Sex Work under Conditions of War in Ukraine: Observations and Recommendations

By Agata Dziuban

[During the war] sex workers go through the same hardship and deprivation [as everyone else], only their burden is multiplied by criminalisation, economic and social vulnerability, legal insecurity, stigma and lack of state support. (Legalife-Ukraine)

This blog post consists of extracts from the “Regional Assessment of the Impact of the War in Ukraine on Sex-Workers and Sex-Worker-Led Organisations in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia” developed by CrimScapes team member Agata Dziuban with and for the Sex Workers’ Rights Advocacy Network (SWAN). Analysing the impact of the war in Ukraine on sex worker communities, this policy brief builds on desk research, community research, and direct consultations with sex worker-led organisations in Ukraine and other countries of the CEECA region. Excerpts presented in this blog post focus, specifically, on how the war has affected the living and working conditions of sex workers in Ukraine contributing to various economic and work-related precarities. Additionally, this post explores the continuities and shifts in policing and law enforcement strategies sex workers in Ukraine are exposed to under conditions of war. Eventually, it looks into sex worker community-driven responses to the humanitarian, economic and socio- political crises caused by the war, and explores efforts undertaken by Legalife-Ukraine and individual sex workers with the aim to challenge criminalisation of sex work in Ukraine. The full version of the report can be found here.

Dziuban, A. (2023) Regional Assessment of the Impact of the War in Ukraine on Sex-Workers and Sex-Worker-Led Organisations in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia. SWAN.

The War in Ukraine – An Overview

The launch of the large-scale armed attack by the Russian Federation on Ukraine on February 24th 2022 has heavily impacted the safety and security of Ukrainian citizens. As of October 9th 2023, 27,768 civilian casualties were recorded in the country, among them 9,806 killed and 17,962 injured – with the actual toll estimated to be higher.[1] In many cities, infrastructure facilities, residential buildings, and other institutions have been destroyed, and residents do not have access to food, running water, and heating; many have also lost their homes. The war has also forced many people to flee their homes in search of safety. An estimated 5.1 million Ukrainians are internally displaced and more than 6.2 million have crossed into neighbouring countries in the European Union and globally.[2]

The war has significantly impacted the overall economic situation in Ukraine, leading to a drastic deterioration of the living conditions of its citizens. In 2022 Ukrainian GDP declined by 29.2 per cent, with the poverty rate increasing from 5.5 to 24.2 per cent pushing 7.1 million more people into poverty.[3]  This contributed to the sharp rise of unemployment rates, up to 35 per cent at the end of 2022, leaving many people without livelihoods and means of survival. As reported by the UN, 17.6 million Ukrainians are in need of life-saving and life-sustaining humanitarian aid and protection.[4]  

The War’s impact on sex workers in Ukraine

Even before the outbreak of war, sex workers in Ukraine had been subjected to criminalisation, discrimination, and harsh policing.[5] The Ukrainian state penalises people providing sexual services and imposes criminal sanctions on third parties managing, organising and facilitating sex work.[6] Sex workers working online are also subject to prosecution under laws criminalising the production and distribution of pornographic content. These unfavourable policies and pervasive stigma compromise sex workers’ well-being and safety, health, and access to essential services. Criminalisation and exclusion from the state’s duty to care puts sex workers at disproportionate risk of abuse, violence, and harm, also on the part of law enforcement agencies.[7]

The humanitarian crisis caused by the full-scale Russian military attack on Ukraine exacerbated these pre-existing inequalities, greatly affecting marginalised and underserved communities, including sex workers. As reported by Legalife-Ukraine, the war has further increased the level of vulnerability among sex workers in Ukraine, exposing them to further violations and precarity. […]

Sex work under conditions of war

War hostilities have adversely affected the living and working realities of Ukrainian sex workers, as well as the overall situation in the sex industry. According to Legalife-Ukraine,[8] 71,5 per cent of sex workers surveyed in April 2022 did not stop providing services following the outbreak of war. Despite increased war-related dangers, sex workers reported huge economic pressure and greater reliance on income from sex work as the main factors that kept them at work. In turn, 19 per cent of surveyed sex workers left sex work in the first months of the war due to forced migration, war-related risks, decreasing income, and deteriorating working conditions. Many of them, however, resumed sex work later on. Simultaneously, conditions of war and the resulting economic situation have also contributed to an influx of women into the sex industry. As reported by Legalife-Ukraine, 9,5 and 11 per cent of respondents – in April 2022 and April 2023, respectively – declared they had taken up sex work after the outbreak of the war.[9] […]

Simultaneously, sex workers reported a significant worsening of their working conditions and a decrease in income:

There is less work, earnings have dropped, the risks are greater, it’s scary to go out to work. (respondent from Ukraine)

[…] Forced migration, rising unemployment, high inflation rates, and drastic increases in prices of food, housing, and other essential products and services, left many sex workers across Ukraine in destitution, without money to meet their basic needs and secure their livelihoods. As indicated by the Legalife-Ukraine survey report, 98 per cent of sex workers questioned in April 2023 reported a sharp deterioration of their financial situation,[10]and almost all sex workers interviewed for this study noted that their earning from sex work has decreased significantly due to reduced working hours, lower number of clients, and war-related challenges to the provision of sexual services.

Since the beginning of the war, the average income level in most sex workers’ families has fallen by 25-50 per cent. The economic pressure is particularly great for single mothers and those whose husbands or partners lost jobs or were drafted. Becoming the sole breadwinners and carers for their families, they are facing a heavier burden to provide for their children or elderly parents.

Deterioration of working conditions

Direct war hostilities, air strikes, shelling, and rocket attacks have exposed sex workers to imminent dangers at work:

Before the war, sex workers worked individually, looking for clients on the street, more often in the evening and at night. When rocket attacks, frequent air raids, and curfews began, the work became more dangerous and difficult to organise. (Legalife-Ukraine)

Additionally, since the introduction of martial law on February 24th 2022,[11] a night curfew has been in effect in most parts of the country. Depending on the region and the security situation, citizens are not allowed to be outside from 11 or 12 p.m. to 5 or 6 a.m., and public transport and other facilities do not operate at this time. As a result, many sex workers have been forced to change their working routines.

Sex workers who used to work outdoors cannot work anymore. They try to limit their work and not to move around during curfew, they try to finish work before curfew, irrespective whether they have had a client or earned anything. The same with sex workers working indoors, they try to finish work early, because otherwise they would be stuck in their workplace. That is why some sex workers try not to work at night, although previously they would choose working at night due to child care and other obligations. (Legalife-Ukraine)

The introduction of restrictions on movement has contributed to a decrease in sex workers’ mobility, making it more difficult to travel to other cities or regions of Ukraine to work and to travel to outcalls within their cities. This translates into shorter working hours, fewer clients and a drastic reduction in earnings.

