Violence, and police violence in particular, was identified as a primary concern of sex workers in their descriptions of the risks involved in street based sex work in Belgrade and Pancevo, Serbia.
Environment for sex work
As found elsewhere,5 6
sex workers placed strong emphasis on condom use in transactional sex encounters: “Not using condoms with a client, God forbid!” (case 2, female); “With clients, it has to be with a rubber” (case 23, female). Condom use, as well as hygiene more broadly, was linked with personal integrity and responsibility: “I take good care of myself. All that [HIV] comes from the lack of hygiene, to those who don’t take good care” (case 8, female). A core strategy for regulating risk was “client sorting,” whereby the “messy,” “dirty,” and “dangerous” were avoided in favour of the “married,” “normal,” and “clean.” Judgments about hygiene influenced condom use, with unprotected sex said to occur discriminately and exceptionally under conditions of assumed low risk: “It happened, even without a condom, but he was married, clean, neat, spotless” (case 7, female). For some, economic necessity was a concomitant factor: “He paid more for the service” (case 7, female); “If he pays me extra, then I can do it without a condom” (case 6, transvestite).
Accounts thus emphasised the role of situational factors, and especially the risk of violence, in undermining a norm for condom use. The risk of violence seemed to be ubiquitous to this street setting for sex work, and was reported as a primary concern: “No kind of money is worth it when he beats you, when you are scared to death” (case 25, female). Violence was reported as linked to incidents during condom use or breakages resulting from rough or coerced sex: “If they push it in violently, then it [condom] breaks” (case 19, female). Violence was also described as being linked directly to unprotected sex through coercion: “I had to accept everything he asked for . . . without the rubber” (case 25 female). The perceived threat of physical violence also had indirect effects on sex workers’ capacity for reducing risk by feeding a sense of pervasive insecurity and loss of control in sex work transactions: “I get scared every time I get in [a car] with someone I don’t know, so that I am consumed with fear” (case 12, female); “I find it very difficult to get into someone’s car . . . because life is at stake” (case 22, transvestite). Physical violence by clients was reported to be common, but it was violence by police that was perceived as the greater threat and as less open to risk management: “You can manage your clients somehow, but to be honest, the greatest threat to us is the police” (case 7, female).
Although some participants had not experienced physical violence perpetrated by the police—“I perhaps got two slaps one time, that’s all, but other girls were hurt pretty bad” (case 16, female); “The police don’t know me well here, so I can stand freely where they don’t know me” (number 10 female)—the following forms of police violence seemed normative: deception and coercion (box 1), extortion (box 2), and discrimination (box 3).
Box 1 Sex by deception and coercion
Extract 1: sex by deception
- And at the end of the job he shows me his badge, and says like “Give me my money back now.” That’s what he does. And he’s not on duty. But he’s some cop. What do you do? Give the money back (case 14, female)
- He says “let’s do it.” I say, “Well, pay me, give me the money.” And then he asks, “Have you ever been taken in to the police?” Like he’s a cop and all. And I say, “Yes, I have.” And he says “Do you want to go to the station, you and I?” You know, they try you out, ask for blowjobs, sex in return. It’s just their thing (case 10, female)
Extract 2: sex in exchange for freedom from police attention
- They want blowjobs, fucking, if you want them to let you go. You’ve got to. The police like fucking us more than anyone. They don’t pay. It’s like this: they fuck us, and so they let us go (case 5, transvestite)
- And he pulled out a police badge and said “C’mon, you want me to take you in or screw you?” I was scared, and allowed him to screw me (case 18, female)
- They want for blowjobs, fucks. I work for free, just so they don’t take me in (case 23, female)
Extract 3: sex coerced by violence
- He wants me to blow him for free. I don’t want to. Later, when he gets me on my shift, he beats me silly. Beats me silly (case 20, transvestite)
- He beat me up with a baton. Up in this park. He beat me up with the baton. And several times I had to be [have sex] with him. I really had to. I was forced (case 15, female)
Box 2 Extortion
Extract 1: extortion of money
- They are screwing around with us. Like we need fuel, we need money for this, we need it for that (case 2, female)
- Yesterday, or the day before, the patrol, they wanted money from us. First he says, “C’mon, get in the car.” Nothing to it, I get in the car. Then he says, “Why don’t you treat us?” And he says, “C’mon, sort it out among yourselves,” how much money we are to give him (case 14, female)
- It’s really pathetic taking money from us. I don’t know how they don’t understand I struggled for that. I sold my body. I worked. The man, for instance, pardon me, fucked me and everything, for the money. And they take the money. Why? I don’t know, but so they say it goes into some fund, what do I know? (case 16, female)
Extract 2: extortion of information
- The first time they beat me because I didn’t want to admit who I worked for. They slapped me around. Like, “Gypsy, motherfucker, why don’t you start talking?” I was pregnant, and he started beating me. Like, “You ain’t going to say you’re pregnant any more, now you’re going to get beaten up at the station, and nobody’s going to believe you, and if you report me, I beat you up” (case 8, female)
Box 3 Discrimination
Extract 1: moral punishment
- They [police] take us into their office, and one starts kicking you in the legs, the other one into kidney. Without any reason. They want to accomplish something, to prevent us from doing something. From what? From doing this work. “Why don’t you find another job?” I say, “Come on, find me another job and I will do it” And he goes, “Why should I look for a job for you?” and so on. It’s like that (case 2, female)
- He [policemen] is swearing at us, saying we’re sluts, whores . . . Pancevo is forbidden grounds to us. We can’t even move on the streets, nor in bars. If I had a boyfriend now, and went for a drink, and he came, he’d kick me out of the place (case 3, female)
