Researchers at the University of British Columbia have launched a national study to find out how people buying and selling sexual services use technologies like smartphones and websites to communicate with one another, develop relationships and negotiate service conditions.

The Street-To-Screen project is the first of its kind in Canada and researchers hope it will help fill a vital gap in information about the sex industry, said Vicky Bungay, principal investigator and the Canada Research Chair in Gender, Equity and Community Engagement at UBC.

The survey also aims to explore the impacts of current Canadian laws which criminalize a wide range of activities associated with providing sexual services, including communication.

“We know that good communication is key to ensuring the health and safety of those involved in the sale and purchase of sex, but we don’t know how people are getting around the legal restrictions placed on that communication in Canada,” said Bungay.

People can take part in the project by completing a survey or participating in phone or in-person interviews.

“This is an opportunity for people to safely and confidentially participate in a project that has the potential to change current laws and attitudes around the sex industry,” said Chris Atchison, co-principal investigator and research associate at the Capacity Research Unit at UBC.

Bill C-36, the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, was enacted in 2014 and criminalized activities such as the purchase or advertisement of sexual services and communicating with a sex worker about the services they are selling, among others.

“Selling sex is a legal form of income in Canada, but the set of restrictions built up around the practice make it impossible for those involved to do so safely,” said Atchison.

The restrictions can have serious impacts on both worker and client safety.

“If you can’t communicate, how do you establish consent? How do you establish what you will or won’t do?” said Bungay.

When the bill was signed into law, the review period was set at five years, despite calls from experts for a two-year review process.

“We have over thirty years of research that shows unequivocally that bad laws put people in harm’s way,” said Atchison. “We want to collect this data now so that we can provide empirical evidence about the impacts these new laws have on both sex workers and clients when it comes time to review the law.”

The Street-To-Screen Project is funded in part by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).


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