Elena Argento

Research Topic

Investigating the socio-structural context and impact of new Canadian legislation and criminal policies (C-36) on HIV/STI risks among sex workers and their clients

Research Group

Gender and Sexual Health Initiative

Research Description

In Canada and globally, sex workers continue to experience high rates of HIV/STI (sexually transmitted infection), violence, and poor access to health care services. Despite the significance of socio-structural factors (e.g. laws, stigma, social support) in influencing the HIV epidemic, large research gaps remain in our understanding of how these factors affect HIV/STI risks for sex workers. For the first time in Canadian history, new sex work legislation (Bill C-36, implemented in December 2014) criminalizes purchasing and advertising the sale of sexual services, while the selling of sex remains legal. These policies have been adopted in Canada despite the lack of evidence supporting this legal framework and an absence of empirical research on the health impacts and HIV/STI risks for sex workers. My PhD research project seeks to address the health and social vulnerability experienced by sex workers by investigating the impact of new sex work laws and enforcement-based policies on HIV/STI risks (e.g. drug use patterns, violence, condom use, access to care) among sex workers and clients in Vancouver, Canada.

What was the best surprise about UBC or life in Vancouver?

I have lived most of my life in Vancouver and have been pleasantly surprised by the ongoing support and mentorship at UBC, as well as meeting inspiring individuals both in and out of university. The lifestyle of a UBC student living in Vancouver is definitely a hard one to beat.

Why did you decide to study at UBC?

As a Research Assistant with the Gender and Sexual Health Initiative (GSHI) at the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS (BCCfE), UBC is an ideal environment for me to pursue doctoral studies. I have many opportunities to learn from other students at various stages in their research and careers, and have exceptional mentorship and research supports at both UBC and the Centre. It was an easy decision to stay in Vancouver and continue my studies at UBC.

What is it specifically, that your program offers, that attracted you?

The Interdisciplinary Studies Graduate Program allows me to explore my cross-disciplinary research interests spanning public health, public policy, social sciences, health sciences, and criminology. I am particularly attracted to the flexibility of the program and being able to choose interdisciplinary courses that will equip me with the tools to conduct my dissertation study, while learning from the GSHI/BCCfE and its multiple partnerships with local, national and international community-based organizations.

 

Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?

Living the majority of my adult life in Vancouver, I have often been confronted by visible social disadvantage, particularly in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, notorious for its poverty, drug use, and sex work. Sex workers are amongst the most heavily affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, yet little empirical research has been conducted on the impact of socio-structural factors in shaping the risks for HIV among sex workers. I am pursuing a PhD to address this gap and the need to reduce inequalities and human rights violations among marginalized populations. My research involves delineating the role of socio-structural determinants (e.g., laws, stigma, social support) in potentiating or mitigating sexual and drug use-related risks for HIV/STI. In addition to producing research, my goal is to also convey the urgency of these issues to the general public and policymakers.

What do you like to do for fun or relaxation?

Nothing is more relaxing to me than spending time in nature, especially in beautiful British Columbia. I love to run, hike, swim, and ski.

What advice do you have for new graduate students?

Graduate work can seem daunting at first, especially if you are new to the city or school. I think it's important to reach out to others and ask lots of questions. Those who have gone through the process can provide guidance, and, in my experience, are willing to help. Also, apply for funding at every opportunity!