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).




CrimScapes hosts its first thematic seminars (Online): “Genealogical Perspectives on Criminalisation and Figures of Crime”: May 27th, June 11th/ June 14th

We kindly invite you to participate in the first online seminars hosted by the research project “CrimScapes – Navigating citizenship through European landscapes of criminalisation”. In three online sessions, the project invites attendees to discuss the trend towards criminalisation across Europe by exploring political and legal genealogies and the emergent related figures of crime and criminalised fields. Scholars, students as well as anybody interested in the topic are invited to engage in a lively discussion with the research team and invited speakers.

I. May 27th, 3-6pm (CEST): Seminar Kick-Off

  • Keynote by Prof. Aya Gruber (Author of “The Feminist War on Crime”): “Policing and Bluelining”
  • Project Presentation by CrimScapes’ Principle Investigators Prof. Dr. Beate Binder and Dr. Agata Dziuban
  • Discussion

II. June 11th, 12am-3pm (CEST): Working Session I

  •  Presentation by Johanna Nickels: “Always More and Never Enough? A French-German Comparison of Legislative Dynamics in Criminal Law”
  • Working Groups
  1. Crime and Media:Representations of crime and criminality in the media,
    Prof. Nicolas Hubé, Dr. Jérémy Geeraert, Dr. Claire Ruffio, Dr. Todd Sekuler, tba
  2. Vulnerabilising criminalised subjects: Entanglements of gender and crime,
    Dr. Agata Chełstowska, Dr. Agata Dziuban, Dr. Friederike Faust, Dr. Justyna Struzik

III. June 14th, 10am-1pm (CEST): Working Session II

  • Presentation by Dr. Mathilde Darley: “Judging human trafficking in France and Germany: The criminal production of the victim of sexual exploitation”
  •  Discussion
  •  Launch of CrimLines (Timelines of Criminalisation)
  • Enroll: To attend the first session (open to the public) and/or to express your interest in the working sessions, please follow this link:  Please note that the second and third sessions are working sessions entailing exchanges within small working groups and thus with a limit number of participants.
  • The event(s) will be hosted via zoom. All information will be communicated via email prior to the event(s). For any further questions, don’t hesitate to get in touch with Jérémy Geereart via