“They call me The Teacher,” says Mihaela, a Roma sex worker from Romania who is one of the four founding members of Sex Work Call, Romania’s only sex worker-led organisation. “Everyone knows me as The Teacher: the women working on the street; the police.”
Mihaela has been working outdoors in Bucharest since the 90s and is a familiar face to street sex workers in the capital. For 15 years, she talked about forming a collective and, when she met Rox, Antonella and Ana in 2019, Sex Work Call was born. The name reflects one of the group’s earliest goals: to have a telephone number for sex workers to call for advice on anything from client violence to accessing justice or health services. “I wanted to do something good for sex workers,” Mihaela says.
Until 2014, sex work was fully criminalised in Romania. Today, selling sex is not illegal but activities associated with it, such as soliciting, are criminalised. Mihaela says that despite the lesser legal penalties, things have deteriorated.
“The stigma has got worse,” she says. “There are more violent clients. Police are more abusive.”
Sex workers are routinely harassed by the police. “They take workers to the police stations and keep them there all night; the longest period it’s legal to detain someone without a warrant.” Sex workers are given multiple fines, night after night. “Since several kinds of police can give these fines – the municipal police, district police, the gendarmerie – workers can receive 5-6 fines per night, the equivalent of 700 euro. If you can’t pay the fine, you have to do community work, and if you don’t do that you are imprisoned.”
Outside Bucharest, things are worse. “We’ve heard of police sexually abusing sex workers and confiscating condoms,” says Sex Work Call. “We don’t have the capacity to document and tackle these cases properly yet.”
Client violence has also escalated. Sex workers are regularly robbed and beaten up. Local residents and passers-by, too, verbally harass outdoor workers, throwing things from cars and shouting insults. “There’s violence from all sides,” Mihaela says. “To work on the street you need a lot of courage.”
For Roma sex workers, trans sex workers and drug using sex workers, things are particularly tough. Discrimination is rife. But Sex Work Call are doing something new, including sex workers themselves in fighting back against injustice. “At first, especially on the streets, sex workers were suspicious,” Rox says. “We explained that we’re also sex workers and a lot of people already knew Mihaela. One of the advantages of Sex Work Call is that we come from various backgrounds in sex work: streets, indoors, abroad.”
For International Sex Workers’ Day, on June 2nd 2019, Sex Work Call organised its first big protest, gathering sex workers outside parliament, making their demands for safety and decriminalisation heard. The event was a success.
The group does as much outreach as it can, educating sex workers about their rights and, when possible, giving out supplies. Their office has become a drop-in centre and is used as a shelter for homeless sex workers. For a few months, a trans sex worker with HIV, who had been trafficked from Romania to Spain, stayed in the office. “I thought, what can we do but offer our space as a place to live?” says Rox.
Recently, Sex Work Call raised money for a worker whose leg had been amputated due to diabetes-related complications. “We try to support whoever comes to us,” Rox says. “We’d love to do more but we don’t have the capacity.”
Although Sex Work Call is the only sex worker-led organisation in Romania, women’s rights organisations have not been supportive, instead backing calls for the Nordic Model, under which the purchase of sex is criminalised. The group does receive backing from two LBGT organisations though, and from a Roma feminist group.
Might life improve for Romania’s sex workers? “Maybe,” Mihaela shrugs. “Hope dies last.”