Fewer than two per cent of the 1,000 respondents who took part in SFU sociologist Chris Atchison’s study reported ever having hit, hurt, raped or robbed the person who they’d bought sex from.
Granted, that’s just them saying so. But Atchison noted in a Vancouver Sun story this week about his research that there was little reason for the respondents to lie, given that the survey was anonymous.
That his findings are provocative is an understatement.
"It's an outrageous study and it really works towards normalizing sexual assault," said Aurea Flynn of the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter, which is the go-to organization in B.C. when media are looking for a quote from someone vehemently opposed to prostitution.
"I'm really angry about the emphasis on the compassion for johns that the study provides,” added Flynn, “and I'm very concerned about its impact on the continued normalization of prostitution in Canada because I believe prostitution is violence against women."
It’s odd, really. Atchison’s findings ought to be considered good news in a society that puts so much emphasis on reducing violence for all British Columbians. Shouldn’t we be happy that most of the thousands of British Columbians who buy sex on a regular basis aren’t violent toward sex workers?
Ah, but this is about the sex industry. We don’t want to hear anything “nice” about it. We don’t want anybody telling us that most of the customers of the sex industry are largely average, non-violent guys - the kind of men we work with, live with and even love. We don’t want to hear that most adult sex workers in Canada might actually be choosing to work in the business.
When it comes to prostitution, we only like it violent, coercive and miserable. I guess we pretty much have to cling to that belief, because otherwise we just might question the ineffective, discriminatory and ultimately harmful laws that govern how the sex industry operates in our country.
We prefer a single story line when it comes to public conversations about the sex trade - one in which all the people who buy sex are exploitive predators, and all the people who sell it are victims needing to be saved (or at the very least prosecuted in the event they refuse “rescue”).
But what if we’ve got that wrong?
Without question, there are some loathsome and horrendous things that go on in the global sex industry. No civil society should tolerate the truly awful parts of the sex industry. We need strong laws - and much more effective enforcement of them - to protect against the exploitation of vulnerable people and prevent child abuse, human trafficking and sex tourism.
We also need plenty of community supports to help people wanting out of the sex trade. It’s not a job that anybody should have to feel they’re doing against their will, including for economic reasons.
But at the same time, it’s profoundly hypocritical for a country with so many eager customers of the sex trade to pretend that the entire industry is monstrous. It doesn’t seem implausible to me that 98 per cent of the people who took part in Atchison’s survey really are just looking for a sexual encounter, not the opportunity to hurt anybody.
I’ve had the opportunity to get to know a number of adult escorts over the past couple of years, and they’ve given me a whole new perspective on who their customers are. I’ve been stunned to discover just how many customers there are, and their many complex reasons for paying for sex.
So to judge them all as vicious creeps just doesn’t work for me anymore. We may like to tell ourselves that they’re all Robert Pickton types looking for any excuse to make some crushed and exploited woman’s life a little more miserable, but it just isn’t true.
I do think the people who buy sex need to get a spine, however, and start doing more to change the laws to ensure fair, safe workplaces for adult sex workers. The customers of the massive sex industry hold all kinds of authority positions, in our region and around the world. How about they start using some of that influence to create real change for adult workers, starting with decriminalization?
For another view of the industry, come on down to the screening of The Brothel Project Jan. 31 at the Victoria Film Festival. The documentary by April Butler-Parry follows me and UVic researcher and outreach worker Lauren Casey in our 2008 attempt to open a co-op brothel in Victoria.