Facts about the global sex trade exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic and how to solve them

By Dana Levy

Dana Levy is a prostitution survivor and abolitionist activist living in Israel, where a Nordic Model-style law has recently been passed.

When the implications of Covid-19 started to become clear, news outlets put Thomas Reid’s famous (1786) quote, “A chain is as strong as the weakest link,” in a modern social context by saying: “our society is no stronger than its weakest, most marginalised members.”

To those who were looking, it quickly became clear that few are more marginalised than women in the sex trade. In every country, these women’s very survival is on the line.

Three facts about the sex trade many feminists have always known

The Covid-19 pandemic and the various national responses to it have demonstrated three facts about the sex trade that many feminists have always known.

1. Men can survive without access to prostitution

Contrary to what we’ve always been told, men can manage without paid sex.

The European Network of Migrant Women articulated this exquisitely:

“Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland – the countries with the largest regulated prostitution markets in Europe – have shut down brothels and some have imposed fines for violating this rule. Compared to the feminist campaigners who argued for decades that sexual satisfaction is not a vital human necessity, Covid-19 achieved this in a matter of days. Even the most regulationist states are clear: men can do without an industry satisfying their ‘needs.’”

While it was only disadvantaged women and girls, mostly from migrant backgrounds, whose lives were being endangered and destroyed, society claimed it was not possible to do anything about it. But as soon as the lives of middle-class men were endangered, the authorities locked the brothels without a second thought.

2. Most women involved in prostitution are extremely poor

The Covid-19 crisis has made it impossible to deny the extreme poverty of women involved in prostitution, almost without exception. Evidence of the economic hardship of these women has emerged all over the world, in both rich and developing countries, regardless what prostitution legislation and policy is in force.

Last month in the UK, the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) called for financial aid for ‘sex workers,’ arguing that:

“These people are already living hand-to-mouth and on the edge. They won’t survive this.”

In response to complaints about the presence of women in prostitution on the streets of Brussels during the lockdown, the representative of a local ‘sex workers’ union said:

“This is a tough time for sex workers. They have nothing to fall back on, and so they take to the streets, to survive.”

In Germany, more than 80% of those involved in prostitution are foreign. Many lost their livelihood overnight, with the most vulnerable finding themselves out on the street, unable to pay their rent. This terrifying situation has been described in the same way by both those who campaign against the legalisation of the sex trade, and those who support it.

In the Netherlands, increasing numbers of women in the sex trade are ignoring the lockdown because otherwise they simply can’t survive. One of them reported that she chose to work at home, just like numerous colleagues. “They’ll have to because you can’t go hungry,” she explained.

Many families, especially from disadvantaged backgrounds, are facing financial difficulties, sometimes severe, during the lockdown. However, I have not yet come across reports of any other social group falling into such extreme poverty so rapidly in so many different countries. We need to ask whether this is related to low income levels in the sex trade or whether other factors are at play.

Income levels vary in prostitution, but many young women, relatively new to the industry, enjoy earnings higher than the average salary in their country. The hopeless financial situation reported by women in the global sex trade appears to be independent of income. For example, a French woman said:

“‘My clients are quite wealthy. They are aware of the risks, they no longer ask for me,’ said Charlie, a 28-year-old Parisian who claims she can typically earn €2,000 a month.

‘I have a bit of money set aside, but I can’t last more than a month,’ she added.”

An Israeli woman said much the same:

“I feel shitty because I’m a person who makes a lot of money. On a typical day, I earn about NIS 1,500 [about £350]. At the moment I’m OK financially. I still have a good standard of living and don’t need welfare services. I don’t have a pimp and work out of choice. I can survive without work for the next month because I saved money, but then I don’t know what will happen.”

These women’s economic distress expose the sex trade lobby’s lies. Many sex trade apologists admit that prostitution can be dangerous and harmful to at least some of the women involved – but they claim that the economic benefits justify the risk.

They say that some women’s opportunities are so limited that their only available option is the sex trade. They tell me that if I don’t have a decent employment solution for every poor Nigerian, Romanian, or Chinese single mom, I should step aside and let those women build a better life for themselves and their children through prostitution.

I have always argued that prostitution does not offer economic advancement. The money always disappears to the pimps, exploitative family members, and / or drug dealers. Also, women frequently spend their earnings impulsively as a form of compensatory behaviour.

