When German abolitionists talk about the situation of prostitution in Germany, we hear the same responses, over and over: “You’ve got to be kidding!” or “How is this possible?” When we do presentations in other countries, people in the audience will often start to cry or ask for a break after 15 minutes to get some fresh air. The same presentations in Germany cause outrage as well, but we’ve noticed that people have become so accustomed to the situation, their emotional response is subdued. In fact, German men will often openly and proudly out themselves as sex buyers at abolitionist events. There is no shame in being a john in Germany. This is an obvious and alarming sign that decades of legalized prostitution shape society.
It’s easy not to notice the harms of prostitution if we don’t look at them directly and, while all women are impacted by the realities of prostitution, most people who aren’t directly involved in the sex industry have limited knowledge as to what goes on in it. We have to ask ourselves honestly what the implications of normalizing prostitution are, and whether we have done enough to push back. It is not acceptable to simply say, “I am not personally affected by it and there are more important things to focus on.” When we uncover serious violations of human rights, as is the case in prostitution, it is our responsibility to do something about it. If we take an honest look at the situation in Germany, it is clear that action is sorely needed.
Politics and the profiteers of prostitution
Contrary to popular belief, with the exception of a short period of time in the early 20th century, prostitution had actually been legal in Germany for more than 100 years previous to the passage of the 2001 prostitution law, Prostitutionsgesetz. The bill was put forth by The Social Democratic Party of Germany and the Greens (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen), and was supported by Germany’s liberal party, the Free Democratic Party, and the Party of Democratic Socialism (now called Die Linke). It was opposed only by the Conservatives.
The law, which actually has more to do with the legalization of pimping, says that prostitution is no longer considered “against the good morals” of the country. Whereas, in the past, the “violation of morality law” meant that court cases involving exploitation were dealt with as a breech of ethics, this law is no longer applied in the context of prostitution. Despite its old-fashioned name, the violation of morality law has practically been the only way to challenge exploitation or unethical business transactions in areas not explicitly regulated by laws — things like extremely low pay, rent increases, or very high interest rates. The decision to exempt prostitution from this “morality” law may have sounded progressive, but it made exploiting women that much easier.
Our politicians celebrated this “big success” with a glass of champagne, wholly on board with the new normal. Even the Christian Social Union got involved in the building of a brothel in Dachau, calling it a “completely ordinary business.” Counselor Helmet Erhorn, who was working as an electrician on the project, said, “I think we are creating a great thing: a wonderful sauna, a whirlpool to relax in… It will be the most beautiful establishment in Dachau. […] We need places like that in the city.”
The German “underground”
In their efforts to discredit the Nordic model, opponents say that in Sweden, prostitution hasn’t actually declined, but instead has gone “underground.” This is, of course, not true. Law enforcement and social workers in Sweden, where the Nordic model has been in place for over a decade, say they have no problem finding prostitution and johns; the only issue is finding resources to address these situations.
In addition to legalizing pimping, the Prostitution Act made it possible for prostituted people to become regular employees, subject to taxation and access to social benefits. Yet only 44 out of an estimated 400,000-1,000,000 prostituted people have chosen to register as prostitutes in order to access said benefits.
In Wiesbaden, my hometown and the capital of Hesse (population 280,000), officials have no idea how many people are prostituted within the city borders but guessed it could be 250 women, saying, “Wiesbaden is too bourgeois, so there isn’t a big demand.” But through my own research, I found 1,000 prostituted women (and transwomen) working in the city. This is a much more realistic number than 250 — about the same number of prostituted women as there are in all of Ireland. There are only two (relatively small) recognizable brothels in the city, one “sauna club,” and a recently opened “flatrate” club. But most prostitution can be found in apartments all over the city, which are allowed even in the areas where brothels are prohibited. There are also porn theatres where men can find prostituted women, “tea clubs” (which mainly serve Turkish and Arab men and have mainly Bulgarian and Romanian women working there), your regular escorts, and, of course, online prostitution. Most people are surprised to learn that micro-brothels exist right in their own neighborhood, because they lack the visibility of mega-brothels like Paradise and Pascha.
