International Conference on Prostitution and Other Sex Work

Université du Québec a Montréal,
September 27-29, 1996

Check out the report on "When Sex Works" from the Sex Workers Alliance of Vancouver.

participant kit

Technical note #I
Some facts about the sex trade

1. How big is the industry?

Data available on the size of the sex trade industry are at best sketchy for various reasons. First, many aspects of the business are illegal, and most remain at the margins of society. Second, definitions are variable, the best example being pornography: no one agrees on what constitutes pornography, therefore the difficulty of estimating its size. Third, it is subject to dramatic shifts: not everyone involved makes it a full-time occupation, even less so a career; agencies (escort, massage, etc. will rapidly change names, addresses, telephone numbers, to avoid police investigations.

2. How many persons are involved in sex work?

If we include all sex workers, the same problems as with estimating the sixe of the industry arise. Wen thinking about adult prostitution in all its forms (street, escort, massage, bawdy house), some estimates suggest that there would be approximately 500 sex workers in Montreal (Gemme, 1993). Of these, approximately half would be street workers. Other studies estimate that 20% of all sex workers are street workers (Toronto, 1983). Nude dancers would approximate 150. Overall, 80% of sex workers are women.

3. Who are the sex workers?

In terms of sex workers' socio-demographics characteristics, the data collected by the Federal Department of Justice for the Frase Committee (1985) and for the evaluation of the street communication legislation (1988), are roughly similar:
  • Age:
    the mean age of prostitutes varies between 22 and 25, and the majority began their career between 16 and 20; (Shaver, 1993; Sansfacon, 1984)

  • Gender:
    women are the majority, between 67% and 90% of all prostitutes, depending on study site. In Montreal, women accont for 80% of the street prostitutes (Shaver, 1993 Canada 1985)

  • Abuse:
    physical abuse is reported in a larger proportion (bwtween 40% and 65%) than sexual abuse (28% to 44%). The figures for sexual abuse are similar to thise for the general population obtained by the Badgley Committee (Canada, 1984).

  • Economic background:
    most sex workers come from "comfortable" family backgrounds, rathe tan from poor backgrounds. In her Montreal study, Shaver (1995) found that 90% of women and 72% of men had a job before turning to prostitution.

  • A choice:
    Between 50% and 75% became involved in prostitution voluntarily, and between 50% and 70 work for themselves and not for a pimp.

4. Occupational hazards

  • Safety:
    Female prostitutes report more assaults and rapes than male prostitutes, are more likely to be robbed and more likely to be arrested. In fact, 46% of the women in the Shaver study (1995) had been sexually assaulted over the previous year and 73% had been physically assaulted while at work. Lowman reports a disturbingly high number of homocides of sex workers: 47 since 1988.

  • Health:
    Similar to other women in the human services industry, sex workers report stress, boring repetitive work, physical problems associated with standing and shift work (Shaver, 1995).

  • Arrests:
    A female prostitute will be arrested on average 1.37 times per year, compared to 0.37 times for a male prostitute. Between 1986 and 1991 6,493 arrests of female prostitutes have been made in Montreal compared to 1,746 of male prostitutes. The majority of sentences are fines. averaging less for clients ($287) than prostitutes ($301) (Gemme, 1993).

  • Pimps:
    The majority of women, around 60% overall, work for themselves. Those who work for pimps are generally younger, less likely to have completed high school and more likely to be cohabitating. They also work longer hours per day and more days per week.

  • Drugs:
    Montreal data collected by Shaver show that female street prostitutes are less involved in hard drug use than men (7% vs 50%) and have a lesser tendency to be high while working (10% vs 60%) (Shaver, 1993).

    Female street prostitutes practice safer sex than their male counterparts and safer sex than the general population. In fact, 100% report using the condom all the time for vaginal and anal sex while at work, compared to 48% of women in a college sample (Shaver, 1995). They also have regular HIV tests and have a prevalience rate not significantly higher than the general population (See: Bastow, K. (1996) "Prostitution and HIV-AIDS, Canadian HIV-Policy and Law Newsletter, vol. 2, no. 2.)


Canada (1985) Report of the Special Committee on Pornography and Prostitution, Ottawa: Supply and Services, 2 vols.

Gemme, R. et. al., (1985) Rapport sur la prostitution au Quebec, Ottawa: Ministere de la Justice.

Gemme, R. et. al., (1989) La prostitution de rue: effets de la loi, Montreal Quebec, Trois-Rivieres, Ottawa: Ministere de la Justice.

Gemme, R. et. al., (1993) Evaluation de la repression de la prostitution de rue a Montreal de 1970 e 1991." Revue Sexologique, vol. 1, no. 2.

Shaver, F. (1993) "Prostitution: A Female Crime?" in Adelberg, E. and C. Currie, (eds.) In Conflict with the Law, Women and the Candian Justice System. Vancouver: Press Gang Publishers

Shaver, F. M. (1995) "Occupational Health and Safety on the Dark Side of the Service Industry" in Fleming, T., (eds.) Post-Critical Criminology. Scarborogh: Prentice Hall.

When Sex Works... [Rights Groups]

Created: November 23, 1996
Last modified: September 26, 1997

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