Backgrounder: Sex Workers: Inside the Hidden Trade

This report captures how sex workers view their work, health status, access to services and exiting experiences. Its aim is to understand the challenges they face and offer policy suggestions to help improve workers' situations, inside as well as outside the sex trade.

While much of the former research on sex workers has tended to see these men and women as a social problem, this new research paints a more complex picture of the occupation and those who make up its workforce.

Here are some of the highlights that can be found in the full report:

-- The mean age of respondents was 32 years at the time of interview, which does not fit the dominant media image of sex workers as being comprised mainly of sexually-exploited children and youth.

-- Aboriginal people were over-represented among respondents but members of visible minority groups were under-represented.

-- The median level of education of respondents was grade 10, and the majority had not graduated from high school.

-- The median annual income from sex trade activities for respondents active in the trade was $18,000, placing the majority of respondents in an income bracket not unlike other low-paid frontline service workers.

-- Male respondents were worse off economically than their female colleagues.

-- Nearly 25 per cent were without stable housing at the time of interview.

-- Respondents' median age of entry into the sex trade, at 18 years, was older than most previous research indicates. Economic duress and enticement were the two most common reasons for initial entry.

-- The majority of respondents had worked in the sex trade for five years or more.

-- The sex trade does not have a recognizable career ladder, with workers beginning on the street and subsequently moving to off-street locations, such as strip bars or escort agencies. Rather respondents work in a variety of venues, sometimes two at the same time.

-- Venues differed in regard to sex workers' control over their earnings, pace of work, clientele, sex activities performed, and health and safety.

-- The vast majority of respondents had tried to exit the sex trade, some of them many times. Most went back to the industry, reporting economic necessity as their primary reason for doing so.

-- In regard to health, virtually all respondents reported practising safe sex at work and only a minority said they used addictive illegal drugs.

-- The majority of the respondents reported poor mental health, which they linked in part to the stigma and discrimination they face on a daily basis.

-- Street nurses and outreach workers, rather than doctors, provide the bulk of the respondents' health care.

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Keywords: sex, workers, inside, hidden, trade

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