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Prostitutes across Germany have been taking to the streets to demand the lifting of a coronavirus-related ban on sex work. Many of them are from eastern Europe and can no longer send money home to their families.
Elena is a sex worker from Romania. She says she has not worked for five months and is finding it difficult, both financially and emotionally.
"I need to have a job and I need to make money," she said. "I have a daughter and I need a job to support her," she says.
The German Union for Erotic and Sexual Service Providers (BeSD) has called protests in several German cities against the state-wide ban on selling sexual services, introduced in March. Elena, who works in a "big brothel" in the large western German city of Cologne, has been one of the regular participants.
Sex work is legal in Germany but was banned when the government brought in widespread restrictions on civil and public life in a bid to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Since August Bavaria has been permitting sexual services again, but brothels still have to stay closed — and Berlin will permit some sexual services again starting August 8.
But in the rest of the country the ban on prostitution remains in place, although restrictions on spas, tattoo studios and wellness-massages have mostly been lifted.
Elena came to Germany from Romania two and a half years ago, leaving behind her then two-year-old daughter Natalia with her parents. She wanted to earn money to support her mother, who had become very ill. Elena, who is in her thirties, says she wants to provide a better life for her daughter, who she describes as "very intelligent."
Since arriving in Germany, Elena has only been home three times to visit Natalia and she misses her a lot.
But Elena has also been enjoying her time in Germany. "I love working in a brothel," she said, smiling with her eyes, above her black face-mask adorned with skull and bones and a thunderbolt. She's wearing a red t-shirt with the word "limitless" on it and her protest placard reads "legal statt illegal" (legal not illegal.)
The brothel staff and the company ofthe "other girls"are reasons why she enjoys her job.
Read more: Inside the 'battery cage' — prostitution in Germany (from 2018)
Around 65% of Germany's estimated 400,000 sex workers are migrants, according to the sex-worker-run European Network for the Promotion of Rights and Health among Migrant Sex Workers (TAMPEP). Many of the migrant sex workers are women who travel from poorer eastern European countries within the EU such as Romania and Bulgaria, like Elena.
The women leave their home countries where there are fewer job opportunities and incomes are low. According to a TAMPEP survey in 2019, they send most of their earnings back home to support their families.
Sex work "remains a practical solution" for migrant women who face language barriers or lack of professional training, the network states.
Elena usually sends money home to Romania tosupport her family, but since the coronavirus pandemic broke out, she has been struggling financially and the roles have reversed: Her father has started sending her €700 ($829) per month to cover rent and groceries.
She has lost "a lot" of money not working, she says.
"I spend between €20 to €50 each week on food," she says, adding that there is no money left for leisure activities, so she usually spends her free time in the park.
Elena has tried to find informal work as a cleaner but has not managed to do so.
Language a barrier to financial support
Financial aid is availableto sex workers in Germany, as they can claim the same kind of state assistance as other freelancers.
However, Elena has not been able to apply for support — her German is "too bad" to fill in the form, she says.
Luca Stevenson from the sex-worker-run International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE) told DW says there are many reasons that sex workers like Elena may not want to approach the state for financial support. Language barriers are one, but there is also an ingrained mistrust of the authorities, with women coming from countries where prostitution is illegal.
Unable or unwilling to access state benefits, some sex workers are continuing to work despite the coronavirus ban just to support themselves, says BeSD spokeswoman Schulze.
They take risks like going to their clients' apartments or other hidden places, where clients may take advantage and hurt them or refuse to pay. Working illegally, the sex workers are less likely to call the police for help in a dangerous situation out of fear that they might be fined, says Schulze.
Read more: Forced prostitution in Berlin(2015)
A lack of regular income leads prostitutes to agree to riskier behavior, Schulze explains "They agree to threesomes or foursomes or have sex without a condom, where the danger of infection is high."
Working illegally is not something that Elena wants to do. She hopes she can start working again from September. She says she would be fine with wearing a face mask to work – in line with the BeSD hygiene concept for sex workers.
If her brothel remains closed, says Elena, she will have to move elsewhere within Germany or to a neighboring country, such as Belgium or the Netherlands, where prostitution bans have already been lifted.