Sex in the City, Part 1: The Commercial Sex Trade

If the sex trade remains taboo, if it remains something forced underground, people are going to get hurt. Including vulnerable youth.

It is important, as a province, that we discuss the sex trade because awareness makes light bulbs go off. The sex trade is real, it’s the oldest industry in the new world, so of course it’s happening here. And if it remains taboo, if it remains something forced underground, unassisted by community organizations and police, people are going to get hurt. Including vulnerable youth.

Government released a redacted version of a report this week, “It’s Nobody’s Mandate and Everyone’s Responsibility: Sexual Exploitation and the Sex Trade in Newfoundland and Labrador.” They talked with over 100 sex workers throughout NL who “helped paint a picture of what is happening in our province.”

To date, the report has been credited with improved collaboration among police, government, and agencies that provide services which can prevent the harm or exploitation of potential victims of the sex trade. Sites were visited in BC, so we could emulate similar organizations here, including street outreach services.

The Commercial Sex Trade in Newfoundland & Labrador …

“There’s nothing that happens on the mainland that doesn’t happen in St. John‘s,” the report says. “People can order a sex worker like they order a pizza; name the characteristics you want: male, female, colour, size, age, etc.”

The “Commercial Sex Trade” refers to strip clubs, adult massage parlours, escort services, and street sex workers (including prostitutes working the boats in our port towns). These things exist in every city, everywhere. And not talking about it, or not wanting it to, forces it underground, where no one is safe.

While the commercial sex trade is evident in St. John’s and Corner Brook, it’s prevalent in communities across the island. For some sex workers, it’s a way of life, for others it can be a short-term need for money, food, or drugs. Others are simply forced into it against their will. The latter being reason enough to have the trade be above board and under a spotlight.

A strong economy, and the oil industry boom we’re known for, brings with it an increase in demand for drugs and prostitution. It’s happening here. So let’s deal with its presence here in a proper and compassionate manner, like many other morally progressive cities do.

It’s All Just a Mouse Click Away …

Most commercialized sex trade activity in NL  – advertised massage parlours, strip clubs, street-level prostitution, and escort services – occurs in St. John’s. That makes sense given its population size. It also makes sense that most “booking activity” occurs on the internet these days.

In addition to online dating sites being availed of by sex workers, the report says,“Log onto any search engine, type in the name of a community along with the word sex, and in less than 10 seconds you’ll be cruising your local sex trade highway.”

“Agencies in Toronto have no trouble running their business in St. John’s.” These companies simply book discount hotel rooms for their sex worker to use on the “dates” they set up online. 

Many men going back and forth to Alberta for work are often targeted by a woman who’ll be with them while they’re home or abroad, and who’ll be there when they come back to Alberta, or Newfoundland. That arrangement works well for these men’s schedules.

Even Trip Advisor, the popular travel website, provides sex trade info for the curious traveller. A Trip Advisor entry on St. John’s tells people what streets they’ll find prostitutes on, for men, and for women, as casually as they speak of suggested restaurants or sightseeing spots.

There’s Money in It, So Of Course It’s Prevalent …

A commercial sex trade business, with just 5-6 women, can easily earn $5,000 in a single day. So of course it exists: people like money, and that’s good money. That’s more money than most small businesses dream of making a day.

An adult massage parlour owner can make ten grand off a single employee in a good month. As for pimps pimping out women, yes, they exist here too, and they can make $1000 a week in St. John’s.  And some restaurant, bar, and hotel owners get a cut for knowingly facilitating the activity of a sex trade company.

To maximize profits, a sex business owner will often have a set of rules it can claim a worker broke, to keep their pay down on a bad day. Many of our sex trade workers are “owned” by out-of-town organized crime organizations, and simply run by a local manager.

It’s not just St. John’s. Places like Gander, Deer Lake, and Grand Bank all have clubs bringing in workers.

More on Street-Level Sex Work …

Conventions spike sex trade activity in a city, much like the oil boom has done here. The new convention centre will bring more johns to the city.

As far as the street-level prostitution goes, men and women lay claim to a street corner, park, alley, or doorway. Some women work all week long, others come into town for the weekend’s work. Others work when they need the money.

Most conflicts between workers occur over territorial dispute, prices, or the perception someone is stealing someone’s regular customer. These are less serious confrontations than a newer problem: drug addicted women will often undercut their cost for sex, in order to get their next fix, causing uproar from workers who find such desperate, low rates a threat to their livelihood.

The taxi industry is often linked to the sex industry, in a variety of ways, such as knowing how to “hook a client up” with a sex worker. Other times, drivers simply keep a kind watch out for the well-being of a worker. Other times, a worker will exchange fares for tricks with a regular driver.

There is no system in place to approach a prostitute. Johns cruise up and down a street looking for solitary women who appear to be waiting for something. This imperfect system leads to many mistaken johns trying to solicit sex from women who are not prostitutes. Particularly if these women are lingering in hot spots.

Conclusion: It’s happening. There is a commercial sex trade here. Now let’s talk, on municipal and provincial levels, about what we can do, that other provinces do, to destigmatize it and help workers be safe, able to exit the trade if they want to, or prevent vulnerable people from entering it out of desperation.

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