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Adolescent, young adult sex workers more likely to experience muscle dysmorphia

Clinical and community health professionals should consider screening for muscle dysmorphia symptomatology among young people who have been involved in sex work.

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There is significant associations between sex work and muscle dysmorphia. 

This is according to a study – “Involvement in sex work is associated with muscle dysmorphia symptomatology among a sample of Canadian adolescents and young adults” by Kyle T. Ganson, Nelson Pang, Alexander Testa, Rachel F. Rodgers, Jori Jones, and Jason M. Nagata – that appeared in Sexual Health.

Sex work, in its various forms, is highly stigmatized in society, and sex workers are often victims of harmful stereotypes. It is estimated that roughly 4% of adolescents engage in selling sex, and research has shown that those involved in sex work are more at risk to experience substance use problems, poor mental health, and physical injury.

To focus on the association between sex work and muscle dysmorphia, the researchers used data from over 900 participants in a national sample of Canadian adolescents and young adults from the Canadian Study of Adolescent Health Behaviors. Multiple adjusted linear regression models were estimated with lifetime sex work involvement as the independent variable and muscle dysmorphia symptomatology, measured using the Muscle Dysmorphic Disorder Inventory, as the dependent variable.

The researchers found that:

  • 3.7% of participants reported engaging in lifetime sex work
  • significant associations were found between self-reported lifetime sex work and greater total muscle dysmorphia symptomatology, greater Drive for Size symptomatology, and greater Functional Impairment symptomatology

“The association between sex work involvement and muscle dysmorphia symptoms is likely complex and explained by multiple mechanisms,” said lead author Kyle T. Ganson, PhD, MSW, assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work. “For example, engagement in the pursuit of muscularity via compulsive exercise may be a coping mechanism to manage the psychological distress and stigma related to sex work.” 

The authors also speculated that individuals involved in sex work may pursue a more muscular, lean, and strong body to adhere to socially desirable and attractive body ideals. 

The authors concluded that “clinical and community health professionals should consider screening for muscle dysmorphia symptomatology among young people who have been involved in sex work.”

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