Sex workers are faced with a dilemma: open for business and risk getting coronavirus, or face having no income.
The pandemic has laid bare the legal limbo in which most sex workers operate in Europe, with many unable to access state support. During the lockdown, that meant either no money or breaking the rules and carrying on working — adding an extra layer of risk to what for many is already a dangerous job.
Now countries are beginning to open up. Belgium was one of the first to allow brothels to start work, on June 8, even though saunas and massage parlors must remain closed until July 1. Customers’ temperatures are checked upon arrival and both partners have to wear a face mask.
In Belgium — where there’s no legal framework to protect sex workers, but most local authorities tolerate it — only those registered as self-employed have been able to get compensation. That means many people were forced to return to work, according to UTSOPI, which represents sex workers in Belgium, because “they don’t have a choice” due to their financial situation.
Hot Marijke, a sex worker in Flanders, has been getting state support but says she will lose it now that brothels are back open. “They are basically forcing me back to work,” she said over the phone. “It’s madness, you cannot touch your friends but you can climb into bed with a wild stranger.”
“Our hygiene rules were already extremely tight and now, taking into account the coronavirus protocols, [are] even more strict” — Yvette Luhrs, spokesperson at the Prostitution Information Center
“The pandemic has been very dramatic for all sex workers — due to their lack of legal status in many countries they are being completely excluded from emergency measures,” said Luca Stevenson, coordinator at the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE), which includes more than 100 organizations.
In Greece, brothels reopened on Monday, with authorities issuing a long list of hygiene rules, which brothel owners and sex workers fear will be a deterrent to customers.
They include an obligation to keep all clients’ contact details in a sealed envelope for four weeks for tracking and tracing purposes; that services should not exceed 15 minutes per customer; and only one customer at a time. Sex workers have also been told to “ensure distance,” which will likely prove rather difficult, and avoid “face-to-face contact.”
Greek law does not allow sex workers to register as self-employed and therefore take advantage of state support. That means, according to Red Umbrella Athens, an initiative supporting sex workers, that more than 600 brothels operate illegally in Greece — with the authorities turning a blind eye — and hundreds of sex workers are out looking for customers on the streets. According to officials at the Greek Ministry of Civil Protection and the Municipalities, they are beginning to register the hundreds of illegal brothels, with the aim of making them legal.
Red lights are off in Amsterdam
In the Netherlands, there are calls for the government to open up the industry as soon as possible. “We are fully prepared and could open tomorrow,” said Yvette Luhrs, a spokesperson at the Prostitution Information Center who also works in pornography.
Yet under current plans from the government, the windows in De Wallen, Amsterdam’s main red light district, will remain empty until September 1.
“Our hygiene rules were already extremely tight and now, taking into account the coronavirus protocols, [are] even more strict,” Luhrs said. The guidelines “go much further than those in Belgium.”
Although prostitution in the Netherlands is legal, many sex workers are in limbo. Like many governments at the start of the crisis, the Dutch set up an emergency income fund for those left without work. But in practice, many sex workers do not qualify for the subsidies because of the way they were registered with the tax authorities before the crisis began.
Luhrs said that without the necessary financial compensation, many sex workers and their families have found themselves in dire situations. “We’ve been working for weeks on a protocol and we’ve sent letters to the government demanding to be treated like other contact professions, such as tattoo artists and hairdressers, but so far The Hague has stayed quiet.”
In a survey of more than 100 sex workers in the Netherlands conducted by Sekswerk Expertise, a research group in Amsterdam, more than half of respondents said they had applied for coronavirus support. Of those, only 13 percent said they had received help. Of those who did not apply, around one in three said they already knew they would not qualify, and 1 in 6 said they were worried about identifying themselves as sex workers to the government, in case that information was leaked.
A new emergency fund has been set up by volunteers, which offers aid of about €40 to the most desperate applicants.
Researchers from across Europe — including in Belgium, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and France — found that many sex workers continued to work during lockdown to make ends meet, putting them at risk from abusive clients as well as coronavirus.
“Some [sex workers] rely on seeing one or two regular customers … which covers their fixed costs,” said Luhrs. “But we also hear from people who have to look for new clients, which is more dangerous because people with bad intentions know that sex workers cannot go to the police if something happens, because then you end up with a criminal record.”
Pierrette Pape, who heads Isala, an association that provides support for sex workers, said there’s been a lack of “deep reflection” on the fact that many sex workers “are foreigners, victims of trafficking, exploitation or precariousness,” adding that between 80 and 90 percent of sex workers are part of a trafficking network.
“Nothing will really change if another lockdown is put in place [due to a second wave of coronavirus], and these people will still face [the same] big social and financial problems,” Pape said. “Let us give them a residence permit, a work permit and financial assistance to survive, and then they will see what they decide to do — but we need a long-term vision.”
Thibault Larger contributed reporting.
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