NALL Working Paper #13-2000
A COMPARATIVE INVESTIGATION OF SAFER SEX PRACTICES AMONG CANADIAN AND NEW ZEALAND PROSTITUTES
NALL Annual Conference
Lifelong Linking of Formal, Nonformal and Informal Learning:
Current Practices, Social Barriers and New Approaches
(Strategic Research Networks in Education and Training)
Ontario Institute for Studies in Education/University of Toronto
Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology
This discussion paper represents some preliminary thinking
concerning a research project (jointly undertaken with Jody Hanson of Waikato
University in New Zealand) comparing how safer sex practices are learned among
prostitutes in two sites of Canada and New Zealand, and investigating if such
training could be transferred to the population at large. The study involved
female and post-operative transgendered prostitutes and their male clients. A
broad definition of safer sex practices was utilized to incorporate a range of
sexual activities providing physical, sexual and emotional safety for all
parties involved. Using feminist standpoint theory that places a high valuation
on women, affirming their strengths and capabilities and taking their
experiences to be the entry point for investigation, the female prostitute
became the site of investigation of political struggle and a possible source of
social change (Smith: 1974, 1978). Divergence based on race and class
established meanings of difference and diversity to address the specific needs
of various individual subjects (Ng:1986; hooks:1990). Feminist standpoint theory
was linked with experientially-based adult education theory to establish (a) how
prostitutes learn and practice safer sex, in what specific contexts safe sex
practices emerge and what were the contributing factors that facilitate and
constrain such practices (b) whether it is possible for prostitutes to function
as pedagogical models in the transfer of skills and knowledge to others and (c)
if a process that provides agency and empowerment to prostitutes by reframing a
discourse of deviance and disease to one of knowledgeable sexual service worker
could alter prostitute status in society. I will not present the detailed
findings of this study here, but rather will use some of the data to highlight
The investigation consisted of an examination of the
specific attitudes, expectations and behaviours that prostitutes acquire which
make them successful in learning to establish their autonomy and to work safely.
Ethnographic investigations of 47 prostitutes in Canada and 60 prostitutes in
New Zealand took place through semi-structured interviews, focus groups and
open-ended discussions that supplemented the researchers' observations and
participation in the culture of sex trade work. Women new to the industry as
well as experienced women involved in various genres of sex work such as street
work, house/brothel, escort services and call girls were surveyed as to how they
came to acquire a working knowledge about safer sex practices and what that
knowledge constituted by way of specific practices. Individual prostitutes and
members of sex trade workers' organizations were specifically asked to serve as
consultants to provide information concerning sex trade work in both countries,
to critique the analysis and to assist in formulating recommendations.
The Historical Framing of Sex Trade Work
The efforts of religious groups and feminists around the
turn of the century helped to focus the attention of the state on sex work. Due
to the emerging discourse resulting from the replacement of the concept of
"sin" with a scientific framing, a particularly compelling connection
was established between prostitution and its association with deviance and
disease. Prostitution was pathologized as a social problem and conceptualized
within a medical model of disease and recuperation (Hart:1977). The problem of
sex work was the problem of the sex worker, often viewed as a victim of sexual
abuse and drug addiction who was forced to take up prostitution (Lerum,
1999:14-15). The social construction of prostitutes as victims suffering from
disease was an attempt to garner sympathy for the sexual deviant in society.
Within a conservative cultural framing, the state dealt with individual illness
through expert medical and social work interventions. In what Max Weber calls a
"rational" approach of the bureaucratic state, the prostitute was
scientifically classified, managed and "treated" in an effort to
rehabilitate the individual and to respond to moral panic in the culture
(Bell:1994). While a structural explanation led to the sociological
investigation of social conditions that gave rise to prostitution, the approach
served to render prostitutes as personally and politically passive.
