Sexual health and use of condoms among local and international sex workers in Sydney

Genitourin Med. 1996 Feb;72(1):47-51. doi: 10.1136/sti.72.1.47.


Objectives: To compare indicators of sexual health and predictors of condom use for commercial sex among local and international female sex workers first attending an STD clinic.

Setting: A public STD clinic in Sydney, Australia.

Subjects: All sex workers first attending between June 1991 and May 1993.

Methods: Cross-sectional analysis of demographic, behavioural and morbidity data from proforma medical records.

Results: 91 local sex workers and 123 international sex workers (predominantly from Thailand, Malaysia and China) first presented during the study period. There were significantly higher prevalences of chlamydia (0 v. 15%, p = 0.0002), gonorrhoea (0 v. 14%, p = 0.0006), syphilis (0 v. 10%, p = 0.006) and clinical genital herpes (0 v. 5%, p = 0.04) among international sex workers. The only case of HIV infection was in an international sex worker. Inconsistent condom use for commercial sex was significantly more common among international sex workers (RR = 4.5; 95% CI 3.1-6.5). On multivariate analysis, inconsistent condom use in international sex workers was associated with a recent history of prostitution outside Australia (p = 0.04), while inconsistent condom usage among local sex workers was associated with increasing age (p = 0.003).

Conclusions: These data illustrate the efficacy of condoms and the success of targeted education programmes in local sex workers in Sydney. By contrast, international sex workers continued to be at high risk of STDs. The international sex industry in Sydney requires enhanced culture-specific interventions. Immigration laws as they affect sex workers should also be reviewed.

PIP: This study analyzes data on all female sex workers who attended the Sydney Sexual Health Center for a first visit for a sexually transmitted disease (STD) screening during June 1, 1991, and May 31, 1993. International sex workers were identified as women who do not speak English at home and were born outside Australia. Diseases were confirmed clinically, by specimen or culture or by antibody or serological tests. Results apply to 91 local and 123 international prostitutes. 47% of international prostitutes and 34% of local prostitutes were aged 21-25 years. Most international sex workers spoke Thai or a Chinese dialect. 10% of local prostitutes were born in Asia. 90% of international prostitutes were born in Thailand, Malaysia, or China. Local prostitutes were better educated. 7% of the local prostitutes and none of the international sex workers had a history of injectable drug use. Local prostitutes tended to use condoms for birth control, and international prostitutes tended to use oral contraceptives. One international prostitute tested HIV positive. 1 in 7 international prostitutes had gonorrhea and the same proportion had chlamydia. Viral STDs (chronic hepatitis B, HIV infection, and genital warts) were more prevalent, but uncommon among international prostitutes. More international prostitutes had multiple STDs. 79 international sex workers and only 9 local sex workers had an STD. 47% of international sex workers and only 10% of local sex workers had worked overseas as a prostitute in the preceding 12 months. Over half of local sex workers and only 8% of international sex workers consistently used condoms. Failure to use condoms was associated with being an international sex worker. Inconsistent use of condoms among local prostitutes was related to increased age.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Condoms / statistics & numerical data*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Female
  • Health Behavior
  • Health Status
  • Humans
  • New South Wales
  • Sex Work*
  • Sexual Behavior*
  • Sexually Transmitted Diseases / psychology*