As Germany’s first lockdown came into effect in March, my colleagues and I set up an online event series for and by sex workers. We shared information about the changing state of COVID-19 rules and protection measures; answered questions regarding the law, rights and access to the different governmental support systems; and provided an open ear and heart to fellow sex workers in times of hardship. Through co-hosting these weekly events, my colleagues and I were in a unique position to hear from a diversity of sex workers regarding their current situation and the issues they were facing. We held meetings through June, and we have recently re-started them following Berlin’s second lock down.
One of the immediate effects of the lock down were travel restrictions. Initially, the hardest affected workers were temporary migrant workers, non-EU migrants without a permanent status in Germany and recent migrants. With the closing of brothels and borders, workers that come to Berlin and planned to stay for few months’ stay found themselves stuck, without work, and without an ability to return home. With the Foreigners’ Office temporarily closed, non-EU migrants who were waiting for their visa renewal were put into legal limbo.
Beyond legal residency and visa issues, travel restrictions limited sex workers’ ability to travel to different German regions or abroad for work. With traveling out of the question, many of us had to change how we work.
Conversations I’ve had with hundreds of Berlin sex workers since March underscore how much COVID-19 has impacted our incomes. All forms of in-person sex work were illegal from March until September and have been made illegal again during the second lock down, greatly impacting strippers, professional dominatrixes and brothel workers. Following months of uncertainty, many sex workers decided to try civilian jobs, including minimum-wage positions.
Some of us transitioned to online sex work, such as selling video chats, pre-recorded videos or pictures through sites such as OnlyFans. These platforms were promising at first. Yet only the most tech-savvy workers willing to expose their faces, give up their privacy, part with their data, and who possess English language skills managed to successfully make a living from online work. For others the barriers to entry were too high.
Germany’s welfare system did offer relief in the form of several government support programs, most notably “Soforthilfe,” the one-time 5,000-euro payment to help freelancers. Sex workers are freelancers, and many applied and received the grant, but looking at those who could and couldn’t receive the grant is telling. Sex workers who received the 5,000 euro payment are freelancers who have a tax number, live in Berlin, filed taxes last year, have strong enough German language skills to know about and apply for the program, and previously registered for the ProstSchutzGesetz or “Prostitutes’ Protection Act,” a 2016 law forcing sex workers to register their data with local authorities. As such, all newer migrants, those for whom receiving government assistance could mean an inability to renew a visa, those who aren’t registered under the ProstSchutzGesetz for fear of being outed, those who work illegally because of visa issues and those that didn’t file taxes for sex work were ineligible for this aid. Those who stopped to ask if they qualify found that by the time they received an answer, the government-allotted funds were gone.
Generally speaking, sex workers who didn’t receive the funds are dealing with multiple marginalities – status-less, illegal workers, new and non-EU migrants, and those without German language skills. Germany’s different sex worker organizations, including Hydra, fundraised to supply immediate cash-in-hand relief to hundreds of workers who didn’t receive government grants. But a one-time 200-500-euro payment only paid for some food or a month’s rent. The gap between sex workers of different classes only grew. Grant recipients, predominantly white, German and middle class, often used the income and free time to invest in long-term, corona-era-suitable professional skills. Those who didn’t receive the grant struggled with lockdown, the illegality of in-person sex work, and the health risks of continuing to work.
Further compounding the already difficult situation is the toxic attitude of the authorities, police and media toward sex workers. The government and the media’s division of “essential” and “non-essential” workers made the public view the latter as less worthy of care and financial assistance. Several members of Berlin’s senate called sex workers “superspreaders,” repeating age-old stereotypes of sex workers as unwashed migrant predators who bring diseases. When this type of language becomes common, it becomes harder for us to control our bodies and legitimize our work.
Similarly, While sex work establishments were closed, between the months of April and June, Berlin’s police began raiding the homes of workers currently seeing clients as in-calls, out-calls and fining us as businesses for breaking COVID-19 restrictions. Hardest hit were street-based workers, those engaged in survival sex work, who would sometimes receive several fines a day. Independent escorts reported stings more sophisticated sting techniques or with more personnel than they’ve encountered or heard of. Inevitably it is those poorer, more marginalized sex workers who didn’t receive governmental assistance that continued working, and essentially had to choose between enduring fear, raids, fines, and being caught for working illegally and an inability to survive. The raids were never sanctioned by a higher city authority. Sex worker organizations pressured the city to intervene and stop the raids. Apparently it was the police’s independent interpretation of focusing on sex workers as a form of clamping down on Corona-non-complient businesses. The raids eventually stopped with a compromise not to prosecute sex workers and instead focus on our clients. But with a model of criminalizing clients of sex workers around Germany’s corner, this could be a dangerous path to a future legislative model, a model harmful to us.
This is just the beginning. COVID-19 has short- and long-term effects on sex workers’ health, and clients’ behavior towards sex workers has changed, often become more demanding and violent. All things considered, our ability to persevere, survive and thrive is commendable, especially in the face of poverty, violence and legal trouble. It’s no surprise, considering that sex work and sex workers exist in legal and illegal forms, especially in times of crisis.
In order to better survive, we need our governments, the media and the welfare state in Germany to do better. Sex work is work and sex workers are active, contributing members of society. We need politicians that acknowledge that .As such we should the same access to housing, financial support, and a wider social system accessible to migrants that other non-migrant, non-sex workers can access, without the stigma, illeglization and hurdles. The socio-economic effects of COVID-19 aren’t over. In order to correct the damage, this is the least that we’d be willing to accept.
Liad Hussein Kantorowicz is a long-time sex worker and sex workers’ rights activist, a co-founder and project manager of the Peers Project, a project focusing on peer education, information distribution, and support for and by Berlin’s more marginalized sex worker communities at Hydra e.V, Germany’s oldest organization for sex workers.
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