It’s often claimed that the “average age of entry” into sex work is under 18, sometimes as young as 12-14. While this myth has been debunked many times (most recently here), it continues to spread, in part due to the lack of reliable data on the true average age.
So what is the true average age? A precise figure is unobtainable, as we will never have a representative sample of sex workers. Nonetheless, it may be possible to shed some light on the subject by looking at the age of entry findings from different pieces of research. We at Sex Work Research have decided to host a page where age of entry stats can be compiled – not for the purpose of replacing one unreliable stat with another, but just to get a better sense of what research on this subject has actually found.
Inclusion in this compendium does not imply endorsement of the study or its methodology. We simply want a broad overview of the research. This is a work in progress, and data will be added as we find it. Please feel free to suggest additional studies in the comments (preferably with links). They will be added to this post when time allows.
The data so far …
Hassan Abdel Ati, “HIV/AIDS/STIs Social and Geographical Mapping of Prisoners, Tea Sellers and Commercial Sex Workers in Port Sudan Town, Red Sea State”. Draft 2, 2005 Elhadi M, Elbadawi A, Abdelrahman S, et al. “Integrated bio-behavioural HIV surveillance surveys among female sex workers in Sudan, 2011–2012” Sex Transm Infect 2013;89:iii17–iii22
(Click to enlarge. Each column represents a different location within Sudan where sex workers were surveyed)
KENYA, UGANDA, SOUTH AFRICA AND ZIMBABWE
“Almost half of the respondents started selling sex before the age of 20 (45%). The mean age when sex was first traded was 21.6 years.”
“Mean age at first sex was 17.2 years (sd = 2.6) and at sex work onset 20.4 years (sd = 4.7)”
(Columns represent non-migrant, internal migrant, and cross-border migrant)
(Columns represent female, male and transgender sex workers which are presented as three distinct categories.)
“At baseline, participants reported a mean age of first paid sex of 16 years.”
Shalote Chipamaunga, Adamson S Muula & Ronald Mataya (2012) An assessment of sex work in Swaziland: barriers to and opportunities for HIV prevention among sex workers, SAHARA-J: Journal of Social Aspects of HIV/AIDS, 7:3, 44-50, DOI: 10.1080/17290376.2010.9724968
“The minimum age at sexual debut was 12 years (median16 years), while the minimum age at the initiation of sex work was 14 years (median 19 years), and about half (47.5%) had initiated sex work at age 18 years or less.”
“In all sites, 17 years was the median age of first sex, and 22-23 years the median age of first commercial sex.”
Fiona Scorgie et al., “Socio-demographic characteristics and behavioral risk factors of female sex workers in sub-saharan Africa: a systematic review” AIDS Behav. 2012 May;16(4):920-33. doi: 10.1007/s10461-011-9985-z
“In the studies reviewed, women began sex work, on average, in their early twenties, with a few studies reporting an even lower mean age.”
Zhang L, Liang S, Lu W, Pan SW, Song B, Liu Q, et al. (2014) HIV, Syphilis, and Behavioral Risk Factors among Female Sex Workers before and after Implementation of Harm Reduction Programs in a High Drug-Using Area of China. PLoS ONE 9(1): e84950. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0084950
Ye et al, “Social, psychological, and environmental-structural factors determine consistent condom use among rural-to-urban migrant female sex workers in Shanghai China”. BMC Public Health 2012, 12:599
Liao M, Nie X, Pan R, Wang C, Ruan S, et al. (2012) Consistently Low Prevalence of Syphilis among Female Sex Workers in Jinan, China: Findings from Two Consecutive Respondent Driven Sampling Surveys. PLoS ONE 7(4): e34085. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0034085
“The age at the first commercial sex ranged from 18 to 47 years old with the mean age was 26.2 years old in 2008 and 26.6 in 2009. The proportion of being ≥25 years old at the first commercial sex increased from 36.0% (95% CI: 30.7–42.9) in 2008 to 49.7% (95% CI: 43.8–55.2) in 2009.”
Tsai, Laura Cordisco et al. “‘There Is No Other Option; We Have to Feed Our Families…who Else Would Do It?’: The Financial Lives of Women Engaging in Sex Work in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.” Global journal of health science 5.5 (2013): 41–50
“The average age of entry into sex work was 29.17 years, with the age of entry ranging from 14 to 52 and a standard deviation of 8.50 years.”