As a result of the curfews and war hostilities, many sex workers interviewed had to change their work settings. Several women previously working in collective workplaces decided to work on their own, individually, in their flats or trusted venues (cafes/hotels/saunas) to avoid encounters with the police and to increase their safety. Some gave up outdoor work and started to arrange meetings with their clients indoors, primarily at their homes. For some, this decision has been motivated by the greater influx of women providing sexual services from other regions of Ukraine, in particular IDPs [internally displaced persons], and rising competition among sex workers. It has been reported that in some regions of Ukraine, the increase in the number of people selling sex has led to a decrease in the prices of sexual services.  Some sex workers previously working indoors or outdoors, have taken up online work, such as webcamming or posting content on dedicated websites. This allowed them to secure safer working conditions and combine work with care obligations:  

I went online, it’s safer, on my own territory, quiet, with fewer clients. Of course, my earnings have halved, but at least I can look after my mum and grandmother. (respondent from Ukraine)

However safe, online work proves challenging not only because of decreases in income but also due to power outages and blackouts that have become common in Ukraine since the outbreak of the war – a consequence of the targeted destruction of critical infrastructure by the Russian army. Moreover, sex workers working online risk criminal charges under laws banning the production and distribution of pornography, a provision actively challenged by the Ukrainian sex worker community.

While the demand for sexual services decreased due to the war hostilities and economic hardship, many sex workers reported an increased presence of soldiers and military personnel among their clients, particularly in the regions near the frontlines or stationing the army. Interviewed sex workers had varying opinions on working with soldiers and draftees. Some praised them for their sympathetic and caring attitudes, and for providing financial support to them and their families. Others pointed to challenges related to, in particular, mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder, problematic alcohol use, tension and aggression among soldiers and other military personnel directly exposed to atrocities of war. To reduce risks, most sex workers spoke about undertaking various safety measures at work: they are more careful in choosing clients, do not accept clients on drugs or alcohol, negotiate details and prices in advance, and try not to use alcohol or drugs with clients and at work.

Policing in times of war

Even before the war, sex workers across Ukraine were subjected to harsh policing, penalties (usually in the form of monetary fines) and various abuses from law enforcement agencies. As noted by Legalife-Ukraine, the war did not have a significant impact on sex workers’ interactions with the police. While police presence in sex workers’ venues might have been reduced in some regions of the country, sex workers working in different parts of Ukraine declare being exposed to contact with the police on a daily basis. These interactions – following the “rules” established before the outbreak of the war – usually involve paying a fine/bribe for the provision of sexual services and receiving a receipt (in the form of a protocol) confirming that the payment has been made. One interviewee from Ukraine explained:

Most of them know us, they charge us 100-200 UAH per day for protocol. We do not fight with them, we use the protocol as a receipt, a proof that we paid today. When others [police officers or law enforcement agents] come, we show them these protocols as a proof that we have already paid to others today. (respondent from Ukraine)

Additionally, Legalife-Ukraine reported that police raids targeting third parties, such as venue owners, managers and others organising sexual labour, are continuously carried out in sex work venues, with a noticeable increase in the number of raids in some regions of the country. Police interventions push many sex workers to work individually and alone in fear of prosecution under third-party charges. As mentioned above, cases of pornography-related charges against sex workers working online have also been reported since the outbreak of the war.

One of the key issues highlighted by sex workers taking part in this study is the increased presence of military administrations in all regions of Ukraine. Established to implement martial law, military administrations are given special powers and prerogatives in providing defence and ensuring public safety and order. Many sex workers expressed uncertainty and fear about potential encounters with military personnel and administration, as their powers, as well as jurisdiction over sex workers, are not entirely clear and differ from those granted to the police:

Sex workers know how to engage with the police, because they have long-standing relations with them, but they don’t know how to engage with the military. They have slightly different jurisdiction, they have different entitlements than the police. They have different obligations and it is not quite clear what the military can do when they check your documents. Will they detain you to clarify who you are? Or will they do something to you? That is why people are saying that they are afraid of engaging with the military, because they don’t know what the consequences are. (Legalife-Ukraine)

As noted in the quote above, this is particularly relevant for sex workers lacking identification documents (national or international passports) that were lost, for instance, during forced displacement. Deprived of resources to restore their documents, sex workers fear going out, also during the day, as they might be stopped and interrogated by the military.

Trans women providing sexual services have another reason to fear encounters with military personnel, as they might be drafted due to wrong gender markers in their legal documents. As a result, they often try to avoid public places and working outdoors where they could be apprehended. Trans sex workers seeking refuge abroad also risk being stopped and drafted at border crossings if they have the wrong gender marker on their passports.   

Additionally, sex workers working outdoors or travelling for work at night risk being subjected to financial penalties for breaching curfew restrictions. While Ukrainian legislation does not impose legal liability for violating curfew, Legalife-Ukraine noted that some sex workers were subjected to financial punishment by the police or military personnel, and these penalties are much higher than fines for the provision of sexual services. […]

Community response to the war

Following the war’s outbreak, Legalife-Ukraine promptly mobilised to assist Ukraine’s sex worker community, assessing the immediate needs of sex workers and adapting their priorities to address the challenges posed by the conflict.

Their primary focus was ensuring sex workers’ survival during wartime and providing humanitarian aid. The United Front of Ukrainian Sex Workers was established early in the conflict, uniting the remaining community leaders and activists who had not fled Ukraine. By April 2022, the organisation had surveyed 12 regions, pinpointing the most critical needs of their communities. Consequently, they concentrated on distributing food, water, medicines, hygienic products, warm clothing, and essential resources.

Legalife-Ukraine  […] delivered 780 food kits, 780 hygienic product kits, and 370 essential medicine kits to sex workers. Those in war-affected regions received additional support, including power banks, generators, flashlights, heaters, sleeping bags, and water purification tablets. The organisation also secured temporary shelter and housing for displaced sex workers and covered transportation expenses for evacuation and healthcare access.

To assist sex workers in restoring legal documents and applying for state benefits, including child support and IDP support, Legalife-Ukraine offered financial and logistical support. They addressed the mental health needs of sex workers affected by the war, providing psychological consultations through a hotline and online chats. Local activists ensured access to healthcare, HIV services, harm reduction, OST programs, and legal aid.

Throughout the war, Legalife-Ukraine has supported internally displaced sex workers and those leaving Ukraine. They facilitated connections with sex worker-led organisations and service providers in neighbouring states, helping sex workers find housing, protected status, healthcare enrollment, and educational opportunities for their children.

The organisation has also been engaged in providing essential and up-to-date information to sex worker communities across the country via its website, social media and communicators. Legalife has been informing its constituencies about the social and political situation in Ukraine; legal security, rights and entitlements under wartime conditions; possibilities of obtaining humanitarian assistance (e.g. location of aid and distribution points, legal services and support schemes available to IDPs and victims of war); evacuation procedures on territories affected by the war hostilities or occupied; obtaining refugee status abroad, etc. […]

Advocacy and Decriminalisation Efforts in Ukraine

Members of the All-Ukrainian Union “the Council of Leaders of Sex Workers of Ukraine” actively contribute to advocacy and information strategies for decriminalising sex work in Ukraine. They collect data on sex worker needs and represent the community at local and national levels. They’ve developed an intervention plan for the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria and collaborate with HIV/AIDS Coordination Councils and Country Coordination Mechanism to assess the Global Fund’s programs in the context of the Russian military aggression and post-war period.

