As coronavirus shut down businesses around the world, red-light districts from Amsterdam to Bangkok to Frankfurt turned off their lights. But many continued to work illegally, risking infection and potential legal consequences in order to support themselves. As one Dutch sex worker told Die Welt, "The confinement does not mean that people stopped wanting sex."
Yet, as social distancing measures ease and business recommences, some have looked to the pandemic as an opportunity for some in the sex industry to ban together and demand stronger rights and protections.
Amsterdam's famous red-light district reopened earlier this month, with no face-to-face contact and coronavirus symptom checks for clients. But many are unable to receive government emergency support packages.
Normally, more than a 1,000 tourists visit the red-light district each week, with around 7,000 registered sex workers in the city.
Brothels in the Netherlands were set to open in September, but because of a significant drop in cases, the date was pushed up.
Felicia Anna, a Romanian sex worker in Amsterdam, told the Guardian, "During the lockdown, a lot of sex workers ran into financial trouble so we're very happy that we can finally start our job again." Anna, who is chairwoman of the Red Light United trade union, said that despite fewer tourists, business is picking up.
Sex workers in Germanyprotested in front of Parliament to reopen brothels, which were shuttered almost four months ago. The industry usually brings in around 15 billion euros into the economy annually, with many cities relying on taxes from sex work.
"In Germany, almost all companies are gradually reopening after the corona lockdown," wrote the Federation for Sexual Services (BDS) in a recent letter, adding that "politicians seem to have forgotten the prostitution centers … Brothels offer sex workers a protected, hygienic working environment."
The Prostitution Information Center closed in Amsterdam's Red Light District in last March — Photo: Paulo Amorim/VW Pics/ZUMA
The red-light district in Bangkok recently reopened, with mandatory bikinis and masks and audience members sitting two meters from the performance stage. They also must have their temperature checked and give their contact information.
Over 120,000 sex workers are now able to go back to work, with Thailand only registering 58 deaths from coronavirus. But business is expected to decrease 80% this year because of the huge drop in foreign tourists. Although prostitution is illegal, Thailand is a hotspot for sex tourism.
The situation is particularly dire for foreign sex workers coming from neighboring Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam. They have struggled to find alternative employment and just 5% of sex workers in the country are part of the social security system.
Christian Henrich, manager of the XXX Lounge strip club, told Reuters, "There are bars all over Bangkok that have been open for 10 to 15 years and now they are closed and they are not coming back."
In South Africa, sex workers have been restricted to work within the country's tight curfew. And many are supporting more than just themselves: Sex workers have on average three dependents at home.
As sex worker Anna told News24, "Remember the majority of our clients are married men and had to be home earlier than midnight. Again, police also warned us to be out of the streets from 8 p.m. or face arrest. We lost a lot of money and clients…"
During lockdown, many were unable to pay rent and support their families. Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat) spokesperson Katlego Rasebitse told News24 that "Some could not access government relief, especially migrant workers, who didn't have identity documents."
Some businesses have gotten creative: One strip club in Port Elizabeth is providing "drive thru" performances, where attendees watch from their cars.
In Mexico City, the estimated 7,500 women working in the sex trade face a crisis. The clientele has fallen by 90%, and many sex workers were also left without housing since many lived in the hotels that were closed on April 1, reports Confidencial.
"There is no place for hope," said Sandra, 42, who has been a sex worker in Mexico City for two decades. Now adding to the commonplace police extortions, rapes and attacks by clients is the economic crisis. The only government support has been a check for 1,000 pesos ($42) to cover for three months of lost income.
Laura, 40, said she still needs to provide for her two children, and has continued to serve clients in the street or in cars. She avoids kissing, wears a mask and brings her own hand sanitizer.
Reports also show an increase in physical violence and stigmatization of sex workers in Mexico City, most likely due to the perception that the women worsen the spread of COVID-19 — a narrative which has been enforced by the Mexican press, according to a support group for female sex workers.
One sign of progress in the UK, where strippers have come together to create a virtual strip club. Cybertease not only provides an opportunity for sex workers to make money but also to raise awareness about the exploitation they often face.
The online club takes place about every two weeks and draws a diverse crowd of regular strip clubbers as well as activists, single people and both straight and queer couples.
Performers share profits fairly, including money going to the stage hands behind the camera.
Luna, a Cybertease organizer and a member of the United Union of Sex Workers, told HuffPost UK that the event is "a virtual space that embodies the kind of strip club the union is fighting to see in the physical world, one that observes and respects its workers' rights. It's a beautiful and powerful fusion of sexual titillation, skilled performance, and political passion."