Sex workers in the time of COVID-19

Across Europe and in most parts of the world, the streets are nearly empty, especially at night. Massage parlours and eros centres, as well as saunas and hotels have been shut by the lockdown emergency measures against COVID-19, which in order to limit the spread of the infectious disease, restrict freedom of movement within and outside national boundaries. Where are sex workers in all this? And how are they coping with this continuing state of emergency?

As GRIPS (Gruppo di Ricerca Italiano su Prostituzione e Lavoro SessualeItalian Research Group on Prostitution and Sex Work) we seek to understand what is happening to individuals involved in sex work – whether by choice, force, or necessity – and strive to produce research directly informed by their experiences.

In Italy, outreach projects are the best positioned observers of outdoor sex work. They speak of a very problematic reality. Since the beginning of the pandemic, sex workers, whether cis-women or transgender, have almost abandoned the streets due to the fear of contagion and out of a sense of responsibility for public health. At the same time, they dreaded fines and sought to avoid police checks. Ultimately, there are no clients around. This is the reality that we hear from harm reduction and support projects aiding people to exit human trafficking and sexual exploitation in several Italian cities: from Milan to Ragusa, to Pordenone, Bologna, Pisa, Rome and Naples.

Outreach projects have had to limit their outdoor activities and the few on-site surveys they can still carry out have no aim other than monitoring the existing situation. As a result, they mainly establish and/or maintain contact via telephone so as to provide clear and reliable information about keeping healthy and about the containment measures in force. Reception and protection programmes for victims of human trafficking are still guaranteed, but other impediments have occurred due to the legal restriction of freedom of movement. For instance, social and health services as well as activities in schools, police headquarters, courts and embassies are reduced to a minimum; similarly, vocational training has been interrupted.

Another problem that has been reported by outreach organisations concerns the loss of income deriving from the lockdown. In particular, such economic damage has worsened the already difficult financial situations of individuals involved in sex work – whether outdoor or indoor – who have no family or other networks to support them. They do not have money to pay for food, their rent or the bills. Because of lack of autonomy and debts to pay, exploited workers are worst hit by these circumstances.

When it comes to health issues, it is known that irregular migrants have limited access to health services. Because they cannot reach a family doctor who can help in case of distress or COVID-19 symptoms, irregular migrants have no other option than going to A&E stations. Other healthcare services, such as the ones provided by voluntary organisations, can hardly cope with the countless help requests made by vulnerable people. Social workers and sex worker organisations also report increasing risks linked to mental health, often related to drug use and to the lack of access to hormone replacement therapies for transgender individuals.

Given that in Italy sex work is not recognised as work, the majority of sex workers do not have access to the welfare protections guaranteed to other workers, such as sick leave. As a result, to date, they cannot benefit from the emergency measures of social security recently adopted by the Government, with the sole exception of those few workers who are VAT-registered. Likewise, access to vouchers for groceries is unlikely to be granted to irregular migrants, since they are not registered in the municipality and are not assigned to social services. The possibility to continue working online is only available to individuals who have easy access to technologies and can provide their services via webcam.

Sex workers’ dire conditions under COVID-19 are not limited to Italy’s national boundaries, but they are similarly occurring across Europe, and the globe. The International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE) has launched a call to urge all governments to urgently act to ensure that sex workers, along with their families and communities, can access social protections during the COVID-19 pandemic. Similar calls have been launched globally by organisations such as La Strada International, the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) and the TAMPEP Network. On 8th April  2020, UNAIDS together with the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) published a press statement calling on countries to take immediate, critical action, grounded in human rights principles, to protect the health and rights of sex workers. UNAIDS and NSWP’s demands include the immediate halt of all raids, arrests and prosecution of sex workers, a firewall between immigration and health services, emergency aid for sex workers in need, and the meaningful inclusion of sex worker-led organization in public health planning. Maria Grazia Giammarinaro, the United Nations special rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children, demanded governments to adopt measures for the protection of migrants and victims of trafficking in humans beings; in particular, she called for regularization measures in order to facilitate access to healthcare during the pandemic. Moreover, in response to the lack of state aids for sex workers, several sex worker-led and other organisations have launched fundraising campaigns worldwide to support most vulnerable and affected sex workers.

