Prostitution ban increased the health risks of sex workers
The coronavirus measures in the sex industry have led to financial problems and increased the power imbalance between sex workers and clients, as was revealed by a ZHAW study in the canton of Zurich.
The various measures in place since March 2020 aimed at containing the coronavirus pandemic in Switzerland have had a major negative effect on the lives of sex workers. Of the measures implemented, the consequences of the ban on working had the greatest impact. Those who continued to work despite the ban experienced a shift in power in favour of the client. As a ZHAW study supported by the Zurich Foundation for Social Work revealed, this gave rise to low prices for services as well as coercion and violence. In April 2021, interviews were held with a total of 14 specialists from organisations in the canton of Zurich who look after sex workers and supported them during the coronavirus pandemic. The ZHAW research team subsequently surveyed 11 sex workers who differed in terms of their gender, residence status and country of origin as well as the forms of sex work they offer, including street sex work, escort services and work in brothels.
The ban on working was imposed for longer in the canton of Zurich than anywhere else across Switzerland, initially in force between 17 March 2020 and 5 June 2020 before being introduced again between 8 December 2020 and 31 May 2021. “The measures implemented by the canton of Zurich aimed at countering the coronavirus pandemic in the sex industry give the impression that the objective was to pursue prostitution policy by means of tackling the pandemic rather than vice versa,” says study author Michael Herzig from the ZHAW School of Social Work. According to Herzig, a marked decline in infections is more likely to have been due to a pandemic-related fall in demand, with the cantonal measures playing a lesser role. “These measures primarily limited the freedom of sex workers.” In some cases, the measures were therefore counterproductive, as they exposed the sex workers to additional financial pressure.
In addition to financial pressure, the lives of sex workers were also exacerbated by changes in the behaviour of clients, whose negotiating power was increased by the ban on working. The sex workers interviewed reported being subjected to more attempts at coercion and fraud than had been the case before the pandemic. In particular, this included prices being pushed lower and instances in which clients refused to pay after receiving services. According to those interviewed, there has also been an increase in acts of aggression and violence. Due to the lack of alternatives, services also had to be provided to clients who the sex workers would have turned away before the pandemic. In its report, the ZHAW research team writes that the sex workers’ degree of self-determination was on the whole restricted by the ban on working.
In order to implement and monitor the measures imposed to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, both the city and cantonal police were deployed in the city of Zurich. As the study found, the list of sanctions and the level of the fines for infringements were not agreed upon between the police corps. In addition, consistent information was not provided to businesses and sex workers.
A further problem was caused by the differing cantonal regulations, which lead to a shift in the sex milieu. Finally, the different and non-transparent enforcement of the measures in the canton of Zurich made it difficult to consistently implement the ban on prostitution, the research team concludes.
“On the basis of our study, we would recommend against imposing an occupational ban in similar cases,” says study author Michael Herzig. “As we saw, the negative effects outweigh the positive ones, especially when attempting to make contact tracing possible by registering clients.” Herzig opines that it would make more sense to develop measures tailored specifically to the situation in the sex industry, meaning they could also be implemented. In some cases, there was also a lack of mutual information and reciprocal agreements among the supporting organisations. In particular, it would have been possible to organise themselves on a collaborative basis, thus allowing for the available resources to be utilised in a more targeted manner.