Street sex workers found themselves caught in a cycle of violence, protecting their bodies from physical harm, themselves from emotional harm, and their earnings from theft. We found that violence was at once a form of risk and a means of communication and regulation in relation to risk, with violence perpetuated by multiple actors, and sex workers at once victim and active in this process. We also found that everyday violence linked to sex work was embedded within a broader complex of structural and symbolic violence affecting the lives of sex workers.
Consented sex work was understood as a sexual exchange for money according to agreements made in advance with clients. Yet disputes with clients were common. Where deviations from agreements were coerced by clients, they were described as dehumanising. Clients were described as ‘difficult, primitive men’, who threatened or used physical force to realise their desires for free or cheap services. Client physical violence occurred over disputes regarding money (coerced free sex; attempts of theft) and time (accusations of having rushed clients ‘to finish’; clients being ‘unfinished’ when the agreed time had elapsed; disagreements about time having elapsed). Client physical violence was also generated out of a perceived contempt (unexplained beatings; violence targeting transvestites). Juggling the risk of physical violence is a fine line between defending a service agreement and having to accept client abuse of that agreement through coercion:
I never had a pimp, someone to look after me, so I don't watch the time. It is my [skill] to get him done as soon as possible. But when I see that he can't do it, I leave him and I go away.
Int.: How do they react?
Well, many of them are rude, so to say. Like, ‘Hey, I’ll break your bones’. You know, this or that. ‘You can't break my bones. I told you what your time is, we said exact time I'd be with you, you agreed, and that's all there is to it. OK then, bye.’ And that's it.
Int.: Do they never create problems for you?
Then sometimes I have to stay to finish him off, even if that means a full hour. I don't want to get myself into problems so that someone is beating me. Fuck the time (23, female, Roma).
A sense of being in control in sex work transactions was all important. Control over the transaction protects against violations to dignity and the body. Yet enforced acceptance of emotional harm – such as the ‘giving-up’ of additional time and services for free as above – can be a necessary risk-management strategy. Once physical violence has been experienced, it seemed to have the effect of puncturing a sense of security derived from everyday risk reduction tactics (such as working in familiar places only, checking on other sex workers’ safety, relying upon ‘instinct’ to assess problematic clients). Risk becomes pervasive and consuming:
He was beating me. My eye was blue with bruises. Head, back – all that was blue. He was kicking me. Took all my money away from me – his own and the money I've earned with other men. And that was an older guy . . . And I never thought I'd have any problems with him, but I did, as you can see. And so I get scared every time I get in with someone I don't know. So that I am consumed with the fear (12, female, Roma).
An awareness of the risk of physical violence, and especially previous experience of it, can reproduce a loss of sense of self-control, and an acceptance of risk, even subservience:
How can I do it? How can a woman like myself take on a man? What can I do to him? Stab him with a knife? What?! If I hit him, he’ll batter me even more. What can I do? Shut up, put your head down, get out of there like the worst whore on earth, a scum, out of the car and shut up! Maybe you had it easy after all! (40, female, IDU).
Being coerced into providing sex outside that agreed upon is at once physically and emotionally violating. It is common for sex workers to employ bodily ‘exclusion zones’– parts of the body, or bodily practices, which are excluded from commodification as a means of preserving dignity and separating a private self from work (Sanders 2004). Providing sexual services which transgress such exclusion zones, and which are beyond those agreed with clients, is emotionally scarring as well as an act of physical violence. Here is one example:
He forcefully did that [anal sex]. Nor did he allow me to put cream on, not a thing. [He did it] forcefully and my body burst. Burst from the inside. Anal guts. I was operated on because of that (25, female, Roma, IDU).
The threat of physical violence from clients was often presented as calculated, with men with violent ‘intentions’ presented as damaged in some way, as having ‘personal problems’, and with violence in these cases ‘something a man wants from the very start’. With gendered violence also portrayed as a normative feature of Serbian society, foreign clients were the safest and showed most respect:
Foreigners are best.