Despite challenges due to the socio-political climate and the war, the organisation achieved success in repealing criminal sanctions against sex workers operating online. Previously, sex workers engaged in online activities faced criminal charges for producing and distributing pornography. Criticism of the Ukrainian pornography ban, particularly in light of the OnlyFans fundraiser for Ukrainian war efforts, played a pivotal role. In March 2023, sex workers initiated the “TerOnlyFans” (Territorial Defence OnlyFans) charity project, collecting approximately $800,000 in donations for Ukrainian defence forces and IDP support in exchange for nude photos and erotic content.[12] This initiative ignited public interest and mobilisation for decriminalising pornography in Ukraine.[13]

Over recent months, Legalife-Ukraine, alongside partner organisations like 100% LIFE NGO, Institute for Legislative Ideas, Better Regulation Delivery Office (BRDO), TerOnlyFans, DEJURE Foundation, and the Centre for Economic Strategy, actively challenged Ukraine’s pornography ban. They participated in policy meetings and public hearings aimed at revising the Penal Code. Their efforts bore fruit as a legislative proposal to remove provisions criminalising consensual provision and distribution of erotic content has been submitted to the Supreme Council of Ukraine, awaiting a vote in the near future. […]

Conclusions and recommendations

The Russian invasion of Ukraine, as well as the resulting cost-of-living crisis, have severely affected sex worker communities and organisations in Ukraine and other Central and Eastern European and Central Asian countries. As demonstrated by this report, sex workers across the region are facing dire poverty, deterioration of working conditions, rampant policing, and severe barriers to accessing essential services, including healthcare and existing support schemes. Subject to structural and institutional violence and abandoned by the state, sex worker communities across the region can often only count on support provided by sex worker-led organisations and dedicated service providers. All of the groups included in this research mobilised to provide humanitarian aid and all the necessary services to ensure sex workers’ survival in times of war-related crisis. However, sex worker-led initiatives and organisations themselves are facing significant political and funding challenges.

The following recommendations have been developed by organisations contributing to this report. Their fulfilment would reduce sex workers’ vulnerability to the crisis caused by the war and war-related economic pressures, strengthening sex worker-led collectives in providing their communities with apt and lifesaving support:

For policymakers:

  • Decriminalise sex work and recognise sex work as work. Only full sex work decriminalisation can guarantee sex workers’ access to their human, civil and labour rights and can protect sex workers’ communities from rights violations, exploitation and violence.
  • Adequately address the vulnerability of women and girls to gender-based, war-related sexual violence and trafficking. Do not introduce legal measures that contribute to the criminalisation and policing of sex worker communities.
  • Remove all the harmful and discriminatory narcophobic, homophobic, transphobic and anti-migrant legal provisions that hinder rights access for the most vulnerable and marginalised communities. Secure functional human rights protective mechanisms against discrimination, violence and institutional exclusion. 
  • Remove all legal measures that target civil society organisations and restrict their ability to operate […]. Create a favourable environment for NGOs, service providers and community-led organisations providing services to vulnerable and marginalised communities.
  • Sex worker-led groups and organisations providing direct services to sex workers should be involved in the planning, development, implementation and evaluation of policies that affect sex worker communities, including humanitarian aid and war-related relief, prevention and support schemes.
  • Sex workers’ health, social, and economic vulnerabilities should be recognised and addressed in governmental relief programming, including war-related and economic crisis-related support schemes. Sex workers and other marginalised communities, including LGBTQIA communities, people who use drugs, people experiencing homelessness, and those operating in informal economies should be granted access to state support, benefits and protections.
  • Newly emerging trends in war-related migration and mobility should be monitored and adequately addressed. All people fleeing war and prosecution should be included in relief schemes and granted support regardless of their nationality, citizenship, and legal status. Undocumented persons have a right to cross borders and seek shelter and protection in case of war or other humanitarian crises.
  • All legal barriers and discriminatory provisions preventing refugees and both internal and international migrants from accessing healthcare and other support services should be removed. Both undocumented and documented migrants should be granted unconditional access to the same primary and secondary healthcare services available to all citizens.
  • Policing strategies should not single out marginalised communities, including sex workers, and ought not to be enacted in an arbitrary, discriminatory and  disproportionate manner. Police using unjustified and illegitimate violence based on profiling and prejudice should be held accountable and adequately prosecuted.  Police violence should be recognised as a structural issue and addressed by the state. […]





[5] SWAN (2019), Sex Work Legal Frameworks in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Briefing paper.; SWAN (2015), FAILURES OF JUSTICE State and Non-State Violence Against Sex Workers and the Search for Safety and Redress,

[6] SWAN (2019), Sex Work Legal Frameworks in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Briefing paper.;

[7] Legalife-Ukraine (2018), Обнаружение барьеров в доступе и оценка качества услуг для секс-работников, изучение их потребностей с целью повышения эффективности программ уменьшения вреда, профилактики и лечения ВИЧ/СПИДа в Украине», 2017-2018гг., Аналитический центр «Социоконсалтинг», при поддержке AFEW Интернешнл).

[8] Legalife-Ukraine (2023), Aналітичний звіт За результатами оцінки потреб сп в умовах війни Та впливу проєктів з надання підтримки сп (в рамках реалізації проєкту за підтримки ACTIONAID).

[9]  Legalife-Ukraine (2023), Aналітичний звіт За результатами оцінки потреб сп в умовах війни Та впливу проєктів з надання підтримки сп (в рамках реалізації проєкту за підтримки ACTIONAID).

[10] Legalife-Ukraine (2023), Aналітичний звіт За результатами оцінки потреб сп в умовах війни Та впливу проєктів з надання підтримки сп (в рамках реалізації проєкту за підтримки ACTIONAID).




Content Moderator in Germany Talks Back and Gets Sent on Leave: A Threat to Democratic Principles

By Todd Sekuler

On June 14th, Cengiz was among two invited speakers at a parliamentary expert discussion held with the Bundestag Committee on Digital Affairs about the working condition of content moderators – a relatively small group of workers who spend their days and nights evaluating online content to ensure that social media platforms remain free from gruesome and traumatizing images and texts. Shortly after speaking at the Bundestag, Cengiz was abruptly suspended from his job late last week. 

Cengiz is one of some 5,000 content moderators employed in Germany by major social media platforms, or by the outsourcing companies hired by those platforms, to remove content in violation of platform policies or national laws. In Germany, for example, not only is the content itself regulated by criminal law, but so is the timely removal of that content on large social media platforms. Day after day, often working throughout the night, these moderators witness and read about a range of more or less horrific acts and assertions, ranging from beheadings to child abuse to hate infused calls to violence. As Cengiz reported to the Bundestag, such experiences take an enormous toll on their mental and physical health, often leading to severe trauma and mental health disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Even beyond this important toll to health, Cengiz made known to German parliamentarians how content moderators face various forms and modes of exploitation in their workplace. For example, many endure high levels of pressure from colleagues and supervisors, insufficient psychological support, and appallingly low wages. Despite the emotionally taxing nature of their job, they often receive minimal compensation, barely surpassing the minimum wage. This exploitative environment exacerbates the challenges they already face, Cengiz explained, making it imperative that their working conditions are improved.

