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Decriminalizing sex work is a first step towards assuring rights and recognition for sex workers in Belgium — but it is not a silver bullet

Each year, International Sex Workers Day celebrates sex workers’ resistance to the stigmatization, criminalization, and exploitation they face. This year, to commemorate the event, a seminar at the ISS discussed how sex workers’ advocacy resulted in the recent decriminalisation of sex work in Belgium. In this article, Marianne Chargois, Daan Bauwens, and Karin Astrid Siegmann discuss which further changes need to be made to ensure the dignity and rights of sex workers in Belgium.

Image by UTSOPI

We celebrated the week that concludes with International Sex Workers’ Day with an ISS seminar in which I, Marianne Chargois, member of the executive team of the Belgian sex worker union Utsopi, delivered a presentation titled “Swimming against the tide: Decriminalization of sex work in Belgium”. Decriminalization, a regulatory model that sees sex work as a regular profession and abolishes all laws that criminalize prostitution directly or indirectly, has been considered the best way to govern sex work because it helps protect sex workers’ health and well-being, enhances their access to services and justice, makes the industry safer, and, overall, improves the guarantee of sex workers’ human rights (Oliveira et al. 2023).


Until June last year, Belgian law criminalized services and third parties supporting sex work based on the understanding that all sex workers are victims of exploitation and human trafficking, independent of their own view of or consent to their situation. This could lead to bizarre situations where a sex worker’s accountant or even his or her child — basically anyone supporting sex workers — could be, accused of ‘profiting from the exploitation of sex work’ and could be fined or imprisoned for pimping.


Decriminalization is an important first victory

Utsopi has fought against these stipulations since 2015, and last year, the union won! Taking a seat at the negotiating table in the Belgian Ministry of Justice first of all made it possible for sex workers to argue that sex workers can give consent, stopping the infantilization of those working in the ‘adult industry’.


The revised law also defines pimping more clearly, so that normal economic transactions are not targeted anymore. Instead, the criminalized aspects are now more narrowly defined as the ‘abnormal profits and advantages from the organization of prostitution’ or the organization of sex work in disrespect of sex workers’ labour rights. In contrast to the earlier version of the law, this does not threaten consenting sex workers’ livelihoods. Rather, it enables them to access necessary things that are normal for all other workers, such as having a bank account, housing, or other basic needs.


But much still needs to be done

Yet, while important, decriminalization is just the first step towards the improved rights and recognition of sex workers — many other things still have to change. For instance, stigmatization and discrimination involve such high levels of symbolic as well as physical violence that the large majority of sex workers refrain from divulging that they do sex work. These hidden lives expose them to greater risk of exploitation, abuse, and blackmailing.


Broader social protection is required

Besides, Utsopi and its partner organizations are working with the government on the concluding phase of a labour law for the right to have an employment contract and guaranteed social rights. Directly after the reform in 2022, only independent sex work was possible in Belgium. Working as employees would enable sex workers to start benefiting from social security. This would for instance enable sex workers to go on early maternity leave, but also to cover their risks, which include sexually transmitted diseases, but also other risks that they face such as harassment or discrimination based on the sex work.


Cooperation from municipalities is essential

Apart from the national legislation, local governments can make it difficult to carry out sex work by imposing restrictive conditions. For example, some municipalities require sex workers to register, and locations for sex work often have to comply with specific regulations. Presently, there is still a lack of spaces to work legally and under decent conditions. Shared spaces, brothels self-managed by sex workers, or other possibilities still need to be created and guaranteed.


Migrant sex workers need to be included

Finally, maintaining a certain level of tolerance in sex work regulation remains necessary even after it has been decriminalized. Most sex workers cannot access existing legal entitlements. For undocumented migrants, for example, the lack of residence or work permits implies that abuses can go unreported out of fear of deportation. In fact, no decriminalization process is complete without entitling undocumented sex workers to rights. This also points to the ‘unfinished decriminalization’ of sex work in New Zealand. Being the first country to decriminalize sex work in 2003, New Zealand still excludes migrant sex workers from the ambit of the Prostitution Reform Act.