Well, they are gentle. You know how it is here in our country, in Yugoslavia . . . No one feels empathy towards women. There are some, but . . . It is rare to find good [men]. Foreigners are different. They live in an honest country (23, female, Roma).
Violence towards clients was usually articulated as a form of resistance borne out of struggle and discrimination, sometimes as routine, and also as strategic or tactical to maintain control. For a minority, violence was the only conceivable way of communicating with clients, since clients were viewed as essentially violating. This was the case for those who had experienced relentless violence over many years. Kata, for example, was trafficked into sex work at the age of 11, and was beaten and raped regularly for a year before escaping. She had pride in ‘beating up my clients’, would often have ‘physical fights with my clients’, and would routinely trick clients by providing ‘fake sex’.
Most sought to preserve a sense of self-dignity, and of control over clients, not through physical violence but through various forms of ‘cheating’, usually by employing ‘fake sex’, by ‘finishing-off’ clients by masturbation and as quickly as possible, by over-charging, and sometimes by stealing money. An active engagement in violating clients’ experiences of the sex for money exchange is a strategy which resists emotional harm:
He thinks he is already in the vagina, but he is not in the vagina, but between thighs . . . You are testing him. If he comes, it's an ace . . . If not, you work as usual (25, female, Roma, IDU).
Sometimes I leave them high and dry. I respond to a call, honestly. I say, ‘Sir, we can settle the bill.’ He pays 50 Euros. I say, ‘I am just going to take the money down to the driver.’ When in fact there are no drivers anywhere. The ordinary cab is waiting for me. I say to the taxi driver, ‘Now slowly start the engine. We are going back.’ And we go back. And the man is left without either the money or pussy (19, female, IDU).
The weight of various authorities was felt to be against them, but it was the police in particular who were said to be waging an ‘undeclared war’ on street sex workers. While those working through telephone contacts and bar venues had little contact with the police, street workers had day-to-day contact. There was consensus that the police posed the greatest threat of physical violence (Rhodes et al. 2008a). Whereas ‘you can manage your clients somehow’, ‘I have to be honest, the greatest enemy to us are the police’ (7, female). Accounts are peppered with multiple instances of police physical violence, either threatened or enacted, in order to obtain free sexual services, arbitrary arrests, enforced admissions, and beatings. Sex workers are commonly portrayed as having given up citizenship rights to be protected, and that, by virtue of their unacceptable occupation, are ‘asking for it’, having waived the right to be treated with respect. There was a common perception that the police had the right to beat them:
There they can even beat us. They have a right to beat us.
Int.: Is that so? Why?
Well, because we do this prostitution thing. How do I know? They have the right to beat us (12, female).
The police were routinely feared for causing physical harm, for stealing, and for acts of public humiliation. Police raids enforced individuals to register as ‘prostitutes’, enabling prosecutions. Once registered, prosecutions were relentless. The hassle and violence experienced from authorities, and especially police, was experienced as a form of punishment:
They [police] take us into their office, and one starts kicking you in the legs, the other one in the kidney. Without any reason. They [the police] want to accomplish something, to prevent us from doing something.
Int.: 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 (2, female).
Such ‘moral policing’ was described as an act of ‘discipline’ to ‘bring them [sex workers] to their senses’, acting to remind sex workers that they were matter out of place:
Well, he [policeman] is swearing at us, calling us sluts, whores, saying that our fannies have swollen from the amount of work we do and so on. That the city is forbidden to us. That we are not allowed to walk about, nor into cafés. If I have a boyfriend and I go out to have a drink with him, he [a policeman] comes, he wants to throw me out of the café (3, female).
Relentless police raids had the effect of pushing sex workers to work longer hours, later into the night, and into unfamiliar locations, largely as a strategy of arrest avoidance. Once again, risk management is a double-edged sword, with attempted risk reduction in one domain (the risk of police contact, arrest or violence) inevitably entertaining risk in another (the risk posed by unknown clients):
We work at the city centre itself, where we should not work [according to the police]. We are aware [of that]. But, if we go to another place, there are a lot of problems when it is night time, when it is in the late hours.
Int.: What kind of problems?
Well, the problems are you get beaten. They [clients] take away your money. They [clients] molest you (3, female).
