Elena, Ukraine

“We areSticker Elena always trying to speak to power,” Elena says. “To find a common language so that we can achieve decriminalisation.”

Elena is a former sex worker and a mother of three, part of Ukrainian sex worker rights organisation, LEGALIFE-Ukraine. “In the past, I had experience of sex work, and often saw violation of the rights of sex workers.” she says. “Many sex workers don’t know they have rights or how to defend them. I always resented those moments, but I didn’t have enough knowledge and skills to defend myself.”

In 2008, Elena met another sex worker who was part of an outreach charity. She began working there too, soaking up information from workshops and sharing the knowledge with other workers. Now, LEGALIFE-Ukraine has members all over Ukraine, with branches in ten regions. 

Sex work is illegal in Ukraine. Most sex workers Elena are in contact with work in flats or on the street, some migrate to work abroad. Many tell of violence. “It’s not just the police and clients,” Elena says. “It’s also close relatives.”

“Society continues to pretend that this phenomenon doesn’t happen in Ukraine,” she says. “In most cases, sex workers are treated with condemnation and stigmatisation.”

LEGALIFE-Ukraine is steadily increasing its membership, spreading knowledge around legal rights and bringing together sex workers from across the country. Both current and former sex workers are welcome. “Our hearts and our doors are always open for new members,” Elena says.

As the number of sex worker demanding rights swells, pressure will increase for legal change. “We want decriminalisation,” Elena says. “Sex work is our work, our life and our right to choose. And if the laws deprive us of these rights, those laws must change.”

Posha, France

“I used to be a sex worker,” says Pocha. “It’s painful when people discriminate against you.”

posha sticker

After moving from Nigeria to France, Pocha began working with sex worker outreach organisation, Association Paloma. She says working conditions in France are less dangerous than those in Nigeria, but still, in the wake of an unprecedented number of killings of sex workers – mainly migrants and trans women – life is tough, particularly for those who meet clients outdoors.

Paying for sex was criminalised in France in 2016. While there’s no evidence that fewer people are now selling sex, Pocha says it can be harder to find clients.

“At the moment, a lot of sex workers are very frustrated, they don’t get a lot of clients. I see a lot of them every day, they complain, “we don’t get money anymore”.

The lack of clients, and lack of safe clients, does nothing to reduce the industry’s real vector of demand: poverty. “Sex work is not something of choice,” Pocha says. “Some of them have no choices, they are having hard time. I cannot say to them, ‘stop’.”

“I know a lot of girls want to take their life. They don’t have money, some don’t like the job, some they have been beaten and have scars and each time they see their scars, they feel very bad, they feel they are worthless.”

For migrant sex workers, calling the police when they experience violence is rarely an option. “Sometimes they call the police but if they don’t speak good French often the police don’t come. Sometimes, they are scared, they don’t have documents.”

Pocha says she meets many women who have been trafficked. “Some girls don’t know they are going to do prostitution. They’ve been lied to and promised fake things, jobs like hairdressing which don’t exist when they get to Europe.” Others are escaping violence in their native countries. “Some of them have problems at home, problems with police. Some do sex work in Nigeria, they fight with police and want to escape to Europe.”

Working with Paloma, Pocha is able to offer advice and do outreach with migrant sex workers. She liaises with organisations including Médecins du Monde (Doctors of the World), which recently produced a damning reportinto the criminalisation of clients, suggesting that sex workers are now more exposed to violence.

Pocha says she’s afraid for France’s migrant sex workers. “Sometimes I feel hopeful when I see the other girls. I remember how it was when I worked on the street and I know that I was able to stop. But I feel frightened for the ones who are still there.”

What’s needed more than anything are safe, legal migration routes and access to alternative forms of income. “A solution would be to give documents to all migrants,”Pocha says. “Then the ones who don’t like sex work would have the possibility to do other work. 

“A lot of people ask how to help us, but when we explain that we need documents, housing, money to pay our bills and to eat, they say they cannot do anything.”

Lilith, Norway

Sticker LilithWhen Lilith Staalesen decided to begin court proceedings against the pub which fired her for doing sex work in her spare time, she knew the decision would change her life. “I thought, if I take this further and go to court, I’ll be outed to the whole of Norway,” she says. Despite apprehension, she went ahead.

At the time, Lilith had only been selling sex for a couple of months. Working in the pub wasn’t paying enough to cover her bills and, when a friend joked, “I’m so poor I should probably start selling sex”, Lilith thought, “Yeah actually, I’m going to do that.”

Two months later, she was called into her boss’s office to be confronted with a print-out of her online ad. Lilith had already suspected some of the customers didn’t like her working there, the atmosphere was transphobic and homophobic. Now, a regular had “discovered” her sex work ad and brought it in to show her bosses. She was told not to return. 

With help from her union and from Oslo-based sex worker organisation PION (The Prostitutes Interest Organisation in Norway), Lilith took her claim to the labour courts.

“The lead up to the case was very stressful,” she says. “I thought, I’m a sex worker; how will the judges see me? We’d had a recent case in Norway – a sex worker had been robbed and violently beaten. During the criminal proceedings, she put in a claim for compensation for lost income after the assaults. The Supreme Court’s majority of three justices concluded that loss of income from prostitution is not recoverable.”

Lilith says it was her relative financial stability which allowed her to make her situation public. In her previous job, working in a shop, she’d managed to get a loan and buy her own flat. That meant she was safe from Norway’s draconian pimping laws, under which landlords are forced to evict sex workers or face a maximum sentence of ten years in prison. “I think it’s this law which keeps most sex workers in Norway from being public,” Lilith says. 