The Covid-19 crisis has revealed what many of us have long known – that the sex trade does not create upwards mobility for the women involved. The more successful can survive a month, but most had no food, and many not even a roof over their heads, within two days of the lockdown starting.

I’ve travelled widely and have visited poor villages in the Far East and Eastern Europe. The lifestyle is simple and without luxury, but at least people have a roof over their heads and daily food.

3. Legalisation / decriminalisation of the sex trade provides little protection to the women involved

The Covid-19 crisis reveals beyond doubt that legalisation and full decriminalisation of the sex trade offer no stability and little or no protection to the women involved – even now when they need it more than ever.

Some people believe otherwise, or at least pretend to. For example, the ECP caught a free ride on the pandemic and demanded that the sex trade should be fully decriminalised in the UK. Their demands include:

  • “Immediate easy-to-access financial support for sex workers in crisis and worker status so they can get sick pay, wage relief and the benefits that other workers are demanding.
  • The decriminalisation of sex work and an immediate moratorium on raids, arrests and prosecutions.
  • Rent, mortgage, utility bill relief and emergency housing for homeless sex workers.”

In among the justified demands for emergency assistance, they hide a demand to decriminalise pimping – because when they say “decriminalisation of sex work” they don’t just mean the women, they also mean pimps, brothel keepers, and punters.

Reports from countries that have recognised prostitution as a profession disprove their claim that this would give the women “sick pay, wage relief and the benefits other workers are demanding.”


In Germany, where the sex trade is legalised, the brothels were shut down as one of the first measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus. However, almost no women in the German sex trade has an employment contract. Most are self-employed and must pay tax. Although theoretically eligible for financial aid from a government fund to help freelancers through the pandemic, the majority are ineligible because they are foreign or working illegally.

According to Huschke Mau, the leader of the sex trade survivors’ organisation Nezwerk Ella, these women often have:

  • No, or very inadequate, health insurance
  • No, or inadequate, employee status
  • No entitlement to welfare or social benefits.

And if being abandoned without financial resources isn’t enough, some German municipalities, such as Stuttgart and Karlsruhe, collect fines not only from the brothel owners who violate the restrictions, but also from the women.


The situation is similar in the Australian states of New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria, where the sex trade is ‘decriminalised’ and ‘legalised,’ respectively.

In NSW, the female owner of a brothel got a $5,000 Penalty Infringement Notice (PIN) for failing to comply with a direction under Section 7 of the Public Health Act 2010 (NSW). Three female staff members were also issued with $1,000 PINs.

In Victoria, Police issued 13 fines on 1 April 2020 for breaches of Victoria’s stage 3 coronavirus restrictions. For example, “the Geelong brothel was fined $9,913, and an escort was issued with a $1,652 fine.”

Simone Watson, a sex trade survivor and the director of the Nordic Model Australia Coalition, told me that technically, women in the sex trade should be entitled, as any legal taxpayer, to unemployment benefits whether they are freelancers or salaried workers. However, it is not happening because most women don’t register. Watson says:

“Australian women register for taxation under ‘entertainment’ as ‘independent contractors.’ Theoretically, they should be able to apply for welfare during the COVID-19 crisis. However, most women in prostitution are not Australian citizens – many are from China, Thailand, and Korea. But all women, both ‘legal’ and trafficked, face the threat of being arrested for continuing to operate in the states that have decriminalised the sex trade.”

New Zealand

The sex trade lobby often refers to New Zealand (NZ) as a paradise for everyone in the sex trade. The pandemic reached this remote country in the Pacific Ocean fashionably late, and steps to prevent it from spreading were taken immediately. Wahine Toa Rising Aotearoa, a survivor-led organisation that advocates for support and exit services for woman and children in the sex trade in New Zealand, is attempting to find an urgent yet appropriate solution.

Ally Marie Diamond from Wahine Toa Rising describes the situation as extreme:

“Women and young people have been advised to stop ‘sex work’ immediately. The financial aid in NZ is tough for women to get. Most women may not even go to the Government WINZ [Work and Income New Zealand] to get payments. There is speculation whether they qualify for the Stimulus Packages.

“Many people tried getting WINZ payments but got no answer. Probably, the reason was an increase in applications during the pandemic. Since the PRA [the Prostitution Reform Act 2003, which fully decriminalised the sex trade in NZ], they should be entitled to the independent contractor government payment but are being advised by NZPC [New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective] to instead apply for unemployment benefit. NZPCs Catherine Healy has also advised that perhaps they should find an alternative income, such as web-camming. Moreover, many women in the sex trade are not New Zealand residents and think they do not qualify for WINZ Payments.”