As I have been learning over the course of my research, tech giants frequently outsource the responsibility of content moderation to third-party service providers like Telus International, where Cengiz is employed. Members of supportive NGO’s, including Superrr Lab and Foxglove, and a representative from the German trade union ver.di, joined Cengiz and other content moderators at that Bundestag discussion two weeks ago. During conversations between events and in external research, I’ve learned how outsourcing these practices allows social media companies to distance themselves from the inherent risks and burdens faced by content moderators, thereby evading accountability for the health and stability of those tasked with the emotionally laborious task of cleaning their platforms.

Even beyond the further precarity and violence this suspension has inflicted on Cengiz, media outlets and the aforementioned representatives have also framed the move as a threat to democratic principles, such as to one’s freedom of speech and the protection of whistleblowers. This is why Ver.di, Superrr Lab, and Foxglove are rallying against the unjust actions taken against Cengiz, rightly making it known as a case of union-busting. Such suppressions of dissent, together with the implicated obstruction of planned worker council elections to be held at Telus International, which would have ensured a new obligation for the company to respect the needs and rights of their employees, are clear signs of an attempt to stifle democratic rights and responsibilities within the workplace.

Members of the CrimScapes project hereby support and strongly encourage readers of our blog to sign this petition initiated by Ver.di, Superrr Lab, and Foxglove in which this suspension is located within a broader culture of fear and secrecy, and framed as a violation of Article 9 of the German Basic Law – which enshrines in law a right to join together to improve working conditions. The suspension and subsequent attempts to silence Cengiz underscore the systemic challenges faced by content moderators, but they also highlight the alarming trend of punishing individuals who expose the unseen casualties of the digital world, effectively transforming whistleblowing into a punishable offense.

The German Ministry of Justice’s Guidelines for a Proposed “Law against Digital Violence” and Civil Society Response

By Todd Sekuler

Over the course of April, the German Ministry of Justice presented a set of guidelines for a proposed “law against digital violence” designed to enhance and expand opportunities for victims of digital violence “to enforce their rights themselves” ( The draft guidelines aim to address “notorious infringers of rights in the digital space” and seeks to assist in situations where the identity behind a particular social media profile is unknown. The blocking of an account, the guidelines stipulate, would be able to be requested of a court by persons targeted with violence or other infringement, but should only be considered if alternative measures are deemed ineffective and if judges see a “risk of repetition.” The current draft parameters stipulate that a profile should only be blocked for a reasonable period, and the account holder must be notified of any request their account be blocked and provided with an opportunity to respond. It also calls for the mandated preservation of incriminating data. The guidelines propose reducing legal hurdles for officials – and then, without any court costs, also any targeted persons – seeking the identity of a person behind an otherwise anonymous but illegal post or suspicious account by mandating that telecommunications companies (including messenger and internet access services) hand over user data, such as IP addresses and the names of the persons to whom those addresses have been assigned. The law will also ensure that users know who they can contact to have a statement deleted and to document a service provider’s knowledge, and that social networks have all appointed a domestic authorised representative in case of legal action directed at them in the country.

In response to a request for public feedback, some concerns of various civil society organisations were culled together by Chris Köver and Sebastian Meineck last week in German on the website (, which I tried to summarise here in English for readers of our blog.

1. More money, staff and training for counselling centres

Civil society representatives insist that counselling centres, not the judiciary or the police, are the first and best place to turn to for help with stalking or threats – because they support and centre victims. Many centres in Germany are understaffed, underfunded, and with limited resources for training on digital violence, which has become an integral part of violence generally, especially in partnerships. In response, the association Frauenhauskoordinierung and the Berlin Anti-Stalking Project demand increased resources for counselling services, including for regular basic training on digital violence. Funding, moreover, must be sustainable and guaranteed in the long term. The non-profit Superrr also emphasizes the need for special counselling for different forms of digital violence. Rather than designated IT experts for each counselling centre, the group suggests that centres can draw on IT staff together. Frauenhauskoordinierung calls for nationwide contact points to assist with technical questions and the initial securing of evidence, such as is already implemented in Baden-Württemberg.

2. Thoroughly define “digital violence”

Digital violence encompasses various forms of assault, but the contributors suggest that a clear definition of the term is crucial for the development of effective measures to help victims. They contend that the proposed law is broad and unspecific, and includes support extending beyond digital violence, such as bad restaurant reviews or other critics, which could ultimately negatively impact other rights and freedoms. Moreover, a narrow definition that includes offenses such as stalking or doxing – when attackers publish private addresses in order to harm people – would sharpen the law’s focus, and they also point to overlooked examples of digital violence, including the use of mini-cameras, GPS trackers, and blackmail. The law’s focus on hate speech fails to address significant aspects of digital violence primarily directed against women, such as cyberstalking, unwanted contact, and the publication of intimate recordings. By providing standard examples of digital violence, they contend, the laws application would be enhanced.

3. Explore the true extent of digital violence

Sensitive to the fact that digital violence is a widespread problem that includes various forms of harm, the civil society representatives draw attention to the fact that there is a lack of reliable research on the issue, including about perpetrators, and that hate speech gets the bulk of attention. The Berlin Anti-Stalking Project and Superrr both highlight the need for more comprehensive data to identify vulnerable groups and develop evidence-based policies sensitive to intersectionality. While digital violence is often seen as gender-specific, the federal government acknowledges that other marginalized groups are also disproportionately affected. However, the commentators draws attention to the fact that there are no separate statistics or criminal offenses for digital violence. A comparative study on violence in the digital space is planned for 2024, but a targeted study on affected groups and forms of digital violence is still missing.

4. More staff and training for the judiciary and the police

Civil society organisations call for urgent help for police and authorities in dealing with digital violence. They report that officials are overtaxed, lack understanding, and fail to take victims’ problems seriously. The Frauenhauskoordinierung in particular demanded more staff and training to sensitively deal with victims, while the police need training to learn how to secure evidence quickly. They propose that the judiciary also needs more staff to speed up proceedings. That being said, representatives note that the police can themselves become perpetrators of violence, which renders its own needs of support, accountability and justice, and can discourage reporting, especially for people from marginalised communities.

5. Clearly anchor image-based violence in criminal law

“Revenge porn” is a form of digital violence where intimate recordings are distributed without consent. Current laws only partially cover this, and victims often have to resort to copyright or data protection laws. The Criminal Code also only partially covers image-based violence, such as via section 201a, which only applies if a person was photographed in a “room that is particularly protected against viewing.” A new section (184k StGB) is aimed at cases like “upskirting” and “downblousing”, but lawyer Anja Schmidt calls for better protection under criminal law for adults, as only minors are currently protected. HateAid and the Frauenhauskoordinierung also see “biggest protection gaps” in image-based violence, and Green Party MP Renate Künast demands a separate offence for this in the legal code.

6. Protect private addresses of data subjects

Victims of online stalking and threats often have nowhere to turn for protection except their own homes, making it especially traumatic when their private addresses are also shared online. The contributors suggest that German law presents two challenges for victims looking to protect their addresses: Firstly, anyone can apply to the official registry of residents and find out the private addresses of any other person. While it is possible to block one’s address, this requires evidence of a threat – so when it is likely too late – and must be requested again every two years. Secondly, the obligation to include a local contact address for blogs and websites is a danger to those who run them, especially activists or freelance journalists. Solutions exist, such as allowing people to use law firms or co-working office addresses in the imprint, but need clarification and greater alternatives.

