Rural sex work study finds significant differences from urban practice

New research has shown significant differences in the the lives and health of Southern Ontario rural sex workers compared with their counterparts in large urban settings.
Rural sex workers exist and they're not the same as workers in big cities. (CBC News)

Sex workers aren't only found on the street corners of big cities. Rural sex workers exist too, in Southwestern Ontario.

But until now, not much was known about their lives, their health or how they fit into the social services system.

A new project – the first-ever rural sex-worker research survey in Ontario – has assessed the social and health needs of rural sex workers in Brantford, and the counties of Brant, Haldimand, and Norfolk. 

Researcher Stacey Hannem, an assistant professor at Wilfrid Laurier, said the Brantford research project began in 2014 when she was approached by a group of social and health service providers who live in the Brantford area.

These service providers had clients who were sex workers, and noticed the sex workers didn't feel comfortable accessing their services. It appeared service providers would often try to help sex workers exit the industry, when that wasn't necessarily what they wanted.

Different from cities

Hannem told CBC Kitchener-Waterloo rural sex work, in the context of small towns and cities, often looks very different from what goes on in larger centres.

"In the rural context what we see is a much less diverse industry. There is less street-based work but more of this kind of mid-range, everyday escorting," she said.

She said rural sex workers usually find their clients through online advertising, and it often involves much more travel than urban work.

More travelling

"In an urban context, the market is right there and the city is all around you and your clients come to you. In a rural context often people are travelling to go to where the market is," she said.

"Some people travel from places like the tiny little town of Simcoe in Norfolk County, and they'll go to Niagara to work," she said.

Hannem said this travel needs to be distinguished from trafficking.

She said sex workers who don't have access to a credit card or their own transportation, may work with a third party who provides a vehicle to drive them somewhere. 

"Then, in return she pays him or her a percentage of what she earns. And so it's a business arrangement from their perspective, but there's not necessarily any kind of coercion or any kind of control in that situation," she said.

Drug use

Hannem said this kind of indoor sex work also tends to be less violent than urban street-based work but in her sample she found a higher proportion of sex workers heavily involved in drugs.

She said sex work can be seen as a solution to a financial problem that is created when someone has a drug problem. But the workers in her sample did not necessarily feel compelled to engage in sex work, to support a drug addiction, she said.

For Hannem, this can be explained by the differences in general drug use in rural and urban areas.

She said in rural spaces where there's a soft job market and high levels of disorganization, there is usually higher levels of drug use.

"From my perspective as a criminologist, the drug use I'm seeing in my sample of sex workers is reflective of drug use in the larger community. And I mean Brantford itself has four methadone clinics for a population of 95,000 people, and that's certainly significant," she said.

Hannem plans to release the findings at Wilfrid Laurier University's Brantford Campus on Monday.