I first got involved in researching prostitution during my first practicum for my Bachelor’s degree, deciding that instead of working at a community police station filing paperwork I wanted to do something more hands-on, more than just clerical work. My practicum supervisor suggested the Provincial Prostitution Unit – now disbanded – doing research for the inter-departmental unit. I worked under Sophie Mas, who still works in non-profit with marginalized youth in Vancouver, and my main project during my term was to confirm a list of organizations that offered services for at-risk, exploited, and street youth across Canada.
As part of my education with the Unit, I learned a lot about the realities of life for street youth in Vancouver, the adult and youth sex trade, and where the prostitution strolls were. I even met experiential youth – young people who had exited street life and were working with other non-profit groups – and learned their stories. I knew that I was going to learn a lot in this placement, but I wasn’t sure about just how much I didn’t know.
I learned about the sex tourism industry, and about websites where men posted information about the “kiddie strolls” with underage and young-looking women, even information about the youth working the streets and descriptions of their experiences. The government had to give me special clearance through their firewalls to be able to search out websites with the words “prostitution”, and “sex” in order to conduct any research and to email organizations across North America.
I met community groups that worked to raise awareness about the existence plight of street youth in and around Greater Vancouver. I met parents who lost their children to the lure of living on the streets, youth who had run away from home to escape abuse, dysfunction, or to engage in their drug habits.
But I still believed that there was a way to “rescue” these young people, who were often not much younger than me, who came from homes and communities like mine, who had similar backgrounds. Of course you want to rescue them, to take them off the streets and make them better, why wouldn’t you? It’s what we’re taught to do, right? I believed that given the choice between living on the streets with the threat of violence, the elements, and no security, most people would go into a shelter and work towards transitioning back to “straight” or “square” life.
What I didn’t understand was that for many young people, and adults who had left home at a young age, even a poor choice made on your own may be preferable to having no choices of your own. Living under one’s own rules, even without the security and comfort of a home, may be more desirable than having to defer to someone else’s authority. This is something I am still understanding, and have only just come to accept about those who live their lives differently than we may think they should.
But that’s what my research is leading me to; a better way to work with people where they are and allow them to make their own choices, and hopefully make better, healthier choices.