‘When something happens, they don't help’: Sex workers’ everyday security in the Netherlands and the impact of COVID-19

Activity: Talk or presentationOral presentationAcademic


Sex work is a legal profession in the Netherlands and regulation of the sex industry at the national and municipal level aims to improve the status and security of sex workers (Tweede Kamer 2014, The Hague City Council 2019). Despite this conducive framework, sex workers continue to experience different forms of violence (Aidsfonds and PROUD 2018, Pitcher and Wijers 2014, Verhoeven 2017). Does this imply that the regulation of the sex industry in the Netherlands is ineffective? Or do understandings of desirable conditions in sex work differ? These questions motivated a small-scale inquiry into sex workers’ everyday experiences and practices of security in relation to their work. The feminist qualitative study centres around data generated through semi-structured interviews with sex workers. While research participants’ gender identities, migratory experiences and work locations varied, they all work in The Hague, a city where sex work is less visible and less researched compared to Amsterdam’s famous red-light district. The initial fieldwork conducted in 2019 that lead to the publication of the first author’s masters’ thesis (Cubides Kovacsics 2019) was enriched with follow-up interviews during the period from June to August 2020 in order to understand how the outbreak of COVID-19 and related prevention measures have influenced sex workers’ experiences and practices of security. This update was carried out through a collaborative methodology jointly with one of the previous research participants. The 2019 research found that while legalisation comes with benefits, it does not alter sex workers’ fundamental experiences of precarity. Sex workers working in the licensed sector appreciate their access to formal work spaces. They value services related to their sexual health and official strategies to prevent physical violence from clients. Yet, the regulation by the Ministry of Justice and Security rather than Employment and Social Welfare exemplifies the lack of recognition of sex work as work, translating into a related lack of rights and entitlements. This (re)produces conditions in which sex workers have no support if they cannot work, and in which they have to learn from bad experience how to protect themselves. Regulation pushes them to work in the licensed sector under conditions that might not be the most secure. An official approach to sex work that focuses on public health risks and immigration control reproduces these precarious conditions. As a result, sex workers are left alone when they need protection most. The lack of recognition as a cause of insecurity for sex workers has become more visible now with the measures related to COVID-19. The outbreak of the COVID-19 and the prevention measures implemented in the Netherlands has deprived sex workers of their main practice guaranteeing security: their work. Ironically, specific legal constructions that mainly affect sex workers are now used to deprive them of government support. For many sex workers, this implies indebtedness, homelessness and not having enough money nothing to eat (Dijkgraaf 2020). The lack of protection in the current situation reaffirms that sex workers’ security must also involve an adequate and protected stable income system and labour-related security. The presentation focuses on how sex workers experience different types of insecurities and their relation with the continuous ambiguity of the status of sex work. We will highlight the crucial role of business operators in shaping these (diverse) experiences and seek the audience’s input on how to conceptualise this role.
Period22 Dec 2020
Event titleResearch in Progress Seminar
Event typeOther
LocationThe HagueShow on map