Until a few years ago, the corner of Linzer Strasse and Wissgrillgasse was Anna’s workplace. It was there, just past the tobacconists, that she waited for customers.
“I would go to a cheap hotel with clients,” says this woman from Vienna, who has been a sex worker for 15 years. “The owners just took money for the room.” The client would pay. Anna was not required to give any of her income to anyone. When the weather was cold, she could heat herself up at the hotel and there was always someone there if she had problems. Anna worked for herself: “The girls working in Linzer Strasse came and went as they pleased. We agreed on the prices.” Anyone could ask more, but no-one could ask for less.
And these women had no boss. Working for yourself is, for many women, one reason they prefer working on the streets to working in various kinds of brothels. They do not have rent to pay, are not tied to any working hours and do not have to hand over any money. Unlike in brothels, where it is customary to have long conversations at the bar and to consume alcohol, contact time with clients on the streets is short. “Mostly it takes no more than ten or fifteen minutes,” Anna says.
In November 2011, the red/green city administration brought in a new law prohibiting street prostitution in residential areas. Since then, sex workers have vanished from Linzer Strasse.
However, within residential areas, certain areas have the right to define so-called tolerance zones where sex workers are permitted to work. The red-light district in district 2 of the Stuwerviertel existed until 2013, when the local administration also declared this area to be prostitution-free. Nowadays, sex workers in Vienna can only work legally in industrial and commercial zones.
It’s all about political pressure. According to an employee of the organisation known as LEFÖ, the massive campaign against street prostitution is led by various interest groups. LEFÖ, together with the TAMPEP project, offer information, advice and health assistance for migrant workers in the sex industry. There are property owners who view prostitution as being a reason for low rents. There are also locals who feel harassed by sex workers and their customers, and who complain about filthy streets and noise. Citizens’ initiatives resulting from this have put pressure on politicians.
“These days, the girls stand on Brunner Strasse in district 23 and near the Strebersdorf S-Bahn [subway] station,” the LEFÖ worker says. These areas are not explicitly defined as tolerance zones, but the girls are allowed to work, as long as it is not a residential area. Once a week, LEFÖ workers go to these districts to make contact with sex workers. “We hand out health brochures and contact details,” the worker says. It is not always easy to approach the women.
The women have to use the bushes as a toilet while they are working. Those that LEFÖ workers talk to have questions about health, say that they are looking for affordable housing or complain about the low prices just now. Sex with a street worker costs 30 to 40 Euros. “Some of them complain about others who do it for 10 Euros,” we are told. That is what happens when someone is in dire straits and needs money. The girls are often from Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and the Czech Republic. They are not all working permanently in Vienna. Many just stay for a while, meaning that some do not register as sex workers and leave the city after a short time. This can lead to financial penalties.
‘The girls are not working on the streets any less because of the new law.’
There have been protests in Floridsdorf, where street workers operate amongst businesses and warehouses. According to the law, it is not acceptable for children on their way home from school to see scantily-clad sex workers. Thus, time restrictions have been introduced, depending on the season: in autumn and winter, they are allowed to work on the streets from 7:00 p.m., in spring from 8:00 p.m. and in summer from 10:00 p.m.
Given the current conditions, Anna would rather not work the streets any more. “The new law has brought a lot of problems,” she says. Providing sexual services in public is prohibited. But neither Brunner Strasse nor Einziger Gasse have a hotel with an hourly rate. So where can she go? “I had to get into a customer’s car and drive with him to some dark corner. That’s not safe. Really, I would need a pimp to look after me.” The ‘bodyguard’ has thus come back into fashion as a result of the new law.
On Brunner Strasse, there is a petrol station where women can sometimes use the toilet. In district 21, not even that exists. “I have nowhere to wash or change my clothes there, and just have to use the bushes as my toilet,” Anna says. As a result, the women have relocated to the area around the bus station; the only shelter in an area full of abandoned business premises. In Auhof, where a red-light district developed after the legal reforms, there have been four rapes in the past year, Anna says. As many of the girls have had bad experiences with the police, they stopped working. Many no longer work in Auhof because, in 2014, Asfinag (the managers of the Austrian autobahns) erected a barrier overnight, without informing local sex workers.
Anna did not give up the game. Nowadays she works in a brothel in district 5. “It would be great if we sex workers were more socially acceptable,” she says. “More rights, instead of repression and criminalisation.”
The conditions are unacceptable. “The girls are not working on the streets any less because of the new law,” says Christian Knappik. Knappik is a Viennese man who advocates for the rights of sex workers through the online platform sexworker.at.
There are about 50 women working on the streets today; there were 400 before the amendment to the prostitution act was put in place. Some women have gone to work in brothels of different kinds and others have left the country or quit, due to their age, says Kappik, who has a good network of connections in this area and also runs a hotline for sex workers.
Other women have resorted to working in areas where prostitution is prohibited. The new law has thus not contributed to a reduction in prostitution, but has forced many women to operate illegally. “About 100 to 150 women are working via the U-Bahn [subway],” Knappik estimates. The problem is that if a sex worker is caught outside of the so-called “Established Areas”, they face a fine of up to 800 Euros. Clients who actively seek prostitutes can also be penalised. The claim that street prostitution has made a comeback in the Stuwerviertel, as reported recently in the media, is far from the case, according to Knappik.
As street workers have been removed from the streets, they have often been forced into dependency relationships. “In a brothel, the sex workers pay 80 Euros a day in rent. So you have to work to cover your monthly costs.” Knappik calls for the legalisation of street prostitution in areas where sex workers’ safety is guaranteed and hotels by the hour are available. “The places where the girls are working now are unacceptable.”
LEFÖ are also calling for tolerance zones: “The areas should be centrally-located and there should be more of them, so that street prostitution is spread about in Vienna.” This is especially important given the fact that, since 2011, the large numbers of sex workers in a handful of tolerance zones have led to complaints from local residents. Consideration must also be given to infrastructure. “One possibility could be sex drive-ins, like they have in Switzerland and Germany.” But the local council is not willing to invest in such a system. The argument goes that tax payers’ money cannot be used to finance the infrastructure for street prostitution.
“There is probably no chance of these demands being met,” is the summary from LEFÖ. “The restrictions are getting tougher and tougher. The tendency is to move towards the abolition of street prostitution.”
Translated from German by Edward Alaszewski. This article originally appeared in Augustin, the street newspaper in Vienna, Austria. Courtesy of INSP.ngo.