Returning to the case of Italy, organisations that support sex workers have also started to intervene at several levels. For instance, the Piattaforma Nazionale Antitratta (the National Network of Anti-trafficking Organisations) has established a dialogue with the Dipartimento per le Pari Opportunitá della Presidenza del Consiglio dei Ministri – that is the Italian Ministry of Equal Opportunities, department responsible for the funding of projects to curb human trafficking – in order to obtain a six-months extension of their funding for on-going projects, as well as to discuss further proposals aimed at helping most vulnerable groups. At the same time, many organisations are urging the government to implement measures to support sex workers. For instance, along with other entities that work in the field of anti-trafficking, the Comitato per i Diritti Civili delle Prostitute (Committee for the Civil Rights of Prostitutes) and the Associazione Radicale Certi Diritti (Radical Association Certain Rights) has requested to: 1) introduce easily accessible financial support for sex workers; 2) guarantee the regularisation of migrant sex workers, as well as their acceptance in reception centres if requested; 3) release people detained for migration offences, so as to protect their health; 4) enact specific measures to address the housing emergency; 5) suspend sanctions on people for whom it is impossible to abide by the lockdown measures, such as homeless people sleeping in shelters that close during the day.

At the same time, various solidarity initiatives are spreading across Italy. The network of outreach projects, together with sex worker rights collectives such as Ombre Rosse, have launched a crowdfunding campaign, whose revenues will provide economic support to most vulnerable sex workers.

As GRIPS, we strongly support all calls and initiatives launched by the network of outreach projects, sex worker rights collectives and anti-trafficking organisations, recognising the need for an urgent policy in this field.

In very little time, the current COVID-19 crisis highlighted countless contradictions and problems linked to our social and economic system. In this context, people who earn a living doing sex work are amongst the most vulnerable because they are disproportionately affected by stigmatisation, discrimination, and social exclusion. We strongly urge the immediate adoption of all possible measures to guarantee a decent survival for everyone, leaving no one behind. The “emergency income” currently under the scrutiny by the government for instance, would only seemingly apply to sex workers who are nationals, or to those ones with residence permit. In fact, its terms of access require producing proof of previous income, which sex workers can rarely provide. As far as undocumented and irregular migrants are concerned, we call for their immediate regularisation, measure also demanded by organisations such as Progetto Melting Pot (Melting Pot Project) and already largely adopted in Portugal. The immediate regularisation of undocumented and irregular migrants would allow for universal access to essential health care; registration with municipalities; access to initiatives against poverty; and for their release from migrant detention centres – where people’s health is most at risk and where administrative detention has been found illegal, given the current impossibility of returning individuals to their countries of origin.

Let these not be just times for caution, but also times for courage.

 Authors on behalf of GRIPS: Francesca Bettio, Giulia Garofalo Geymonat, PG Macioti, Nicola Mai, Tiziana Mancinelli, Carlotta Rigotti, Giulia Selmi, Giorgia Serughetti

GRIPS (Gruppo di Ricerca Italiano su Prostituzione e Lavoro Sessuale – Italian Research Group on Prostitution and Sex Work) was created in November 2019, with the aim of promoting research based on empirical evidences; understanding the complexity of prostitution and sex work; fostering the dissemination of knowledge; contributing to the public debate and the following policy-making process; as well as organising events designed to exchange experiences, (self-)train individuals and initiate a public dialogue. Being multi-disciplinary and cross-sector, GRIPS is made up of researchers, members of organisations that support sex workers, activists of sex workers rights collectives, as well as other social actors that work in the field and can present the multi-faced realm of prostitution. For further information and/or in order to join GRIPS: