Sex workers’ everyday security in the Netherlands and the impact of COVID-19, by María Inés Cubides Kovacsics, Wáleri Santos and Karin Astrid Siegmann

We are pleased to alert you to ISS working paper 689, entitled Sex workers’ everyday security in the Netherlands and the impact of COVID-19, by María Inés Cubides Kovacsics, Wáleri Santos and Karin Astrid Siegmann. 


The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare and exacerbates the existing insecurities of sex workers, a highly stigmatised, often criminalised and economically precarious group of workers. In the Netherlands, sex workers continue to experience different forms of violence despite the occupation’s legalisation, making it a ‘profession in limbo’. This paper therefore seeks to formulate answers to the questions: What are sex workers’ everyday experiences of (in)security? And: How has the COVID-19 pandemic influenced these? Given sex workers’ historical exclusion from policy formulation, we engage with these questions through collaborative research based on semi-structured interviews with sex workers in The Hague.

Our analysis reveals a stark mismatch between the insecurities that sex workers’ experience and the concerns enshrined in the regulatory environment. While the municipality’s regulation of the sex industry focuses on sexually transmitted infections (STIs), occupational safety and health issues that sex workers experience also include psychological problems, insufficient hygiene in the workplace and the risk of violent clients. Besides, income insecurity is a key concern for sex workers. The decline in legal workspaces during the past two decades has not translated into higher service rates. Net earnings are further reduced when window operators pass on the risks of illness or damage to sex workers. Furthermore, operators act as powerful gatekeepers of access to remunerative employment. Here, sex workers identify gender-based discrimination with resulting more severe employment and income insecurities for transwomen and male sex workers.

This legal liminality is enabled not only by the opaque legal status of sex work in the Netherlands, but also by the gendering of official regulation. Our study mirrors research from the Netherlands and beyond that documents sex workers’ widespread exclusion from COVID-19 support packages. Over and beyond this, we find that immigration status intersects with and mediates these exclusionary processes.

We conclude that, firstly, to effectively address the insecurities that sex workers experience and fear, regulation needs to shift from its current criminal law and public health focus to a labour approach. Secondly, over and above such decriminalization, policies and civil society actors alike need to address the gender and sexual hierarchies that underpin sex worker stigma as well as migrants’ discrimination which have come out as powerful mediators of sex workers’ insecurities.


Biopolitics, collaborative research, gender, insecurities, intersectionality, labour approach, legal liminality, the Netherlands, sex work.


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