In casting sex workers as a social problem in scientific,
medical and popular discourses, prostitutes became problematized and the focus
in a process of stigmatization. Alienated and disempowered, the knowledge of
those who extensively worked at sex became systematically ignored in mainstream
society. Alternative views which recognized the skills and knowledge of the
prostitute became supplanted (Delacoste and Alexander:1987). Lacking access to
conventional and culturally legitimate ways of contributing to the production of
dominant forms of knowledge, the prostitute's marginal legal, economic and
political status prevented until recently, the introduction of an organized
prostitute discourse that could compete with the authoritative position of
scientific and professional ideologies.
Historically, a number of government sponsored studies
concerning sexually risky behaviour have been structured around elements of
danger, fear and risk; a perspective which reinforces a negative view of
sexuality (Shaver:1988; Delacoste and Alexander:1987; Pheterson:1989). Official
policy and practice encouraged protection from sexual danger but did not
encourage the pursuit of sexual autonomy and pleasure (Overall:1992; Anthony
1992). In these discourses, sexuality is presented as a series of behaviours
ranging from the least to the most risky and abstracted from a larger social
context (di Mauro:1995). Changing social norms to influence behaviour is
currently conceptualized as a complex task in a culture reflecting varied and
conflicting messages. A comprehensive and effective approach to addressing
social, health and sexual safety concerns depends upon knowing answers to
questions concerning what motivates sexual behaviour. Comprehending the factors
influencing risk-taking behaviour and emphasizing the importance of intervention
and prevention designed to initiate behavioural change calls for managing
individual risk and decisions in the cultural context that both produces and
perpetuates behaviour. An approach of applied research which inquires about who
engages in specific behaviours and with whom over time has the potential to
generate new insights for social change.
Adult education literature is focused on how adults learn
in a social context (Tough:1979) and in collaboration with others (Acosta:1987).
During the past two decades, the focus has shifted toward self-directed and
egalitarian relationships between adult educators and learners (Karka:1994).
Sexually transmitted disease prevention programs are moving away from
information-based strategies to a more holistic approach that deals with
multiple determinants of behaviour, reflecting a synthesis of adult education
theory and practice. It is recognized that sexual ignorance gives rise to
inappropriate behaviour and that sexual learning occurs continually both through
formal and informal learning processes. Sexual education programs in future will
need to reflect different learning styles which can be adapted to different
patterns of sexual activity (di Mauro:1995).
Prostitutes have rarely worked with professionals and
policy makers to foster a more complex understanding and to improve practices of
safer sex, since each in this binary often views the other as problematic.
Prostitutes are often blamed for disease and disorder in society; rarely are
they viewed as possessing skills and knowledge which could be useful in
informing people about safe sex practices and sexual agency. Studies in
developed nations, however, have found that sex trade workers are not the major
cause of the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (Hart:1977; Fraser:1985).
To be successful in their occupation, sex trade workers develop techniques to
minimize danger and promote safer sex practices (Meaghan:1989). Since sexual
self-assurance and control are key considerations for prostitutes, they often
learn safe sex alternatives such as "body slides" and "hand
relief" (Hanson:1995). In contrast to the repression/censorship position
that dominated the sex debates during the past several centuries, prostitutes in
particular have argued for diversity, choice and the primacy of pleasure
(Rubin:1984; Valverde:1989). The ways in which prostitutes challenge the
formation of sexuality and create power and autonomy for themselves in seemingly
powerless social interactions, suggests the potential for expanding the
definition of adult sexual educators to include prostitutes.
