If you don’t think there’s a sex trade in the Yukon, that’s only because it’s almost invisible here.
Bringing it to light is the first step in developing supports for the women involved, says Charlotte Hrenchuk, co-ordinator for the Yukon Status of Women’s Council.
Hrenchuk herself first became aware of the nature of the northern sex trade 15 years ago.
At the time, she was doing work around women’s homelessness in the Yukon. She found a number of the women she spoke with talked about survival sex — trading sex for the things they needed, including housing, food and rides.
When she tried to dig deeper into the issue, to find out more about its shape and scope, there was nothing. That’s when she determined to look into it herself.
It took some time to find the funding to conduct the three-year research project that will conclude in September (that’s when the money runs out from Status of Women Canada and Yukon’s Crime Prevention Victim Services Trust Fund.). It also took time to find people who would participate in interviews about their experiences, says Hrenchuk.
Organizations and service providers, including the Victoria Faulkner Women’s Centre, the RCMP, and Blood Ties Four Directions, were open to talking, but that was less often the case among the women who were directly involved.
“Because sex work is so stigmatized, it was difficult reaching women and also having them feel that they could trust and they wouldn’t be betrayed,” she says.
Hrenchuk ended up connecting with 22 people involved with the sex trade (largely women, but also two men) through service providers who passed her name along, casually and discreetly.
In speaking with them, she found that the whole spectrum of the sex trade exists in the Yukon — anything from providing a service in an alley, to being a high-end escort, to being involved but not necessarily identifying as a sex worker.
“It’s just something they have to do to get drugs or food or housing or rides,” she says.
“For a lot of the women that I spoke with, their choices had been quite constrained and so, in choosing to trade sex, it might not be something they want to continue with but because of their circumstances, they didn’t have any other choices.”
Hrenchuk says some of the root issues that need to be addressing in supporting people include housing supply and affordability, and de-stigmatizing sex work.
“(Stigma) is huge. That can prevent women from accessing health care, adequate supportive health care, from reporting sex assault, job opportunities, addiction treatment,” she says.
It also affects their success at leaving sex work, if that’s something they choose to do.
“If a woman chooses to transition out it can take a long time and a number of attempts as well. It’s not just an easy thing to get out of, and trafficking is even more difficult because the people trafficking are making a ton of money.”
While the results of the study have not been published online, Hrenchuk says they have been shared with the RCMP, managers and directors a health and social services, Victoria Faulkner, managers at the department of justice, and the anti-povery coalition.
She says a lot of those organizations are looking for ways to make their services more friendly to women, and let them know they can speak about the experience without fear of that stigma.
Right now, Hrenchuk is looking into additional funding to do a peer program, advanced education, and providing opportunities for women to transition out of sex work, again, if that’s something they want to do.
In the meantime, she says one of the ways Yukoners can help de-stigmatize sex work, and make women feel more comfortable being open with their experiences, is to put aside judgment.
“Be aware of your own bias about sex work,” she says. “Don’t sensationalize it … understand how pervasive stigma is in popular culture, challenge people on that, see the life experience of each worker. Don’t assume all are victims are the same and respect their own experience.”
Contact Amy Kenny at firstname.lastname@example.org