Sex Work Population Project

Category: abstracts

  • 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…

  • 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…

  • Abstract: The Silent Majority

    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…

Previous studies that considered factors associated with success in sex work used measures such as hourly rates to identify more successful workers. However, such indicators are only an indirect measure of client interest. This study considers a prominent classified advertising venue in Canada that provided statistics on how often ads were viewed, providing a potentially more direct measure of client preferences. Daily views were calculated for a collection of 62582 classified ads generated by 12477 advertisers between July 9, 2023 and August 9, 2023. Factors associated with daily views and language use in ads were considered. During this period, ads were viewed median 128 times per day per ad (IQR 64-248, mean 195, SD 234). Significant findings were that spending more on advertising was not found to result in more daily views. BIPOC advertisers could be associated with more or fewer views compared with White advertisers with Asian and Black advertisers having fewer views and Hispanic, Middle Eastern, First Nations, and Indo Canadian having more. Male advertisers received ~50% fewer views. Advertisers with large numbers of daily views were much more likely to restrict clients based on race and age than advertisers with fewer daily views. Further work is needed to understand the relationship between ad views and actual ad response. Some assumptions about sex buyers’ race based preferences were shown to be accurate while others were not, suggesting that these preferences are not adequately accounted for by existing theory. Also highlighted is class separation among sex workers with increased views being associated with greater ability to set boundaries during client interactions.

Sociologists and, more specifically, sex work researchers comprise a distinct subculture in the scientific research community. While there is now a large and growing literature on sex work, there is little research on the community of researchers who produce it. What researchers produce can have a significant impact on policy which in turn can affect occupational health and safety in the industry, therefore it is imperative that we understand how knowledge is produced in this sub-discipline. This study is a participant observation case study that centers around the experience of the author and considers the research and publishing ecosystem through the lens of a neophyte researcher who is only tangentially connected to the university system. This study considers whether it is practically possible for those either directly or indirectly involved in the sex industry to publish high quality research, and what limitations are imposed on researchers when producing this research. Key findings are that it is possible in a limited way to work independently of the university system, and that some publishers are willing to publish authors who need to protect their privacy. However, there are significant financial, ethical, and social barriers that must be overcome when producing and publishing peer-reviewed work.

Sex work in Canada is rapidly evolving, and this is reflected in where and how frequently sex workers advertise. The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA) criminalized the purchase of sexual services in 2014. This study looks at the effect of this law using estimated sex worker populations based on classified advertising data. Data collected between December 9, 2022 and November 30, 2023 from a prominent classified advertising site used by contact sex workers in Canada is compared with data collected between November 1, 2014 and December 31, 2016 the two years following the introduction of PCEPA. Collected ads were analyzed to identify advertisers, names, and other demographic data such as ethnicity, gender, location and rates charged. Monthly, the mean estimated number of workers (17878, SD 1128) represented 84% of 2015 and 63% of 2016 estimates and, yearly, 90% of 2015 and 80% 2016 estimates respectively. Between 2016 and 2023 there were notable increases in the number of BIPOC and trans female advertisers. Median hourly rates increased from CAD$200 (IQR 160-250) in 2014-2016 to CAD$250, IQR 200-300) in 2022-2023. While most workers still engaged in contact sex work, a large majority of advertisers (61%, N=29308) have branched out to offer online services. Given the large increase in 2016, the decrease in 2023 was most likely the result of decreased advertising opportunities and not end demand legislation.

The transition from physical to online advertising by sex workers in Canada has been well documented. However, few studies use rigorous sampling methods. This study considers how a technically sophisticated group of advertisers from a large Canadian sex work classifieds site used multiple online resources to promote or provide services during the COVID-19 pandemic. Advertisers qualified for the study if they used a URL as part of their contact information and were actively advertising between August 23 and September 22, 2022. A random sample of 1000 qualifying advertisers were selected, of which 783 had accessible contact URLs. Themes were identified in downloaded website texts using grounded theory analysis. Ad metadata was used to identify demographic and behavioral distinctions between the sample and other advertisers. Almost all sampled advertisers (99%) provided in person services, and most (70%) provided online services. The sample advertised more frequently, were more affluent and were more likely to be Anglophone, White, trans-female, or provide BDSM services. Themes of security, health, identity, and social networks were identified. Advertisers emphasized physical, emotional, and financial security. Most workers did not work in isolation, and many participated in extensive social networks.

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.

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.

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.