Unprotected: How Legalizing Prostitution Has Failed
Part 4: Berlin's Erroneous Approach
According to Gugel, many women are in emotional or economic predicaments. There is evidence that a higher-than-average number of prostitutes were abused or neglected as children. Surveys have shown that many can be considered traumatized. Prostitutes suffer from depression, anxiety disorders and addiction at a much higher rate than the general population. Most prostitutes have been raped, many of them repeatedly. In surveys, most women say that they would get out of prostitution immediately if they could.
Of course, there are also those women who decide that they would rather sell their bodies than stock supermarket shelves. But there is every indication that they are a minority, albeit one that is vocally represented by a few female brothel owners and prostitution lobbyists like Felicitas Schirow.
German law takes a fundamentally erroneous approach, says law professor Gugel. To protect women, she explains, prostitution needs to be limited and the customers punished. Hers is a lone voice in Germany.
But not elsewhere in Europe. Some countries that once pursued a path similar to Germany's are turning away and following the example set by the Swedes. Two years before Germany passed its prostitution law, the Swedes took the opposite approach. Activist Kajsa Ekis Ekman is fighting to convince the rest of Europe to emulate her country. Since publishing a book in which she described the lives of prostitutes, Ekman has been traveling from one European city to the next, as a sort of ambassador in the fight against human trafficking.
In mid-April, Ekman's campaign took her to KOFRA, a women's center in Munich. Ekman is blond, blue-eyed, petite and energetic. She sits on a narrow wooden chair and is so intent on talking that the cup of coffee in front of her gets cold -- as if there weren't enough time for all the arguments that are now important to make.
As a student in Barcelona, Ekman shared an apartment with a woman who worked as a prostitute. She witnessed how pimps dominate their employees. "I've been involved ever since I experienced how my roommate was selling her body," she says. Back in Sweden, she was astonished by a public debate over free love and the self-determination of prostitutes. "What I had seen was different," says Ekman.
Punishing the Clients, Not the Prostitutes
In 1999, when Sweden made it illegal to buy sexual services, its European neighbors could hardly believe it. For the first time, it was the customers and not the prostitutes who were being punished.
"Prostitution now flourishes in obscurity," wrote the influential German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, saying that it was a "defeat for the women's movement in Sweden," and speculating that "dogmatic feminism" was at work. Can a society that wants to be free of prudery punish men who visit prostitutes? It can, says Ekman, citing the successes in her country, where fewer and fewer men are paying for sex and where those who do are more and more ashamed of it. "Before our law came into effect, one in eight men in Sweden had visited a prostitute," she says, and notes that that number has since declined to one in 12.
Of course, prostitution still exists in Sweden, but street prostitution has declined by half. The total number of prostitutes has dropped from an estimated 2,500 to about 1,000 to 1,500. Pimps bring women from Eastern Europe into the country in minivans and they often camp out on the outskirts of cities, but prostitution is no longer a big business. Critics counter that prostitution in apartments and via the Internet has increased, and some men are now going to brothels in the Baltic countries or Eastern Europe instead.
The Swedish law isn't based on the prostitute's right to make autonomous decisions, but on the equal status of men and women, which is enshrined in both the Swedish and German constitutions. The argument, in greatly simplified terms, is that prostitution is exploitation, and that there is always an imbalance in power. The fact that men can buy women for sex, the Swedes argue, cements a perception of women that is detrimental to equal rights and all women.
'Pimp My Bordello'
Sweden punishes the customers, pimps and human traffickers, not the prostitutes. This approach is intended to stifle demand for sex for money and make the business unprofitable for traffickers and exploiters. Two years ago, the Swedes increased the maximum penalty for johns from six to 12 months in prison.
Although the police are not always especially assiduous about pursuing punters, they have arrested more than 3,700 men since 1999. In most cases, the men were only forced to pay fines. There are also debates in Sweden over whether the restrictive law is the right approach, but it enjoys considerable support among the population. Ten years after the law was enacted, more than 70 percent of Swedes said they supported punishing the men who pay for sex instead of the prostitutes they pay.
In Germany, on the other hand, the situation is such that the RTL II television channel broadcasts a show in which a "Pimp my bordello" team drives around the country to visit "German brothels in trouble" and boost the sex business with good advice. It is efforts like this that prompted Alice Schwarzer, publisher of the feminist journal EMMA, to envision, "as a near-term goal" for Germany, "a social debate that culminates in the condemnation of prostitution instead of, as is the case today, its acceptance and even promotion."
Pierrette Pape believes that there are consequences to the way prostitution is viewed in various countries. "Nowadays, a little boy in Sweden grows up with the fact that buying sex is a crime. A little boy in the Netherlands grows up with the knowledge that women sit in display windows and can be ordered like mass-produced goods." Pape is the spokeswoman of the European Women's Lobby in Brussels, an umbrella group for 2,000 European women's organizations.
Pape finds it "surprising" that Germany is not seriously reviewing its policies related to human trafficking. "The debate has begun throughout Europe, and we hope that German politicians and aid organizations will pay more attention to human rights in the future than they have until now."
Several European countries now follow the Swedish model. In Iceland, which has adopted similar legislation, politicians are even considering a ban on online pornography. Since 2009, Norway has also punished the customers of prostitutes. In Barcelona, it is illegal to employ the services of a street prostitute.
The French Approach
Under a Finnish law enacted in 2006, men can be punished if they were customers of a prostitute who works for a pimp or is a victim of human trafficking. But it has proved to be impossible to prove that the men knew that this was the case. The Finnish Justice Ministry is now preparing a report on whether Finland should adopt the Swedish model.
Many in France also want to emulate Sweden. Shortly before taking office, the minister responsible for women's rights, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, made a bold announcement. "My goal is to see prostitution disappear," she said. Politicians and sociologists derided the idea as "utopian," and prostitutes protested in the streets of Lyon and Paris. Vallaud-Belkacem's draft law calls for up to six months in prison and a 3,000 fine for clients. But it will probably take some time before she can prevail within the government.
And in Germany? Politicians in Berlin argue over minimal changes to the prostitution law and then end up doing nothing. In 2007, then-Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), wanted to make brothels subject to government approval, and fellow CDU member Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who was interior minister of the state of Saarland at the time (and who is now governor of the state), supported her. But the two politicians failed to secure a majority within their party and nothing happened.
In 2008, the Conference of Equality and Women's Ministers tried to introduce a rule that would make brothel operators subject to a reliability test. They consulted with their colleagues in the Conference of Interior Ministers, but nothing happened.
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