Numerous workers are facing challenges due to the current coronavirus pandemic, such as job losses and financial difficulties. For an industry involving human contact, the effect has been unavoidable. Many prostitutes stopped taking clients and went home to their families until the end of the pandemic. Some sex workers tried to move online to earn their livelihood. According to feminist organisations, the epidemic can provide an opportunity to enforce women’s rights and help prostitutes to start a new life in which they are not victims.
Brigitta Csikász, a journalist, and Gyula Stotz, a criminologist, conducted a research in Hungary entitled Prostitution at the time of the great pandemic, 24 reported. Their questionnaire was available for five days from March 26 in which they asked adult female and male Facebook users in Hungary about the present and future of prostitution. 52.2% of the respondents said that coronavirus will have a negative impact on the sex industry and will cause a relapse. According to 28.2%, prostitution will stagnate in the following period. 19.6% of the respondents argued that it will flourish regardless of the coronavirus. People were rather unsure about the extent to which the monetary value of sex work will change, but most of them agreed that it will decrease.
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The decline had already started before the pandemic exploded in Hungary, but the relapse is getting more and more significant. Sex workers and clients are both afraid of catching the virus.
“I expect to accumulate debt, which I will have to work off after the pandemic. Currently, my monthly income has fallen by three quarters, which is not enough for my livelihood,”
said Gizus, a Hungarian prostitute in her thirties.
The woman, who has been working in the sex industry for ten years, travelled to the countryside due to the decline in clientele and tried to find a job. Having previously worked in a shop, she wanted to get a job primarily in commerce. However, she had to return to Budapest because companies do not want to hire new people under present circumstances.
Gizus mentioned that some prostitutes became ‘cam girls’ to adapt to the changing circumstance. Pati became a prostitute of her own volition after reading a book about the lives of prostitutes and their wages. Instead of learning a profession, she moved to Budapest and rented a flat. Since the pandemic reached Hungary, her income has dropped to zero, so she decided to switch to webcam services.
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Webcamming seems an accessible market to enter. Many webcam models operate from their homes, but there are studios designed for this purpose. Although a certain percentage of the income has to be submitted to the camming website as a commission, the working hours are flexible, and the working environment is safe compared to the offline sex work options. After logging into the site, webcam models start chatting with clients and choose a customer with whom they go to a so-called private chatroom.
“Some girls told me that webcamming would be embarrassing for them. Well, for me, too, but it’s better than not being able to earn a living,” Pati told the journalists.
As far as the most recent changes are concerned, one of the companies running a camming website revealed that it advertises roughly 480 models instead of the previous 2,500.
Switching is not an option for everyone
The pandemic has fundamentally changed the lives of prostitutes. As many prostitutes in Hungary – and all over the world − come from minority backgrounds, most of them do not have a permanent address, health insurance or savings, and they cannot apply to the municipality for help.
“Due to the dwindling incomes, sex workers would have to switch, but most girls cannot do that, so we organised a fundraiser to help the people most in need,”
said Ágnes Földi, the president of the Hungarian Sex Workers’ Advocacy Association (abbreviated SZEXE in Hungarian). She pointed out that approximately a total of 8−10,000 Hungarian women work in the sex industry, and some of them provide services abroad. Földi further emphasised that Hungarian prostitutes have to face several difficulties even if there is no coronavirus pandemic. Prostitution has been legal in Hungary since 1999, but most of the local authorities have not marked zones the so-called tolerance zones for legal prostitution.
According to a recent international study, Hungary has the strongest negative perception and stigmatisation of sex workers. The current pandemic crisis further enhances this tendency.
Feminist organisations such as the European Network of Migrant Women regard the current situation as a turning point. They have declared that COVID-19 has achieved something in a few weeks that they have not been able to accomplish for years. By causing a relapse in the sex industry, it proved that the demand causes the flourishing of prostitution, but if there is no demand, supply will also decline.
According to these organisations, the global crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic could make it possible to eliminate the system of prostitution and reduce inequalities between men and women.
The Finnish Multicultural Women Association and the National Council of Women of Finland claim that “trafficking in human beings and exploitation in prostitution are severe forms of violence against women” and it also increases gender inequalities.
Although the coronavirus epidemic has now led to a decline in prostitution, this was accompanied by an increase in the pornography industry.
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