Tran, Bach Xuan et al. “HIV Voluntary Testing and Perceived Risk among Female Sex Workers in the Mekong Delta Region of Vietnam.” Global Health Action 6 (2013): 10.3402/gha.v6i0.20690. PMC. Web. 13 Dec. 2015.
Blanchard et al, “Understanding the social and cultural contexts of female sex workers in Karnataka, India: implications for prevention of HIV infection.” J Infect Dis. 2005 Feb 1;191 Suppl 1:S139-46. (Columns represent Devadasi sex workers, non-Devadasi sex workers, and total)
(Columns represent surveys carried out in 2006, 2007, 2009-10, and the overall totals.)
Mahapatra B, Saggurti N, Halli SS , Jain AK (2012) HIV Risk Behaviors among Female Sex Workers Using Cell Phone for Client Solicitation in India. J AIDS Clinic Res S1:014. doi:10.4172/2155-6113.S1-014
(First column: “Not using cell phone for solicitation (N=2272)” Second column: “Using cell
phone for solicitation (N=756)”)
Reza-Paul et al, “Declines in risk behaviour and sexually transmitted infection prevalence following a community-led HIV preventive intervention among female sex workers in Mysore, India.” AIDS, vol. 22, 5, pp. S91–S100, 2008
(Columns relate to 2004 and 2006 surveys respectively)
Sarkar et al, “Sex-trafficking, Violence, Negotiating Skill, and HIV Infection in Brothel-based Sex Workers of Eastern India, Adjoining Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh”. J HEALTH POPUL NUTR 2008 Jun;26(2):223
“Forty-six percent of the participants started sex work at the age of 16-20 years. This was followed by 25% of them initiating at the age of 21-25 years. About 10% initiated their sex work at the age of 15 years or below. The overall mean age of initiation of sex work was 21.2 years.”
Yadav D, Ramanathan S, Goswami P, Ramakrishnan L, Saggurti N, Sen S, et al. (2013) Role of Community Group Exposure in Reducing Sexually Transmitted Infection-Related Risk among Female Sex Workers in India. PLoS ONE 8(10): e78361. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0078361
Alexander M, Mainkar M, Deshpande S, Chidrawar S, Sane S, Mehendale S (2014) Heterosexual Anal Sex among Female Sex Workers in High HIV Prevalence States of India: Need for Comprehensive Intervention. PLoS ONE 9(2): e88858. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0088858
Sajadi et al, “HIV prevalence and related risk behaviours among female sex workers in Iran: results of the national biobehavioural survey, 2010” Sex Transm Infect 2013;89:iii37-iii40 doi:10.1136/sextrans-2013-051028
UK (ENGLAND AND SCOTLAND)
[Column 1 is 1985-92; Column 2 is 1996-2002]
Jeal, N. and Salisbury, C. (2007), Health needs and service use of parlour-based prostitutes compared with street-based prostitutes: a cross-sectional survey. BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, 114: 875–881. doi: 10.1111/j.1471-0528.2007.01379.x
“Parlour sex workers had been older when they started selling sex (mean 23.1 years [range 13–42] versus 20.8 years [range 12–40]; P = 0.067) compared with street sex workers.”
“The average age at which they had entered sex work was 19 years (range 13 to 34).”
Susann Huschke, Peter Shirlow, Dirk Schubotz, Eilís Ward, Ursula Probst and Caoimhe Ní Dhónaill, “Research into Prostitution in Northern Ireland: Commissioned from Queen’s University Belfast by the Department of Justice” (October 2014).
R Ballester, “Sexual behaviors in male sex workers in Spain: Modulating factors.” J Health Psychol February 2014 19: 207-217: “The average age for starting this activity was 21.1 years old (SD = 4.03).”
Swedish National Board of Youth Affairs, “See me: Young people on sex and the Internet” (2009). “The average age at which the youths report having sold sex for the first time is 14.4 years, which is lower than the age recorded in the 2004 study, which was 15.9 years.” Note: this is a study of young people only; all respondents were in Year 3 of further education at the time of answering this question.
Shira M. Goldenberg et al: “International migration from non-endemic settings as a protective factor for HIV/STI risk among female sex workers in Vancouver, Canada”. J Immigr Minor Health. 2015 February ; 17(1): 21–28. doi:10.1007/s10903-014-0011-1
“In comparison with Canadian-born women, migrants were more likely to initiate sex work at an older age (median age: 33 vs. 18, p<0.001) ”
“The average age of the respondents in this project was 30 years. The youngest respondent was 20 and the oldest was 45. Only two respondents started working prior to the age of 18. The majority of the respondents (57%, n = 17) started between the ages of 19 and 24, whereas 17% (n = 5) started working in the industry at age 30 or older.”
