Since the pandemic broke out in Turkey last March, workers in many sectors have faced serious economic problems. Musicians and artists are just one group that has been left with neither work nor a safety net. Last week, restaurants and cafes were shut down as part of the government’s new coronavirus restrictions. This left tens of thousands of service workers without a way to earn their living and no state support. Yet one of the most vulnerable segments of workers is also the least visible: sex workers.
When restaurants or shops are open, they try their best to enforce social distancing and mask-wearing. Yet how does one maintain social distancing while performing a job that requires not only meeting one-on-one but also intimate contact? To make matters worse, most sex workers are not legally recognized as workers. For this reason, they cannot benefit from the limited unemployment benefits, health insurance, and social security that other workers are able to access.
A new documentary sheds light on the difficult situation of sex workers in Turkey. “Sex Workers During the Pandemic” is a short but powerful YouTube documentary released by the Red Umbrella Sexual Health and Human Rights Association. This organization works to oppose the criminalization of sex work, speaks out against violence by both the state and clients, and advocates for the health and economic rights of sex workers. In recent months, Red Umbrella has been conducting surveys with sex workers in Turkey to better understand the difficulties they face under the pandemic. The latest documentary is part of their project of raising awareness about this stigmatized group of workers.
The documentary consists of interviews with four sex workers: the witty and world-weary Mısra, the elegant and long-haired Nora, the stylish Adrian with a sad smile, and the anonymous sunglass-wearing Rojin. Their ages, experiences, and gender identities differ, but all four face similar problems as sex workers.
They describe how difficult it is to take precautions against COVID-19 when seeing customers at home. They insist that clients shower when they arrive and use disinfectant, but they often refuse. Some even object to having their temperature checked. Mısra suggests that when customers pay sex workers, they assume that they have also bought their lives—including their health. Adrian says that he tries his best to take precautions, but at the end of the day, he’s an escort seeing between 3 and 8 customers each day. Just as with sexually transmitted diseases, one tries to protect themselves as best they can. But at the end of the day, there’s always a risk.
All four interviewees say that they work because they have no other choice. The rent needs to be paid, groceries bought, credit card payments made. If the state offered them financial support, only then could they take time off. Nora argues that this dangerous situation is nothing new. Sex workers in general, and transgender ones in particular, come face to face with death every day. If it’s not the pandemic, then it’s the threat of being killed by a client or a stranger in the street. Even if the state offered them other employment, they would likely face discrimination—or worse—at the workplace.
Prostitution is legally regulated in Turkey. Brothels known as “general houses” (genelevler) receive permits from the government to operate. Sex workers are issued official identity cards and must receive regular health screening. Licensed sex workers are also able to benefit from certain forms of government aid. Yet there are currently only around 40 legal brothels in Turkey and only 1 in Istanbul. In recent years, the government has shut down a number of brothels or refused to reissue sex workers’ licenses.
Then in March of 2019, the government decreed that brothels would close down as part of the precautions against COVID-19. Surveys show that there are almost 100 times more sex workers working unregistered than those with official status. Trans sex workers without an official “pink ID” were already unable to be registered—and for immigrants and refugees, the situation is also difficult. But now with the legal brothels closed until who knows when, more and more sex workers are forced to work informally. If they’re lucky, they work at home; if not, they find customers working in the streets. Not only can they not receive insurance or unemployment wages, but they are also more at risk for abuse and violence.
If sex workers seek out other options, they face a number of bureaucratic hurdles. When applying for jobs, it is not an option to mention their previous work. Neither can they account for the gaps in their résumés. Similarly, they cannot apply for credit cards because their income is not official. And because they were working under the table, they cannot benefit from unemployment wages.
Some sex workers have been fighting to unionize, but they recognize that this will be a long struggle. When even accepted professions like construction workers have trouble organizing in their workplace or securing their rights, the situation for sex workers is even harder.
It doesn’t have to be like this. In New Zealand, for example, sex work is both legal and unrepressed. When the pandemic hit, sex workers were able to benefit from the government’s emergency wage subsidy. They applied to social support programs just like any other type of worker. Legalization is the key to labor protections for sex workers. Yet in Turkey, when even some segments of the women’s movement and the left stigmatize sex work or refuse to see them as workers, it is difficult to organize. Solidarity is crucial. As the Red Umbrella Association argued in a statement for International Women’s Day last March, “The problems of women sex workers are the problems of all women; similarly, the problems of all women are the problems of women sex workers.”
In a powerful moment of the documentary, Nora remarks that trans sex workers in Turkey have always experienced violence. They have been kidnapped, killed, or pushed to suicide. “This violence,” she says, “is worse than corona.” Compared to this violence, Rojin notes, COVID-19 is just and fair. “It doesn’t recognize status, gender, or sexual orientation; that’s why justice should be.”