7. Informing those affected of their rights

According to the German government, media literacy and the knowledge of one’s rights are crucial in defending against digital violence. However, counselling centres report that many people are unaware of their rights. The Berlin project “Digital Angels,” which offers young women digital self-defence and other forms of support, reported that many of their members don’t know their rights, especially the application of “analogue rights” in the digital realm, or how to report and seek counselling. Superrr suggests that the government has a duty to work with states and municipalities to educate the public, including adult education centres. Victims can also be informed of their rights by counselling centres, although many are unaware of their existence.

8. Prevention: working with perpetrators

While perpetrator-focused approaches to the prevention of violence are gaining attention in certain areas, such as for preventing sexualised violence against children, they are hardly in discussions about digital violence. The European Network for the Work with Perpetrators of Domestic Violence, an umbrella network that advocates for taking digital violence seriously as part of intimate partner violence, runs a campaign intended to motivate potential perpetrators to examine their own behaviour and seek help if in doubt. In the same vain, prevention should also be emphasised in the guidelines, including education in schools on topics like surveillance in relationships, the consequences of stalking, the risks of sharing locations, and non-consensual sharing of intimate images.

To take this topic of prevention further and with some critical distance, how might we consider this proposed law, and also these responses by civil society, through the lens of state power and surveillance? Increasing resources to regulate and respond to digital violence offers a compelling solution in the short term, but is difficult to sustain, and it risks sidestepping the root causes of violence in society. How are these investments in the criminal justice system brought into dialogue with efforts to support and strengthen social and economic programs addressing the root causes of violence, online and offline? And how do both state and civil society approaches towards the criminalisation of digital violence relate to broader societal attitudes about crime, punishment and victimhood?

“Netzpolitik. A Feminist Introduction”: Discussing with author Francesca Schmidt about queer feminist perspectives on the governance of hate speech in Germany

Interview by Todd Sekuler

Francesca Schmidt is founding member and board member of Netzforma* e.V. – Verein für feministische Netzpolitik. She is also Programme Director for intersectional knowledge related to memory and transformation at the Federal Agency for Civic Education in Germany, and a former Senior Programme Officer at the Gunda Werner Institute for Feminism and Gender Democracy. Several months ago, CrimScapes team member Todd Sekuler, researching the criminalisation of online hate speech, spoke with her about her 2020 book “Netzpolitik. Eine feministische Einführung” (published by Barbara Budrich). Here is an edited transcript of their conversation (translated from German into English):

Thanks so much for talking with me today about your ground-breaking book, Netzpolitik. A Feminist Introduction,which I see to resonate closely with the approach of our research project – it investigates the implications and impacts of policies beyond their initial intentions. To begin, could you please explain to readers of our blog what Netzpolitik means?

Netzpolitik is not yet a properly defined term, but several issues have been used to define what Netzpolitik should include, such as: digital publicity, access to the Internet as a structure, access to content on the Internet, and copyright and data protection. Of course, these all overlap to some extent, they’re not as clear-cut as they seem. But they are what is most commonly understood as Netzpolitik – at least from an activist perspective, and also from a political perspective.

In the book, you distinguish between different feminist forms of activism on the Internet, or with the Internet, and you make a distinction between feminist Neztpolitik, cyber feminism, and Netzfeminismus. Can you briefly explain these distinctions?

Yes, so cyber feminism, when considered as part of a historical investigation of digitization and technology, can be viewed as an artistic engagement with everything that took place digitally and technologically in the 80’s, 90’s, and beginning of the 2000’s – and it was really not all that regulative. By that I mean it was not much about questions like: How do we want to shape the Internet politically, in the sense of regulative politics? So it was not in the sense of politics from a feminist activist perspective, but really of, let’s call it, “a job description” (Berufsbild) – an artistic engagement. Netzfeminismus would be what connects to that and makes it understood through an activist lens, and grasps the space of the Internet as a space in which one can become active as an activist, and negotiate social processes. It was similar in cyber feminism, but I think that was more of an artistic engagement. I distinguish feminist Netzpolitik from those two because it’s really about the processes – regulative political processes. Why is which server located where? Who decides how URL’s are distributed? Who decides what standards are used? And so on… I think that’s an approach for feminist Netzpolitik and less for Netzfeminismus, which sometimes also takes this up implicitly, sometimes also explicitly – but, generally, they are quite disparate fields.

Regarding the German Internet Enforcement Act, or NetzDG, you write in the book that it only very vaguely includes feminist concerns. Can you elaborate on that? What’s missing?

The book is a child of its time, and especially that chapter, because in the meantime, the Internet Enforcement Act has progressed a bit. But, on the whole, I think, the criticism remains that, first of all, law enforcement is trying to privatise, or let’s say, the first step to law enforcement is trying to privatise – in the sense that the platforms decide what is legally legitimate and what is not; what you have to report and what you don’t. From a feminist perspective, this is difficult, because we live in a society that is patriarchally structured and where things like rape jokes are made, frequently actually, and other problematic things are said freely, not just those that are relevant to criminal law. Or, in other words, the legal system doesn’t necessarily protect women first, or people who are read as women, or protect Black persons first. But, instead, it protects white masculinity, the subject from which everything else is defined. That’s why it’s a bit difficult, or let’s say, a balancing act, to argue with legal regulation from a feminist perspective. And that’s what I still find difficult about the NetzDG – in the end, the large corporations decide what is relevant for criminal persecution and what isn’t. And I also have a problem with the structural displacement it entails: The state has a certain responsibility to care for its citizens, and this policy simply shifts that responsibility to the outside and says, “You do this. You also provide the care, and then, down the line, we’ll just check in to see whether you did it right or wrong. And if there’s any doubt, we’ll help.” This issue hasn’t changed, but some things have improved a bit since the book. 

Recently, I was on a panel and there was someone from the field of media protection, and she was enthusiastic about everything. She said, “The NetzDG helped a lot! There is much less hate!” And I thought, I don’t know, most things are deleted according to community standards and not at all according to the NetzDG, because the hurdles are just too insanely high if you want to delete something on Facebook according to the NetzDG. And you’re also just a bit afraid that you’ll somehow be half arrested or something if you’ve given the wrong information. And we’re all not criminal lawyers, so we all don’t know the details of the law for determining the legality of postings. 

Regarding the law itself, and this concerns the penal code itself, many issues that relate to women, or other people who experience sexual violence, also sexualized violence in communication, are simply not covered because gender is just not a protected category, and race even less so. 

In the book, you show how financially driven actors, and not just activists, have played a role in promoting political responses to potential Internet abuses and violence, and also that the current governance structures in Germany assign responsibility for surveillance and content regulation to Internet platforms. You describe this as a “privatization” of law enforcement. Their interests, you point out, are above all financial in nature. Increasingly, however, the platforms are compelled to work in tandem with other structures that mobilise different logics to their work, such as the German Federal Crime Office. Within this complex field of interrelated actors, how might we better recognise and de-center or de-prioritise the financial interests of these companies? 

