What do sex workers ask for

From sex work to social case: How prostitutes fight for survival

The residents remember loud pumping at the door, which resulted in a harsh entrance. No customer was in the studio, they swear, and instead of wigs and make-up, everyone just wore pajamas. Nevertheless, there were penalties - and an expulsion from the quarters.

"They chased us into the street like dogs," says Chelsy. The 26-year-old found refuge with her colleagues after that police raid on a colleague in the industry. The restaurant in Vienna's Stuwerviertel does not offer any plush flair. There is worn furniture on a bare plastic floor, and plastic ivy creeps over a silt that has been converted into a kitchen. Only the bare-breasted pin-ups on the wall give an indication of the services on offer - and yet they lead on the wrong track: It is transsexuals who received suitors here in unadorned rooms.

Stranded in Vienna

There are around 70 of them in Vienna, a small minority of 3,800 registered prostitutes, but they are no less worried. Since the brothels had to close due to the Corona crisis, sex workers have been left with nothing. The savings are gradually being used up, says the workforce in the Stuwerviertel: "We don't know how to buy food in the future."

Almost all prostitutes come from abroad, but not all of them made it home in time. The police estimate that the crisis in Vienna left a few hundred women stranded. Some people simply don't have the money to travel to Romania or Bulgaria with their children, says Eva Van Rahden, head of the Sophie advisory center at Wiener Volkshilfe, which tries to alleviate the need with food parcels. "The situation is desperate."

You know people who, in the chaos before the lockdown, would have forked hundreds of euros for flights that never took place, says Chelsy, who didn't even dare to jump. In any case, she couldn't go back to her mother in Barcelona since she got infected while working in the hospital. Her 50-year-old colleague Greta also feels safer in Vienna than in her adopted country of Italy, where the virus has so far killed 50 times as many people.

Both have EU passports, but come from South America - and both of them began to push through their "transformation" into women in the face of greater or lesser resistance in their teenage years. While the Colombian-born Greta talks about the beatings in the family, Chelsy from Ecuador "only" had to overcome moral pressure: "My brother even paid for my breasts."

In order to be able to afford hormonal cures and operations, she finally got into the horizontal trade, which she now only practices in Austria. Like Greta and other "chicas", Chelsy regularly travels to work for a few weeks or months. The mandatory free health check - so everyone says - ensures unbeatable safe conditions in this country.

Fall through the safety net

Control is not the only obligation in Austria. Sex workers not only have to report to the police, which around 8,000 have done nationwide, but also to social security and the tax office. As a new self-employed person, the hardship fund set up during the crisis is in principle open to them - if they have declared and can prove their income. But if you listen to the industry - whether in the Stuwerviertel or elsewhere - you will find out that many will fall through this network.

Apart from the language barrier and lack of know-how, Gerald Tatzgern offers another explanation. As a police officer, of course, he does not approve of someone embezzling taxes, the head of the central office for combating smuggling crime in the Federal Criminal Police Office. But it is important to bear in mind that many women - albeit formally independently - suffer from great dependency, if not exploitation: brothel operators dictate working hours, conditions and sometimes horrendous rents. This increases the incentive to collect fees gross for net.

In the devil's spiral

However, there are also counterexamples. She even uses a cash register, says Sandra Von Immer, who has been serving customers for 15 years. Judging by her own statements, the 37-year-old falls out of line several times: Not because of lack of money and lack of alternatives, she does the job, but out of a nymphomaniac inclination. But while they settle everything, "the majority have not even registered with the social security," believes Von Immer. "Those are the ones who are grumbling now."

So is pity out of place? The sex worker answers with a yes and no. Despite all responsibility, offers of help are needed for the stumbled, "otherwise the women will slide into a spiral of the devil". In order to survive, many accumulated debts with the brothel owners, which they would have to work off afterwards, warns Von Immer. In this predicament, women would lose all power to decide what to get involved with which suitor.

Debt trap? There could be no question of that in her house, says Lorena Pineda-Diaz in the studio in the Stuwerviertel, which is darkened with heavy wine-red curtains. Usually Chelsy, Greta and the other "girls" pay 400 euros per week for rent and various services such as dealing with the administrative work, explains the landlady, but in the crisis the obolus is suspended. At least the accommodation problem is solved. The Viennese police made it clear against some practices in the first few days: Prostitutes are allowed to live in their workplaces.

The sentences from the March raid have remained. For violating the Covid-19 rules, the sex workers have to shell out 500 euros each, the operator pays 600 euros - another financial blow. Pineda-Diaz has long been visiting aid organizations to pick up packets with food and toiletries. The Caritas social counseling provided support, as did the Sophie counseling center.

Drop in the bucket

"The food parcels are just a drop in the ocean," says Sophie director Van Rahden, "more women contact us than ever before." Wiener Volkshilfe has therefore launched its own donation campaign - an ambitious undertaking given the less popular target group. Van Rahden argues that anyone who hastily blames themselves for the plight of sex workers should consider that those affected have little chance of work in their countries of origin. Volkshilfe boss Tanja Wehsely says: "We want to get these women who fall through the protective systems out of the taboo zone. It's about survival."

This is all the more true when some allow themselves to be carried away to an apparent way out. Questions asked around the corner - "a friend of mine wants to know ..." - suggested that women flirted with secret work despite the virus, reports Van Rahden. A legal comeback is not in sight: The sex industry has not yet been included in the government's easing plans.

To the brothel despite the ban

Are there many people playing with their health? "We know that there is demand," says Wolfgang Langer from the responsible department of the Vienna police. "Eight of the 360 ​​approved bars in Vienna have already been reported for illegal prostitution." In itself, however, the ban sets narrow limits, adds the Federal Criminal Police Officer Tatzgern, which begins with the availability of suitors: "What excuse does a father want to steal away in times like these?"

Nevertheless, there is no lack of potential clients, says the 49-year-old Maria from Vienna-Favoriten: "There are regular customers who call three times a day. Some promise: 'I'll let it cost me a lot.'" The prostitute finds this unpleasant Lure offers. "Men are trying to take advantage of our plight," she says, "if they were there then they would bargain down on us."

She could do the business of her life these days without any scruples, notes the landlady Pineda-Diaz from the second district. In rows, customers asked for home visits: "It's more than before the crisis." (Gerald John, April 28, 2020)

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