Lilith won her court case, refusing to take the pub’s offers to settle out of court. “It was important to settle this publicly, in court,” she says. The judges ruled that being a sex worker is not a viable reason to fire anyone from any other type of work, at least not any work that doesn’t require “special trust”.

The triumph both threw Lilith into the public eye and turned her political views into something more personal. She began organising with PION, doing as much activism as she had energy for. “To my knowledge, I’m the only active ‘out’ sex worker in Norway,” she says. “Along with a former activist named Hege Grostad, who’s moved on to activism for legalising safer drug use.”

In Norway, disingenuous legislation, supposedly criminalizing clients but not workers, in reality makes life hard and dangerous for those working in the sex industry. However Lilith thinks things are changing slowly.

Every year, PION attends a meeting at which the main blocs for the International Women’s Day parade are chosen. Most years, she says, the group is harassed and bullied. “We still show up at the parade, but we have to walk ten metres behind.” This year, however, the committee warned women at the meeting not to harass the Pion sex workers. “We got at least twelve votes!” Lilith says. Most, she says, came from LGBT and migrant women’s groups.

“I find that PION and our activists are more and more welcome in events which focus on sex positivity, queer events and events focused on promoting better sex education. Norwegian people who care about a safe and stigma-less environment for discussions about sex are positive to the idea of supporting sex workers decriminalisation, while the conservatives who still peddle shame are the ones still stuck with the idea of either criminalising is, saving us or both.”

Belén, Germany

Sticker Belen

“I didn’t want and to live under constant threat of arrest,” says María Belén Correa. “I wanted a future. And that is why I began to organise.”

Correa was born in Olivera, Argentina, in 1973. By the late 80s, she was living in Buenos Aires. “At that time there were just scattered groups of trans girls selling sex. Through the 90s, people were migrating from the interior to capital. Also from the neighbouring countries: Peru, Bolivia, Uruguay, Chile, Brazil. The red light area grew up around the transitory hotels where people stayed.”

It was a time when police brutality against trans people was endemic. Argentina’s military dictatorship had fallen in 1983, but police tactics lived on and the trans community were targets, subject to extortion, raids, indefinite detention and torture. Many trans people simply disappeared. Wearing clothes which “did not match your gender” was illegal and Correa was arrested multiple times. “You couldn’t even go to a restaurant without risking arrest,” she says. 

In 1993, Correa co-founded the Asociación Travestis Transexuales Transgéneros Argentinas (ATTTA) and began speaking publicly about the persecution. Meanwhile, police violence continued. In 2000, Correa’s friend, Vanessa Lorena Ledesma, another high-profile trans activist, died after five days in police custody. Her body, when it was returned, showed signs of torture.

Correa began to receive death threats. She was arrested again and again, forced to leave her job and prevented by the police from travelling. “For all the allegations I made public on TV and the fear that something would happen to my family, I decided to escape to the United States in 2001 and in 2004 they granted me political asylum,” she says.

In New York, Correa met trans women from around the world whose stories, she says, were even harsher than her own. “It felt like a genocide of the trans population,” she says. Co-founding RedLacTrans, The Latin American and Caribbean Network of Transgender People, “was essential to unite the experiences of other exiles.” For sex workers, who were (and still are) criminalised, Correa saw the stark division between those for whom arrest meant deportation and those with passports and legal documents.

In 2012, the death of Correa’s friend, Claudia Pia Baudracco, ignited what would become a ground-breaking project. “Creating an archive was a dream we’d shared,” Correa says. “She was a lifelong friend and when she died I inherited her ashes and a box with everything we’d gathered.”

In the collection were photographs, newspaper clippings, letters and postcards belonging to trans women who’d fled Argentina. The Archivo de la Memoria Trans was born, documenting Argentina’s trans population from the 70s, 80s and 90s. What began as a private Facebook group has grown to an archive containing more than 8000 pieces. 

The images are compelling. A group of women pose on a night out, high heels, big smiles; a weathered black and white image is Janet Degraz, disappeared during the dictatorship; the caption next to a couple dressed for a carnival reads, “We waited all year for the six days of Corsican in which we could go out and be free… People applauded us: they shouted beautiful things and took pictures with us. We were like the stars of the party.”

A black and white 1980s image shows women carrying the coffin of sex worker La Patrullero, so-called because of her sharp eyes and ability to spot the police from a distance. “She’d call out ‘La Patrullero!’, slang for patrol car,” Correa says. “Everyone would run. It became her nickname.” La Patrullero was eventually run over and killed by a police car on the Pan-American Highway. “Era la diversión de la policía corrernos y vernos morir en la ruta.” [“It was the fun of the police to run and see us die on the road,”] reads the caption.

Today, Correa lives in Hanover, running the archive and working with Cosmopolitrans, helping sex workers who travel through Germany. “I value each meeting and moment,” she says. “Our struggles in Latin America and Europe are connected.”

Michaela, Romania

Sticker Michaela“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.”

Community Report on Exploitation

To mark May Day 2016, International Workers’ Day, the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe published its Community Report on Exploitation:
Unfair labour arrangements and precarious working conditions in the sex industry.
This Community Report was developed through consultation with sex workers and sex workers’ organisations in the region and analyses the different forms of exploitation sex workers can face in the sex industry.

Feminism needs sex workers. Sex workers need feminism.

On the 8th of March 2016, International Women’s Rights Day, ICRSE launched its second Intersection briefing paper exploring the intersection of sex workers’ rights with the rights connected with women. This briefing paper is intended to serve as a tool for sex workers, activists from the women’s rights movement and policy makers to understand the diversity and complexity of sex workers’ lives and social struggles.



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