Well, it’s of course not possible to remove their economic motivations. We would have to change the capitalist system. We are not going to do that now. We have to be realistic. But to work in that direction, I think it’s important to first establish that this is the case, and to give the users a possibility to choose – to give them that knowledge, firstly, and to say, “Listen. With your data – especially with your interactions with other users, so not only with your login data, but with all that you do online, everything – it can all be used by other people to earn money.” That’s the first thing. And the other thing, the much bigger issue I think, is that we’re not clear as a society about how we want to communicate, and about what is and should be permissible, and what is or should not be permissible. This process of negotiation has been going on for some time now. I think we have to be clear, again, that we are not driven or influenced by financial interests, by the interests of companies that actually only have financial motivations, or want to do everything in a particularly conservative way.

You focus on hate speech in the sixth chapter of the book, which is about feminist Netzpolitik and digital violence, and you criticize that sexual, homophobic and transphobic violence are not explicitly named in the Council of Europe definition of hate speech. This is a very important point and had me thinking. Other forms of hate are also not explicitly mentioned, such as hatred towards the homeless or persons living with particular illnesses, such as HIV or corona. Do you have thoughts about how to respond to these inevitable failures of the politics of naming? This has long been a topic in feminist and queer studies, and one we surely won’t resolve so easily, but are there alternatives here?

Maybe definitions must remain agile – because knowledge levels change, because perspectives change. I actually like the Council of Europe definition, despite the fact that these points are missing, because, in other definitions of hate speech, everything isn’t in there either. They have something about human dignity and human rights. I find that difficult, because you still don’t name whose human rights this is about in the end. So that’s why I like this one so much, because it’s quite clear, despite everything, and it’s relatively old now, from ‘97; so for Internet age, it’s ancient. (laughs) But despite everything, it’s a relatively clear definition, that’s why I still like to use it. 

One major concern that you present in the book is about data surveillance, or dataveillance, and the oscillation of its functioning between care and control. You referred to it as a desire for “safety” that is also a desire for “inflexibility”. You also offer the following question as helpful to bring with you for mobilizing an intersectional analysis: “Which women are affected with what other discriminatory features and how?” Building on this question, how has surveillance changed in recent years as part of the Internet, and how are groups differently implicated in this history?

Surveillance no longer starts from individual questions, but rather entire contexts are now monitored in a nonchalant way, and it no longer means looking at individual persons or targets, but, instead, whole contexts can be monitored, and I think that’s changed through technologization, and also the Internet, but probably mostly through the technology that’s driving it. Despite everything, our social coexistence in terms of power and domination has not changed. That means that white cis hetero masculinity is still in the centre and is also the positioning that is least – well, not least affected by surveillance, because we are all affected by surveillance in some way, but least impacted by its consequences. The impact of racial profiling, for example, is more likely to be felt by Black people, or the impact of the fact that we have body scanners at airports everywhere, or increasingly so, is more likely to be felt by trans people who can have a different gender in their passport than what is shown on the scanner. And that’s why it’s usually the case that people who are already affected by, well, not only by discrimination, but also by the structures of discrimination by the state, also by these surveillance structures, are more likely to be affected and restricted, and to fear. So for them it’s not a security issue, but always an issue of insecurity. 

In the book, you also make a call for more quantitative research on digital violence among BiPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour), LGBTIQA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, inter, queer asexual) persons, and persons with migration backgrounds or disabilities. Are there warnings that we should take with us with regards to quantitative research projects? Or how do we engage in that type of research without it becoming another form of surveillance, or a normalising force? 

I understand such questions of science or research in this context more as a tool to make policy, not so much as a form of surveillance. But I honestly have to think a bit more about it. In the area of digital violence, I’ve been hoping for this research because there simply is not yet intersectional data in this form – to provide empirical input about what is happening. This is always a point from where you can start to argue, to advocate. And I think that’s very important. The things that exist in the German context are not very helpful from an intersectional perspective: a) because they have a wishy-washy definition of hate speech – so not very precise, kind of xenophobic and so on, and then everything can be hate speech; and b) because of the categories that are used, and this is the case in Germany for good reasons, that’s why it’s going to be difficult: only gender, age, maybe self-assigned label, in terms of positioning, but more likely not even that, and migration background is there, but, again, this is another category that can also be everything. It’s difficult. 

For some of the largest platforms, algorithms already play a big role in filtering out content that might be hateful. In your book, you present some of the effects of algorithms on the Internet – especially how they come to take on the sexist, racist, homophobic and transphobic logics as the societies within which they are created. With regards to hate speech, the decisions of so-called cleaners, or persons who work for companies hired by platforms to respond to flagged content, are being used to further refine these algorithms. So their responses are feeding into the algorithms to help refine them further. Some hope that algorithms could drastically reduce, if not entirely eliminate, human involvement in selecting out hate on the Internet, which is significant given that the humans who take on these jobs are faced with overwhelming amounts of hate on a daily basis. What do you see as the potentials, and limits, of using algorithms to respond to hate online?

First of all, I don’t think that algorithms can filter out hate speech so finely that in the end we will only need algorithms. By now, they can probably filter out certain images, videos and so on without any problems, but everything that is somehow unclear, I don’t think they can pick those things up, so I don’t know, but I would not think it’s possible for it to not be biased in the end somehow. Because we still only have a feeling for what hate speech, or digital violence, is, exactly. At least not for the things that are relevant under criminal law. There are things one person might feel are not good, and are violent, and then someone else could have a completely different feeling. But these experiences and perceptions are often based on structures. So just because we don’t recognise something as violence that someone else experiences as violence, that doesn’t mean it isn’t violence. And I think you’re not going to solve that through technology, for one thing. The other thing is, for me, algorithms won’t solve our social problem of hate. It moderates something away, but we still have a society that hates, and communicates that hate to each other, and will simply find ways to get around it. And I think that’s why, for me, it’s first about social processes, and then second about technology, and not using technology to solve social processes. We have to somehow manage that ourselves. I mean, I am sceptical about using technology to solve problems that we, as humans, have to solve with each other. If we can’t do that, then technology won’t do it either, because technology simply takes over our problems, and somehow continues them, and maybe pushes them in a new place where we can no longer really intervene. So if technology can support us, then great. But I think if it’s used to replace us and the social and political work we have to do, it won’t work.

In the book, you suggest that the collectivization of rights, rather than the current individualisation of right claims, might be a possible future direction to take in the area of Netzpolitik. Can you explain how that might look in relation to online hate? 

The collectivisation of rights, or the enforceability of women’s rights as a collective claim, has been sought from a feminist perspective for a relatively long time: The gender pay gap, for example, all things that particularly affect a group of women. But this hasn’t really been put into action in Germany yet. It already exists for many things, but not yet for women’s rights. If multiple women are affected by digital violence, then one could try not to drag every single one of them before the court, and to say you either have to file a complaint and deal with the public prosecutor, or do it through a civil court – and then there’s already HateAid, a victim-support NGO based in Berlin, but they can only do so many cases, so they rather focus on strategic litigation, which is great – but it would be clever to design the whole thing in such a way that you pull things together and make something like a collective class action. This would mean that not every individual would have to do it, and it could also build up pressure to act – on both the political question of regulation, but also on platforms so they finally do something significant, and not just sharpen their community guidelines a little bit, and always in their own interests, about what is considered sexist and or not, or what is racist or not. 

