Hesperian Health Guides

Health Problems of Sex Workers

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HealthWiki > Where Women Have No Doctor > Chapter 20: Sex Workers > Health Problems of Sex Workers

STIs including HIV infection

Because of her work, a sex worker has a greater risk of getting sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV than other women. Her risk is increased because sex work means she must have sex with many different men each day. She may want to protect herself by using condoms and other safer sex practices, but the men who pay her can make this difficult. They may demand sex in the vagina or anus but refuse to use condoms. They may even become violent if she refuses unsafe sex practices.

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In some communities up to 9 out of 10 sex workers are infected with HIV.

Some sex workers are addicted to drugs. If so, their need for drugs may make them more willing to exchange unsafe sex for money or drugs, and less able to take care of themselves.

As with any woman, if a sex worker gets an STI, it may lead to infertility or cancer of the cervix. Infection with an STI like herpes, syphilis, gonorrhea, or chlamydia greatly increases her chance of also becoming infected with HIV. These risks are even more serious for young girls. Since their genitals are not fully grown, they can be damaged more easily during sex.

Many sex workers do not have good information about STIs, or about how to treat or prevent them. Information and health services are often not available to sex workers because of people’s prejudice against them. When sex workers do go to a health center for help, they may be treated badly or refused services.

a receptionist whispering to an older male health worker while 3 women wait in chairs


Women who sell sex need safe, effective, and low-cost family planning methods to prevent pregnancy. If these methods are not available in her community, a sex worker is likely to have an unwanted pregnancy. If she continues the pregnancy and must also continue selling sex, she puts both herself and her unborn baby at risk for complications or STIs. Or she may feel she has no other choice but to have an unsafe abortion. All these situations are dangerous.


More Information
self-defense for women

In some places, women can be arrested for sex work simply by having condoms for their own protection.

A sex worker may live with others in a house for sex work (brothel) or work on the street. These conditions make it easy for her to be violently attacked, raped, or robbed, especially if she is a child. If a sex worker is ‘owned’ or controlled by a man who gets part of her money (pimp), he will often use violence to keep her under his control.

a woman reaching into her purse while a police officer stands with his hand open

Because sex work is illegal in most countries, a sex worker is often denied any legal rights, including protection from the police. Or she may have to pay the police a large part of her earnings in exchange for protection. Since most laws are made to protect men from ‘immoral’ women, a sex worker may be arrested, beaten, harassed, or even raped by the police instead.

If you are being mistreated by the law because you are a sex worker, try to learn more about your rights. There may be a prostitutes’ rights group in your city or country. Or you can write to one of the organizations listed on the Other Women's Health Resources page.

This page was updated:17 Apr 2019