Social and structural violence and power relations in mitigating HIV risk of drug-using women in survival sex work

Soc Sci Med. 2008 Feb;66(4):911-21. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2007.11.008. Epub 2007 Dec 21.


High rates of violence among street-level sex workers have been described across the globe, while in cities across Canada the disappearance and victimization of drug-using women in survival sex work is ongoing. Given the pervasive levels of violence faced by sex workers over the last decades, and extensive harm reduction and HIV prevention efforts operating in Vancouver, Canada, this research aimed to explore the role of social and structural violence and power relations in shaping the HIV risk environment and prevention practices of women in survival sex work. Through a participatory-action research project, a series of focus group discussions were conceptualized and co-facilitated by sex workers, community and research partners with a total of 46 women in early 2006. Based on thematic, content and theoretical analysis, the following key factors were seen to both directly and indirectly mediate women's agency and access to resources, and ability to practice HIV prevention and harm reduction: at the micro-level, boyfriends as pimps and the 'everyday violence' of bad dates; at the meso-level, a lack of safe places to take dates, and adverse impacts of local policing; and at the macro-level, dopesickness and the need to sell sex for drugs. Analysis of the narratives and daily lived experiences of women sex workers highlight the urgent need for a renewed HIV prevention strategy that moves beyond a solely individual-level focus to structural and environmental interventions, including legal reforms, that facilitate 'enabling environments' for HIV prevention.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Canada
  • Female
  • Focus Groups
  • HIV Infections / ethnology*
  • HIV Infections / prevention & control
  • Humans
  • Indians, North American*
  • Power, Psychological*
  • Qualitative Research
  • Risk
  • Sex Work*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / ethnology
  • Violence / psychology*
  • Women's Health