End-demand approach would endanger sex workers
Justyna Sobeyko works as a lawyer for TADA, SWAN member from Poland. Maria is a sex worker in Poland. Both recently participated in the SWAN meeting in Kiev where Anna-Louise Crago interviewed them about sex work in Poland and the possible effects of a proposed anti-client law in that country (“The Swedish Model”).
SWAN News: Maria, when did you start doing sex work?
Maria: I was almost 48 when I started to do sex work and now I am 50. It was hard for me at first, but I was easily accepted by other girls. I started working in someone else’s agency and there was a great variety of ages so even the young women accepted me.
After the end of my marriage and my job, it was difficult for me to switch from my previous roles as mother and housewife with a husband for many years. I used to be an accountant, with a regular job from 8-3. But then, I told myself that my aim was to get rid of my debts and make money. Now I am comfortable and I really like this job. But there had been a transition process.
I prefer to work with young women because I can easily make relationships with them. This is because we don’t compete; we have a very different client base. When I started sex work, I benefited a lot from young colleagues. They taught me how to do this job, how to do it more safely, how to use condoms, how to put them on clients. They taught me a lot about sexy things (laughs).
And I taught them too: When you work, use your ass but also use your head! (Laughs)
Sex work has helped me in financial terms. There are only four months left that I need to work as a sex worker to pay off all my debts. I work alone in my own flat now so I am a bit isolated.
SWAN News: Is your experience with clients different working alone?
Maria: So far, I have had no bad experiences in my contacts with clients. If I need help, I either contact TADA or police. It is legal to work in a flat in Poland. It is not criminalized at all for clients or sex workers, it not even an administrative offense. But it is not legalized.
SWAN News: So, sex work is decriminalized in Poland?
Justyna: Mostly. But you cannot profit from somebody else’s sex work, like by owning an agency or a brothel. Poland signed an old UN Convention which obliges states to criminalize everyone who profits from sex work. This is a big obstacle for full decriminalization.
A few years ago, the law against owning a brothel or agency meant that most of the brothels and agencies were run by organized crime or drug-dealers. But now, a lot of agencies are run by rich hotel owners and a lot of sex workers themselves run them as “entertainment” agencies.
Agencies can employ sex workers as dancers, waitresses and legally register them as such… and unofficially they also would offer sex. In some hotels waitresses might offer sex. In this case, the waitress are required to pay the owner a part of the money.
Sex work in Poland is not legalized though, which means that if you do sex work, you do not have to pay taxes.
Different people are against legalization in Poland: mostly Churches and conservative circles in general and sex workers who are not ready to come out. But also some business people, because if you have extra money and you did not pay taxes on it, you can always say you earned it through sex work. It happens sometimes, with huge amounts of money involved.
SWAN News: Would you prefer decriminalization, where there are no laws against sex work or legalization where sex work is legally recognized as work, with all the benefits and responsibilities that it brings?
Maria: I had had another job before sex work. When I am older, I will get my pension because of my work at my previous job so that isn’t a priority for me like for others who need a pension.
Personally, I want to be anonymous. I don’t want to have to register anywhere as a sex worker. I live in a completely different city than where I used to live. I don’t want my family to know.
When you run your own legal business, you have to pay the state a lot of money (social and health insurance, and pension contributions, income tax, value added tax). It worries me that it could happen that you would end up paying the state the equivalent of 3 out of 4 weeks’ income and then you might have to spend the fourth week’s income paying for your flat, your clothes.
Justyna- Many sex workers fear that they would lose money if we moved from mostly decriminalized, like now, to legalized. They fear that legalization would make it so unwieldy to work for themselves that many sex workers might end up working for a brothel owner instead and handing over some of the money.
SWAN News: What is sex workers’ relationship to the police in Poland?
Maria: The police treat sex workers respectfully. What is important is that even if our clients do something wrong like break a window or disturb the peace, the police never blame the sex workers for the offense.
When I used to work in one agency, two guys appeared offering “security”, they threatened us: “You will pay us… otherwise there will be trouble!” I said no way, I would call the police. The two guys didn’t believe but I did call the police.
So the guys left the agency and went to another one and did the same thing. Those sex workers were very scared. I called the girls in all the agencies I knew to warn them. In the third agency that these guys went to visit, they fell on the police because after being notified, the police also went agency to agency looking for these guys.
Justyna: TADA’s cooperation with police is really important. The police are very reliable for sex workers. They are open to collaborate with NGOs. In Poland, we have a multi-sectoral approach to different issues. The police is used to cooperating with NGOs for example, on preventing domestic violence.
Maria: Unfortunately, I do not know if it is the same in smaller towns or where there are no NGOs to advocate for sex workers. In Poland there are just two resources: La Strada for trafficked persons and TADA for sex workers, but they are active only in four cities.
SWAN News: Recently, certain politicians have proposed criminalizing clients of prostitution in Poland. Do you think your relationship with the police would be the same if clients were criminalized?
Maria: Absolutely not! If sex work or clients were criminalized it would be so difficult to call the police. We would be hopeless when facing situations like the one I just mentioned. Mafia and gangs would benefit.
There was strong pressure from police to get rid of all these mafias and gangs. Indeed, there are very few gangs now. And we have a lot of migrant sex workers, Russian, Ukrainians, Bulgarians, who can feel relatively safe in Szczecin.
The success in getting rid of mafia was due to cooperation between sex workers and police. Sex workers contributed greatly to this. Violence against sex workers exists - rapes, assaults from clients. But in each case, sex workers know that we can call the police- and we do. We even call the police if clients want to leave without full payment! There is a clear message sent from police to sex workers “If you are in trouble, just call us.”
I must say though that while it is typical of Warsaw, it is not general Polish experience.
SWAN News: How would an anti-client law (the Swedish Model) change work in the sex trade?
Maria: Some clients would never appear again. At least at the beginning. It would threaten them. Less clients means less money, so for me, it would mean longer term working to pay off debts. It also means less choice of clients.