A regulatory ‘grey zone’ remains necessary

One complication related to the protection of sex workers’ rights is that for some, sex work is a backup to make ends meet in an emergency. This implies that these persons do not consider themselves sex workers and are, consequently, unlikely to claim associated rights and entitlements. To address these additional complications that sex workers face, a certain regulatory ‘grey zone’ remains necessary.


The decriminalization of sex work is not a silver bullet

These learnings from the Belgian experience add nuance and realism to the idea of decriminalization as the silver bullet for ensuring decent work for sex workers. Marjan Wijers, consultant, researcher, and activist in the field of human trafficking and sex workers’ rights, echoed this when discussing the Belgian reform. She highlighted the paradox that decriminalizing brothel-based sex work in the Netherlands in 2000 ushered in an even more restrictive legal environment for sex workers now based on administrative law.

Still, on International Sex Workers’ Day, Belgium’s ‘swimming against the tide’ was an apt celebration of sex workers’ agency to successfully challenge the legal and societal structures that marginalize and stigmatize them!

Note: Thanks to Silke Heumann and Maria Ines Cubides Kovacsics for their helpful feedback on and suggestions for improvement of this post.

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About the authors:

Marianne Chargois is a member of the executive team of the Belgian sex worker union Utsopi.







Daan Bauwens is the Utsopi director.


Karin Astrid Siegmann is Associate Professor in Labour and Gender Economics at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS).

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Transformative Methodologies | A reflection on collaborative writing across sex worker organisations and academia

We – members of Empower Foundation – a sex workers’ rights organisation in Thailand – and two scholar-activists from International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam (ISS) in the Netherlands, reflected on our experience of collaboration in light of our search for social transformation.

About us and what brought us together

Empower Foundation is a leading organisation in the defense of sex workers’ rights, and is located in Chiang Mai, Thailand. It has almost 40 years experience of working with creative and transformative methodologies – doing community-based research which then feeds into policy proposals, that are brought to the attention of governmental and international organisations, such as International Labour Organisation (ILO). It models best labor practices in their own ‘Can Do Bar’. Empower is the space for sex workers to exchange experiences, organise and create ways, often using art and culture, to inform and influence society on many issues, including the harms caused by anti-trafficking policy and practices.

What brought us together initially was the interest in bringing insights from labor studies – Karin’s area of research – on the one hand, and gender and sexuality studies – Silke’s field of expertise – on the other, in conversation with each other, in order to explore how that could contribute to proposals for structurally improving labor conditions of sex workers. Our first paper was on analysing ILO discussions around decent work, and how sex work and sex workers have been systematically excluded from conversations around the decent work agenda. It was in this context that in 2014 Silke and Karin contacted members of Empower Foundation that Silke had met the year before at an event co-organised with Mama Cash at ISS.

Trying to make a difference in the way we collaborate

While Silke and Karin had an initial idea about the paper, there was explicit room for adapting the focus, approach, and language. Neither of the three partners had experience in this kind of joint project, so we had an open conversation about the ways in which we wanted to collaborate from the beginning, thereby establishing some common guiding principles – that we would explore how to go about it along the way, keeping in mind that the contribution of the expertise and perspectives of Empower was crucial to the paper, both in terms of the kind of knowledge that we wanted to produce, as well as in terms of the social impact that we were seeking, namely, to improve sex workers’ labor conditions. We also agreed that Empower’s involvement could be more or less, depending on their availability, while our shared preference would be to have the collective as co-author.

This conversation was particularly important given the previous negative experience of working with academics. Liz Hilton from Empower Foundation summarised: “We’ve had one or two earlier experiences with people who wanted to collaborate and that was really terrible. The whole premise of collaboration was theft, of stealing our work.” Liz mentioned the importance of being aware of the differences in our language – “…not just the difference between Thai and English, but also the difference between sex worker language and academic language. We don’t see this as an obstacle, but it will be an adventure!”. The problem with academic jargon, as Empower also explained in a preparatory note for a meeting of sex workers organisations at ISS that took place at a later stage, is not that sex workers are not able to understand it, but that it does not reflect their experiences or realities properly, and it often operates with implicit assumptions that are problematic.