Then there’s the organized crime factor. Organized crime groups like the Hells Angels, Mongols, Bandidos, United Tribuns, etc. control prostitution and red light districts in various German cities. Hamburg and Frankfurt, for example, are in the hands of the Hells Angels, whereas the United Tribuns control prostitution in Stuttgart and Villingen-Schwenningen. Despite that reality, popular discourse around legalization tends to focus on women’s “free choice” instead of the heavy involvement of organized crime in the industry.
When we consider this, along with the fact that relatively few people receive the supposed social benefits that come with having the industry “out in the open,” shouldn’t we be talking about the way in which prostitution in Germany is “underground?”
Prostitution in the educational system
Pro Familia, a member of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), is an organization that advises schools in their sex education materials. Among the material they recommended for teenagers is a book called, “Sexualpädagogik der Vielfalt“ (which loosely translates to “Sexual Pedagogy of Diversity”). This text includes suggestions and material for projects in which students are asked to name sex positions and to “modernize a brothel.” In small groups they are to discuss what “services” a “Freudenhaus der sexuellen Lebenslust” (which loosely translates to “pleasure house of sexual lust for life”) should offer.
Those who protested this kind of content being introduced into curriculum were accused of being “reactionary,” “conservative,” and “prudish.
Members of the teachers’ union (GEW) in the state of Hessen were offered advanced teacher training courses between 2006 and 2015, taught by a pro-decriminalization lobby group called “Dona Carmen.” Teachers could collect professional training credits by participating. (Last year, the general assembly decided to eliminate these courses from the education program.)
The normalization of prostitution in Germany, even among school-aged children, has lead to young men celebrating their high school graduation (called “Abitur”) together in brothels. Here, it’s no big deal that boys as young as 16 go to their local prostitution apartment to buy sex (something I see on a regular basis in my own neighbourhood).
Greed is hot
“Geiz ist geil” is a phrase commonly used in German ads and marketing campaigns, meaning, “greed is hot” or “greed is good.” Unsurprisingly, this idea — that the public should try to get everything as cheaply as possible — is transferred to the prostitution market as well. Women are sold as products, so, as products, they should be as cheap as possible. Brothel owners fall over themselves trying to offer the best bargain:
A flat-rate brothel chain called “Pussy Club” made headlines when, on its opening day on June 5, 2009, 1,700 men lined up to get in. The long lineups outside women’s rooms lasted until closing time when many of the women collapsed from exhaustion, pain, injuries, and infections, including painful rashes and fungal infections that spread from their genitals down their legs. It was shut down a year later for human trafficking.
Flat-rate brothels are very common in Germany, as well as “tabuslos,” meaning “no taboos.” In practice, this translates to “everything without any protection.” As a result, STDs are on the rise in Germany (HIV rates have gone up after several years of stagnation), and it’s common for married men to infect their wives.
Competing for customers means that brothel chains like the Pascha in Cologne offer gambling games with the chance of winning a free hookup. A brothel in Berlin gives customers a “collection card” like coffee shops do — five visits will grant you a 50 per cent rebate, and your 11th visit is free.
In Germany, both convenience and frugality are key, and men can go to parking garages for drive-in sex, or visit stalls called “Verrichtungsbox” (“getting things done” boxes). They can now even order women the way one would order a pizza thanks to a mobile app produced last year.
Prostitution and pornography connect in Germany
A company called Uschi Haller Fun & Films hosts and films gang bang parties with different themes, which they then sell to the public as pornography. Each participant pays 35 Euros, which includes drinks and food. The women provided as “entertainment” are all prostituted women. Condom-use is explicitly banned, though face masks are provided in order to protect the identity of the johns. The men must either bring a recent HIV-test (no older than two weeks) or have a quick test done on the premises. Some examples of Uschi Haller DVD titles include: “Teenie Tina, Six Months Pregnant,” “The Big Grub,” “Pee Party,” or “Sloshing Party” (where women are plied with alcohol so they’ll be more compliant). They also have “feeding frenzies” where women are fed spaghetti in between oral sex until they vomit.
The company publishes pictures of the aftermath, which always show women with glazed eyes and inflamed orifices. These images are contrasted with celebratory language, implying the women had great fun. In Teenie Tina’s case, a description of her genitals on the site read, “looked like a Baboon’s ass, all red and swollen.”
