It’s going to be a bleak winter for Europe. But for sex workers, a group that feels it’s been forgotten during the pandemic, the return of lockdowns doesn’t just mean being out of work, it could also mean being once again cut off from vital health services.
As the first wave of coronavirus hit the Continent, many countries implemented complete bans on sex work. At the same time, essential services for sex workers — condom distribution, mobile vans providing specialized support, and counseling and advice services — shuttered their doors and moved online.
In a recent survey by the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, European respondents reported several cases of reduced access to condoms and lubricants, harm reduction services, and testing and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
In Norway, Pro Sentret, the Oslo Municipality’s health and social service provider for sex workers, found that the pandemic “in effect, halted or severely restricted” sex workers’ access to health and social services. The organization’s report on the effect paints a devastating picture. “Nearly all service providers were forced to shut down drop-in services,” it stated.
In Hungary, a spokesperson for the Association of Hungarian Sex Workers (SZEXE) said that due to the pressure on the health system, it’s currently “nearly impossible” to get STD screenings. These screenings form part of the mandatory health certificates that sex workers are required to have.
Over in Germany, a member of the sex worker trade association BesD, who goes by the name Maia Ceres, said that many services available for sex workers without health insurance are closed or limited.
For transgender and homeless sex workers in Berlin, the difficulties are compounded. A volunteer from the peer-to-peer project Trans*Sexworks, who goes by the name Caspar Tate, said he heard reports of trans sex workers being barred from homeless shelters and rejected by women’s organizations.
For the sex workers that Tate works with — many of whom are migrants, homeless or both — financial hardship is a permanent fixture. But the pandemic has crushed them. Tate described receiving calls from sex workers saying that they have nothing to drink or eat.
“Shops closing also means that there’s no access to bathrooms for washing your hands, no access to water,” he said. “A lot of people don’t even understand that.”
While many of these services got back up and running again in the summer, at least in some form, there are fears about what will happen now that a second wave is hitting Europe. In Germany, for example, the latest lockdown once again officially bans the operation of places where sex work is carried out, such as brothels.
Tate said this has left a “big question mark” for sex workers. BesD’s Ceres said that sex workers are panicking. “There are absolutely no savings left over for most of them,” she said.
Locked out of health insurance
As POLITICO has reported, across the bloc, sex work often sits in a strange limbo — not completely criminalized but also not able to access state support. In some countries, that also applies to health insurance.
“You don’t have medical insurance, you don’t have retirement benefits, you don’t have any normal benefits like every other person who works,” said Emilka Zawierucha, an activist with Sex Work Polska. In Poland, sex work itself is legal but is not seen as legitimate work, with sex workers unable to claim any social benefits.
In Germany, health insurance is mandatory, but there are around 61,000 people without any coverage at all — typically the self-employed and unemployed. That category also includes some sex workers who have slipped through the cracks, said Ceres.
Broader changes to health care during the pandemic have also slammed sex workers. Walk-in services at doctors’ offices are a thing of the past, as appointments need to be made online or over the phone, and many services no longer take place in person.
Despite the ubiquity of digital technology, for some sex workers, this isn’t part of their reality.
“A lot of women don’t have access to the internet, don’t have smartphones, and don’t have the resources that many people take for granted,” said Laura Watson, spokesperson for the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP). “So anything like an online consultation and it’s just out the window. You can do a phone call, but it’s very limited.”
For the trans sex workers Tate works with, booking and getting to appointments at clinics that provide services for people without health insurance isn’t possible on their own without access to the internet. “We make the appointments for people, we pick them up and take them there,” he said.
There’s another benefit to walk-in services: Anonymity.
“A lot of sex workers are concerned about their data security and they don’t want to hand out their numbers or email addresses so they wouldn’t use those [online] services,” explained Ceres.
Old stigmas, new problems
Difficulties in accessing health care for sex workers aren’t new.