One common assumption in both academia and policy for instance is the conflation between sex work and trafficking that occurs when using the term “sexual exploitation”, to refer to what in any other economic sector would be called either “forced labor” or “labor exploitation”. Moreover, even within academic language, there were many different ways of talking about sex work with important political implications. Empower has published a dictionary that provides many examples of such – often problematic – assumptions and disconnects that occur. So, one of the first things that Silke and Karin asked was: how does (or doesn´t) the language that we use speak to members of Empower Foundation? In which ways do they think we should change it?

We also talked about timelines, and the need to adapt those to the realities of the different parties involved. For Empower, this compared positively with earlier collaborations with academics: “Other people that we were collaborating with didn’t want to give us the time to properly translate, think, come back to it, put forward what we can do, will do, and what we think. They were very rushed. Everybody has deadlines, we know that, but their rush was quite rude. They were continuously trying to fit us into what they already decided.”

Final reflections

We co-authored the paper that came out two years later. Empower Foundation made a tremendous contribution to the paper by critically analysing the language used, and by bringing in the findings of the community-based research that Empower was conducting independently –  both through previous research on the adverse impact of anti-trafficking measures, published under the title “Hit and Run”, and the study on “Moving Toward Decent Sex Work”. This contributed towards a very nuanced and very tangible understanding of what decent work and labor exploitation means for sex workers in Thailand, by looking at these not as a binary, but as a continuum and as multidimensional.

Finally, and most importantly, in this process we developed a relationship of trust, friendship, and deep appreciation that became the basis for our further collaboration.

Now, has this collaboration lessened the precarity and contributed to more decent working conditions experienced by sex workers, as our chapter’s title suggests? Probably not. Yet, in a context in which sex workers’ knowledge about their lives and work is continuously devalued and ignored, we like to believe that a respectful collaboration that challenges these hierarchies of knowledge, and augments sex workers’ own voices can make a small, yet, meaningful contribution to a changed discourse on sex work – and ultimately to more respect and rights for them.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the authors:

Sex Worker Networking Zone at the International AIDS Conference 2018, Amsterdam.” by junomac is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Empower Foundation is a Thai sex worker organization promoting opportunities and rights for sex workers for more than 30 years







Silke Heumann is a Sociologist and Assistant Professor (Senior Lecturer) in the Major Social Justice Perspectives (SJP). Her areas of expertise and interest are Gender and Sexuality Studies, Social Movements, Latin American Politics, Discourse Analysis and Social Theory.





Karin Astrid Siegmann is Associate Professor in Labour and Gender Economics at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS).

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Human Trafficking |Community self-regulation of the sex industry: a bottom-up approach for fighting sex trafficking in India

Efforts by the government of India to prevent and address human trafficking are failing to improve the conditions of the sex industry in a meaningful way, in particular due to its focus on the rehabilitation of ‘rescued’ sex workers. To resist this patronising attitude toward sex work, community organisation Durbar has been working on an alternative ‘paradigm’ to counter human trafficking in Kolkata, one of India’s largest cities. Its approach rooted in community participation in the protection of sex workers is proving effective because the dignity and agency of sex workers are placed central in the organisation’s efforts, writes Jaffer Latief Najar.

Source: Express Photo by Partha Paul

“Our work related to anti-trafficking has two pillars. One is protection, the other prevention. So we are doing rescue operations as a form of protection, and after the rescue operations, we are providing them with aftercare facilities… We are doing this so that girls can be empowered [through knowledge about trafficking] and can better understand what trafficking is.”

This statement by a representative of a non-government organisation working in collaboration with the Indian government in Kolkata to combat human trafficking, particularly trafficking in the sex industry, reveals how sex workers are framed – as victims of trafficking. While human trafficking indeed remains a serious issue in Kolkata, and in the rest of India, with India’s National Crime Record Bureau registering 6,616 cases of trafficking in 2020, this approach of ‘rescuing’ victims of trafficking is doing more harm than good. This is the case particularly due to its failure to regard sex workers as agential individuals, which has led to the criminalisation of activities related to sex work, forceful rescues, physical violence, and a loss of livelihoods in a context of chronic and widespread poverty.