So even in welfare states with high GDP, there’s no real protection for women in the sex trade, even when the industry is entirely legal. When a pimp is officially sanctioned, he is in no hurry to use his status to create a safety net for the women in his brothels.

So what’s the solution?

The only long-term solution is to help everyone to permanently exit the sex trade. (This is a key part of the Nordic Model approach.)

But here are some suggestions of what could be done meanwhile – drawing on practical suggestions already put forward by abolitionists and sex trade survivors around the globe.

On 23 March 2020, Wahine Toa Rising sent a letter to New Zealand ministers to draw attention to the plight of women in prostitution during the Covid-19 crisis. They suggested urgent financial support be delivered to women and young people engaged in prostitution, including those with irregular status, and that brothel operators’ obligations towards the women in their brothels should be clarified. Finally, the letter slammed NZPC for the web-camming and pornography recommendation:

“This advice is likely to have negative consequences for women and young people as it encourages them to share explicit material via the internet, where it is no longer under their control, and can be used to shame, harass and blackmail them, and may act as a deterrent to their exiting prostitution in the future.”

Japanese abolitionists took similar action. On 6 April, they sent a letter to the government protesting that the Covid-19 welfare policy is discriminatory. Under the policy, parents of primary school-aged children working as independent contractors and affected by school shutdown are eligible for individual funds. The activists demanded that this funding scheme be extended to women in the sex industry.

Unlike the sex trade lobby groups, they didn’t call for pimps to be decriminalised or for prostitution to be re-defined as a profession. “Women in hostessing and sex businesses in Japan should be first-in-line targeted recipients of funds”, they said but clarified: “We must protect the right of such individuals to transition to employment in another industry after the shutdown period if they choose, and towards this end, we must extend to them financial, legal, and medical assistance.”

In Israel, the crisis seized aid organisations and the welfare system at a vulnerable point. In the past year, there have been three election campaigns, and a functioning government has not yet emerged. The Sex Buyer Act was expected to come into force on 1 July 2020, and we do not yet know whether it will be postponed to the end of the crisis, the date of which is unknown.

Aid organisations have not yet received the full budget promised to them, but this has not stopped them from mobilising resources to aid women in prostitution. The mobile clinics continue to provide food and medical tests. Emergency shelters and rehabilitation hostels continue to operate in three cities, albeit in a limited format.

More and more women are asking for help, while extra funds are mostly coming from private donors. The ‘Lo Omdot MiNeged’ (‘Don’t be a bystander’) NGO, which provides emergency assistance to survivors and women in the sex trade, delivers about 50 food packages (providing a week’s supply) every day. These services are life-saving, but they cannot replace the regular monthly income necessary to pay rent and bills.

Women in active prostitution are trapped between two horrible options: exiting prostitution under the emergency regulations, which means being unable to pay rent, or continuing to engage in prostitution while risking personal and public health.

What would have helped them is an expedited process for receiving Social Security benefits. However, due to the situation, this process became slower. The Task Force on Human Trafficking and Prostitution, therefore, appealed to the Ministry of Welfare with numerous suggestions, which included allocating emergency budgets to the aid NGOs.

My preferred solution would be to open an expedited exiting program, consisting of a quick process of granting a temporary monthly income to any woman who is willing to get out of prostitution – with the promise of a full rehabilitation programme (including receiving regular Social Security payments) at the end of the crisis.

Nezwerk Ella has many more practical (and brilliant) ideas that every government can adopt, such as:

  1. The prohibition of buying sex, including fining the punters.
  2. Treating women in prostitution as a risk group for Covid-19.
  3. Creating emergency accommodation (e.g. hotels and apartments) where clients and pimps are not admitted.
  4. Urgent financial help.
  5. Substance abuse rehabilitation programs and mental health assistance.
  6. Removal of all sanctions imposed on women in the sex trade.

All these suggestions are similar and complementary. They have a common denominator: they all acknowledge the fact that pimps, whether officially sanctioned or not, do not voluntarily take responsibility for the women they exploit.

Governments are the only ones who can and should take such responsibility – including imposing fines and other penalties on pimps and punters, and ensuring funding for the assistance of the women involved. They should also mobilise NGOs and grassroots organisations that support women in the sex trade – they are doing it anyway – but now it is time to give due respect to their experience and professionalism.

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