Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Sex workers’ response to the pandemic proves they aren’t society’s victims

Sex workers have long been portrayed as victims of patriarchy and trafficking, but their quick mobilisation to counter government indifference demonstrates otherwise.

Alejandra Ortiz
22 April 2020, 2.03pm
The closed red light district in Amsterdam.
Robin Utrecht / SOPA Images/Sipa USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Countries around the world have imposed lockdowns or severely limited movement due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Rules vary by country and sometimes from city to city, yet one thing is clear: the streets are empty and police are everywhere. For many their presence represents protection and security, but for marginalised communities this has not been the case historically and it is not necessarily the case now.

Since the beginning of the crisis in Europe we have been told by authorities, the media, and pretty much everyone else to stay home. Social media profiles with hashtags like #StayTheFuckHome have become akin to a badge of honour. Add to those the wartime metaphors politicians are using and the message crystal clear: our grandfathers saved our homelands by going to war, now we can save them by staying indoors. If we are good, law-abiding citizens we can curb the spread of the virus and save lives. If we flaunt the rules people will die.

For those who belong to traditional family structures and/or have a steady income, obeying the quarantine means having to work from home, keeping up with chores, taking care of children, and perhaps organising care for elderly family members. It also means missing out on classes and social activities, enduring the stress of remaining indoors, and postponing that much needed vacation. Single parents and those living day by day, meanwhile, are still to an extent protected by social welfare systems – things may be more complicated but for most they are probably still bearable. It’s hardly ideal for either camp, but for those inside the social safety net or the regulated economy #StayTheFuckHome probably still means staying safe at home.

Clients have been using the pandemic to bargain down prices or to demand risker services, such as sex without a condom, for the same amount of money.

For sex workers – especially those from marginalised communities such as single mothers, Black and people of colour, Roma, elderly, migrants, refugees, undocumented, trans, living with HIV, and people who use drugs or are homeless – things were already complicated to begin with. The spread of coronavirus and the clampdown on social interaction has made the situation worse.

Sex workers in European countries began to report falling numbers of clients as early as February. Now with cities instating curfews, some sex workers report brothels expelling them while others are being forced to work despite the circumstances. The blanket shutdown of bars, clubs, windows and red light zones has drastically limited the opportunities to generate income, and even sex workers working from home or doing house calls have reported a drop in business. What’s worse, the clients who remain have been using the pandemic to bargain down prices or to demand risker services, such as sex without a condom, for the same amount of money. Street workers must now accept clients they would have once refused for less money and under more precarious circumstances. Overall, the situation is critical.

Due to the stigmatised nature of sex work and its intersections with migration, poverty and precarity, most in our community cannot access the social benefits that would guarantee them a roof over their heads and a meal on their tables. The crisis has exacerbated existing problems and power dynamics, and for many #StayTheFuckHome is simply not a choice they can make. The price for not staying home is increased conflict with security forces. We hear every day about neighbours who have declared themselves vigilantes, monitoring private activities in residential buildings and targeting those who must break the rules to survive.

Sex workers across the world are raising money, delivering groceries, and providing emotional support to each other.

But sex workers are a resourceful and resilient community, one that defies preconceived notions of victimhood and dependency by its very existence. Over the past weeks, from Spain to Norway, from Greece to France, from Romania to Ireland and the United Kingdom sex workers have started campaigns to support those who are in the most vulnerable situations. Acceptes-T, a migrant trans-led organisation in France, has been working seven days a week to provide meals, financial help and moral support to trans and undocumented sex workers, many living with HIV. In Norway, PION has established a crisis emergency fund to keep sex workers afloat. In the Netherlands, the Dutch Emergency Fund created by Trans United Europe has provided financial help to sex workers who are outside the legal system. And this activity isn’t exclusive to Europe. Sex workers across the world are raising money, delivering groceries, and providing emotional support to each other. Their actions demonstrate once again that sex workers care for each other and are willing to show it even in the most dire circumstances. But more is needed.

As the current Covid-19 crisis continues, it is becoming evermore evident that governments and abolitionist organisations have never considered what would happen to the wellbeing of sex workers in a scenario that renders them defenceless and outside the social safety net, even in places where sex work is legally permitted. Today, more than ever, it is crucial that people stop seeing sex workers as victims without agency and instead denounce the failure of European governments to protect them. Sex workers' demands to have their work recognised, to be allowed access to resources, and to be involved in policymaking must be implemented urgently. It is not too late to invite us to the table and recognise us as essential partners in the fight against this new pandemic.

If you would like to make a donation to one of the sex worker-led initiatives, please check out their fundraisers.

Related story

European governments look the other way when we ask them how they will help sex workers survive the coming weeks and months. This has to change.


This article has been developed by the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE) as part of its 'RnR- Rights not Rescue’ project, aiming to empower migrant sex workers in tackling exploitation and trafficking in the sex industry. The programme, funded by OAK Foundation, brings together sex workers and allies from sex workers' rights organisations in 10 European countries for exchange, national and European advocacy and knowledge generation. For more details about the project, check the ICRSE website:

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