This focus on human trafficking has been accompanied by additional interventions like rehabilitation and ‘sensitisation’ stipulated by Indian national laws; these have been inspired by the United Nations’ framework for anti-trafficking known as the Palermo protocol of 2000.[1] As reflected in the fact that raid and rescue operations targeting human trafficking focus solely on the sex industry (see Sangram, 2018; Walters, 2018), the representative in fact describes how sex work is conflated with human trafficking; moreover, the ‘aftercare’ that follows is rooted in the idea that sex workers should exit the sex industry given the opportunity to do so (even with their own consent). According to this paternalistic approach to the governance of human trafficking, a person’s agency to consent is irrelevant.

Resisting forced ‘resue and rehabilitation’

The targeted ‘beneficiaries’ of such anti-trafficking interventions are not without agency, however, but resent and resist these interventions. For instance, a sex worker I interviewed[2] said:

“Sex workers see anti-trafficking actors as dhandabaaz (rookies) who do business in the name of looking after the welfare of sex workers and monitor [sex] trafficking… The government should think about how it should help sex workers gain and reclaim their dignity. We don’t need rehabilitation.”

To deal with the detrimental impact of anti-trafficking practices, community collectives in India have shown resistance to the government’s approach to sex work and have conceptualised alternative standards for regulating the industry. For instance, in Sonagachi in Kolkata where around 15,000 sex workers are situated, a collective of migrant sex workers called the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (Durbar) is engaged in anti-trafficking efforts based on such an alternative governance approach. Unlike the approach taken by the UN and Indian government, Durbar does not conflate human trafficking with either sex work or migration, focusing instead on individual consent and the effects of the migration process on livelihoods (e.g. violence, working situation, health issues, financial exclusion, etc.). It considers sex work a contractual service between consenting adults without any element of force or coercion, supporting decriminalisation of consenting adult sex work in India.

As a result, the organisation has implemented a community-led self-regulatory board (SRB) to keep an eye on new entrants to the Kolkata sex industry, especially when they are underage or have experienced violence. But this kind of monitoring assumes a very different character – the SRB focuses more on individual and community welfare.

One of the members of Durbar talked about how the SRB was formed:

The idea of SRB arose during a conference at Bidhannagar in Kolkata. Many people from outside the city and some representing ministries attended. We presented our work on HIV prevention and other health-related issues. But the people attending the conference said that despite these efforts, we were helping in the continued entry of minors into the industry. We then took up the challenge and worked on this. Later, we decided that we should create a platform stopping minors and adults from forcefully entering into the profession”.

The SRB involves volunteer and peer sex workers who meet newly arrived individuals, make enquiries about their intention to join the trade, their relationship with employers or the person accompanying them, and examine the role of brothel owners and landlords in the process of recruitment. If it appears in Durbar’s intervention that the person is trafficked, it assists with the person’s return, typically without the interference of state agencies or partner NGOs. The peer workers accompany the person and keep in touch with them for a certain period to avoid their return to forced labour. Durbar also offers job opportunities to such persons within the collective.

This self-regulation approach is effective in identifying cases of abuse as they occur in neighbourhoods where sex work takes place, which is not the case for government interventions that may come too late. The approach has also helped community members to create a movement that counters the harmful consequences of government anti-trafficking practices. The data of a decade that I gathered from Durbar’s SRB for my present research show a declining trend of forced or trafficked cases where the organisation has intervened.

Not completely recognised by the government….

This approach of Durbar is not legally authorised by the government because India follows UN protocol guidelines and its domestic anti-trafficking intervention differs from Durbar’s focus on self-regulation. This has produced several hurdles for the members of Durbar in executing their interventions, and also limits resources. For example, a Durbar member mentioned that the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act (ITPA) prevents it from registering the SRB, as ITPA conflates trafficking with sex work, which is opposite to the approach of Durbar’s SRB. While India’s Supreme Court acknowledged the efforts of Durbar and invited Durbar to contribute to national policies on sex work and trafficking, talks with the government about the SRB’s registration have failed. This has resulted in everyday resistance against forced rescues and exclusion from welfare schemes for migrants and entire labour sectors, leaving the community to manage their affairs by interventions like SRB with limited resources.