Reframing: Prostitute-Centered Pedagogy as a Model of Safe Sex Practice
Findings of this study suggest that while stressing
autonomy and consent, prostitutes in both countries confront disease, coercion
and abuse as components of specific human relations rather than of sex trade
work. Danger is often a consequence of their vulnerability as women rather than
as an outcropping of their profession. While prostitutes recommend that an
overemphasis on danger reinforces a women's powerlessness, in the course of
their daily work most learn to deal with issues of intimacy, decision-making,
communication, negotiation and assertiveness. Among prostitutes there is a range
of skills and knowledge; one young woman who recently began to work on the
streets of Winnipeg suggested that HIV/AIDS was an inherited disease, while at
the other end of the continuum a very savvy young woman in Auckland boosted that
she was able to put a condom on every client with her teeth and often without
The majority of prostitutes view sexuality as an
interactive, negotiated social transaction concerning partner choice, kinds of
sexual experience, contraceptive use and disease prevention. Since
self-assurance and control are key considerations for sex workers, most
prostitutes quickly learn "tricks of the trade" from each other
concerning oral, vaginal and anal sex, issues of street work, self defense,
drugs, "legal hassles" and working while pregnant. To some extent
contact with some clients and reading trade magazines add to the prostitute's
repertoire of skills and tactics in terms of minimizing danger and promoting
safe sex practices. Since STDs and HIV/AIDS are increasingly diseases associated
with poverty, poor women, young women, street workers, women on drugs and to
some extent women of colour are more at risk. Issues of experience,
assertiveness and body image play a crucial role in prostitutes being able to
protect themselves; the more experienced, knowledgeable and assertive the
prostitute appears to be in client interactions, the less likely she is to
An experienced women working in Montreal hotels suggested
that unlike women in the population at large, prostitutes attempt to screen
clients and establish boundaries. Since drinking and using drugs is linked to
risky sexual behaviours that can lead to the transmission of diseases,
unintended pregnancy and violence, she and her clients avoid such indulgences. A
woman working for six years in a brothel in Hamilton Ontario remarked that
clients who have poor personal hygiene can be enticed to engage in a sexual
fantasy that includes a bath or a shower. Working as a house prostitute in
Hamilton New Zealand, a young Maori woman and active member of the New Zealand
Prostitutes' Collective, suggested that the best way for her to be protected was
to quickly take the lead in an encounter and establish a personal relation so
her clients see her as a "human being". The founding member of the
Niagara Prostitute's Collective who has a number of women apprenticing with her
in the Niagara region in order to become proficient at their craft, stated that
expectations of spending quality time with her (characterized as a "great
treat" and only affordable on an occasional basis) are set through
telephone conversation and by e-mail communiques, well in advance of meeting a
client. In inquiring about favourite lingerie, wine and music, she establishes
an expectation that the client will have a unique and rewarding experience.
Through polite and courteous behaviour with clients, she sets the tone
concerning safe and self-affirming activities that nullify risk-taking
behaviours. Understanding that most men are intrigued by the her very physically
fit body, she concentrates on helping men to define and verbalize their sexual
interests and fantasies. Continuous eye contact and "small talk" of a
friendly nature are further reported to go a long way in setting boundaries.
Focusing on the experiences of prostitutes as adult
educators raises questions about the possibility of developing a
prostitute-centered pedagogy of safer sex practices. In contrast to dominant
discourses that stigmatize and ignore the knowledge of sex workers, prostitute
pedagogy affirms the right of sex workers to control their conditions of work
and recognizes the experiences skills and knowledge of body work. Prostitute
practices acquired outside of formal educational systems constitute an
alternative body of educational knowledge that could efficiently use community
resources to inform and teach about issues concerning safer sexual interactions.
Providing prostitutes with an opportunity for input into policy issues
pertaining to safer sex practices could be useful in transmitting their skills
and knowledge to other sectors of the community including clients, health
clinics, social agencies and the public at large. Such knowledge could not only
serve in transformational learning and education to generate innovative social
sexual practices, but could also be used to empower sex workers as political
subjects on the boundary of sex and work.
