Recession means tough times for sex workers

Falling prices for services ‘causing a lot of misery’ and raising fears prostitutes will take more risks

Jun 07, 2009 04:30 AM

Trish Crawford


Drag queen “Ray” was enraged when a late-night customer on Toronto’s downtown track offered him $5 for oral sex recently.
“I didn’t spend two hours getting my makeup on and all dressed up for
that,” says the 36-year-old former hairdresser from Venezuela, who
usually charges $60 for the service.
These days, Ray is getting little more than callouses from standing all night near Jarvis and
Wellesley, as the economic slump delivers an unexpected hit to the sex
The vices – smoking, drinking, sex – are usually
bulletproof during a recession, says economist Perry Sadorsky, who
teaches at York University’s Schulich School of Business. So if the sex
trade is hurting, “we are in the most serious depression since the
1930s. This shows the magnitude of the decline. It is deep and it is
Sex workers say their incomes began plummeting last
fall, with johns pleading poverty and haggling over prices, and
prostitutes bidding against each other.
“There are 60 people on
the street, but they are all sex workers and there’s no money for
anybody,” says Ray, who, like other prostitutes, did not want his real
name used. “This economy is causing a lot of misery.”
Sadorsky wonders if the economic crisis is forcing more people into sex work,
thereby increasing competition on the street. Toronto police, who use a
community complaints system to keep track of prostitution, report no
increase in complaints, though they suggest this may mean sex workers
are trolling in non-residential areas.
But it’s no surprise prostitutes and their customers end up haggling, says Sadorsky. Unlike
alcohol and cigarettes, which are regulated and sold in stores, the
price of sex is flexible and negotiated for each transaction by the
buyer and the seller. People willing to work for less affect the going
price, he says.
The recession has seen the street price of oral sex, the most common service, plummet from $60 last fall to $20 today.
“Full service” involving intercourse has dropped from $150 to $80.
And it’s not just street prostitutes who are being hit. Escort workers,
both those with agencies and independents, report a 15 per cent decline
in clients, says Valerie Scott, executive director of Sex Professionals
of Canada, a volunteer group working toward the decriminalization of
sex work.
As well, she says, the clients they do have are scrimping.
“If they had previously paid for an hour, they are now going for half an
hour. Or they are having only three sessions a month, not four.”
Toronto’s sex trade workers began feeling the pinch of the economic meltdown last fall.
“That’s been the vibe on the street since October,” says Scott. “How we are
doing is a reliable indicator of how the economy is doing.”
Wendy Babcock, 29, a harm-reduction worker with Street Health, says the
weekly prostitute drop-in she runs has been dominated by concerns about
dropping prices.
She has noticed escorts dropping their prices dramatically in their advertisements on the back pages of local free newspapers.
An hour and a half in the prostitute’s home with the client’s choice of
services “used to be $250, and now they are asking for $60 or $80,” she
“It’s not a lucrative career.”
She’s concerned that sex workers will put themselves in dangerous situations and “have to take more risks” to make ends meet.
Indeed, Carol, 32, says she is getting more requests for dangerous or unusual
acts – such as men wanting to be choked, which she will only play-act –
prompted by clients’ exposure to Internet porn.
Aleesha, a transgendered prostitute who has worked the streets for four years,
says she used to earn $400 a night. But now, if she gets $150, “I know
that’s it.”
Staff Sgt. Mike Ervick, head of vice for 52 Division
on Dundas St. W. near the Art Gallery of Ontario, says street
prostitutes are getting competition from sex workers who’ve moved
indoors to hotels and are using the Internet “in real time” to drum up
“They say, ‘The girls are here right now, come quick,’ ” says Ervick.

Staff Sgt. Ed Roseto of 14 Division, which includes Parkdale, says the
undercover officers involved in two sweeps there this winter did find
clients “lowballing” prices, even though, after being arrested, they
were found to have enough money on them for full price.
The Parkdale area has always had cheap prostitutes, he says, with females
getting $20 for oral sex and male prostitutes getting $40. Men command
higher prices, he says, and get double the amount, about $80, for
Drugs such as crack play a role in the lives of many prostitutes in the area, he says. “Crack is the biggest pimp in 14
Inez Garwood, executive director of Streetlight
support Services, which is dedicated to helping prostitutes leave the
sex trade, says numerous new “tracks” have blossomed around the city,
which means more johns.
The downtown areas of Jarvis and Wellesley, along with Kingston Rd. and Parkdale, were once the main
areas of street prostitution in Toronto, but Garwood reports that the men arrested in police sweeps are now found all over the city,
including Browns Line, Danforth Ave., Weston Rd., Eglinton Ave. W. and
Steeles Ave.
“As long as some guy is standing on a street corner waving $20, we can’t stop the prostitution,” she says.
which offers two court-mandated diversion programs, one for prostitutes
and another for johns, runs a drop-in centre and a food bank.
Ann, who works on the Danforth, has found herself using the food bank this
year, after 10 years of working the streets, because her regulars have
been hiring her less and less due to the recession.
“Five years ago, I was making $500 to $600 a night,” she says.

“It was good money. But everybody’s feeling the recession. Regulars I
used to see once or twice a week, I don’t see them as often. One
regular I haven’t seen in six months. He’s laid off.”
As for the lowball offer, she says: “I don’t do anything for $20. I wish they
printed $40 bills because all I see these days are twenties.”
But the high-school dropout says that as difficult and dangerous as it is
to survive as a street prostitute, she isn’t looking for work elsewhere.
“I still make more than if I was working at McDonald’s.”

Jessica Yee
Director, Native Youth Sexual Health Network
Chair, First Nations, Inuit, Métis Committee, Canadians for Choice


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s