One can’t just announce to a doctor that one is a sex worker, said Zawierucha.
The ECP’s Watson agrees. “Being able to speak freely, and being able to say what you’re doing, truthfully, to health professionals, is massively stopped by the criminalization [of sex work],” she said.
The job itself is incredibly risky during the pandemic. Social distancing isn’t usually possible. And while groups such as Zawierucha’s Sex Work Polska work to educate sex workers about hand hygiene and disinfectants, there is little that can be done to significantly reduce the risk faced by sex workers.
A feeling shared by many is that sex workers have been left behind by their governments during the pandemic.
Andrès Lekanger, outreach worker with Norway’s PION, a sex worker interest group, points to the continuation of efforts to support drug users but not sex workers as evidence of this discrepancy. While some sex workers who are also drug users can access the services provided, Lekanger said sex work just doesn’t carry “the same priority.”
“Drug users were prioritized but sex workers were forgotten during the [first] lockdown,” he said. “We would like to see attention given [to sex workers] before the situation gets out of control.”
To their advocates, an overriding concern is that the criminalization of sex work has only increased during the pandemic. In many countries in Europe, sex work itself is legal but the activities surrounding it — such as operating a brothel — are criminalized.
But under lockdown, sex work became de facto criminalized. It’s classified in the same category as beauty salons and hairdressers, which were closed due to the close contact necessitated by the work and their “non-essential” nature. Those defying the laws by continuing to work are subject to police enforcement and fines.
“Raids and arrests and prosecutions of sex workers have really continued and in many areas have actually been increased,” said Watson. The result: When crackdowns occur, sex workers often move elsewhere, making it harder for health services to reach them.
Pro Sentret’s report includes instances of police contacting sex workers on an escort site via SMS, telling them that selling sex is banned in Norway and that they must take down their adverts and leave the country immediately or face deportation.
In Poland, Zawierucha cites reports of police standing next to sex workers to discourage customers. In Hungary, where mandatory medical reports are needed to practice sex work, the SZEXE union said these are impossible to get due to the pressure on the health system, resulting in the police fining sex workers.
Over in Berlin’s red-light district, Ceres described reports of police stopping people to check for condoms in their bags when sex work was banned during the lockdown. Research shows that this kind of enforcement, which is commonly reported in countries where sex work is illegal, can lead to sex workers deciding that the risk of arrest outweighs the need to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.
It’s not just enforcement of lockdown that sex workers are contending with. Aware that sex work is in effect banned, activists report clients using this to their advantage — knowing that a sex worker cannot report any abuse to the police without revealing that they have been breaking lockdown rules.
Pro Sentret’s report found an uptick in violence, with sex workers telling them of “an increase in intoxicated clients, clients who refuse to pay, or motivate not paying by the fact that selling sex is prohibited; clients who refuse to use a condom, bargain over price or demand services that the seller does not offer.”
Lekanger said that he had heard of several instances of sex workers being the victim of violence or other crimes during the pandemic. They can’t “go to the police or health service providers, because they then feared that this temporary ban against selling sex would be used against them,” he noted, referring to bans on sex work during the first lockdown.
In the community of trans sex workers in Berlin, Tate said that violence has escalated in the last two months. “[It’s] getting worse and worse, attacks are happening every week,” he said.
Without support from their governments, sex workers have turned to one another.
Sex workers have been contacted Lekanger’s PION to ask about what their legal standing is, how they can protect themselves against coronavirus and how they can help fight the pandemic.
Many sex work advocacy groups have raised funds for those struggling during the pandemic. But these fundraisers are just a “drop in the ocean,” said Lekanger. Even relatively large funds such as the €100,000 received by BesD are quickly exhausted. BesD’s Ceres also fears that there may not be that many more donations on the horizon.
“The first wave put a lot of sex workers in an existential crisis,” said Ceres. “Now we are facing the second wave and I have no idea how sex workers are going to face it.”