The New Zealand Prostitutes' Collective: Promoting Safer Sex and Social
Change in the Sex Industry
The New Zealand Prostitutes' Collective (NZPC), founded in
November, 1987, represents the first cooperative effort between the government
and sex workers to promote safer sex practices in the history of New Zealand's
sex industry (Barwood:1998). The initial impetus for establishing NZPC came with
the advent of HIV/AIDS crisis; the Department of Health was concerned to prevent
the spread of infection to heterosexual populations. Prostitutes in New Zealand
were for the most part involved in direct relations with clients and many
parlour workers and those who work for escort agencies exhibited a high degree
of independence from parlour owners. Being generally less exploited than
prostitutes in other parts of the world may have contributed to the eagerness
with which these women took responsibility for their own sexual health and
engaged in peer education. The fact that sex workers were at personal risk and
perceived a threat to their business may also explain their interest in forming
an equal partnership with the government officials to organize the community in
order to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Through the
stateís provision of funds, support and infrastructure and by not attempting
to eliminating prostitution, members of NZPC recognized the benefit of
establishing an government endorsed organization by sex workers for sex workers
to service prostitutes, clients and the public. As Catherine Healy, the national
NZPC spokesperson and World Health Organization consultant remarked "since
the publicity drive against AIDS began there has been a general downturn in the
industry. While statistics suggest that sex workers have no greater likelihood
of being HIV positive than the general population, clients are fearful of
contracting AIDS" (Barwood, 1998:8). Studies in 1996-1998 of seroprevalence
among sex workers conducted in four major New Zealand cities by the AIDS
Epidemiology Group, Department of Preventive and Social Medicine at Otago
Medical School found "no discernible infection among New Zealand born
female sex workers", giving credence to the idea that sex workers are
leading proponents of disease prevention (Jordan:1991; Lichtenstein,
An essential feature of the Collective is that it was
staffed by workers who were in or formerly part of the industry, ensuring that
the workplace culture was understood and the concerns of sex workers were
paramount. Healy remarks "that there are so many things you don't
appreciate if you haven't worked in the industry" (Barwood, 1998:9). Most
sex workers were self employed and work outside of the law; all were responsible
for their own health and safety. The NZPC's free and practical information
focusing on health and safety as central themes. Staff spent the majority of
their time distributing sex literature such as publications of Siren (Sex
Industry Rights and Education Network) that recognized the client's behaviour
was crucial in containing HIV, that published the "Friendly
Pharmacist" to discuss disease prevention and the "Ugly Mugs"
list warning of violent clients as well as TOPS (a transsexual outreach
newsletter). Throughout Auckland, 2,200 condoms were distributed each week,
together with dental dams and lubricants as staff travelled to escort agencies
and made contact with sex workers on the streets (Barwood:1998). One of the
NZPC's mottos of "No Joe No Go" that stressed that clients must wear
condoms in each encounter reflected actual safety conscious practice that
exceeded those in the population at large (Healy and Reed: 1994). In regional
drop-in centers, advice and counselling were provided together with the
provision of HIV/AIDS testing, health support services, self-defense instruction
as well as needle exchange and legal services.
New Zealand sex workers, however, had a broader objective
in establishing the Collective - they wanted to create an organization that
would empower sex workers and advance their political and legal cause. An
approach by the health department simply accelerated informal discussions
previously undertaken by prostitutes to establish a support group. The
Collective was viewed as a vehicle to counter negative public images of the sex
industry, to promote sex workers' rights and to decriminalize prostitution, by
actively working to repeal existing laws related to soliciting and keeping a
brothel under Section 26 of the 1981 Summary Offenses Act. It was founded to
foster pride among sex workers and to combat the hostility of the Wellington
police, for example, by exposing acts of persecution to the media and
threatening to withdraw from the Collective. Unlike Canada where it was not
illegal to be a prostitute but it is illegal to prostitute or solicit, in New
Zealand it was illegal to solicit but not to exchange money in a sexual
Catherine Healy pointed out, for example, that under the
Paid Parental Leave Bill, sex workers were excluded as parents who were eligible
for a 12 week paid leave of 80% of salary because they were not recognized by
the Inland Revenue department, despite the fact that this department encouraged
sex workers to register and pay taxes. Prior to the establishment of the
Collective, sex workers had made several submissions to parliament recommending
decriminalization, as fear of prosecution made it more difficult to educate
prostitutes about safer sex practices. Based on the work that came out of the
First World Whores' Congress held in Amsterdam in 1995, the pioneer work of
Catherine Healy and Catherine O'Regan helped to draft a May 1997 bill to
decriminalize sex work. With all likelihood, the bill will pass in October 2000
as the final reading of the bill proceeds. In offering specialized services for
sex workers and addressing the government's concern with respect to health
issues, NZPC was able to work with parliamentary officials to conduct surveys
(while providing data to academics) and to establish social and political rights
for sex workers and to promote decriminalization.
