Sex Work Population Project

Abstract: The Changing Meaning Of “No” In Canadian Sex Work


With the migration of sex workers to online advertising in Canada, a substantial body of research has emerged on how they communicate with prospective clients. However, given the enormous quantity of archival material available, finding representative ways to identify what sex workers say is a difficult task. Numerical analysis of commonly used phrases allows for the analysis of large numbers of documents potentially identifying themes that may be missed using other techniques. This study considers how Canadian sex workers communicate by examining how the word “no” was used by online advertisers over a 15-year period. Source materials consisted of three collections of online classified advertising containing over 4.2 million ads collected between 2007 and 2022 representing 214456 advertisers. Advertisers and demographic variables were extracted from ad metadata. Common terms surrounding the word “no” were used to identify themes. The word “no” was used by 115127 advertisers. Five major themes were identified: client reassurance (54084 advertisers), communication (47130 advertisers), client race (32612 advertisers), client behavior (23863 advertisers), and service restrictions (8545 advertisers). The probability of there being an association between an advertiser and a major theme was found to vary in response to several variables, including: time period, region, advertiser gender, and advertiser ethnicity. Results are compared with previous work on race and risk messaging in sex work advertising and factors influencing client race restrictions are considered. Over time, the restriction related themes of client behavior, service restrictions, and client race became more prominent. Collectives, multi-regional, cis-female, and Black or Mixed ancestry advertisers were more likely to use restrictions.


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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.