…yet embraced on the ground

But despite such challenges, my observations of the SRB’s operations on the ground indicate that it has significant legitimacy and acceptability among community members and thus can be viewed as an effective bottom-up approach in combating human trafficking that directly assists in minimising the harm to and abuse of its members. This bottom-up approach has also helped marginalised communities such as sex workers to further develop a movement for advocating their rights and dignity, and challenge the legislations through protests and advocacy campaigns. As a substitute to the government’s approach that does not seem to be built on an understanding of the dynamics of the sex industry, this approach that is conceived and led by community itself shows the effectiveness of participatory governance and hence reflects a learning scope for an evolving critical conceptualisation of human trafficking, hybrid arrangement of anti-trafficking governance, workers’ agency, and the framing of anti-trafficking interventions.

[1] Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.

[2] This interview was recorded as a part of my ongoing PhD research dedicated to understanding the marginalized perspectives on anti-trafficking interventions in India.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Jaffer Latief Najar is PhD Researcher at International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, The Netherlands.

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Human Trafficking | Overregulated, but unprotected? Human trafficking governance is not protecting sex workers in the Netherlands

Furthering the discussion on the negative consequences for sex workers[1] of the regulatory conflation of sex work and human trafficking, this post reflects on how regulation focused on identifying cases of human trafficking in the Dutch sex industry has failed to protect sex workers, whose primary concerns remain an unsafe working environment and a lack of job security. Government surveillance of the sex industry does not produce better working conditions – what is needed is increased dialogue for evidence-based policy-making that ensures that immediate needs of sex workers are met without further ado.

Photo: Gio Mikava (Unsplash)

“I don’t want security – I want that window to be changed. It’s unsanitary, it’s dirty,” says Vanessa[2], a transgender sex worker from Ecuador who has been working in the sex industry for 30 years, when I ask her what would make her feel safer at work. After reflecting a bit about what safety means and how we understand it, we start to talk about working conditions. What ‘good conditions’ means in the practice of sex work does not seem to be a priority for the authorities in charge of supervising this industry in the Netherlands, Vanessa and other sex workers tell me. Their objective is mainly to identify cases of human trafficking and illegal forms of sex work.

According to the sex workers I interviewed and observations in both window-based sectors in The Hague that I carried out for my master’s thesis, the working conditions vary from place to place. One afternoon, in the internal windows of one of the Doubletstraat passages, I could feel the dense, heavy, and hot air that many sex workers live with during the summer, as well as the dust that accumulates. Martha, who has been in the industry for 10 years, says: “Of course, there is no air here, here you are like a fish out of water”. For others, bad working conditions are also related to:

  • The lack of access to a clean bathroom with a shower;
  • The lack of access to clean changes of bedding;
  • The lack of a clean and sanitary work environment;
  • The lack of separate spaces for eating and resting;
  • High rental amounts;
  • The precarity of the business;
  • The possibility of being left without a workplace, as the number of licenses issued for sex work are still decreasing; and
  • The (im)possibility of working from home in cities where home-based sex work is illegal.

From bad to worse…

Sex workers’ insecurities were exacerbated by COVID-19-related government measures, which due to the extended lockdown and limitation of face-to-face contact left a big group of sex workers, especially immigrants, without work for longer periods than any other worker, and without financial help. Yet resisting the difficult working conditions is not straightforward. The fear of the consequences of their airing grievances is preventing sex workers from doing so. Vanessa tells me: “I have talked to the others about it, but they tell me not to mess with it because I am going to have problems”. Like her, several sex workers tell me that they would not be taken seriously if they complained about their working conditions, or that they could be retaliated against by the operators, who would no longer rent the site to a ‘troublemaker’. A member of the support organisation Spot 46 says that sex workers can go to the municipality to complain, but nobody really hears them.[3] Thus, the path to changing their precarious working conditions is unclear to window-based sex workers in The Hague.

Focused on legality, not on working conditions

“If you have your papers in order, there is no problem” – Martha (name changed)

Matters of legality seem to take precedence over the wellbeing of sex workers. When I talked to the sex workers I interviewed for my study, inevitably, the discussion turned to the controls and supervision of this industry that are carried out by municipalities. In The Hague, a team called HEIT (The Hague Economic Intervention Team), made up of members of the police and the municipality, oversees the sex industry. Interestingly, this team only focuses on identifying cases of human trafficking and eradicating criminality (City Council 2019:10). When I asked about their perception of government supervision, the first response of all sex workers was that the government was worried about ensuring their legality through document control: by checking their immigration status, work permit, and registration at the Chamber of Commerce. In addition, municipal health service GGD also monitors the industry, but its focus is on public health and therefore is directed at the sexual practices of sex workers, who are considered a risk group (City Council 2019: 10).

