The coronavirus pandemic has closed down Poland’s strip clubs and massage parlours, leaving many sex workers struggling to make ends meet but also inspiring solidarity via an online fundraising campaign.
Similar ventures have also appeared elsewhere in the West, notably launched by the Strass union in France and Canadian organisations Maggie in Toronto and PACE in Vancouver.
“Over a couple of weeks, we’ve raised more than 16,000 zloty [$3,800]. It’s incredible,” one of the organisers of the Polish fundraiser, a purple-haired 22-year-old who goes by her sex worker name of Medroxy, told AFP.
The crisis initiative started as donation-only but a group of men and women in the industry – a legal grey zone in Poland – have since signed on to offer photos, videos or even encounters in return for contributions.
Those interested can transfer cash to the group bank account and collect the product or service of their choice.
“We’ve received 221 donations, with some people contributing multiple times,” said Martyna, who like Medroxy is a member of the Sex Work Polska (SWP) coalition, which defends the rights of industry workers.
“That’s made it possible for us to help out around 60 people with small sums they can use to get groceries and buy medication.”
Across the Atlantic, the returns are even higher.
“We have currently raised C$87,226 [US$62,000] and approved or distributed C$80,750,” said PACE co-executive director Lyra McKee, adding that they had received 652 online applications.
She told AFP the dollar amount doled out to each worker depends “on financial need and level of social marginalisation such as being a person of colour or trans individual or disabled individual”.
The Prostitution Information Centre (PIC), an Amsterdam-based lobby group, said on Twitter it was “shocking” how many sex workers who were paying tax on legal earnings were being excluded from official help.
Two Dutch Christian parties in the ruling coalition and the opposition Labour party recently called on the government to do more to help sex workers in financial straits.
The pandemic has also forced the industry to go digital.
Medroxy said: “A good number of sex workers whose workplaces have closed have switched to doing live video performances.”
Already experienced in the field having started in front of a camera four years ago, Medroxy said numerous other sex workers have been reaching out for advice.
The same holds true in Amsterdam, said porn and webcam performer Yvette Luhrs, who is also a sex worker’s rights activist from the PIC.
She told AFP that she would help to organise “an online workshop for people who want to start online sex work”.
Medroxy said she had continued to see clients in person, having only been out of work for a brief two weeks when the virus first struck Poland.
“My going rate is 300 zloty per hour and I see a maximum of five clients a day,” she said.
That allows her to offer occasional financial help to her father and brother, whose salaries leave much to be desired.
She adds that some of her clients have responded to the pandemic in surprising ways, including by keeping face masks on during sex.
“Another client requested a masturbation session with the requisite social distance of 2m between us,” she said.
‘Sex work is work’
Martyna is upset over the lack of interest from humanitarian aid groups and public agencies, saying sex workers are “marginalised, stigmatised and excluded and as a result have been hit hard by the pandemic”.
She says society refuses to recognise that “sex work is work”, leaving sex workers in an unregulated arena with no legal status, forced to exist outside the benefits and tax systems.
Another cause for lament are the haters, she says, who have responded with negative comments to her group’s call for financial assistance.
“They come from all walks of life and from across the political spectrum, the left and the right alike,” she told AFP.
There are no official statistics regarding the number of sex workers in Poland.
But sociologist Mariusz Jedrzejko, who studies the field, estimates there are more than 60,000 sex workers, a third of whom work full-time, in the country of 38 million people.