Effect of police enforcement and extreme social inequalities on violence and mental health among women who sell sex: findings from a cohort study in London, UK

Jocelyn Elmes, Rachel Stuart, Pippa Grenfell, Josephine Walker, Kathleen Hill, Paz Hernandez, Carolyn Henham, Sibongile Rutsito, MD Sarker, Sarah Creighton, Chrissy Browne, Marie-Claude Boily, Peter Vickerman, Lucy Platt

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    Objectives: To examine legal and social determinants of violence, anxiety/depression among sex workers. Methods: A participatory prospective cohort study among women (inclusive of transgender) ≥18 years, selling sex in the last 3 months in London between 2018 and 2019. We used logistic generalised estimating equation models to measure associations between structural factors on recent (6 months) violence from clients or others (local residents, strangers), depression/anxiety (Patient Health Questionnaire-4). Results: 197 sex workers were recruited (96% cisgender-women; 46% street-based; 54% off-street) and 60% completed a follow-up questionnaire. Street-based sex workers experienced greater inequalities compared with off-street in relation to recent violence from clients (73% vs 36%); police (42% vs 7%); intimate partner violence (IPV) (56% vs 18%) and others (67% vs 17%), as well as homelessness (65% vs 7%) and recent law enforcement (87% vs 9%). Prevalence of any STI was 17.5% (17/97). For street-based sex workers, recent arrest was associated with violence from others (adjusted OR (aOR) 2.77; 95% CI 1.11 to 6.94) and displacement by police was associated with client violence (aOR 4.35; 95% CI 1.36 to 13.90). Financial difficulties were also associated with client violence (aOR 4.66; 95% CI 1.64 to 13.24). Disability (aOR 3.85; 95% CI 1.49 to 9.95) and client violence (aOR 2.55; 95% CI 1.10 to 5.91) were associated with anxiety/depression. For off-street sex workers, financial difficulties (aOR 3.66; 95% CI 1.64 to 8.18), unstable residency (aOR 3.19; 95% CI 1.36 to 7.49), IPV (aOR 3.77; 95% CI 1.30 to 11.00) and alcohol/drug use were associated with client violence (aOR 3.16; 95% CI 1.26 to 7.92), while always screening and refusing clients was protective (aOR 0.36; 95% CI 0.15 to 0.87). Disability (aOR 5.83; 95% CI 2.34 to 14.51), unmet mental health needs (aOR 3.08; 95% CI 1.15 to 8.23) and past eviction (aOR 3.99; 95% CI 1.23 to 12.92) were associated with anxiety/depression. Conclusions: Violence, anxiety/depression are linked to poverty, unstable housing and police enforcement. We need to modify laws to allow sex workers to work safely and increase availability of housing and mental health services.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)323-331
    Number of pages9
    JournalSexually Transmitted Infections
    Early online date26 Oct 2021
    Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2022

    Bibliographical note

    This is an open access article distributed in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Unported (CC BY 4.0) license, which permits others to copy, redistribute, remix, transform and build upon this work for any purpose, provided the original work is properly cited, a link to the licence is given, and indication of whether changes were made. See: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.


    • epidemiology
    • sex work
    • sexual health

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Dermatology
    • Infectious Diseases


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