Accounts emphasise that police punishments extend beyond the immediate environment of sex work into private life. A common tactic described was humiliation in the face of ‘normal’ others. These experiences were most violating when disclosure of a sex worker identity was made by the police to friends and family, thus disrupting attempts to preserve a dignified self and relation with others. Here is one example, in which the police undertook a ‘clean-up’ of the sex work scene in the company of invited television journalists:
The inspectors came with journalists, when they filmed me. I didn't want to say anything. They added themselves that I said something. They said, this girl does not want to state her name, they guessed my age, said this, said that, and I said nothing of it. Nothing! And that's how they found out, my husband, father-in-law, mother-in-law, my family, who rejected me. To this day I don't speak to them because of it (10, female).
A sense of generalised powerlessness in the face of the law, and deep mistrust, is contextualised by the historical institutionalisation of the police as a force of ‘obedience’ in settling civil unrest, and of generalised low tolerance to deviance in contemporary Serbian society. The police cannot be relied upon to help:
I came in to the cops, to complain. ‘Come on,’ he says, ‘you don't even know who they were.’ I say, ‘How can I know, man – two cars, eight of them. How can I know the registration plate? I know that it contained BG [Belgrade], but I don't know the whole registration plate. ‘Come on,’ he says, ‘go home. There is nothing wrong with you’. And I was covered in bruises and blood (20, transvestite, Roma).
The full blast of physical and structural violence was felt most intensely among transvestite sex workers. All transvestite sex workers we interviewed were Roma, and most were refugees of the Kosovo conflicts of the 1990s. Roma in Serbia face multiple vulnerabilities and stigma, including lack of official citizenship recognition and access to public services. Being transvestite entertains a higher risk of physical violence in a generalised context of vulnerability:
It is important to earn money, to survive. What could I do, I mean, looking like this? Even if I went to some company, honestly. I look like a woman but all the documents are for a man. We are not accepted. And we should be given a chance to show that we are normal . . . I find it very difficult to get into someone's car. That role has to be played exceptionally well, because life is at stake (22, transvestite, Roma).
Physical violence against transvestite sex workers appeared particularly brutal, and was generally interpreted as driven by contempt. Most clients of transvestites had sex on the basis that they were ‘real women’. Extreme violence would result from clients who felt cheated, and to prevent such violence occurring transvestite sex workers attempted to disguise all traces of maleness on their faces and bodies:
I got into the car and there were five of them, all skin heads. And then they ask me, ‘Are you a transvestite or a real girl?’. I claim that I am a real girl. He says ‘Tell me if you are a transvestite, it does not matter’. And I still claim that I am a bird. He wanted to put a hand into, you know, to grab my breasts. I say, ‘Don't, I'm breastfeeding’. He sees through it. And he switches on the light [in the car]. And I didn't shave that well and here a black line could be seen [shows the jaw line]. He says, ‘Why did you’, he says, ‘lie to us?. Now we will,’ he says, ‘you’ll see what we are going to do to you now’. And fortunately one guy, who liked being with transvestites, says, ‘Don't touch her. She is scared, that you might hurt her’. They take me to the woods. One held a gun against my forehead, and the other is beating me, slaps over the face (6, transvestite, Roma).
Once again, police violence was relentless and acted as a form of moral policing:
The police, how they beat us. They killed everything in me. Killed, killed, killed us with beatings. Just transvestites . . . Arms, legs. Torch into our eyes. A million times I've said ‘Take me away. Have you come to arrest me? Arrest me then. But, do not beat me’ (20, transvestite, Roma).
First, they beat us in the woods. Then they take us in the station. And in the station, he says to us, ‘Hey, freshen up’, and there in the bathroom they beat us (5, transvestite, Roma).
The sex work environment provides a site in which wider forces of structural violence towards transvestites find expression:
I had very bad times at this work. That's street life for you. Here [in Serbia], you can expect nothing that's good. There is nothing [in me] that would be normal for our people here, for our nation, here in Serbia. To them, this is something horrible. Something alien (1, transvestite, Roma).