Sex Work during the Pandemic. Helena Lea Manhartsberger researched the red light milieus of Austria for her bachelor thesis.
08.06.2022 Text: Finn Winkler Fotos: Helena Lea Manhartsberger
“In Hungary, I learned to be a kindergarten teacher, actually I have a nice profession. Men are not so different from children. They also just need attention, you have to make them feel comfortable with you.” — Coco (32)
Originally, Helena Lea Manhartsberger wants to travel to Chile for her bachelor thesis to photograph a story about the protests there. But it’s the fall of 2020, and the Corona pandemic is crippling the world for the second time. That’s why Helena Lea chooses a different topic: the situation of sex workers during the Corona pandemic in her home country, Austria. Although Helena Lea Manhartsberger already has contacts in the scene from previous research, it is difficult to find protagonists: Sex work is illegal at this time because of the pandemic. The police are cracking down on it with harsh measures. But the author finally finds the first courageous sex workers who help her. Helena Lea Manhartsberger, as an outsider, does not claim to represent a complete picture of the industry during the pandemic. Rather, she decides to document her personal encounters with people. The photographer wants to prevent her protagonists from being turned into show objects or sexualized. From the beginning, it is important to her to give a voice to the portrayed people themselves. She conducts hours of interviews and talks intensely about how they would like to be portrayed. In the end, the photographer defies all hurdles and manages to finish the work just before the deadline: Even two days before the submission deadline, she was still taking pictures. Helena Lea Manhartsberger now lives in Vienna. There she works as a freelance photojournalist and gives workshops on photography and media sensitivity together with the ipsum association. She works for clients such as SPIEGEL, DIE ZEIT, F.A.Z., and BBC.
There are many visually aesthetic photo projects, yet they portray sex workers as silent victims.
Helena Lea Manhartsberger
“We sex workers are always accused of exploiting the system at the expense of others, for our individual empowerment, and thereby consolidating patriarchal relations. I always feel the patriarchy. For example, as a waitress, you have to smile at shitty old fucks all the time, so they tip you, and you have an okay wage. For me, as far as assault goes, catering was way more blatant than sex work, and with shittier pay.” — Noah (24)
“I love my job. Sex work is also a piece of freedom! It gives me independence, financially, and also in terms of time. I can choose for myself who I fuck, when, where, and how. The first lockdown was a shock for many women. I was lucky, I got the allowances and suddenly had time for the family. There are female colleagues who worked in the lockdowns and earned very well because there was little supply, but the demand was there.” — Nora (40)
“If possible, I prefer not to pay for sex. There are many places where people meet to fuck, in parks, at lakes or at train stations. Now after the lockdown and when it gets warm, it’s certain to really get going in all those places, where everything meets.
Professionally, Corona has hardly changed anything for me, but everything else has, of course. All the pubs are closed, there are no parties, and there’s not much going on in the public places either. I’m still horny.” — Herbert (53)
We sex workers are always asked whether we really enjoy it and whether we do it voluntarily. Maybe we should ask that more often for other jobs, too.
“When Corona came, I stayed in Germany and made house calls. I have regular customers who are in love for the long term, and when I say I need a flat now, they’re happy that I’m sleeping over. Besides that, I had other clients, of course. I stayed with one for three months, which went well, and he paid me to stay with him. How much did I get for it? Enough, just write: enough.” — Coco (32)
“Women are also more cautious in these times, Covid has taken away almost all of my female customers. I also have the feeling that in these weird times, people are more into weird things. You’re just bored, you need new things, so for plenty of people it’s nice to have an alien character who wants to shut you up and put eggs in you.” — Noah (24)
“I couldn’t imagine having sex with strangers right now and pretending to enjoy it. But putting someone’s foot in my mouth is totally fine with me. Maybe the work is a good fit for me anyway, I’m used to just being men’s fantasies. It’s really hard to find people who see me as a human being and aren’t just interested in my big, sexy African ass. In this work, I feel like I’m taking the situation into my hands and getting money out of what I’m usually just discriminated against for. I get money for it, it makes me independent, it’s empowering.” — Nicki (21)
“Some men want to argue, but I’m not a dog—there’s no back and forth with me. You don’t tell me what you wish to pay. You tell me what you want, and I tell you what it costs. If you don’t like it, not my problem. You can earn good money and also save some good money. Who knows what tomorrow will bring, especially in times of crisis. You have to be strong, crying is useless. There won’t be a random millionaire coming along.” — Isabella Lui (31)
Jil: “I feel sorry for the wives of those who come to me. I hit everyone who complains about his wife. I hit him one more time when he says, ‘My wife is so bad, blah blah…’ – Hey, shut the fuck up, you wanker, she made you three kids. She cleans, she cooks, she takes care of everything, what else do you have to do as a woman? Clean, fuck like a whore…”
Jil: “And best of all, earn money.”
“My friends have said to my job, ‘Wow, cool! I want that too.’ I then say, ‘No, you don’t.’ It’s not a difficult job, but it’s still very demanding” – Patrik (23)
“For ten years, I’ve been meeting men who are looking for something between a man and a woman, which appeals to a lot of people. I just call myself a tranny, it’s a term that everyone can relate to. Corona does not stress me. This virus is there, but the protective measures work and I have been vaccinated before, that was important to me. For young people, after all, it’s not so dangerous, STDs are certainly the bigger issue there.” — Nadine Johanna (34)
I have fun at my work. Dealing with men, I was somehow born for that. I’m doing all this nonsense because I’ve been building a house for two years in Hungary, just outside Budapest. When I stop, I can say: I did this through my work. I.
“Perhaps my most important job is running the 24-hour emergency phone. Only a tiny proportion of the calls have to do with violence. This reflects the trust in the state when the sex workers call us rather than the police in cases of assault. I have found myself in situations where I thought to myself, I am the wrong person in this situation. For example, a woman once called us because she had been raped outside in the car park. I’m neither a psychologist nor in law enforcement, but she definitely didn’t want the police there.” — Christian Knappik (62)
“Everything is totally uncertain here right now because of Corona. I have no idea if it will stay open or when it will close again. I never dared to work illegally because I’m so afraid of the police, I’ve had bad experiences with them and countless girls got caught.” — Natasha (38)
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