Safe Sex Doesn’t Exist in a Vacuum

Alisha OstbergBlog, sex work, Uncategorized

One day, while organizing Shift’s condom supply, I took the following photo of all of our beautifully colored flavored condoms:

I wanted to post it on our blog because a) The condoms looked so adorable and pretty and b) I love writing about safe sex.  I figured I would include some facts about STI transmission rates for unprotected blow jobs (lovingly nicknamed Bare Back Blow Jobs or BBBJ’s by the sex work community) along with a list of our condom flavors and a disclaimer that they “actually taste pretty damn good”!  I also was still pretty green and had a lot to learn.

Here’s why I didn’t write that post; bare back blowjobs don’t exist in a vacuum.  In fact, no form of safe sex does.  What the heck do I mean, you ask? Well, sex and the ability to negotiate condom use are intimately impacted by a person’s power in a relationship.  Sex workers are a diverse group, and the level of power they feel when dealing with clients also differs between individuals.  Gender, ethnicity, ability, poverty, and the existence of criminalization can all change how likely it is for someone to feel they have the capacity to use a condom.

For example: Some indoor sex workers have extensive screening practices.  These practices can include requiring clients to give their full name, their identification, their phone number, and their home address.  Clients may need to have good references from at least 2 other sex workers who say they are not jerks, showed up for their appointments, paid the full amount, etc.  These ladies and men typically charge a higher rate and have strict rules about what sex acts they will and won’t do, and what their rules are around condom use.  These sex worker’s clients know to expect these rules, and most likely are ok with that.  If they weren’t, they would see another sex worker.

Street based sex workers may have a lot less power and ability to screen clients than many indoor workers.  The higher visibility of working on the streets, and the persistent fear of arrest, often means that sex workers are limited from negotiating terms before jumping in a vehicle.  Street sex work is more often driven by a combination of high and immediate financial needs and limited opportunities to earn money.  This creates a potentially dangerous imbalance of power within the transaction when individuals try to exploit a workers financial need for their gain.   Street-based sex workers are more likely to have a disability, a mental health concern, and/or an addiction than their indoor colleagues.  SamThey are also more likely to be a visible minority, aboriginal, and/or transgender.  All of these identities are associated with high rates stigma and experiences of marginalization.  Individuals who experience higher rates of marginalization also frequently experience lower levels of power and choice.  For some street-based workers, one client is the difference between paying rent and becoming homeless.  For others, it means getting a hit of a drug you are withdrawing from in order to avoid severe and sometimes life threatening withdrawal symptoms.  There is sometimes a higher level of urgency to a street-based sex worker’s need to work; for them it might be life or death.  So if you are faced with a client that wants oral sex and tells you he will pay you an extra $20 if you don’t use a condom, where do you stand?  Does that $20 mean you can eat today? What if you say no? Are you safe if he gets mad? Is this a situation where you can freely choose to use a condom or not, or is this a situation where your choice is constrained by other factors?

While safety tends to be higher for indoor sex workers, the choice and power are not always there all of the time.  Many escorts may love their jobs and feel really strongly that this is a positive choice for them, but a financial emergency can totally change the power for them if they don’t have any other supports or savings.  Sex workers don’t have access to Employment Insurance or Workers Compensation.  If sex workers get sick or are injured on the job, they don’t have a financial safety net that many other workers have access to. Suddenly a sex worker might realize “I have to see at least 5 clients in the next 2 days or I can’t pay the rent.”  If a client shows up and offers an extra $100 for a blowjob without a condom, or an extra $200 for unprotected sex, maybe it’s no longer  a simple decision to say “no”.

For some escorts, BBBJ’s simply mean keeping their customers.  If she won’t offer them, chances are someone else will, so safer sex becomes a business liability.  If escorting is someone’s main form of income, industry expectations become very important.  In Calgary, the demand for BBBJ’s has grown, making it harder for sex workers to attract customers and insist on condoms for oral sex.  Some sex workers know the risks associated with unprotected oral sex, but still make informed decisions to offer BBBJ’s because it makes sense for their business or they feel comfortable with this sex act with regular clients who they know are getting tested regularly.  This can be safer sex too.

Do you get what I’m saying? I am saying preaching safe sex all the time and every time doesn’t always translate to real-life situations.  What is most important is that people are empowered and informed to make the best decision possible for themselves; that decision doesn’t necessarily always involve a condom.  Safer-sex conversations must address power and choice and all the struggles that a person may be facing before we offer them a handful of strawberry-chocolate flavored condoms.  We must talk about power and control to support people in increasing their ability to exercise sound sexual decision making.  At Shift, I am learning to be my client’s support first, and a sexual health professional second.  Or maybe this is actually what a good sexual health professional is?

What do you think?  Have any of you other professionals out there had similar challenges with promoting safe sex at all times to clients with complex experiences of power and marginalization?  Have any of you ever felt like access to pretty flavored condoms was not enough?  How can we change our approach to safer sex to fully understand the context in which sex takes place?  This is not a benign world, not everyone has the same rights and power as others.  Bare back blowjobs will continue to be expected of sex workers, are we going to meet them where they are at or not?

The MindShift