Now that people in Japan are staying at home and avoiding close contact because of the coronavirus pandemic, Japanese sex workers in the country are out of clients and out of money. With the entire country under a state of emergency, and many businesses ordered to shutter and people advised not to go out, sex workers across Japan have been hit hard by closures and restrictions.
Nationwide there are a reported 10,797 cases of COVID-19 with 236 deaths.
To soften the economic blow, the central government has launched a massive stimulus package worth 108 trillion Japanese yen (about US$989 billion).
After some controversy, sex workers are eligible to apply for aid, under certain conditions — a move some activists have hailed as a sign of progress for an industry that has long suffered social stigma.
But for many sex workers, the package offers little reassurance — and its rules for eligibility seem opaque and restrictive. Some aren’t sure how to apply for benefits without effectively outing themselves.
Prostitution, or the exchange of sexual intercourse for money, is criminalized in Japan — but other types of sex work are legal. The sex industry in Japan generates an estimated US$24 billion a year, according to Havocscope, a research organization on the global black market.
Some work in the legally permitted “delivery health” industry, a euphemism for escort services that stop short of intercourse. Another popular form of legal sex work is “fashion health,” which offers services like oral sex in massage parlours.
When the Japanese government started putting together the relief package, it excluded those legally in the adult entertainment and sex industries — drawing criticism from activists and opposition members, who called the exclusion “occupational discrimination.”
“Do not exclude sex workers from receiving support money. We want sex workers and their children to be protected, like other workers and their children,” said Japanese advocacy organization Sex Work And Sexual Health (SWASH) in a letter to the government on April 02.
Officials reversed course, announcing several days later that the proposed plan would include those working legally in the sex industry. Sex workers could also apply for a cash handout, available for people who have lost income due to the coronavirus.
However the move continues to polarize public opinion in Japan, where attitudes toward sex and sex work tend to lean socially conservative, with some public figures — including well-known TV entertainers — protesting the use of taxpayer money to support sex workers.
In response, the hashtag #NightWorkIsAlsoWork — “night work” being a euphemism for sex work — has gone viral on social media.
In one such hashtagged post, an unverified Twitter user argued that they weren’t asking for aid to indulge in luxuries like eating Wagyu beef — but rather to pay the minimum costs of food, rent and utilities.
“I wonder when this country started ranking people’s lives,” another tweet read. “Do you abandon single mothers who work in the night business and people who need to work for a living? Stop being prejudiced, stop discriminating based on people’s jobs, stop being misogynistic.”
Sex workers across Asia face similar hardships — but in some places, governments are stepping in to shoulder the burden.
Bangladesh, one of the few Asian countries where sex work and prostitution are legal, ordered brothels nationwide to close. But to lessen the impact, sex workers had their rent suspended and each received 20 to 30 kilograms (about 44 to 66 pounds) of rice, according to local media and police statements.
In Malaysia, where all sex work remains illegal, there are some avenues for aid during the pandemic. For instance, the government has set up monthly allowances and temporary accommodation for the homeless and unemployed, many of whom are sex workers — but they often have to hide their occupations to get the benefits.
Perhaps the most positive success story so far has been Thailand.
Though sex work is criminalized in the country, the industry still generates an estimated US$4-6 billion a year, or about 5-10% of the nation’s GDP, said Liz Hilton, a member of the Thai sex worker advocacy organization Empower Foundation.
Bur for the first time, sex workers in Thailand would be eligible for unemployment benefits and assistance grants under the government’s pandemic relief package.
“We went through tsunamis and floods and natural disasters and been left out every time,” Hilton said. But this time, “sex workers are not being excluded from government help.”
The plan is already being rolled out, with some workers reporting they have received the handouts.
The fact that they have been included in the package shows “an acceptance that the work we do is work,” Hilton said. “If sex work can be recognized in a crisis, it has to be recognized outside of a crisis. There’s no going back.” (Source: CNN)