As you said, so much has happened in the year since this book was published. Among other things, there has been new legislation passed in Germany, the Fight against Right-Wing Extremism and Hate Crime, and also in Europe, the Digital Services Act (DSA). In your book you state that, even if a call for certain regulations triggered by digital patriarchal violence are understandable, the question remains as to whether patriarchal violence can be combated with equally violent structures, for example through sanctioning. To what extent do you view these new laws as embodiments of the violent structures you question to be valuable resources for responding to violence online?

To a full extent. (laughs) We haven’t changed anything in the basic structure. Of course, these patriarchal violent structures remain in place. That doesn’t mean that I reject them in their entirety. Of course, definitely not. But despite everything, yes, it’s just like technology. In fact, it’s just another form of technology…these forms of laws. They will stimulate social change at best, but we have to make the changes ourselves. 

And do you see hope in these new developments? 

Well, in Germany, some things will change with the European law, above all the NetzDG. I am fundamentally an optimistic person. That means, of course, I have hope. So… (laughs) Above all, I have hope if we critically question the existing systems of administration, and then look again to see how we actually want to deal with this. The DSA does this. It does a lot, but among other things, it also asks how money is being earned with hate, and tries to prevent that too. And I am also hopeful that our consciousness about that becomes more focused, and that we perhaps find another way to respond. But that’s just a building block. We also see how dependent we are on information from these networks, and how quickly that can simply be turned off, as has happened in various authoritarian countries. And how much media competence is necessary to bypass the whole thing. 

Why has online hate speech become such an important issue lately? There are various explanations I’ve heard, like particular terrorist attacks or individual murders motivated by hate, and I am curious what you see to be the reason. 

Yes, well, from a feminist perspective, digital violence against women has always been an issue – since the Internet came to exist – but it hasn’t been an issue of popular interest. And I think, um, exactly, it got more intense on a broad level in 2015 with the refugee movement. And that has just not abated. I find this interesting and still wonder how we might use these dynamics in a different way – in a way that doesn’t promote social antagonisms.  

That leads me to my last question: What made you decide to write this book? 

Well, I found the topic interesting and wanted to think more about it, and to write about how we might negotiate the issue together as a society, or how it could be negotiated from a feminist perspective in the areas of digitalisation, Netzpolitik, especially in the political sphere. When I started working on this, the discussion was mostly just about Netzfeminismus, and how we can push forward feminist concerns on the Internet. Those concerns didn’t necessarily have anything to do with the topic of digitization. I’ve always found that to be a bit of a shame, because, from a feminist perspective, we continue to use the structures without question. It’s good that we use them, but we didn’t question the design of the structures in which we want to participate. And I found that quite interesting to look at, and that actually interested me more than any activist questions. And then I also thought that these linkages between violence and surveillance, which I place next to each other in the book, have not been adequately discussed from a feminist perspective in the area of surveillance today, although that combined lens of course had a long feminist tradition.

Your current work is as Programme Director for intersectional knowledge related to memory and transformation at the Federal Agency for Civic Education. I understand you are working at the moment on trying to decolonise the Internet. Can you tell us a bit more about that before you go?

My current work is about trying to centre other stocks of knowledge in what technology can be and what technology should be, and where technology should change society. One of my main focuses now, with regards to knowledge about transformation, is to apply that to the development of technology. For what transformations do communities need technologies, and for what transformations don’t they need them? And how can you build technology so it makes sense for the communities? So not that just some dude in San Francisco thinks, “That’s mega cool, let’s use it somehow.” Do we all have to use it? Do we all need it? 

Thank you so much.

To read further in German, the book is available for purchase here.

The book’s introduction and conclusion have been translated into English and can be found here.

In this country, you can die four times while waiting for detox: The pandemic, drug use and chronicity of crises in Poland

By Justyna Struzik

The CrimScapes project[i], in which I explore the experiences of opioid users in the context of drug possession criminalization in Poland, began at the peak of the restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19). The regulations enacted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic not only shaped and constrained the context in which ethnographic research was conducted, but they also influenced the topics of my interviews with people who use drugs. Interviewees invariably referred to their experiences during the pandemic.

The pandemic, according to my interviewees, was not always unambiguously negative. Accustomed to the persistence of difficulties resulting from, among other things, the criminalization of drug use and perceiving themselves as a relatively “invisible” group to the Polish public discourse[ii], they did not anticipate the additional difficulties posed by the pandemic nor the specialized care provided in response to it. The chronicity of crises this group has experienced over the years has, in some ways, bolstered their resilience, or perhaps “indifference,” to the changes, crises, and difficulties that have occurred. Police violence, a lack of access to high-quality, non-stigmatizing health care, and the paucity of harm reduction programs, along with the dominance of abstinence-only programs, have shaped and continue to shape the social landscape of drug use in Poland.

 However, some of the narratives I have gathered emphasize the repercussions of the pandemic (and imposed restrictions) on drug users’ lives and experiences, particularly regarding access to health care, the availability of treatment, and social support. Following Jarrett Zigon (2018), who encourages us to deconstruct the ‘fantasy world’ of the drug war locally in order to demonstrate how specific components of this world translate into the lives of drug users, in this blog post, I want to look at the experiences of people who use opioids in Poland during a specific period – the pandemic. I do so, among other reasons, because there are so many voices in public debates about the adverse effects of the pandemic and its restrictions, but this group’s experiences remain primarily unrepresented. Notably, I do not consider this blog post to be exhaustive in its coverage of the complexity of drug users’ experiences during the pandemic. Rather, utilizing two narratives gathered during the course of my research, I wish to highlight specific inequalities in access to certain public services that were a part of my interviewees’ experiences. I want to exemplify how the individuals I interviewed navigate and frame these inequalities, either by emphasizing the catastrophic impact of the pandemic on their own lives or by highlighting the chronicity of crises and the continuity of the decades-long drug war.

Klara’s story

At the end of March 2022, I met 35-year-old Klara in Warsaw. Klara was in an intimate relationship with another heroin user at the start of the pandemic; they lived together. They both tried several times throughout their relationship to break the cycle of heroin use they had been in for a while and return to substitution treatment. Because of the risk of experiencing withdrawal symptoms a few hours after taking heroin, Klara mainly worked remotely from her home at the time. She also desired to devote more time to her ailing dog. Her partner worked for a transportation company and was frequently absent from the home.

“The main thing I remember from that period is that I felt quite alone. In the sense that I just spent a lot of time alone. Because also the social life died down a bit. And with my parents, we didn’t see each other […]. It was this sense of increasing isolation. And it was very [acute]. And it wasn’t conducive to handling our life, especially because we were already in the throes of using. “

To maintain financial stability, Klara kept a close eye on the amount of heroin they both were using. She describes her experiences during this time as “acutely repetitive.”

“It was kind of a black hole in general. In the sense that there was just nothing happening, especially nothing good for a long enough time. I wondered how the pandemic would affect the availability [of drugs], because there were actually some voices saying …’ and maybe there won’t be drugs available on the market…’. But the availability hasn’t changed a bit, at least in Warsaw.”