Overregulated, but unprotected

From sex workers’ experiences with the controls and from what is stipulated in public policy, it can be argued that government surveillance of the sex industry does not produce better working conditions. Although there are specific and very strict regulations for sex workers, and although multiple institutions are involved in their enforcement, sex workers’ own concerns, and hence their protection as workers, are not a priority. Experiences on the ground reveal that what sex workers need is not more repressive surveillance that frames them as powerless victims of trafficking, but regulation that takes their demands for decent working conditions seriously.


[1] See: Heumann et al. (2017); Heumann et al. (2016); Hubbard et al. (2008); Outshoorn (2012); Pitcher and Wijers (2014) Verhoeven (2017).

City Council (2019) ‘Algemene Plaatselijke Verordening Voor De Gemeente Den Haag (APV) [General Local Regulation for the Municipality of the Hague]’. Local Regulation – Public order and safety, Municipality of The Hague.

Heumann, S., Coumans, SV., Shiboleth, T., Ridder-Wiskerke, M. (2017) ‘The Netherlands: Analysing Shifts and Continuities in the Governing of Sexual Labour’, in Ward, E., Wylie, G. (ed.) Feminism, Prostitution and the State, pp. 46-65. New York: Routledge Studies in Gender and Global Politics.

[2] Pseudonyms were used to protect sex workers’ identities.

[3] Interview, member of Spot 46, 2019.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author

María Inés Cubides Kovacsics is Professional in Development Studies with an ISS major in human rights, gender, and conflict studies. I have a particular interest in gender and sexuality, labour rights, sex workers’ rights, youth, security, and restorative justice. I have worked for identifying and fighting discrimination, exclusion and rights violations suffered by historically marginalized people and communities, alongside LGBTQ communities, imprisoned transgender women, homeless people, sex workers, drug users, street vendors, teenagers and young people with deprivation of liberty sanction.

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Human Trafficking | The criminalisation of sex clients will not help combat human trafficking

Starting in 2014, World Day Against Trafficking in Persons has been held on 30 July each year. The events that correspond to these days are meant to raise awareness about the crime of human trafficking and the protection of the rights of trafficked persons. In the month of September, we are publishing a series on critical engagements with interventions to combat human trafficking. The series opens with Marie-Louise Janssen’s and Silke Heumann’s critical discussion of a new law that seeks to protect victims of human trafficking in the sex industry of the Netherlands, but is unlikely to do so.

The [Dutch] Senate recently passed the Criminalization of Abuse of Prostitutes Who Are Victims of Human Trafficking Act. The bill, submitted by the Christian Union, PvdA, SP and CDA – four prominent political parties in the Netherlands – creates the possibility to punish clients of sex workers when they are found to have known, or to have had “serious reason to suspect”, that someone has been forced into prostitution and is therefore a victim of human trafficking. Those clients can be fined or imprisoned for up to four years.

However, both experiences of sex workers and scientific research on human trafficking show that any form of criminalisation of clients does not prevent human trafficking, but actually increases the vulnerability of sex workers to coercion and violence. Therefore, this law raises many questions.

First, when is someone a victim? Often, ‘unlicensed’ sex workers are equated with victims of exploitation and trafficking. But the increase in the group of sex workers working outside the licensed circuit (popularly called ‘illegal’) is mainly caused by policy – a policy that leads to fewer and fewer licensed workplaces combined with a ban on self-employment.

Secondly, when does legal sex turn into ‘punishable’ sex? If we take the signals of human trafficking used by the police as a guideline, such as illegal residence in the Netherlands and having high debts, quite a few people fall under this category. Does this mean that having sex with a sex worker who has debts or not the right papers is already a crime? And should the sex worker also see herself as a victim? We know from research that only a small proportion of people who are considered victims of trafficking by the government see themselves as such.

