Health, well-being and sexual violence among female sex workers : a comparative study

Seib, Charrlotte (2007) Health, well-being and sexual violence among female sex workers : a comparative study. PhD thesis, Queensland University of Technology.



  • Prostitution has been documented in most societies, although the context in which it occurs may vary greatly. In Queensland, Australia, sex workers can operate from legal brothels or privately but all other sectors of the sex industry are prohibited. It is assumed that regulation of the sex industry through legalization leads to better health and social outcomes for sex workers and their clients. However, this assumption has rarely been subjected to empirical scrutiny.


  • This research examined the occupational health and safety of female sex workers in Queensland and explored the relationship between legislative change, workplace violence, mental health and job satisfaction. Sex workers interviewed in 2003 (after legalisation) were compared to a prior study of this population conducted in 1991 (before official regulation of the sex industry). Further, in-depth analysis of the 2003 cohort compared sex workers employed in legal and illegal sectors, to assess violence, health status and job satisfaction.


  • Cross-sectional, convenience sampling was used to collect data from female sex workers in 2003. This data was compared with data collected earlier (in 1991) and explored differences in the two samples using bivariate analysis. Similar recruitment strategies on both occasions were used to recruit women from all known sectors of the Queensland sex industry. The 1991 comparison sample (Boyle et al. 1997) included 200 women (aged between 16 and 46 years), and in 2003, 247 women (aged 18 to 57) participated. The 2003 sample included workers from legal brothels (n=102), private sole-operators (n=103) and illegal street-based sex workers (n=42). Using data collected in 2003, this study assessed the relationship between physical and mental health and job satisfaction and two main independent variables, i.e., current work sector and recent workplace violence. Bivariate analysis of physical health and independent variables showed no significant relationships and therefore further analysis was not undertaken. However, analysis of mental health and job satisfaction showed complex interactions between multiple variables and therefore linear modeling was performed to adjust for confounding.


  • Analysis of the 1991 and 2003 samples showed little apparent change over time in self-reported sexually transmitted infections (STIs). There were substantial changes over time in the types of sexual services being provided to clients, with the 2003 sample more likely to provide 'exotic' services. Violence experienced ever in their lifetime differed; in 1991, 29% reported having ever been raped compared with 42% in 2003 (p= &lt0.01). In 2003, 50% of illegal sex workers reported having ever been raped by a client compared with 12% of private sex workers and 3% of brothel-based sex workers (p=&lt0.01). Overall, the sex workers reported roughly equivalent job satisfaction to Australian women. A desire to leave the sex industry was most strongly correlated with reduced job satisfaction (p=&lt0.01). Satisfaction was also relatively low among those whose family was not aware of their sex work (p=&lt0.01). Similarly, the mental and physical health of this sample was comparable to age-matched women from the general population. Wanting to leave the sex industry was most strongly associated with poor mental health (p=&lt0.01), as was recent sexual or physical assault by a client (p=0.06) and the woman's main work sector (p=0.05). Illegal sex workers reported substantially lower mental health scores than their counterparts in legal sex work.


  • Self-reported STI diagnosis was high in these samples but the prevalence appears not to have changed over time. Comparing 2003 to 1991, there were trends towards safer and more diverse sexual practices. It is likely the sex industry has 'professionalized' and now includes more sex workers providing specialist, 'exotic' services. This sample of female sex workers reported high rates of violence, with those working illegally at greatest risk. Analysis suggests a complex interaction between variables contributing to mental health and job satisfaction. In general, it appears that the majority of sex workers enjoyed at least as much job satisfaction as women working in other occupations. It also appears that this sample had equivalent mental health to women from the general population, although the sub-group of illegal workers generally had poorer health. Job satisfaction and the extent of workplace hazards (especially risk of violence) were also strongly associated with different sectors of the sex industry. It is probable that legalisation has benefited some (perhaps most) but there are health and safety concerns for those outside the legal framework. Legislative reform should focus on violence prevention, promoting reporting of violent events to police, and further exploration of the impact of legislation on the health of workers in the sex industry.

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ID Code: 16398
Item Type: QUT Thesis (PhD)
Supervisor: Dunne, Michael, Carpenter, Belinda, & Najman, Jackob
Keywords: correlation, female sex worker, job satisfaction, legalization, legislative structure, mental health, occupational health and safety, occupational demand, physical health, physical assault, rape, prostitution, regulated sex industry, sex industry, sex work, sexual abuse, sexual assault, sexually transmitted infection, SF 36, workplace
Divisions: Current > Research Centres > Centre for Health Research
Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > Faculty of Health
Department: Faculty of Health
Institution: Queensland University of Technology
Copyright Owner: Copyright Charrlotte Seib
Deposited On: 03 Dec 2008 04:02
Last Modified: 30 Jun 2016 22:13

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