Age of Entry research: a compendium

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 …

GHANA

IOM, HIV Vulnerability Among Female Sex Workers Along Ghana’s Tema-Paga Transport Corridor (2013)

Ghana

SUDAN

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 Ati 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)

Sudan

KENYA, UGANDA, SOUTH AFRICA AND ZIMBABWE

Scorgie et al, “Human rights abuses and collective resilience among sex workers in four African countries: a qualitative study” Global Health. 2013; 9: 33.

Scorgie

KENYA

IOM: Integrated biological and behavioural surveillance survey among migrant sex workers in Nairobi, Kenya. (2011)

“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.”

SOUTH AFRICA

Richter et al, “Migration Status, Work Conditions and Health Utilization of Female Sex Workers in Three South African Cities” (2012) J Immigrant Minority Health, DOI 10.1007/s10903-012-9758-4

(Columns represent non-migrant, internal migrant, and cross-border migrant)

Richter 2

Richter et al, “Characteristics, sexual behaviour and risk factors of female, male and transgender sex workers in South Africa.” S Afr Med J. 2013 Feb 19;103(4):246-51

(Columns represent female, male and transgender sex workers which are presented as three distinct categories.)

Richter

Wechsberg, Wendee M., et al. “Substance use, sexual risk, and violence: HIV prevention intervention with sex workers in Pretoria.” AIDS and Behavior 10.2 (2006): 131-137.

“At baseline, participants reported a mean age of first paid sex of 16 years.”

ZIMBABWE

Cowan et al, “Engagement with HIV Prevention Treatment and Care among Female Sex Workers in Zimbabwe: a Respondent Driven Sampling Survey”. PLoS ONE 8(10): e77080.

“In all sites, 17 years was the median age of first sex, and 22-23 years the median age of first commercial sex.”

SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA

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.”

CHINA

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

zhang

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

china

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.”

MONGOLIA

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.”

VIETNAM

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.

Tran

INDIA

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)

Karnakata

Erausquin et al: Trends in condom use among female sex workers in Andhra Pradesh, India: the impact of a community mobilisation intervention. J Epidemiol Community Health 2012;66:ii49eii54.

(Columns represent surveys carried out in 2006, 2007, 2009-10, and the overall totals.)

India

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)”)

India phones

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)

Reza

Sahni, R. and Shankar, V. K. (2013), Sex Work and its Linkages with Informal Labour Markets in India: Findings from the First Pan-India Survey of Female Sex Workers. IDS Working Papers, 2013: 1–51.

Sahni

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

indiayada

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

IRAN

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

Sajadi

UK (ENGLAND AND SCOTLAND)

Stephanie Church et al, “Violence by clients towards female prostitutes in different work settings: questionnaire survey” BMJ. Mar 3, 2001; 322(7285): 524–525
Church

Helen Ward et al, “Declining prevalence of STI in the London sex industry, 1985 to 2002” Sex Transm Infect. Oct 2004; 80(5): 374–376

[Column 1 is 1985-92; Column 2 is 1996-2002]

Day

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.”

IRELAND

Teresa Whitaker and others, “Stigmatization Among Drug-Using Sex Workers Accessing Support Services in Dublin” Qual Health Res August 2011 vol. 21 no. 8 1086-1100

“The average age at which they had entered sex work was 19 years (range 13 to 34).”

UglyMugs.ie, “Crime and Abuse Experienced by Sex Workers in Ireland: 2013 Victimisation Survey”

ugly

NORTHERN IRELAND

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).

NI

HUNGARY

E. Marek et al, “Human papillomavirus infections among Hungarian female sex workers” Eur J Cancer Care (Engl). 2014 Jan;23(1):65-75

SWEDEN

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.

SWITZERLAND

Rossler et al, “The mental health of female sex workers.” Acta Psychiatr Scand. 2010 Aug;122(2):143-52

Rossler

CANADA

Tamara O’Doherty, “Victimization in off-street sex industry work”. Violence Against Women. 2011 Jul;17(7):944-63

“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.”

Deering et al, “Client Demands for Unsafe Sex: The Socioeconomic Risk Environment for HIV Among Street and Off-Street Sex Workers” (2013) 63:4 Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes 522

Vancouver

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).”

MEXICO

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).

Ulibarri

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.

Vera

AUSTRALIA

Woodward, C. et al, “Selling Sex in Queensland 2003: a study of prostitution in Queensland” Prostitution Licensing Authority 2004

queensland

Roxburgh A, Degenhardt L, Copeland J. Posttraumatic stress disorder among female street-based sex workers in the greater Sydney area, Australia. BMC Psychiatry. 2006;6:24. doi:10.1186/1471-244X-6-24.

Roxburgh

Seib et al, “Predicting the Job Satisfaction of Female Sex Workers in Queensland, Australia” International Journal of Sexual Health, Vol. 24, Iss. 2, 2012

Seib

NEW ZEALAND

Gillian Abel, “Decriminalisation: A harm minimisation and human rights approach to regulating sex work”. University of Otago PhD thesis, 2010

Abel

VANUATU

Karen McMillan and Heather Worth, “Risky Business Vanuatu: Selling Sex in Port Vila” International HIV Research Group, UNSW, Sydney (2011)

“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.”

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4 comments
  1. Chris Atchison said:

    From O’Doherty, T. (2011) “Victimization in Off-Street Sex Industry Work.” Violence Against Women, 20:10:1-20.

    Location: Canada.
    Sample: 39 women working in massage parlors, escort agencies, or independently out of their
    own homes in Vancouver, British Columbia.
    Data collection method: survey

    “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.”

  2. Chris Atchison said:

    Wendy, John Lowman presented a paper at the conference “Sex Work and Human Rights: Lessons from Canada for the UK” at Durham Law School, Durham University on September 18-19, 2014. In this paper he includes a section entitled “The Average Age of Entry into Prostitution in Canada: Infantilizing Sex Sellers” where he provides a comprehensive assessment of the origins of the age of entry claim in the Canadian context. feel free to email me for a copy of the paper as the section is too long to post here.

  3. Chris Atchison said:

    “The average (mean) age of first sale of a sexual service among the sex workers in our study (who were 19 years or older when interviewed) was 24 years old, with 10 years being the average number of years of work experience [and] 29% first sold a sexual service before age 19.”

    Pp. 5-6 in Benoit, C., Atchison, C., Casey, L., Jansson, M., McCarthy, B., Phillips, Reimer, B., R., Reist, D., Shaver, F. Working paper for Building on the Evidence: An International Symposium on the Sex Industry in Canada. http://www.understandingsexwork.com/

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