Unclear definitions

So while the government comes up with unclear definitions of victimisation, customers are expected to recognise a victim and report it to the police. As a result, customers are now at risk of being criminalised because they “could have suspected” it. Not surprisingly, a recent study shows that customers are less willing to report exploitation or coercion for fear of criminal prosecution.

Third, why does criminalisation apply only to addressing abuse of trafficking victims in the sex industry, and not to victims in other economic sectors? This only contributes to the perception that sex work and human trafficking are the same thing, and thus to the stigma attached to sex work. It seems that this law has little to do with countering violence and abuse, but much more to do with the taboo on paid sex.

In the Netherlands, sex work has been a legal employment sector since 2000. Despite this, we have difficulty with the idea of sexual services. For example, clients are often portrayed as ‘certain kind of men’ who despise women and treat or exploit sex workers violently. Oversimplification is one of the main ways of creating and perpetuating the stereotypes that form the basis for stigmatising clients.

This act stems from the taboo of paid sex

However, in addition to the market for male clients, there is also a growing market in the Netherlands for services to female clients. Business manager Lex of De Stoute Vrouw had to temporarily close her business due to the lockdown, but she is still in daily contact with female homosexual and heterosexual clients who cannot wait to reopen. Eight out of ten of her clients have gone through an unpleasant experience regarding sexuality and find their sexual pleasure again through contact with a female sex worker.

Heteronormative picture

Sex work challenges our idea of how sex should be: based on love and a permanent relationship. But not everyone finds this romantic ideal attainable or desirable, and not everyone fits into this heteronormative picture of a heterosexual couple in a long-term, monogamous relationship. The sex industry meets a need by creating a place where men, women, transgender and non-binary people can meet to explore their bodies and sexuality.

This article was earlier published in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the authors:

Marie-Louise Janssen is senior lecturer in gender and sexuality studies (UVA).

Silke Heumann is senior lecturer at ISS/EUR.

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COVID-19 and Conflict | Why virtual sex work hasn’t helped sex workers in India survive the COVID-19 lockdown

Virtual sex work, although around for many years, has become an alternative to traditional sex work during the global COVID-19 pandemic. In India, like elsewhere, sex workers due to a strict lockdown and the limiting of their movements have turned to virtual sex work to earn a living. Yet it has not become a viable solution for many due to a number of challenges the workers face when resorting to this type of sex work, write Birendra Singh and Chitrakshi Vashisht.

"Sex workers" by mo's is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

By the end of 2020, around ten million people in India had been infected with COVID-19. Only the United States has recorded a higher number of infections. To mitigate the crisis, the Government of India instituted a lockdown, forcing its over 1.4 billion residents to stay at home. Among the many affected by strict lockdown measures are sex workers, who became a high-risk group during the pandemic due to the nature of their work that requires physical interaction.

Conservative estimates suggest that there are around 38,000 sex workers in the city of Delhi alone, of whom many are residential sex workers working from their small and congested houses (also the case for brothels). This poses a twofold challenge for them during the pandemic: a heightened individual risk of contracting a COVID-19 infection and lack of any other source of income to support themselves and their families in a time when the economy came to a virtual halt.

In light of this precarious situation, and as part of the ISS’s concluding ‘When Disaster Meets Conflict’ (Discord) project, we conducted a small study with sex workers in Delhi, including with female sex workers (FSW – cisgender women), transgender (trans) women, and hijras (a socio-cultural group in India under the transgender umbrella which in 2014 was recognized as a third gender by the Supreme court of India). Interviews took place online in the summer of 2020, and we sought to understand the effects of the virus and the pandemic on their lives and the possibilities of new technological practices such as virtual sex for this group. We conducted six interviews: two with representatives of NGOs working with sex workers, two with representatives of the All India Network of Sex Workers, and two with representatives of the Mitr Trust. Of the respondents, three earn their living through sex work. Additionally, secondary data such as media reports, articles, and online interviews were consulted for the study.

Virtual sex work is emerging as a new typology of sex work whereby sex workers use electronic devices such as computers or (mobile) phones to provide sex services through text, audio, and video. Especially during the pandemic, a shift in sex-work practices from physical sex to virtual sex could be observed, while some claimed a potential transformation in sexuality in which virtual sex practices could have played a critical role. However, our study brings to light the critical factors associated with this practice itself that makes its feasibility as alternative livelihood for sex workers in Delhi questionable.

