“The state wants us to die. They don’t want us to survive. Racism and poverty affected us hugely before COVID-19, but now it is unbearable for migrant and trans sex workers. The government puts money to policing us, but does not care to provide us with any support.”

Mimi, Acceptess-T and STRASS

“The government does not care about our lives. They just want to protect rich companies and they just forget that they cannot work if we are not here to work for them.”

Local activists discuss the situation

The sex worker community

France has a population of around 67 million people and is amongst the European countries hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic so far: by mid-April, the death toll almost reached 18.000. 

The country’s sex worker population is estimated to be between 35.000 and 50.000 workers, of which 80 % are migrant women mainly from Latin America, Asia, Central and Eastern Europe and Africa. A large proportion of migrant sex workers are undocumented, although there is no official statistics available.

Legal framework

France implemented the Swedish model in 2016. The law ended penalties for ‘passive soliciting’ and shifted the burden of criminalisation to clients, whilst maintaining a broad criminalisation of third parties. The 2016 law also included social measures such as specific exiting programmes.

The criminalisation of clients have very negatively impacted sex workers including greater precarity, vulnerability to violence and HIV and less trust with authorities. The increased violence and precarity has been even more visible in those last 6 months with organisations documenting the death of 10 sex workers from murders or suicide. Migrant trans sex workers are particularly endangered due to intersection of stigma and criminalisation. 

Sex workers also condemned the ‘prostitution exiting programmes’ offering only 330 euros per month and almost impossible to obtain. 228 sex workers were granted this support in the 4 years since the implementation of the law.

In 2019, 266 sex workers, half of them migrants, brought a case against France to the European Court of Human Rights claiming the criminalisation of clients violates their right to safety.

Impact of COVID-19 on the community

  • Already precarious due the criminalisation of clients which drastically reduced their income, sex workers in France report total or extreme loss of income. 
  • Many sex workers have been made homeless. Migrant sex workers, including trans women from Latin America, who share hotel rooms or other accomodation are unable to pay for the hotel or rent. Some sex workers have been kicked out by their landlords or housemates (non sex workers) due to fear of contagion.
  • Although selling sex is not illegal and paying tax is mandatory on all income including sex work, very few sex workers can register as workers. A very small number are registered as self-employed (masseuses, coach…) but even those registered as self-employed were not always able to get the support provided by the government.  
  • Sex workers have been fined 200 EURs for leaving their home during the confinement, even when in possession of the printed authorisation required by the authorities.
  • Several media have reported on cases of migrant sex workers being targeted by the police with headlines such as ‘Migrant prostitutes infected by Coronavirus contaminate 13 clients’ without any evidence of virological status of the individual, spreading fear and disinformation.
  • Websites and pages set up by sex workers to organise and promote their community hardships have been ‘reported’ and shut down, therefore limiting their reach and impact.
  • The network of French sex workers’  and community health organisations published a list of demands and sent a letter to President Macron demanding the urgent inclusion of sex workers in emergency measures. 18 Members of Parliament from the majority political party En Marche also demanded that sex workers be included and that funds from the ‘exiting prostitution programes’ be used to support all sex workers.
  • The Secretary of Equality between Women and Men, Marlene Schiappa responded that it is ‘too complicated’ (#toocomplicated on Twitter) and that sex workers should apply to the exiting programme – despite the fact that the process is not only very bureaucratic and inneffective in normal tims, but that the majority of admninistrative centers which process those applications are now shut down.

Actions on the ground

Several organisations have set up hardship funds. STRASS has been coordinating the redistribution of these funds. Click here to donate to the hardship fund.

You can also directly donate to ACCEPTESS-T who are working in particular with trans migrant sex workers, distributing protection gears, medications and food supplies to the most precarious workers in lockdown. They also try to emergency accommodation for people at risk of homelessness.