Experts still not sure if selling sex online is safer

Calgarians might assume sex work is on the decline. As areas previously inhabited by a transient, low-income population continue to revamp, fewer and fewer workers are seen searching the streets for dates.

Amanda Baxter from Shift Calgary, an organization that provides support services for those involved in sex work, said that over the past couple years she’s noticed “a real trend towards more online workers.”

“I would say about 10 per cent of sex work is what you see on the street and 90 per cent is what goes on indoors,” Baxter said. “I think it’s the preferred option for men looking to purchase sex as well because they don’t have to worry about things like cops noticing their license plates.”

In the past, areas such as Eau Claire, Inglewood and the east side of downtown Calgary were frequent haunts for johns, sex workers and the homeless. But as these areas continue to redevelop, Baxter said “it will be a lot harder for girls to get away with standing outside someone’s condo building all night.”

From his experience patrolling the streets, Detective Paul Rubner with the Calgary Police Service suggested that the closing of the French Maid strip club on 3rd Avenue S.W. could have been another reason workers made the switch from the streets to cyberspace. Rubner described the area back then as “very dense, with low speed roadways and lots of intersections, making it easier to approach people.”

One of the notable sex worker strolls in Calgary used to be around the now closed Cecil Hotel. As areas of downtown like the East Village continue to gentrify, there is less “street space” left for sex workers.

Photo by Anna Brooks

“When the French Maid closed down, a large portion of the girls’ customer base disappeared,” Rubner explained. “Since that stroll sort of dried up, those girls have now since gone online.”

While some argue that online sex work is safer as women have the ability to better screen their clients, those like mental health nurse Trish Dribnenki think otherwise. Dribnenki works with the Safeworks program, a subset of Alberta Health Services that provides infection prevention and harm reduction services for vulnerable populations like sex trade workers.

“I have seen a big influx from on the street to non-existent, which means a lot of them are going online or in-house,” Dribnenki said. “It’s a problem because they’re way out in the suburbs and far from any available resources.”

Does off the street equal safe?

Although the dangers of street sex work might be more apparent (anyone is putting themselves at risk hopping into a stranger’s vehicle), online sex work can pose equally high hazards.

Detective Rubner explained that with the Internet, there’s no way to know who you’re actually talking to. At least on the street, even if a woman is using a fake name, it’s much easier to keep track of her because she is physically present.

“The ability to track, locate and identify women is extremely difficult with online services,” Rubner said. “The women online, they’re posting photos and it might not even be them.”

Although anonymity on the part of the woman seems safer, whoever is on the other end of the keyboard could just as easily be concealing their identity as well. Rubner said with past sting operations, police have made covert dates and when they arrive at the location, the woman is shocked when “a couple of guys with badges” are at the door.

“They have no idea who’s coming in the door,” Rubner added. “It could have just as easily been someone who wanted to do harm to them. Just because they’re in a hotel, or in their own surroundings doesn’t make it any safer.”

Rubner described a scenario he encountered earlier this year regarding a young woman who had moved to Calgary to work as an escort in order to support her two children back home in Montreal.

According to Rubner, her boyfriend (several officials explained if a man is living off the avails of a working woman, even if she directly refers to him as her boyfriend, he is legally still a pimp) had assaulted her from time to time, but never did anything serious enough to warrant a call to the police.

After a violent argument one day, Rubner said that the woman’s “boyfriend” was so angry he hit her in the face, cracking one of her cheekbones. The situation grew dire as the man leapt to plug in her hair straightener, and told the battered woman to take her underwear off.

“She knew what was about to happen, so for the first time in her life she started to fight back,” Rubner recalled. “She actually bit the cord in half and was able to make her escape. That’s probably a weekly occurrence that we encounter to varying degrees.”

“It’s not like Pretty Woman. There’s nothing glamorous about it at all,” he added.

Joe Verhaeghe, an RCMP officer working in Edmonton, had similar things to say after his many years patrolling the streets.

“It’s hard to keep track of the Internet stuff. It’s kind of like the hidden sex trade,” Verhaeghe said. “How do you get access to it? If you look at sites like the Backpage (a website where escorts advertise themselves), walk away for 50 minutes then come back, there will be 50 more ads. As soon as a girl finishes one date, they’ll post a new ad.”

One of Edmonton’s most recent homicide cases involved an escort who was killed even though she had a security driver with her. She had been taken to her “date’s” house, and told the driver to wait out front until she was finished. Thinking the date was going on longer than usual, the driver went to check things out.

But by that time, it was too late.

“While her safety driver was sitting in the car on the front street, buddy had already killed her,” Verhaeghe said. “He dragged her into the backyard and buried her in the sandpit.”

Natalie, a young woman currently working the streets of Edmonton, said even though “there’s better money online,” she still feels safer on the streets. She said if she’s having a bad date, at least in a car she could threaten to kick out the windshield or jump out if she had to.

“I’m a big girl, I can take care of myself,” Natalie said. “Even if you’re in a hotel room, you just don’t know what you’re walking into.”

Back in Calgary, Safeworks nurse Dribnenki said that the Internet makes it extremely difficult for programs like Safeworks to connect or find those in need of support services.

“When they’re on the street, at least we can keep track of that and other girls can keep on eye on each other,” Dribnenki said. “It’s an even scarier issue now because we can’t reach them. We used to have a stroll with young girls, but where are those young girls now?”

For an inside look at sex work in Calgary, in-depth interviews with sex workers and analysis of legal issues, please visit www.sextradealberta.com, a website featuring investigative work by Calgary Journal reporters Anna Brooks and Allison Drinnan.

abrooks@cjournal.ca
adrinnan@cjournal.ca