In Germany, and many parts of the world, the COVID-19 pandemic highlights just how much sex workers are being held accountable for keeping this crisis under control, even when they aren’t the ones responsible for it. As we witness the penis-measuring contest that is taking place on the political landscape in countries like the United States, where people are being allowed to get sick and die for the sake of “saving the economy,” the whorephobic, xenophobic, transphobic, racist and classist attack on sex workers persists.
Coronavirus has threatened professions and livelihoods all across the board. From the arts to retail, who and what society views as essential to life has shifted. One thing has remained constant: that society hates women and anyone who doesn’t present as acceptable within the cis-hetero respectability gaze. Especially when those women and all others who even present as such, work in an arena where they often earn more than men. This is especially true when the work being done is what most civilians assume should be granted freely to the patriarchy. Despite the relentless cry that prostitution or sex work in general is “the oldest profession,” the dominant, patriarchal discourse still refuses to acknowledge this labor as an actual profession. This denial keeps sex workers perpetually vulnerable, even in Germany, where the legal climate that is considered more “favorable” to the industry.
Sex workers across the world are facing financial loss, homelessness and having to put their lives at risk since governments have left much of this population out of financial relief packages or denied sex workers the right to work, even when similar establishments were allowed to continue business. This kind of stigmatization and undermining of this work and those that preform it opens the doors for scammers, rapists and thieves to attempt to violate sex workers.
In a calculated effort to turn back the clock to the time before sex work was legalized in 2002, German lawmakers labeled sex workers as “super spreaders” of COVID-19 when they were trying to convince themselves and the public that the closing of brothels andstrip clubs and banning private full-service sex work should persist̶–even as other industries were allowed to reopen. The full-service sex work industry was the last to be allowed back in business; a direct result of whorephobia, sexism and ignorance.
During the pandemic, sex worker communities have had to push their mutual aid efforts.Many sex workers were facing financial distress from the loss of clients and the influx of online workers, which made it impossible for many entertainers to make a decent living. It should be of no surprise that many of these workers are women, trans and non-binary people and immigrants who are often Black.
These financial struggles we not caused by COVID_19, though. This industry, and the people involved in it, needs not only a new outlook on how to legally protect its workers, but a destigmatization campaign. The disregard for these professionals corresponds to an uptick in criminals who seek to prey on industry workers—taking advantage of the loopholes many legal models of sex work don’t consider.
It is important to differentiate between the criminals who prey on the industry workers and the clients who actually have respect for the business and the workers who are providing them a service. As a thief who poses as a buyer in a store is not to considered a customer, we should not consider someone who robs a sex worker a client.
These criminals begin to appear posing as respectable clients who will push boundaries hoping that workers desperate to make a dollar will give in to their demands. The government is directly to blame for this influx of potential criminal activity when they refuse to include sex workers in their financial planning or how they make laws during a pandemic, which, because of our capitalist system, forces people to work even when it is not safe to do so.
In Berlin, the common complaint of full-service providers is that the demands for unprotected sexual services have risen greatly. Some workers do feel pressure to agree to this demand, or at the very least, have begun considering taking these risks because demand for their services has been so low, even though unprotected commercial sex is illegal in Germany. This is also directly connected to how the law does nothing to protect sex service providers from these kinds of abusive tactics. Abuses that can be experienced by every kind of worker under capitalism when a crisis is present.
Stealing from adult entertainers is nothing new, especially in the strip club and brothel scenes. Moreover, the pandemic has illuminated how capitalism forces every company to force workers to work more for less pay, and under more dangerous conditions. However, because of stigma and capitalistic designs to divide workers, many people in the broader labor movement do not stand in solidarity with sex workers. This means that the abuse and violence in this industry is as heightened as it is disregarded during the pandemic.
Working conditions for dancers have gone from bad to worse. Strip club owners in Berlin are getting away with exploiting their workers and violating labor laws. Before the pandemic, dancers would receive 30 euros per shift, but owners have not been paying this since reopening, citing the need to “recover” from financial loss.
Along with the loss of the meager shift pay, which equated to less than 5 euro per hour, dancers are getting ripped off in other ways that are hard to legally challenge. Before the COVID-19 restrictions were put in place, owners were already pushing the limits by having too many dancers on shift, sometimes up to 25 on a weekday, up from 10. This decreased average earnings from 200 euro a night, which some dancers were making, to 100 euros per 8-hour shift. On a weekend the club could be packed with up to as many as 40 dancers per shift, which pushes the earning potential much lower.
When restrictions lifted, management forbade dancers from accepting cash tips (ostensibly in the name of safety), and actively sought to punish those who accepted them. One dancer was set up by a friend of one of the owners for accepting a tip and was fined double the price of the tip she accepted. Owners have been known to go backstage into the dancers wallets and check to make sure they did not receive any tips.
Dancers are being forced to work even when there are more dancers than there are patrons. In one club, where they used close at 4:00 am if patronage was slow, they have now implemented a “three customer” rule. This means if there are at least three customers in the club they will remain open until closing time (6:00 AM). It doesn’t matter if there are 15 dancers in the club, or if the customers are not spending money, the dancers must stay. The punishment for leaving is losing your already meager shift pay or potentially losing your job, depending on the mood of management, who are typically violent toxic men.
To top off the financial and systematic violence sex workers have to endure, there is the lack of respect for social distancing and mask wearing. Workers are now at a heightened risk of contracting coronavirus because management could care less if masks are worn or not. Some dancers have complained that the masks ruin their make-up so why take the risk of losing half your face in a mask that should be changed every few hours anyway?
German law says that if you are sick you are allowed to take off three days of work, but club owners make up their own rules. They will fine dancers if they don’t supply a doctor’s note. This is a contradiction to the freelance nature of the business: these workers are not obligated to explain why they aren’t working. However, where laws leave people vulnerable, shady club owners take advantage.
These legalized pimps know that the choices of many of the people in this industry are slim. Many of these women are migrants who don’t have the proper paperwork to legally work and travel. This also means that they did not receive the 5,000 euro financial relief that was distributed in the earlier stages of the pandemic in Germany. In one brothel, Thai workers are being exploited by their boss by earning approximately 25 euro per client, while management takes the other half.
The fear that intercourse can spread COVID-19 faster than a hairdresser, nail tech or someone working in the medical field who then goes home to their family after a long shift of working with COIVD-19 patients, is stigmatizing, whorephobic rhetoric. It also assumes that industry professionals are seeing a large number of clients, which is typically not the case for most of the people who work in the industry. If anything, the strip club, or even a socially acceptable massage space such as a spa, would see more foot traffic in one day, than any full-service sex worker would all year.
Brothels saw six-figure losses when they were forced to close mid-March. Sex clubs have closed and some are operating by doing live streaming shows. Virtual sex, however, is not bringing in the same kind of money, especially being that the market is saturated with a bunch of newcomers and low membership prices for online content. .
Too many unfounded assumptions continue to be forced upon this industry. Sex work may be legal, but so is stigmatizing the women, Trans and non-binary, disabled, migrant people who predominantly work this industry. The burden always falls squarely on the backs of women and those who present as different outside of the male-cis-hetero-gaze. Sex workers are losing money and their dignity while the rest of the world gets to bareback and deny that they are a major part of the problem.
The Incredible Edible Akynos is a stripper and immigrant who founded The Black Sex Worker Collective where she is the executive director. She is studying for her masters of fine arts at Goddard College.
Read of the other articles in this series or download the PDF:
Gustavo Sanchez and Charlotte Swasey