! This article contains graphical depictions of violence and potentially traumatic subject matter
In Calgary, it is estimated that there are 1000-3000 sex workers, and less than 10% of the sex work occurs on the streets. Sex workers experience a higher rate of violence than non-sex workers, and a primary reason for people accessing Shift is for personalized, nonjudgmental support. According to a study of sexual or physical violence against sex workers globally, sex workers have a 45 to 75% chance of experiencing sexual violence at some point in their careers.
Using a harm reduction and human rights based approach, Shift provides support, outreach, education and advocacy services for adults of all genders currently or formerly working in the sex industry, or who identify as victims of human trafficking or exploitation. The program also serves the greater Calgary community as a resource for vulnerable and at-risk populations, as well as social and health care service providers, law enforcement, researchers, advocacy groups, the media, and the general public.
We asked two Shift clients about their experiences around violence. These are their stories:
Christy (31 years old, in the sex industry for 10 years, believes the abuse she had experienced in childhood has led her to this industry. She is working with Shift to transition from sex work)
“I had an experience in Calgary when I was working for an escort agency. I had seen this client three times and was meeting with him at the hotel in the daytime. He didn’t have the money to give me for the service. He blocked the door so I couldn’t get out of the room. I called the agency and we got into a three-way dispute. The agent didn’t support me, and she wanted me to stay. I ended up throwing his phone towards the back of the room so he would go get it. I ran out the door to escape. He chased me through the hallway into the elevator, were we got caught together. He choked me until the doors opened. Because of the screaming, the staff blocked the hotel doors so neither of us could get out and then they called the police.”
“Being objectified is a huge part of this work and also the emotional violence. It’s an outlet for some clients to express violence and abuse. (…) A lot of times I had thought I was finding my worth, but I really wasn’t, I was beating up my worth. But there is outside support. I never knew that for a long time or felt that. I’ve been trying to exit time after time after time. I had this support from Shift; they gave me the concept of transitioning out of the sex industry instead of just cutting the lifestyle off. That’s been the only way to even fathom getting out of it for me. That piece right there has been huge for me. I’m still working with Shift.”
Sharon (25 years of sex work; believes that sex work and violence go hand in hand and that sex workers should be treated with the respect and dignity any human being deserves)
“I’m doing this so I can pay bills. I’m not doing it for the drugs or to buy alcohol. I’m doing it to pay my phone bill, my outrageous power bill, maybe to buy groceries, maybe to just get on the bus. I’m not doing it for any of the dark reasons people think that these girls are out there for. Maybe some of them are. Some people don’t also realize that, while you’re condemning these girls, they need to get high to get through what they are doing. I have such compassion for these girls, I don’t need to know them or anything, but I’ll ask them if they want a cigarette or anything, you know, just so you have that little bit of connection with them, so that they know, ‘you are still a human being and somebody cares.”
In 2008, Sharon experienced violence with one of her clients, who overpowered her, beat her and threatened her life.
“After December 17, there will still be bad date sheets, there will still be police reports, there will still be missing girls and women being beat up and treated less than human, because of the very fact that they are sex workers. Sex workers are humans too, and I think that people from any work line should be treated with dignity and respect.”