Individual and structural vulnerability among female youth who exchange sex for survival

J Adolesc Health. 2011 Jul;49(1):36-41. doi: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2010.10.003. Epub 2011 May 26.


Purpose: Because of growing concerns regarding the heightened vulnerabilities and risk of human immunodeficiency virus infection among youth who exchange sex for survival, we investigated individual risk patterns and structural barriers among young (≤24 years) female sex workers (FSWs) in Vancouver, Canada.

Methods: Between 2005 and 2008, a total of 255 street-based FSWs (≥14 years) were enrolled into a community-based prospective cohort, and were asked to participate in baseline and biannual questionnaires administered through interviews and human immunodeficiency virus screening. We used contingency table analysis to compare individual and structural barrier results obtained at baseline for younger (≤24 years) FSWs with those of the older (>25 years) FSWs. For longitudinal data, we used generalized estimating equations throughout the follow-up period to determine factors associated with being a young FSW in the past 6 months.

Results: In comparison with older FSWs (n = 199), youth (n = 56) were more likely to spend fewer years engaging in sex exchange (median: 6.4 [interquartile range: 4.6-9.1] vs. 19.9 [interquartile range: 10.0-26.8]; p ≤ .001), belong to an aboriginal ancestry (59% vs. 44%; p = .052), and be homeless (68% vs. 36%; p ≤ .001). In the multivariate generalized estimating equations analysis, youth reported a significantly elevated proportional odds of being homeless (odds ratio [OR]: 1.26 [confidence interval {CI}: 1.08-1.48]), servicing clients in public places (OR: 1.28 [CI: 1.04-1.57]), injecting heroin on a daily basis (OR: 1.35 [CI: 1.06-1.74]), and a significantly reduced odds of accessing methadone maintenance therapy (OR: .76 [CI: .62-.93]).

Conclusions: This study demonstrates significant displacement of youth who engage in sex exchange to marginalized working and living spaces. The findings of this study bring to attention the critical need for targeted structural interventions including access to youth and gender-specific social housing, safe working spaces, reduction in the amount of harm caused to them, and addiction treatment services for youth engaged in survival sex work.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • British Columbia
  • Female
  • HIV Infections / prevention & control
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Sex Work / psychology*
  • Sexual Behavior*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Vulnerable Populations*
  • Young Adult