Challenges facing sex workers

The sex workers we spoke to belonged to the lower socio-economic tiers of society and were migrants. Most sex workers reside in congested, unauthorized housing clusters, slums, or small, rented rooms with their friends or families in Delhi. Often, men in families of FSWs suffer from alcoholism and drug abuse, while both FSWs and trans women face intimate partner violence. Due to the stigma attached to sex work and gender non-conformity (for trans women/and hijras), most are abandoned by their biological families. Amina’s story is no different. Now 19, she was thrown out by her parents when she was 16 years old. She particularly recalls: “My sister gave me 100 rupees (less than 2 euros) and asked me to buy poison and die.”

Many FSWs live dual/hidden lives, while some work as a domestic help, security guard, or in small manufacturing companies on outskirts of Delhi, using these additional jobs only as a ‘cover’ for their sex work. Trans women and/or hijras are marginalized even among FSWs since they are not considered ‘real’ women. Due to their gender/sexual expression, opportunities for decent work are often closed to them and they are forced to choose sex work, begging, and/or traditional hijra ways (singing and dancing at ritual functions) of living.

The use of virtual sex technology to keep working

A strict lockdown and fear of being infected halted sex work, with dire implications for sex workers. Some we spoke to stayed hungry for up to three days, while some FSWs lacked enough money to buy milk for their children. Hence, although not an entirely new option for some, virtual sex became the only option during the crisis. However, through it sex workers could earn only a small fraction of the income they could have earned through non-virtual sex work.

They faced many problems. To begin with, the lack of private space to interact when making audio or video calls was difficult for sex workers, as well as for their clients, because during the crisis everyone was staying at home. Especially poor and uneducated sex workers lacked the basic digital literacy to use the phone and/or the Internet, as well as the confidence and skills necessary to perform virtual sex work. Their socioeconomic background, precarious living conditions, and the stigmatization of sex work never allowed them to acquire these skills and pride in their work. Moreover, for some to meet the cost of an Internet connection or smartphone itself was impossible.

Safety in receiving payment by the clients was also among the big challenges that this community faced. Sharing phone numbers with strangers resulted in adverse consequences. Many men threatened sex workers, stating that if they did not provide them with a free service, they would ‘expose’ their identity to their neighbours and families. Additionally, many clients refused to pay in advance for the services. Many times, they would disconnect the call and block the sex worker’s account or phone number just after receiving the service virtually, while sometimes men would delay payment rather than denying it altogether and later block the number of the sex worker. Some clients also threatened to distribute their phone number to strangers who would make their life even more difficult. For most of the sex workers, the biggest problem with virtual sex was ‘no guarantee of payment’.

Not (yet) a viable alternative

Virtual sex as an innovative practice during the COVID-19 crisis didn’t work for the majority of the sex workers we interviewed because of the lack of digital literacy, access to good-quality phones or personal computers and Internet connections, privacy, and the empathy of society. Receiving safe and secure payment was also one of their biggest challenges. In the Indian context, virtual sex practices thus cannot be treated as a substitute for ‘regular’ sex work, although it has captured remarkable attention as a ‘new’ type of sex work.

About the authors

Birendra Singh is a Science Technology and Society (STS) studies researcher. He holds a Master of Technology (M.Tech) and a research Master (M.Phil) in the realm of science policy. His research interest includes, frugal and grassroots innovation emerging from marginalized spaces, politics of knowledge and social institutions. At ISS/EUR, his PhD project is aspiring to conceptualize knowledge and learning dynamics of the bottom-up frugal innovations. For more info click here.

Chitrakshi Vashisht has over eight years of work experience in development sector in the field of gender, sexuality, education, adult literacy, SRH (particularly in HIV/AIDS) in India where she worked with several grassroots level NGOs/CBOs strenuously working for the rights of women, men and transgender (including but not limited to hijra and kothi) persons. Her research interests are in the areas of policy, gender, sexuality, identity, culture, and intimate partner violence. She holds an M.Sc. in Gender and Development Studies from Asian Institute of Technology, Thailand, a Masters in Social Work from India and is presently pursuing her PhD from ISS.

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