Cecilia Benoit, Chris Atchison, Lauren Casey, Mikael Jansson, Bill McCarthy, Rachel Phillips, Bill Reimer, Dan Reist & Frances M. Shaver, “A “working paper” prepared as background to Building on the Evidence: An International Symposium on the Sex Industry in Canada.” October 3, 2014
“The average age of entry into the sex industry in our study was reported as 24 years old, and 71% of the sex workers interviewed had not sold a sexual service before the age of 19.”
GOLDENBERG, Shira M. et al. “Early Sex Work Initiation Independently Elevates Odds of HIV Infection and Police Arrest among Adult Sex Workers in a Canadian Setting.” Journal of acquired immune deficiency syndromes (1999) 65.1 (2014): 122–128. PMC. Web. 1 Mar. 2015.
“Of 508 adult SWs, 193 (38.0%) reported early sex work entry (< 18 years old)…; of these, 133 (68.91%) initiated sex work prior to age 16. The median age at sex work entry was 20 years old”
(Note: the following two studies focused exclusively on drug-using street workers in Vancouver)
Shannon, Kate et al. “Structural and Environmental Barriers to Condom Use Negotiation With Clients Among Female Sex Workers: Implications for HIV-Prevention Strategies and Policy.” American Journal of Public Health 99.4 (2009): 659–665.
“… the median age of sex work initiation was 16 years (IQR=14–22 years)”.
Shannon Kate, Kerr T, Strathdee S A, Shoveller J, Montaner J S, Tyndall M W et al. “Prevalence and structural correlates of gender based violence among a prospective cohort of female sex workers” BMJ 2009; 339 :b2939
“The median age at baseline was 36 years (25-41 years) and the median age of sex work initiation was 15 years (13-21 years).”
Kat Kolar, Chris Atchison & Vicky Bungay (2014) Sexual safety practices of massage parlor-based sex workers and their clients, AIDS Care: Psychological and Socio-medical Aspects of AIDS/HIV, 26:9, 1100-1104, DOI: 10.1080/09540121.2014.894611
“Mean age first involved in sex industry: 27.2”
Goldenberg, S.M., Silverman, J.G., Engstrom, D., Bojorquez-Chapela, I. and Strathdee, S.A. (2014), “Right Here is the Gateway”: Mobility, Sex Work Entry and HIV Risk along the Mexico–US Border. International Migration, 52: 26–40. doi: 10.1111/imig.12104
“Age when first traded sex, years: 16* (12-28)**”
*median, **range, N=30 – all current sex workers with past experience of sex trafficking
Strathdee SA, Abramovitz D, Lozada R, Martinez G, Rangel MG, Vera A, et al. (2013) Reductions in HIV/STI Incidence and Sharing of Injection Equipment among Female Sex Workers Who Inject Drugs: Results from a Randomized Controlled Trial. PLoS ONE 8(6): e65812. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0065812
“Compared to Tijuana participants, those in Cd. Juarez were younger when they began sex work (median: 19 vs. 20 years, p=0.02)”
Ulibarri, Monica D., et al. “Prevalence and characteristics of abuse experiences and depression symptoms among injection drug-using female sex workers in Mexico.” Journal of environmental and public health 2013 (2013).
Vera, Alicia et al. “Mujer Mas Segura (Safer Women): A Combination Prevention Intervention to Reduce Sexual and Injection Risks among Female Sex Workers Who Inject Drugs.” BMC Public Health 12 (2012): 653.
Lynzi Armstrong, “Screening clients in a decriminalised street-based sex industry: Insights into the experiences of New Zealand sex workers”. (2014) Australian & New Zealand Journal of Criminology 0(0) 1–16
“Participants were aged between 17 and 57 years old, and the average age of entry into the sex industry was 20. However, one woman described becoming involved in prostitution at the age of 12, while another woman had started working in the sex industry at 45.”
“Most interviewees began sex work long before they reached 18 years of age. While a few of the interviewees told of starting to sell sex after a long-term relationship broke down or ended, most began selling sex shortly after sexual debut. For some, first sex took place as young as 10 and 11 years of age. Few interviewees were older than 16 when they began sex work.”