In light of the emphasis on enforcement-based approaches towards sex work, and the well-known negative impacts of these approaches on women's health, safety and well-being, we conducted a study to investigate the prevalence and correlates of recent incarceration among a cohort of women sex workers in Vancouver, Canada.
Data were obtained from an open prospective community cohort of female and transgender women sex workers, known as An Evaluation of Sex Workers' Health Access (AESHA). Bivariate and multivariable logistic regression analyses, using generalized estimating equations (GEE), were used to model the effect of social and structural factors on the likelihood of incarceration over the 44-month follow-up period (January 2010-August 2013).
Among 720 sex workers, 62.5% (n = 450) reported being incarcerated in their lifetime and 23.9% (n = 172) being incarcerated at least once during the study period. Of the 172 participants, about one third (36.6%) reported multiple episodes of incarceration. In multivariable GEE analyses, younger age, being of a sexual/gender minority, heavy drinking, being born in Canada, living in unstable housing conditions, servicing clients in public spaces (versus formal sex work establishments) and experiencing police harassment without arrest remain independently correlated with incarceration.
This prospective study found a very high prevalence and frequency of incarceration among women sex workers in Vancouver, Canada, with the most vulnerable and marginalized women at increased risk of incarceration. Given the well-known social and health harms associated with incarceration, and associations between police harassment and incarceration in this study, our findings further add to growing calls to move away from criminalized and enforcement-based approaches to sex work in Canada and globally.
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