In sum, traditional approaches by social service agencies
and policy makers targeted prostitutes as disease-bearing, and
marginalized or ignored the contributions that prostitutes might make to disease
prevention. A lesson can be taken in Canada from the New Zealandís reframing
of the idea of prostitute as a transmitter of sexual disease to a view that
posits the prostitute as a sexual expert with particular skills and knowledge.
Such a paradigm shift provides a way for sex workers to be a vital part of a
public campaign to establish safer sex practices. To prevent an HIV/AIDs
epidemic, the New Zealand Prostitutes' Collective formed a successful
partnership with the government to recruit sex workers as peer educators. The
fact that reports by epidemiologists testing for HIV seropositivity among sex
workers between 1983 and 1998 found no reported cases of infection among New
Zealand prostitutes, gave legitimacy to the ability of sex workers to control
disease and to make the claim of safe sex experts.
In discrediting the myths of irresponsibility and
practitioners of unsafe sex, an allegedly high-risk group of prostitutes became
health care educators. Attention was focused on the behaviour of clients as
problematic in spreading sexual diseases, at the same time sex workers were
aligned with a campaign as protectors of public health. Challenging and
undermined hegemonic discourse reversed public opinion and resulted in the
social inclusion in public policy formation for this previously marginalized
group. Through contact with medical personnel, government officials, politicians
and academics, sex workers gained the confidence and organizational skills
necessary to legitimate their claims as health care specialists. Sex workers
were assisted in repealing laws pertaining to soliciting and in moving toward
decriminalization through the recognition that stigmatization and legal
prosecution prohibit being able to continue harm reduction and disease
prevention work. Prostitute discourse was not only utilized to address safer sex
practices, but was also used as a language of empowerment to create a supportive
social environment for political advocacy. As a result, relations among sex
workers and the police, judges, politicians, health officials and the public
improved in New Zealand.
1.. The services of on-site and drop-in HIV and STD clinics were available to
both female and male sex workers and their clients.
2. One column that frequently appeared in Siren entitled "Take
Care" took up the theme of sex workers acquiring infection from clients.
Catherine Healy and Anna Reed (1994) remarked that while sex workers are
socially perceived to be the major reservoir of infection for HIV/AIDS in the
general population, it was a way to whip up hysteria about prostitutes. She
cautioned that men who refused to wear condoms, that engaged in high-risk sexual
practices and use commercial sex services in travels to other countries with
high rates of HIV/AIDS infection were at risk for spreading diseases in the
community, and the sex worker should supply and put on a condom. Sex workers
were seen to not only protect themselves and their clients but other sexual
partners of these men. Sex workers were also advised with respect to other risks
posed by clients, the police and the public.
3. The notion that prostitutes are the source of and spread venereal diseases
in long-standing in New Zealand as in other parts of the world. This perception
emerged during the nineteenth-century struggle to control syphilis and has been
a part of the government's approach until the 1980s and 1990s when the position
was reversed in favour of working with sex workers in disease prevention (Lichtenstein,
1999:55). Historically, the concern was about the spread of syphilis among
"licentious" Maori woman who had contracted the disease from
Europeans. With the passing of the Contagious Disease Act of 1869, prostitutes
were forcibly confined in order to undergo compulsory medical examinations (Lichtenstein,
4. In attempting to generalize the techniques used by prostitutes to the
general population, it has been observed that young women in particular do not
have the skill or confidence to control sexual encounters (Lupton:1994) and
further prostitutes but not respectable women use condoms (Holland:1994).
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