The mental and physical health of female sex workers: a comparative study

Aust N Z J Psychiatry. 2001 Feb;35(1):75-80. doi: 10.1046/j.1440-1614.2001.00857.x.


Objectives: The objective of this study was to compare the mental and physical health, adult abuse experiences and social networks of female sex workers with data previously collected from two large community samples of age-matched women.

Method: A convenience sample of sex workers were interviewed and completed two well-established questionnaires, the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ-28) and the Intimate Bond Measure (IBM). Sex workers were invited to reflect on their experiences of their work.

Results: There were no differences in mental health on the GHQ-28 or in self-esteem (measured by an item on the Present State Examination) between the two groups. Neither were there any differences in their assessment of their physical health or the quality of their social networks. Sex workers were less likely to be married and had been exposed to more adult physical and sexual abuse than the comparison group. They were more likely to smoke and to drink heavily when they drank. One-third said that their general practitioner was not aware of their work. A subgroup not working with regular clients or in a massage parlour had higher GHQ-28 scores and may be an at-risk group. Narrative information about the work, particularly its intermittent nature, is presented.

Conclusions: No evidence was found that sex work and increased adult psychiatric morbidity are inevitably associated, although there may be subgroups of workers with particular problems. The illegal and stigmatized nature of sex work are likely to make usual public health strategies more difficult to apply, considerations which should give concern from a preventive health standpoint.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Attitude to Health
  • Female
  • Health Status Indicators
  • Health Status*
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations
  • Mental Disorders / epidemiology
  • Mental Disorders / psychology*
  • Middle Aged
  • Self Concept
  • Sex Offenses / statistics & numerical data
  • Sex Work / psychology*
  • Sexual Behavior / psychology