Prostitution ads are everywhere
If you go to Cologne by train, the first thing you’ll see when you leave the station are taxis featuring ads for the Pascha brothel.
In Berlin you might see a bus advertising for the Artemis brothel.
On the highway you might pass a truck that is decorated like this:
…or come to pass a motorway bridge like this:
In restricted areas where advertising is forbidden, moving advertising pillars are driven through the cities, or trucks, vans, and trolleys are parked until enough residents complain, and they are moved to the next street.
On today’s “menu”…
Prostitution lobbyism in pop culture
In Germany, there are a number of TV shows that promote pornography and prostitution. The German newspaper, FAZ, accurately calls these type of programs “editorial advertising films.”
A channel called RTL II airs reality shows that promote a positive view of prostitution, showing prostituted women talking about how much they love what they do and how exciting everything is. In 2010, RTL II aired a program about a brothel called Teenyland in Cologne which caters to pedo-sexual fantasies. Women that look and dress like minors are available in rooms called “The Princess Room” or “The Classroom.” A video on YouTube shows the fifth anniversary of this brothel, attended by many German celebrities.
In 2011, a reality show called The Wollersheims followed brothel owner Bert Wollersheim and “the new love of Germany’s most iconic brothel boss.” In the ’90s, Wollersheim was charged with human trafficking. A prostituted woman had been kidnapped (on his instruction), because she didn’t want to work in one of his brothels anymore and her new boyfriend (or pimp?) wasn’t willing to pay a transfer fee.
This didn’t seem to damage his public image. In fact, only days after the mass assaults in Cologne, Mayor of Düsseldorf Thomas Geisler showed up dressed up as Wollersheim at the German Carnival. His wife dressed up — fake breasts and all — as Wollersheim’s partner.
Michael Beretin, manager of the famous Paradise brothel chain, is involved in two reality TV programs featuring German brothels. In Rotlicht Experten (Redlight Experts), brothels can apply to be tested for quality — of the women, the atmosphere, the sanitation — and through the show, they can acquire a quality seal. On another show, the “Bordell S.O.S.” team jazzes up brothels in order to help them bring in more cash.
In a revealing UK Channel 4 documentary called The Mega Brothel, Beretin says to the camera, “Just look at these soulless, fucked up bitches. Some time ago women did this job with passion, but those days are over.” Beretin was arrested in 2015 on suspicion of human trafficking, forced prostitution, and fraud.
In spite of that, RTL II continues to air the show on occasion.
Beretin and Jürgen Rudloff, the owner of the Paradise chain, are often invited to participate in political talks about prostitution in the media. They are represented as “successful businessmen,” who earn their money through “clean” prostitution. Actors, singers, and athletes visit the establishments without shame, posing for pictures with Beretin and Rudloff.
Similarly, other big-name German pimps get treated like royalty. For example, despite the fact that he’s been to jail for money laundering, fraud, and human trafficking, over four million people “like” mega-brothel owner Prince Marcus of Anhalt’s Facebook page. As one of the biggest brothel owners in Germany, Prince Marcus has more than 1,000 prostituted women working for him.
Legalizing and liberalizing does not make prostitution safe
As described on the website Sex Industry Kills, at least 69 prostituted women have been killed since the year 2000 in Germany. These are only reported cases, and there are likely more that are not on record. There have been at least 22 murder attempts, two people have gone missing, and one woman died in a brothel from a drug overdose. Not a single week passes without media reports about prostituted women being raped, robbed, or threatened in some way.
We have a long way to go, a bitter fight ahead, and German abolitionists can’t do it alone. We need third parties to say, “Are you Germans completely nuts?” Documentaries and reports have begun to tell the truth about the situation in Germany. Even “sex work” lobbyists are saying the “German model” isn’t desirable. It’s time for Germans to start feeling ashamed, not proud, of their situation.
Manuela Schon is an activist with Abolition 2014 and co-founded Linke gegen Prostitution (“Leftists Against Prostitution”) in Germany’s leftist political party, Die Linke. She lives in Wiesbaden.