Unprotected: How Legalizing Prostitution Has Failed
When Germany legalized prostitution just over a decade ago, politicians hoped that it would create better conditions and more autonomy for sex workers. It hasn't worked out that way, though. Exploitation and human trafficking remain significant problems. By SPIEGEL Staff
Sânandrei is a poor village in Romania with run-down houses and muddy paths. Some 80 percent of its younger residents are unemployed, and a family can count itself lucky if it owns a garden to grow potatoes and vegetables.
Alina is standing in front of her parents' house, one of the oldest in Sânandrei, wearing fur boots and jeans. She talks about why she wanted to get away from home four years ago, just after she had turned 22. She talks about her father, who drank and beat his wife, and sometimes abused his daughter, too. Alina had no job and no money.
Through a friend's new boyfriend, she heard about the possibilities available in Germany. She learned that a prostitute could easily earn 900 ($1,170) a month there.
Alina began thinking about the idea. Anything seemed better than Sânandrei. "I thought I'd have my own room, a bathroom and not too many customers," she says. In the summer of 2009, she and her friend got into the boyfriend's car and drove through Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic until they reached the German capital -- not the trendy Mitte neighborhood in the heart of the city, but near Schönefeld airport, where the name of the establishment alone said something about the owner: Airport Muschis ("Airport Pussies"). The brothel specialized in flat-rate sex. For 100 ($129), a customer could have sex for as long and as often as he wanted.
It all went very quickly, says Alina. There were other Romanians there who knew the man who had brought them there. She was told to hand over her clothes and was given revealing lingerie to wear instead. Only a few hours after her arrival, she was expected to greet her first customers. She says that when she wasn't nice enough to the clients, the Romanians reduced her wages.
The Berlin customers paid their fee at the entrance. Many took drugs to improve sexual performance and could last all night. A line often formed outside Alina's room. She says that she eventually stopped counting how many men got into her bed. "I blocked it out," she says. "There were so many, every day."
Alina says that she and the other women were required to pay the pimps 800 a week. She shared a bed in a sleeping room with three other women. There was no other furniture. All she saw of Germany was the Esso gas station around the corner, where she was allowed to go to buy cigarettes and snacks, but only in the company of a guard. The rest of the time, says Alina, she was kept locked up in the club.
Prosecutors learned that the women in the club had to offer vaginal, oral and anal sex, and serve several men at the same time in so-called gangbang sessions. The men didn't always use condoms. "I was not allowed to say no to anything," says Alina. During menstruation, she would insert sponges into her vagina so that the customers wouldn't notice.
She says that she was hardly ever beaten, nor were the other women. "They said that they knew enough people in Romania who knew where our families lived. That was enough," says Alina. When she occasionally called her mother on her mobile phone, she would lie and tell her how nice it was in Germany. A pimp once paid Alina 600, and she managed to send the money to her family.
Alina's story is not unusual in Germany. Aid organizations and experts estimate that there are up to 200,000 working prostitutes in the country. According to various studies, including one by the European Network for HIV/STI Prevention and Health Promotion among Migrant Sex Workers (TAMPEP), 65 to 80 percent of the girls and women come from abroad. Most are from Romania and Bulgaria.
The police can do little for women like Alina. The pimps were prepared for raids, says Alina, and they used to boast that they knew police officers. "They knew when a raid was about to happen," says Alina, which is why she never dared to confide in a police officer.
The pimps told the girls exactly what to tell the police. They should say that they were surfing the web back home in Bulgaria or Romania and discovered that it was possible to make good money by working in a German brothel. Then, they had simply bought themselves a bus ticket and turned up at the club one day, entirely on their own.
Web of Lies
It seems likely that every law enforcement officer who works in a red-light environment hears this same web of lies over and over again. The purpose of the fiction is to cover up all indications of human trafficking, in which women are brought to Germany and exploited there. It becomes a statement that transforms women like Alina into autonomous prostitutes, businesswomen who have chosen their profession freely and to whom Germany now wishes to offer good working conditions in the sex sector of the service industry.
That's the 'respectable whore' image politicians seem in thrall of: free to do as they like, covered under the social insurance system, doing work they enjoy and holding an account at the local savings bank. Social scientists have a name for them: "migrant sex workers," ambitious service providers who are taking advantage of opportunities they now enjoy in an increasingly unified Europe.
In 2001, German parliament, the Bundestag, with the votes of the Social Democratic Party/Green Party governing coalition in power at the time, passed a prostitution law intended to improve working conditions for prostitutes. Under the new law, women could sue for their wages and contribute to health, unemployment and pension insurance programs. The goal of the legislation was to make prostitution a profession like that of a bank teller or dental assistant, accepted instead of ostracized.
The female propagandists of the autonomous sex trade were very pleased with themselves when the law was passed. Then Family Minister Christine Bergmann (SPD) was seen raising a glass of champagne with Kerstin Müller, Green Party parliamentary floor leader at the time, next to Berlin brothel operator Felicitas Weigmann, now Felicitas Schirow. They were three women toasting the fact that men in Germany could now go to brothels without any scruples.
Today many police officers, women's organizations and politicians familiar with prostitution are convinced that the well-meaning law is in fact little more than a subsidy program for pimps and makes the market more attractive to human traffickers.
Strengthening the Rights of Women
When the prostitution law was enacted, the German civil code was also amended. The phrase "promotion of prostitution," a criminal offence, was replaced with "exploitation of prostitutes." Procurement is a punishable offence when it is "exploitative" or "dirigiste." Police and public prosecutors are frustrated, because these elements of an offence are very difficult to prove. A pimp can be considered exploitative, for example, if he collects more than half of a prostitute's earnings, which is rarely possible to prove. In 2000, 151 people were convicted of procurement, while in 2011 it was only 32.
The aim of the law's initiators was in fact to strengthen the rights of the women, and not those of the pimps. They had hoped that brothel operators would finally take advantage of the opportunity to "provide good working conditions without being subject to prosecution," as an appraisal of the law for the Federal Ministry for Families reads.
Before the new law, prostitution itself was not punished, but it was considered immoral. The authorities tolerated brothels, euphemistically referring to them as "commercial room rental." Today, just over 11 years after prostitution was upgraded under the 2001 law, there are between 3,000 and 3,500 red-light establishments, according to estimates by the industry association Erotik Gewerbe Deutschland (UEGD). The Ver.di public services union estimates that prostitution accounts for about 14.5 billion in annual revenues.
There are an estimated 500 brothels in Berlin, 70 in the smaller northwestern city of Osnabrück and 270 in the small southwestern state of Saarland, on the French border. Many Frenchmen frequent brothels in Saarland. Berlin's Sauna Club Artemis, located near the airport, attracts many customers from Great Britain and Italy.
Travel agencies offer tours to German brothels lasting up to eight days. The outings are "legal" and "safe," writes one provider on its homepage. Prospective customers are promised up to 100 "totally nude women" wearing nothing but heels. Customers are also picked up at the airport and taken to the clubs in a BMW 5 Series.
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