In April 2020, NSWP launched a global survey to understand the impact of COVID-19 on sex workers. The survey received, thus far, a total of 156 responses from 55 different countries out of which 43 responses were from 17 countries – Armenia, Austria, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway, Romania, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, North Macedonia, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom – in the Europe region.
“Sex workers have lost their income and many are destitute, homeless, in debt, trapped in exploitative situations. Sex workers are having to choose between earning an income and risking their own and their loved ones’ health has been extremely stressful.” – English Collective of Prostitutes, United Kingdom
Government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, sex workers all over the world are experiencing hardship, a total loss of income and increased discrimination and harassment.
“Most sex workers have stopped working but we are facing very high precariousness. Many street sex workers who meet many clients have been tested positive and so far we have counted 3 sex workers dead.” – STRASS Syndicat du Travail Sexuel, France
The crisis is endangering the lives of sex workers both if they choose to continue working and if they decide to stop.
The majority of survey responses from Europe reported that their government had implemented social or physical distancing measures for all citizens. Specific actions taken against sex workers were also reported, such as the closure of brothels, bars and massage parlors, crackdowns in areas known for street-based sex work, and a small number of reports (from Germany, Netherlands, Russia, Switzerland, and United Kingdom) of an increase in raids, arrests and prosecutions.
“They have made sex work illegal (explicitly) as well as massage parlours – which is a common work place for sex workers in Norway as brothels are illegal.” – Sex worker organisation, Norway
These measures have left sex workers facing extreme poverty and, in some countries, has led to increased violence and harassment.
“Venues where sex work was done legally are closed (erotic massage, clubs). Moreover, there are restrictions on circulation of all citizens, and one is allowed to go out of their home only with a signed declaration and have a "real" and "urgent" reason. This has lead to police and army actually harassing all citizens, and sex workers are facing now doubly this violence, on top of the fact that they were already harassed by police before.” – Sex worker organisation, Romania
In addition to a global economic crisis, access to healthcare has also been severely affected by the ongoing crisis. Over half the respondents reported reduced access to harm reduction services, and reduced access to condoms and lubricants were also reported in Austria, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Romania, Russia, Spain, Switzerland, Ukraine, and United Kingdom. Reduced access to HIV treatment was reported in Norway, Romania, Ukraine, and United Kingdom.
Responses collected from the survey indicate that while many countries are offering different social protection and economic support schemes, these schemes are not always available for sex workers. As the English Collective of Prostitutes points out, “Being criminalised, sex workers are denied status as workers so we are denied the rights and entitlements other workers may have.”
How is the sex worker community responding to this crisis?
“The sex worker community has stepped in where the government has failed. We have established the hardship funds that work for us, set up support that works for us, lobbied for change and equal access and the rights of all in our community.” – National Ugly Mugs, United Kingdom
The sex worker community in Europe is rallying to provide emergency funds and essential food and medical supplies to those most in need. However, a common theme among the responses to our survey was that the emergency funding and supplies are unsustainable, as there is not enough to go around and they are allocated very quickly.
“We do not have enough economic resources to cover significant costs like rent and we are dependent on people donating money to keep the emergency funds going. We run out of money very fast because the need is much greater than we can cover.” – Sex worker organisation, Norway
“STAR-STAR is providing emergency food and hygienic supplies for the sex workers in three cities.” – STAR STAR, North Macedonia
When asked about other ways in which the sex worker community has been supporting one another during the COVID-19 pandemic, two responses gave more information on the ongoing legal support that organisations are offering to sex workers in Russia and the United Kingdom.
“We regularly update information on measures to be taken to protect oneself from police abuse in the case of arrest for prostitution. The Forum provides moral and informational support to all sex workers, and legal support upon request.” – Sex worker organisation, Russia
The last question in the NSWP COVID-19 Impact Survey asked respondents to think about what else is needed to help protect sex workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Responses ranged from simple requests for basic PPE such as masks, to re-emphasising the exclusion of sex workers from government schemes due to criminalisation of sex work, and the fact that the sex worker community must rely exclusively on one another in lieu of proper support and social protection.
“Now more than ever it is clear sex work needs to be decriminalised and we should receive labour rights! Sex workers in Romania cannot access state aid, cannot access social benefits and aid, because of the fines received in the past, as our work is penalised. Moreover, the presence of army and police in the streets has resulted in even more police abuse. Sex workers have lost all income because of this, and are faced with precarity, poverty, and risk of losing their housing.” – Sex worker organisation, Romania