F. M. Shaver (1993) "Prostitution: A Female Crime?" Pp. 153-173 in Ellen Alderberg and Claudia Currie (eds) In Conflict with the Law: Women and the Canadian Justice System. Vancouver: Press Gang Publishers.

  3. Support for the primary research described here is provided through grants from SSHRC, FCAR, and Concordia University.

  4. Shaver, 1993 p. 157

  5. Shaver, 1993 p. 155

  6. Shaver, F.M. (1994) "The Regulation of Prostitution: Avoiding the Morality Traps." Canadian Journal of Law and Society 9(1): 123-145 at p. 138.

  7. Shaver, 1993 p. 161

  8. Shaver, 1993 p. 160 and note 25

  9. Shaver, 1993 p. 159 and note 17

  10. Shaver, 1993 p. 160 and notes 30 and 31

When Sex Works... [Analysis]

Created: September 26, 1997
Last modified: September 12, 2002

CSIS Commercial Sex Information Service
Box 3075, Vancouver, BC V6B 3X6
Tel: +1 (604) 488-0710