In Canada, very little is known about the factors and processes that cause drug-related harm among female intravenous drug users (IDUs). Women who inject drugs and participate in the survival sex trade are considered to be at increased risk for sexual and drug-related harms, including HIV infection. Between September 1999 and September 2000, women participating in the VIDUS cohort in Vancouver and the St. Luc Cohort in Montreal completed interviewer-administered questionnaires. Analyses were conducted to compare the demographic characteristics, sexual risk behaviours, risky injection practices and drug use patterns among women who self-identified as participating in the sex trade with those who did not identify as participating in the sex trade. Logistic regression was used to identify factors independently associated with exchanging sex for money or drugs. HIV prevalence at the study visit (September 1999-2000) was 29% for sex trade workers and 29.2% for non-sex trade workers. While patterns of sexual risk were similar, the risky injection practice and drug use patterns between sex trade workers and non-sex trade workers were markedly different. Logistic regression analysis of cross-sectional data revealed that independent behaviours associated with the sex trade included: greater than once per day use of heroin (adjusted OR 2.7), smokeable crack cocaine (adjusted OR = 3.3) and borrowing used syringes (adjusted OR = 2.0). Creative, client-driven interventions are urgently needed for women who trade sex for money or for drugs.