Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy (Online)

Indoor Female Sex Workers' Experiences of Counselling: A Hermeneutical Phenomenological Exploration

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy (Online)

Indoor Female Sex Workers' Experiences of Counselling: A Hermeneutical Phenomenological Exploration

Article excerpt

Women who work in the sex industry are disproportionately affected by mental health challenges and social inequities compared to the general population (Benoit et al., 2014; Krumrei-Mancuso, 2017; Puri, Shannon, Nguyen, & Goldenberg, 2017). However, it is only recently that researchers have shifted their focus on physical and safety concerns (e.g., risk of sexually transmitted infections and violence) (Potterat et al., 2004; Ward & Day, 2006) to also include the mental health and emotional well-being of sex workers (Jackson, Bennett, & Sowinski, 2007). This is an important line of inquiry because sex workers have indicated that emotional risks related to their work (e.g., being discovered working as a sex worker by loved ones) are of greater concern to them as they are more difficult to control and have more detrimental consequences to their personal and social lives (Sanders, 2004).

The Canadian government's recent criminalization of the purchase of sexual services further impedes sex workers' health by placing workers at greater risk of violence, fueling sex work-related stigma, and hindering access to and quality of professional support services such as counselling and psychotherapy (Benoit, Jansson, Smith, & Flagg, 2017; Campbell, 2015; Lazarus et al., 2012; Vanwesenbeeck, 2017). Qualitative findings from two studies (i.e., Brode, 2004; Kuntze, 2009) conducted in the United States suggest that although counselling can be a positive and helpful experience for sex workers, it can also be culturally insensitive in some instances. Despite this concerning context, the experiences of Canadian sex workers who obtain help remain scant in a counselling context, or else focus primarily on assistance from medical professionals (Benoit et al., 2018).

Given limited understanding about the counselling needs and experiences of sex workers in Canada, this paper presents findings from a larger study that sought to learn more about this phenomenon specifically from the perspective of indoor sex workers. Drawing from the work of Sanders (2005) and Weitzer (2007), indoor sex work is defined as a voluntary exchange of sexual services for remuneration between consenting adults that occurs in private venues (e.g., strip clubs, massage parlours, and escort agencies), as opposed to street-based venues.

While an estimated 80% of Canadian female sex workers are employed in indoor sex work (Bungay, Halpin, Atchison, & Johnston, 2011), research has been traditionally conducted with the more visible population of street-based sex workers (Aggleton & Parker, 2015; Shaver, 2005). Overall, securing reliable information on the size and demographics of the hard-to-reach sex worker population continues to be challenging, with stigmatization and criminalization presenting as significant barriers (Shaver, 2005). While the size of this population remains unknown (Shaver, 2005), a national investigation on the Canadian sex industry encompassing sex workers (N = 218) from five Canadian cities has shed some light on the makeup of this community (Benoit et al., 2014). Most sex workers were Canadian born, female, White, heterosexual, in their 30s or 40s, and had a high school diploma. Generating knowledge from the clients' perspectives, in this case of indoor sex workers, is increasingly valued for developing culturally alert, socially just, and effective counselling practices (Pope-Davis et al., 2002).

Knowledge and awareness of the legal context that shapes sex work and sex workers' lives is important given that (a) legislation that negatively impacts wellbeing is rarely addressed in the counselling literature (Audet, 2016); (b) legislation that unfairly risks harm to members of specific communities can be conceptualized as systemic, human rights, and social injustice issues (e.g., Scoular & O'Neill, 2007; van der Meulen, Durisin, & Love, 2013; Vanwesenbeeck, 2017); and (c) counsellors have manifested particular interest in the legal aspects of sex work (Velez & Audet, 2018), perhaps because little is known due to it being a taboo and stigmatized topic. …

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