Gender, Violence and Health – Contexts of vulnerability, resiliencies and care among people in the sex industry

Canadian Institute of Health Research - Institute of Gender & Health
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 A “working paper” prepared as background to Building on the Evidence: An International Symposium on the Sex Industry in Canada

This paper is a result of a research programme in Canada’s sex industry: workers and their intimate partners, managers and clients.

This study took a broader view on people working in the sex industry, considering the different perspectives and experiences, taking into account: physical, emotional and mental health, personal experiences, laws and regulations in effect, government and society attitudes.

Research Sites

The projects’ five separate but interrelated studies collected data from six urban or regional centres in Canada: St. John’s, NL; Montréal, QC; Kitchener (including organizations in Waterloo and Cambridge), ON; Wood Buffalo (Fort McMurray), AB; Calgary, AB; and Victoria, BC.


This project focuses on adult persons involved in the sex industry. In total, the investigation surveyed and conducted interviews with 218 sex workers, 258 clients, 35 spouses/intimate partners of sex workers, 55 sex industry managers, and 106 people involved with creating and enforcing laws and regulations or providing social services related to the sex industry.


By and large, the people linked to Canada’s sex industry are Canadian-born, Caucasian, in their 30s or 40s with a high school diploma and some form of post-secondary education or training completed or in progress.

This study also takes into consideration: gender presentation, intimate life partners, if they are a parent, if they support family financially, and their annual income.


In general, people involved in the sex industry report poorer health than do other Canadians. The interview’s questions and statistics include mental and emotional health, use of psychoactive drugs (both illicit and pharmaceutical) and STIs prevention and transmission. And how Canada’s publicly-funded healthcare system responds to and treats this part of the population.

Stigma and discrimination

The data suggest that sex workers experienced very high levels of discrimination early in life during school, at work, from the police/courts and in public settings. Sex buyers also experience discrimination.

Sex industry: Exploitation or Empowerment?

A central focus of this research was developing a nuanced understanding of the power relations among transactional sex parties and actors, in particular the relationship of buyer and seller. Data from both sellers and buyers provides interesting insights into sex industry transactions.

Messages Emerging from the Evidence:

  • Most sex workers do not feel exploited and most sex buyers are not oppressors.
  • Much of the vulnerability experienced by some sex workers has little or nothing to do with sex work.
  • Sex work provides an opportunity for some individuals.
  • Tensions involving sellers, buyers and managers occur in the sex industry, but they are not endemic.
  • Service environments more removed from normal networks of social regulation and control increase the likelihood of escalating serious conflict.
  • Stigma, fear and isolation are common experiences in the sex industry.
  • Punitive laws and their enforcement make it very difficult for others to provide protection for sexual exchanges.

You can download this 27 page document above. This resource is in English.