With their health in jeopardy and customers evaporating, sex workers in France are struggling as COVID-19 threatens their livelihoods — and there is no safety net in sight.
Many are being forced onto the streets as they lose their incomes, at a time when police are enforcing government orders for people to stay at home.
France has been in lockdown for a week, with only essential trips outside allowed, in a bid to stop the coronavirus spreading.
“I have no choice since I work on the street and I travel to people’s homes,” said Pamela, a 46-year-old prostitute from the southwestern city of Toulouse, who stopped working when the lockdown was announced.
Solicitations have not completely dried up, she said, but she has decided to ignore them.
“Pay a fine of 135 euros [US$148] for a client at 50 euros: No,” she said.
However, if the lockdown continues, her meager savings would no longer be enough, she added.
“I will have to take risks. Even if I have two clients a week, it would at least pay for food,” she said.
Her name, and those of the other prostitutes quoted have been changed for this story.
“The situation is dramatic,” said Sarah-Marie Maffesoli, a program coordinator at the human rights organization Doctors of the World.
“There are almost no more customers. How long will they be able to stop working?” she said.
Prostitution itself is not illegal, though a law introduced in 2016 did make it illegal to buy sex, shifting the criminal responsibility to clients, who can be fined if caught.
However, sex workers, few of whom have a self-employed work status, would not be able to claim the 1,500 euros in aid promised by the French government to self-employed workers.
To make up for gaps in support, the tight-knit sex worker community has launched several fundraising initiatives online.
On one Instagram page called tapotepute (your whore friend), more than 10,000 euros has been raised.
“We hope to help about 30 sex workers,” said Judith, 22, a Paris-based escort who created the page.
For those who continue to work “to ensure their survival,” sex workers’ union Strass has published a series of recommendations on its Web site, such as to “avoid contact with saliva” or “any face-to-face sexual position.”
Many associations which have had to suspend their in-person outreach programs are also worried that sex workers would end up homeless if they cannot pay the rent or their accommodation is shut.
“With the lockdown, many hotels have closed and sex workers have found themselves on the street,” said Antoine Baudry, of the Lyon-based Cabiria association for community health.
Migrants who work as prostitutes are in the most precarious situation, particularly those undocumented who do not speak French.
“For them, it is not easy to know what they have the right to do and not to do,” said June Charlot, a health mediator at Griselidis, a Toulouse association distributing financial aid, prevention kits and travel certificates.
With movement and social contact heavily restricted under the lockdown, Web sites could be the solution — for those who can afford it and are tech savvy.
“I don’t trust the Internet and online payments, I don’t know how to do it,” said Nathalie, a 48-year-old Toulouse escort.
Charlie, whose parents are unaware of her activity, fears being subjected to blackmail, revenge porn or online harassment if her videos are stolen, which is common.
“The platforms lack security and confidentiality. Anyone can take a screen shot and then share it,” she said.
Above all, “it requires resources, a good connection and a computer,” said Eva Vocz, a “camgirl” from Marseille, who charges 50 euros for 20 minutes.
“It’s a job that can be learned, to develop a technique, communicate on social networks to build a fan base. It takes time,” she said.
The free access offered by several major pornography platforms during the lockdown has also dried up the customer base.
“They buy a good image, generate clicks and advertising revenue, but nothing will be redistributed to us,” Eva said.
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