“Germany, a paradise for johns and human traffickers.” Photo: EMMA.
Once again, the German prostitution industry comes under a harsh spotlight — one that it thoroughly deserves, in my unhumble opinion. This time, it’s a documentary film that exposes its unattractive innards:
Sometimes, in the face of empty talk shows, trashy afternoon soaps, brainless shows and earnest magazine features in the midnight hours, a well-meaning person might ask oneself what right the public channels have to charge such high rates. And then there are occasional moments that make it all worthwhile. One of them is the extensively researched NDR reportage, “Sex — Made in Germany”, which will be shown this Monday. What the film tells is the story of a shattering — namely, that of legalized prostitution.
The goal of the 2002 law was to give prostitutes rights, and free them from dependence on criminal gangs. It was a “red-green” (Social Democratic Party/Green Party) reform project that partially achieved these goals. Prostitution would no longer be morally offensive, but from then on, treated (and taxed) like a totally normal profession. But that is what it is simply not, even though the creators of parallel worlds of speech came up with such silly concepts as “sex workers”. Journalists Sonia Kennebeck and Tina Soliman researched the results of the legalization, and what they found is disturbing: “The good intention of empowering prostitutes through legislation has turned into its opposite. Woman has become a resource, to be used as efficiently as possible. Outside of this transactional business, however, she loses all worth.”
Germany, according to the film, has become Europe’s bordello. Men come in droves from Japan, the US, and even strictly-moralistic Arabia to have their fun. 30,000 visitors a month come to Köln’s mega-bordello, “Pascha”. One part of the film shows some johns on hidden camera, sizing up the meat market in a big bordello, and one doesn’t have to be overly moralistic to feel that one has stepped into Dante’s Inferno.
The proprietors of such places are no longer tattooed hoodlums, but rather they see themselves as businessmen following the laws of the marketplace, of supply and demand. What the men prattle on about sounds like a shrill parody of the snake-oil promises of neoliberalism. The “press spokesman” of a bordello whines about statist regulation, even though the regulations have almost all disappeared. The owner of an Internet sex exchange says: “We see ourselves as a lifestyle marketplace.” The client, male or female, can rate the offerings with stars, like a reader with a book on Amazon.com. There are exchanges where the highest bidder can buy sex with virgins, pregnant women, or without a condom. If a prostitute is out of luck, and the auction goes badly for lack of demand, she might have to spend a night with two guys who pay her three euros. All of this was more or less illegal prior to 2001.
Flat discount rates are also very popular. The law was supposed to give the women back their dignity. That hasn’t happened. In the free-market atmosphere of the German sex industry, they are just interchangeable wares, and replaceable at any time. Kennebeck and her cameraman, Torsten Lapp, also travelled to Romania, where many of these women came from, and what they found out there, reveals all talk of free will and free markets as what it really is: a lie.
More than half the prostitutes of a flat-rate bordello in Berlin come from Romania and Bulgaria, and few of them knew what was waiting for them in Germany. The owner, again a total marketing man, tells the camera: “These women are just more engaged, because they’re new in the business. Let’s just say they can take more abuse.”
A Romanian woman named Sorana tells how the pimps lured her to Germany. She knew that she wouldn’t be working as a babysitter, that it had to do with sex. She didn’t know that she would be on call, like a slave, in a flat-rate bordello for up to 40 johns a day: “Some nights I only had two or three hours’ sleep. I couldn’t refuse any client. It was awful.” They were “treated like trash”: Many of these women, says Tina Soliman, “were kidnapped, emotionally manipulated, forced into prostitution in Germany”. That is, naturally, still illegal, but no brothel owner sees himself in any way responsible: “Not my job,” says one, as long as the papers are in order. He has so many women working for him, how should he run a background check every time? That’s the state’s job.
And the state is very interested in the red-light palaces, that have lured sex tourists to Germany as they previously did for Thailand. The inspectors don’t want to know, however, what human dramas play out here. They cash in heavily, even from streetwalkers. The women are the ones who have to pay. When asked why the johns aren’t taxed, the man from Stuttgart city hall says: “Well, we don’t know him, the john.”
The makers of this great film reveal all this without pathos, or even accusations. They judge no one, hold no morality lectures. They only tell it like it is. And yet, their pictures show a world that no society would wish for itself. Good intentions are always simple. But the world that they are meant to change is unfortunately not.
This comes at a crucial juncture for Canada, as three old prostitution laws have been struck down in Ontario and the debate is now on as to how (or whether) to replace them, and with what. Several so-called “sex workers’ rights” groups claim that any laws governing pimps and johns constitute de facto criminalization of the prostitutes, who are mostly (but not always) women and girls.
But are they? The liberal German laws, which purport to decriminalize prostitution and dignify the lives of the prostituted, have clearly had the opposite effect. Organized crime has stepped in, using the mantle of legitimacy to conduct its unsavory business at ever greater profits to the mafias, and ever greater costs to the women and girls they have imported, most of them from the poorest parts of Eastern Europe. And with zero accountability to the state, which is supposed to protect the prostitutes.
And yet, we are meant to understand this as “a job (or profession) just like any other”. What other jobs and professions are governed by the bosses of organized crime syndicates? And what other jobs and professions have the government looking the other way, except to tax the workers — milking that cash cow twice?
And that cow does get milked. Not so far back, EMMA had a piece on the horrors of the flat-rate brothels, where men pay a shockingly small fee for unlimited sex. No time limit, no limit on the number of women he can use — and often, no limit on what he can do to them, either. Again, the women are imported from Eastern Europe…because as Kajsa Ekis Ekman found (and I translated), there is never enough home-grown “talent” to supply the ravenous demand, and because the local girls aren’t as willing to put up with abusive or dangerous practices.
Yes, there are some freelance prostitutes, and even a fortunate few who have made a good living on their own terms that way, but the trafficked ones grossly outnumber them. Because, go figure, most women (cisgender or trans), and gay men too, have difficulty overcoming their distaste for sex with strangers they don’t actually want to have sex with. And money, strangely, doesn’t always mitigate that.
Much less when organized crime is holding the purse strings, and the state is looking the other way…except, of course, at tax time.