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Sex work: the precarious situation is coming to a head

The pandemic particularly affects industries that are characterized by precarious employment relationships - including sex work. For a year sex workers in Austria could hardly offer their services legally, with the current Covid-19 regulation, home visits to customers are now prohibited until further notice. "The situation is fatal," says Christine Nagl, who heads the Pia project at the Salzburg women's service center Frau & Arbeit. Sex workers are increasingly facing massive financial problems, says the social worker in the STANDARD interview, and only a few can fall back on state support services. Access to funds from the hardship fund usually failed because of the account number: only those who have an Austrian bank account can submit an application. Around 90 percent of sex workers in Austria are migrants, and they often opened their accounts in their country of origin.


"Most sex workers are waiting for the bars to finally open up again and for them to be able to work regularly," says Renate Blum from the Viennese association LEFÖ. Many have now become highly indebted, so the risk of becoming dependent on operators is also increasing. Those affected are particularly likely to report the high rental costs, which can hardly be met without regular income.

Not only sex workers have to struggle with a lack of income and the ongoing insecurity. Around 17,000 tenants - twice as many as in the previous year - could face eviction in 2021, warned the Chamber of Labor. But for sex workers, social stigmatization exacerbates the situation, says Blum in the STANDARD interview. "Hairdressers and innkeepers are recognized as an important part of society, sex workers, on the other hand, do not have a loud voice. We do not discuss widely about when prostitution bars are allowed to reopen."

Illegal work

In Vienna, however, the police carried out several key checks in private homes last year. The reason was the "increased internet presence of prostitutes who offer their services," said the Vienna State Police Directorate in a broadcast. Reports were made both due to violations of the Vienna Prostitution Act and violations of the Covid-19 Protective Measures Ordinance.

Christian Knappik, spokesman for the Sexworker Forum association, criticizes the police officers' actions - for example when police officers covertly appear as customers and book an appointment. "Anyone who has such an experience does not go to the police later, for example if there is a case of exploitation," says Knappik, who runs a voluntary support network together with sex workers.

Mandatory examination in lockdown

Christine Nagl also sees sex workers more in the sights of the police than other professional groups. During the pandemic in particular, sex workers were portrayed as potential super spreaders, and the existing discrimination has intensified. Sex service providers in Austria have to undergo a mandatory examination, only with the stamp in the health card ("lid") may work legally. An examination is due every six weeks, and an HIV or syphilis infection is checked every three months. While the City of Vienna offered the compulsory examination continuously, other federal states restricted access. "I had several contacts with the Salzburg health department because women simply did not get an appointment for an examination," says Nagl. Between the lockdowns, those affected would not have been able to legally go about their work. "I don't think you would treat any other professional group that way."

In Vienna, the Center for Sexual Health also offered examinations and advice during the lockdown in order to enable sex workers to return as quickly as possible, reports Renate Blum. A new hurdle was added on March 22nd: A negative Covid-19 test must be presented before the examination. In view of the financial hardship, however, the city of Vienna had not created enough support offers, criticizes Blum. Aside from the precarious economic situation, sex workers are increasingly struggling with isolation. There is a lack of social contacts through work, and access to information is also difficult.

Missing perspectives

Christine Nagl from PiA criticizes the information policy of the authorities. In contrast to the local operators, sex workers and counseling centers were hardly provided with information, and there was no corresponding information on the government website. Nagl is observing brothels dying out in Salzburg: more and more small restaurants are closing, and large operators are dominating the market. Neither street prostitution nor escort is allowed in the state, which would mean that the job opportunities for sex workers would dwindle. A professional reorientation, in which PiA also offers support, is extremely difficult. If potential employers learn about their work in the prostitution industry, the chance of a job is usually gone. "This slogan 'sex work is work' is far from a reality. It is only a job like any other if I can also write it on my résumé," says Nagl. (Brigitte Theißl, April 4th, 2021)