Extract 2: public humiliation and shaming
- A few times I went out with my boyfriend. I would sit down, drink coffee, and they [police] come in. “Hey, do you know . . .?,” I mean, it’s the first thing they say, “Do you know what she . . .?” And he [my boyfriend] goes, “Well, can I not have a drink with her?” “You know, well . . . Do you know what, do you know what she does?” (case 15, female)
- Most of the women get arrested. The last time they arrested people it was on television. I saw it in person. Arrested, chased, and filmed on camera (case 1, transvestite)
Extract 3: extreme violence driven by contempt
- They [police] started going wild, only on us transvestites. They let the girls go. They just pick us up, and go to the woods, and go wild on us . . . First, they beat us in the woods, and then they take us to the station. And then they tell us at the station “Hey, freshen up,” and they beat us up in the bathroom (case 5, transvestite)
- They [police] kicked, kicked, kicked the hell out of us. Just transvestites. They took me to the woods, down by the bridge . . . They stripped everything off me . . . Flashlight in the eyes. I said a million times, “Take me away. Did you come to arrest me? Arrest me then, but, do not beat me up.” . . . That makes it worse. “Shut up, motherfucker, shut up!” (case 20, transvestite)
- What’s the reason for them [police] to beat me up? The fact I’m like this is my business. One squad came over, and they beat me senseless because of what I am. I came back all black and blue . . . I didn’t know where the blows were coming from . . . They just have this hate. Whether it’s towards prostitutes or specifically trannies. But it’s terrible (case 22, transvestite)
Sexual services were described as being commonly provided to police without payment as well as secured by them through deception and coercion (box 1). Police reportedly presented sex workers with the option of providing services without payment as a means of avoiding possible arrest, detainment (varying from hours to one month), and a certain fine (in Belgrade, between €100 and €200). Sex workers described how in cases of deception, presumed clients would usually reveal their identity as policemen once services had been negotiated and exchanged, demanding the return of their money (box 1, extract 1). This was described as a no choice situation, which for some had become routine: “They’re in power, and we are not, what can I do?” (case 2, female). Although exceptions were reported (“Let me tell you, I didn’t work with none of them police”; “I don’t do cops”) (case 3, female),sex would normatively be provided in exchange for freedom from detainment or arrest (box 1, extract 2).
The risk of detainment, arrest, or fine or the threat of physical violence were given as the reasons whysex workers acquiesced to police demands for sex without payment. Attempts to resist such demands were said to incite violence (box 1, extract 3). We were given multiple examples of coerced sex involving violence perpetrated by those presumed to be police (box 1, extract 3), although condoms were reported to be used in most: “Leave off mate, not only am I doing you for free, but you’re not jacking me up without a rubber” (case 1, transvestite). Accounts also indicated routine extortion of money from sex workers by police, as unofficial fines or as “negotiated” payments to secure freedom from detainment, arrest, or registration as a prostitute (box 2, extract 1). Extortion of money or information (particularly about pimps and when giving “statements by dictation”) was also reported to be enforced by the threat of violence (box 2, extract 2).
A common theme therefore was a fatalist acceptance to the inevitability of everyday police violence (“I can’t fight destiny”), borne out of the internalisation of police “rights” to victimise (“They have a right to beat us because we do this prostitution thing”) and recognition that rights to police protection are unrealised and unrealistic (“I can’t complain to anybody, I’m a prostitute”).
A striking feature of sex workers’ accounts was that police violence was presented as transgressing boundaries of legal acceptability or rationality, and thus was thought to be moral punishment (box 3, extract 1). Enforced sex and coerced payments to police, although outside the law, were experienced as discipline as if for moral wrongdoing, to “bring sex workers to their senses,” and suggesting that they were matter out of place (box 3, extract 1). Policing thus extended into private life. A common tactic reported to be deployed was humiliation in the face of “normal others.” This involved unwanted disclosure of a sex worker’s identity to friends and family, thus disrupting the preservation of a dignified private self away from work (box 3, extract 2). A striking instance of public shaming included police collaborations with national media, whereby police crackdowns and arrests of sex workers would be televised (box 3, extract 2).
Moral punishments for selling sex overlapped with other forms of social discrimination, especially towards Roma and transvestites: “There is nothing [about me] that is normal for our people here, for our nation, here in Serbia” (case 1, transvestite). Police violence was described as especially brutal towards transvestites, all of whom in this study were Roma, and most Kosovo refugees (box 3, extract 3). Extreme violence reported towards transvestites and Roma was generally interpreted as driven by contempt for being of minority or deviant status (box 3, extract 3).
Taken together there was strong emphasis in sex workers’ accounts on the need for greater protection from police violence and corruption as well as for creating safer and regulated off-street environments for sex work, including through legislative change: “Legalise it. I’ll be the first to pay taxes” (case 2, female); “Make it legal, so that we have some papers and do not get messed with by the police” (case 8, female); “[Legalising] it would bring a proper solution. I could work freely. I would be up for HIV testing. I’m here to pay taxes. I’m here to fulfil my obligations to the state” (case 1, transvestite); “We need some building—I’m standing in the street—so that the police can’t touch us, some workplace” (case 12, female); “If it was legal, we’d go to doctors, we’d have medical records, it’d be much better” (case 15, female).