Sex Work Population Project

Abstract: Estimating turnover and industry longevity of Canadian sex workers

How long indoor sex workers stay employed in collectives is a poorly understood aspect of sex worker agency in industrialized democracies. This study provides estimates of turnover, the rate at which workers leave employment, using a subsample of 76 collectives representing 3545 workers over a one-year period. All the collectives provided data on individual workers via external websites. The collectives were identified in a larger random sample of 783 advertisers from a popular Canadian classifieds site used by sex workers, all of whom provided URLs as part of their ad contact information. Monthly between October 2022 and October 2023, individual workers associated with the subsample of advertisers were identified from web pages maintained by these advertisers and scheduling data was collected where available. Worker turnover was estimated based on whether workers were visible one month to the next. Over the year, estimated turnover ranged from 12.0% to 16.0% (mean 14.2% SD 1.1%). Turnover was not affected by month or number of workers in the collectives. Mean 41.1% workers (SD 23.5%, N=51 advertisers) were scheduled on any given day. Workers were visible for a mean 5.5 months (SD 4.5) with those visible for one month being the largest single group. Most sex workers in collectives are likely not permanent full time employees, and the extremely brief work histories of many suggest that failure in the industry may be common for this subpopulation.

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Background: Most sex worker population studies measure population at discrete points in time and very few studies have been done in industrialized democracies. The purpose of this study is to consider how time affects the population dynamics of contact sex workers in Canada using publicly available internet advertising data collected over multiple years.

Methods: 3.6 million web pages were collected from advertising sites used by contact sex workers between November, 2014 and December, 2016 inclusive. Contacts were extracted from ads and used to identify advertisers. First names were used to estimate the number of workers represented by an advertiser. Counts of advertisers and names were adjusted for missing data and overcounting. Two approaches for correcting overcounts are compared. Population estimates were generated weekly, monthly and for the two year period. The length of time advertisers were active was also estimated. Estimates are also compared with related research.

Results: Canadian sex workers typically advertised individually or in small collectives (median name count 1, IQR 1-2, average 1.8, SD 4.4). Advertisers were active for a mean of 73.3 days (SD 151.8, median 14, IQR 1-58). Advertisers were at least 83.5% female. Respectively the scaled weekly, monthly, and biannual estimates for female sex workers represented 0.2%, 0.3% and 2% of the 2016 Canadian female 20-49 population. White advertisers were the most predominant ethnic group (53%).

Conclusions: Sex work in Canada is a more pervasive phenomenon than indicated by spot estimates and the length of the data collection period is an important variable. Non-random samples used in qualitative research in Canada likely do not reflect the larger sex worker population represented in advertising. The overall brevity of advertising activity suggests that workers typically exercise agency, reflecting the findings of other Canadian research.