Amid coronavirus crisis, sex workers around the world face ruin

From Bangladesh to Bolivia and Berlin to Amsterdam, concerns mount as world's 'oldest profession' faces sudden slump

Social Desk March 24, 2020
Even the world’s supposedly oldest profession is suffering a sudden slump. PHOTO: REUTERS/FILE

Sex workers around the world have been left in ruin as respective governments look to prevent the spread of the coronavirus by closing down brothels.


More than 1,500 sex workers are based at the Daulatdia brothel, about 100km (60 miles) west of capital Dhaka, which is one of about 12 officially sanctioned brothels in the South Asian country, and receives an estimated 5,000 customers every day.

On Friday, the government announced the closure of the brothel - a series of shacks spread over a maze of alleyways - until at least April 5, but promised to give all of the sex workers a package of 30kgs of rice, $25, and a freeze on rent.

Government official Rubayet Hayat, executive officer of the sub-district of Goalanda where the brothel is located, said the aid was expected to arrive late this week.

But women working at Daulatdia appealed for immediate help, saying they no longer had money to pay for food for themselves or their children due to the sudden closure of the brothel.

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"If we were informed beforehand, we could have tried to save up as much as possible. Now, many of us have to take loans to not stay hungry," said Kalpona, a 30-year-old sex worker, who has been living in the brothel for nearly two decades.

"Right now, we need the government aid as soon as possible," she added, declining to give her full name for fear of reprisals.

Sex work is legal in Bangladesh, although it is considered immoral by many in the nation of about 160 million people, which has so far reported three deaths from COVID-19 with at least 33 other confirmed cases.

Daulatdia has been running for more than a century, set up until British colonial rule, although it moved to its current location near a ferry station in 1988 after fire destroyed the old premises. Charities say many sex workers are underage.

Ataur Rahman Manju, coordinator of the rights group Mukti Mahila Samity that supports sex workers, said most of them live hand-to-mouth existences, with only about one in nine having the ability to save up and feed themselves.

On an average, workers earn between $12 to $24 a day, according to Manju.

"The workers in high demand, about 100 or 200 of them, can probably survive for a month like this, but for the rest of the 1,500, the situation is really difficult. They immediately need food," Manju shared.

Lily, 35, a sex worker, said she had not been able to send money to her 8-year-old son who lives with a family outside the brothel, and she feared he was not being fed properly.

While government aid was promised, Kalpona was unsure it was going to help them in the long term.

"Even if restrictions are lifted next month, I don't think people will come to the brothel for a long time because of the disease," she said.


It is 7 pm on a Friday night, a time when Aurel Johannes Marx’s three-room brothel on the edge of Berlin would normally be preparing for its first customers.

Sex for sale has long been a staple part of the German capital’s freewheeling nightlife.

But amid concerns over the new coronavirus, even the world’s supposedly oldest profession is suffering a sudden slump.

At the “Lankwitzer 7” brothel, with its soft red light and bawdy paintings on the wall, disinfectant dispensers had been installed next to the washbasins.

Marx said he ordered staff to hot-wash all towels and sheets, and open the windows more often to let the warm, sticky air escape.

Still, customers just weren’t showing up anymore.

“Over the past week, business has gone down by 50 per cent,” Marx said, blaming the decline on the general drop in nightlife that has occurred since the virus arrived in Berlin.

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By Saturday, authorities had pulled the plug entirely, ordering the temporary closure of all entertainment venues, including brothels. The city has registered 332 confirmed cases of COVID-19 so far. Several dozen infections have been traced to bars and clubs.

Susanne Bleier Wilp, a German former sex worker and spokeswoman for the Association of Erotic and Sexual Services Providers, or BESD, said the virus has caused fear and uncertainty among the estimated 100,000 to 200,000 sex workers in Germany, where prostitution was largely legalised almost 20 years ago.

“There are those who are withdrawing from the business entirely at the moment for safety reasons,” Bleier Wilp said. Others are requiring that customers disinfect themselves, she added — a measure that medical experts say is unlikely to effectively stop the spread of the virus during close physical contact.

