Over half of female sex workers in Canada suffer an alarming prevalence of violence that could be stemmed by decriminalising the sex industry, according to research published on bmj.com today.
While gender-based violence has been identified as a global public health priority that can lead to ill-health and death, abuses against female sex workers are seldom debated, say the authors.
Lead author, Professor Kate Shannon at the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and the University of British Colombia, and her team interviewed over 250 female street-based sex workers in Vancouver. The average age of participants was 36 and most had begun prostitution at 15 years of age.
They were interviewed on up to three occasions and asked: "Have you been physically abused by someone (excluding clients) in the last six months?", "Have you been forced to have sex against your will (excluding clients) in the last six months?", "Have you experienced a 'bad date' in the last six months?"
Over half of participants (57%) had experienced violence at least once in the 18-month follow-up period. Almost four in ten (38%) reported physical violence, a quarter (25%) reported rape, and three in ten (30%) said their clients had been violent towards them.
The majority (87%) said they had lived on the street at least once in their lifetime, and one fifth had tried but been unable to access drug treatment in the last 18 months. A fifth had at least one dependent child and three in ten (32%) reported having a child removed by social services.
Shannon says: "The persistent relationship between enforcement of prostitution and drug use policies (e.g. confiscation of drug use paraphernalia without arrest, and enforced displacement to outlying areas) suggests that criminalisation may enhance the likelihood of violence against street-based female sex workers."
She adds that it is particularly worrying that so many female sex workers are unsuccessful in accessing drug treatment and this led to double the risk of physical and client-perpetrated violence. The authors say the demand for addiction treatment in British Colombia far outweighs availability - in 2008 there was a wait time of between four to twelve weeks and only a handful of beds were available for mothers with children.
To conclude, Shannon says that "the findings support global calls to remove criminal sanctions targeting sex workers."