The repetitiveness mentioned by Klara was also, in her opinion, something that kept them from quitting heroin and returning to substitution. Moreover, their relationship was becoming increasingly difficult, and violence began to emerge. During a holiday they spent together in the summer of the first year of the pandemic, they decided that they would both go to addiction treatment centers. Her partner decided to go into detox. He returned to Warsaw intending to seek further treatment for his addiction. However, new admissions were halted at the time due to the pandemic; the center’s staff advised him to wait and call every week to see if anything had changed. As a result, they were both in limbo for a while. Klara, on the other hand, was supposed to go to another center, but the number of beds available for women who use drugs was reduced due to the pandemic. The facility gave her the option of arriving the next day or waiting three months for a spot to become available. Due to the need for detoxification, the first option was not feasible. Klara, therefore, waited for the center for a few more months, which was especially challenging as it involved obtaining a new referral for treatment at the center from a doctor. During this time, her partner chose another center where new patients were being admitted. He first went to detox at a place that, ironically, she described as ‘not cool’ when she recalled the conditions there. When he returned, his admission date was again postponed by a few days. Eventually, Klara managed to drive him to the treatment center before going for treatment herself.

“I waited for detox for 3 weeks+. This is one of the wonderful features of the Polish healthcare system. In this country, you can die four times waiting for detox. The only opioid detox in Warsaw at the moment is the Nowowiejski center, where there were plenty of empty beds when I was there, but it doesn’t pay them [financially – author’s note] to have patients. In any case, when I finally got there, of course not without adventures, I was surprised that I got there at all, that it worked out after all, and I had this brief feeling that something had worked out and that [my boyfriend] was in the center and that I had survived. I was in a very bad physical state. And also, mentally, it was bad, but also physically. I had 45 abscesses, and in general, I was all swollen, at least on my legs. Throughout the detox, no one managed to take my blood, unfortunately. “

Her partner left the center where he was staying after a few days. Then, while waiting for the next one, he overdosed and died in Warsaw while Klara was still in the center. She was unable to attend the funeral due to pandemic restrictions.

“We were both aware that it would end up that way eventually, that it would be like one of us would eventually go down, and the fact that it happened to be him, I think it’s more of a coincidence; it probably didn’t have to be that way.”

Klara’s narrative is grounded on the category of waiting and her constant navigation of Poland’s complex treatment system. Their struggle to get into the center, to survive, was dependent not only on their own agency (e.g., trying to get into detox, planning a leave of absence from work for treatment, saving money for a more difficult time) but also on a volatile and unpredictable system in which the rules for accepting new patients were frequently changed.

The social landscape depicted in the interview demonstrates how drug users, specifically opioid users, are positioned as “less-than-human Others” (Zigon 2018, 59) – as someone who is constructed as an “incomplete subject,” as an addict who deserves less assistance and support than full citizens. This conception of drug users is sharpened to some extent by the pandemic, which makes some lives worth saving while condemning others to death (Agamben 2017[1], Caduff 2020).

Ryszard’s story

I met Ryszard in June 2022 in Warsaw. He’s 42 years old and has been undergoing substitution therapy since 2006. During his first ten years on the program, he used a variety of other psychoactive substances (amphetamine, clonazepam, and mephedrone). Currently, he only consumes alcohol, which he tries to limit as much as possible. Due to the fact that he faced incarceration for drug possession, he decided to enroll in a substitution program. As he had already had a negative experience with abstinence-only programs, he started taking methadone to avoid prison. He has had non-healing wounds on his leg for the past sixteen years. Due to his Hepatitis C and HIV co-infection, he is automatically referred to a hospital for infectious diseases, where no effective treatment to heal these wounds has been undertaken to date.

“As I have had these wounds for 16 years, I have not been to any other hospital for 16 years. They [infectious disease hospital’s staff – author’s note] treat poorly other than your main infectious disease issues. In other hospitals they didn’t want to treat me at all. For example, these wounds they didn’t want to treat at all. […] In the Prague hospital I was with this leg and fuck, and they told me to fuck off to this infectious hospital. I lay there for two days, I went on Friday afternoon, and on Monday a head doctor came and [says to me]: ‘fuck off to the infectious hospital’.”

Ryszard currently resides with his partner, who is also enrolled in a methadone substitution program and awaiting surgery for a fractured spine. According to Ryszard, the impact of the pandemic on their lives has been minimal. He temporarily stopped taking antiretroviral treatment for HIV, but he does not directly attribute this to the pandemic. Rather, he attributes it to a sense of alienation and stigma in the infectious disease clinic and the medical staff’s lack of concern for people who inject drugs.

“But they [the doctors – author’s note] do, they really approach us like…I tell the doctor that here I am starting to have some pain with these legs. And he says: ‘Ah, these legs, well yes. ‘ And he prescribes me cream as standard; I even already know I’m not going to heal it that way. I tell him I have vein problems because I do, and they’re huge. The nurses couldn’t take my blood, but I found a deep vein in my hand and took blood myself. I’m like, ‘doctor, we did it!’ And he says to me, with such a snarky tone, ‘how can you still get your blood drawn, what kind of drug addict are you?’. And as I’m thinking: ‘retard, I told you, I haven’t been taking that many years’. Fucked up, right?”

From Ryszard’s perspective, the substitution program has not changed significantly during the pandemic. He relied on taxis for the majority of his and his girlfriend’s two-week advance methadone dosage due to his leg wounds. His narrative, similar to Klara’s, demonstrates the ways in which people who use opioids are systemically constructed as disposable subjects (Wang, 2018) – as a group that the system, including the health care system, willingly pushes beyond what it is intended to address. Patients living with HIV and other infectious diseases or opioid users become invisible, unnecessary, and unprotected by the system, particularly in a criminalized context or during a ‘state of exception’ (Agamben 2005). Looking at the experiences of drug users, on the other hand, gives the impression that the pandemic is merely another crisis – part of a complex, multi-layered social world in which the criminalization of drug use and the emphasis on abstinence-only approaches translate not only into continued stigma, but also into poor housing and the threat of homelessness, difficulties in finding work, a lack of access to health and social care, and social isolation. When viewed through the lens of these experiences, the pandemic appears to be less of a unique process bringing social chaos and fear and more of a component of chronic crises, felt most by vulnerable groups.

Agamben Giorgio. (2005). State of Exception. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Agamben Giorgio. (2017). The Omnibus Homo Sacer. Stanford California: Stanford University Press.

Caduff, Carlo. (2020). What Went Wrong: Corona and the World after the Full Stop. Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 34(4), pp. 467-487.

Wang, Jackie. (2018). Carceral Capitalism. South Pasadena (CA): Semiotext(e).

Zigon, Jarrett. (2018). A War on People: Drug User Politics and a New Ethics of Community. Oakland: University of California Press.

[i] I would like to warmly thank all the people who agreed to talk to me and share their stories. I would like to thank Kasia Urbaniak for discussing a possible theoretical framework for the stories described in the post and Bardh Lipa for helping me express myself better in English.

[ii] For more on the invisibility of opioid users in the Polish context, see the interview with Magdalena Bartnik, ‘Niewidoczne populacje [Invisible populations]’ in the book ‘HIVstorie. Żywe polityki HIV/AIDS w Polsce [HIV-stories. Living HIV/AIDS Politics in Poland]’, edited by Justyna Struzik and Agata Dziuban, published by the NOMOS publishing house in 2022.