For most people the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The vast majority of those who are infected recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

It wasn’t clear how the closure of brothels would affect independent sex workers, and some have come under criticism for suggesting they will continue working.

Salome Balthus, a sex worker in Berlin, said that most of her colleagues would prefer to stay at home.

“But they know that nobody is going to compensate them for loss of income,” she said on Twitter. “90 percent of all dates are being canceled anyway. As always, we’re left to fend for ourselves.”

“Many of us will face housing problems in three months at the latest,” she added. “In which home should we stay then?”

Unlike regular employees, most sex workers won’t benefit directly from the half-trillion-euro package of loans the German government is making available to companies facing ruin because of the coronavirus outbreak.

“Sex workers are usually self-employed, not employees,” said Bleier Wilp. “That means they bear all the risks themselves”

Some sex workers may be able to rely on savings for several weeks, she said. “But it becomes more difficult if the crisis lasts for longer. Then many — particularly those who do it full time — may have to seek help.”

Bleier Wilp said a provision in Germany’s law on infectious disease protection might allow self-employed sex workers to apply for compensation.


In the Netherlands, Amsterdam’s famed red-light district was similarly hard hit after the government on Sunday night ordered the closure of schools, bars and restaurants for three weeks and made a point of mentioning that sex clubs also were affected.

By Sunday night, the normally packed canal-side streets and narrow, cobbled alleys that are normally a tourist magnet were largely deserted. On Monday, the windows where scantily clad sex workers pose to attract customers were largely empty. Some had signs taped to the glass saying: “The office is closed” due to the coronavirus restrictions.

“There are almost no clients because there are no people on the street even. So the brothel owners decided to close down,” an Amsterdam sex worker who goes by the pseudonym Foxxy Angel, said in a telephone interview.

Angel said she had already spent her savings when she couldn’t work for three weeks because she had a regular flu.

“I’m at the end of my money now, so I’m coming up with different things to make money,” she said. “I’m going to go back on (web) camming and selling porn online.”

Some sex workers would resort to going on paid dates “which you normally don’t do, or go on car dates,” she said, but added that this didn’t feel as safe as the tightly regulated red-light district.

Amsterdam’s Prostitution Information Center, which normally offers tours and provides information, has established an emergency fund for sex workers in financial trouble. It is aiming to raise €6,000 ($6,590) and will disburse €40 each to people who apply, to cover basics such as shopping, medicines and phone credits.

Before the closure, Berlin brothel owner Marx acknowledged that the women working at his establishment were hurting financially, though there was no suggestion he might make up the shortfall.

“Everybody wants more money, not less. But that’s the situation at the moment — it’s developing rapidly,” he said. “I can’t do anything to change that.

“At some point it will be over, and when it’s over things will work out again,” he added.


A nighttime curfew imposed by the Bolivian president to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus in the Andean country faces opposition from sex workers, who say their already precarious livelihoods are at stake.

In a neighborhood of El Alto, an impoverished satellite city of the capital, La Paz, more than 50 licensed establishments have been forced to close after the Bolivian government imposed a daily curfew from about 5 pm to 5 am. As of Sunday, the country was entering a 14-day lockdown, with most businesses shut.

Bolivia, one of the poorest countries in the Americas, has 24 confirmed coronavirus cases, the Ministry of Health said on Sunday.

A sex worker who gave her name as Grisel said she normally looked after her three children in the day and worked at night. Like many Bolivian prostitutes, she is part of a sex workers’ collective. Prostitution is legal in the country, but procuring is not.

“We don’t make much money anyway,” said Grisel. “I work for what I need, but I also try to be careful.”

Lily Cortes, a representative of Bolivia’s sex workers union, said that if the legal establishments cannot function, “unfortunately the sex workers will go out to work the streets and the result will be worse.”

“We are also part of Bolivian society,” said Cortes. “We are sex workers, women, aunts and grandmothers that also have to worry about our work hours.”

The articles originally appeared in Al Jazeera, The Japanese Times and Reuters

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