Karina Alteweier, a physician assistant in Leverkusen, Germany, points out an example of the kind of advertising she’s fighting in her city. Right next to it, a children’s musical is advertised. The brothel’s name, address, and other details are blocked out, but you can see that a day pass to enter the premises costs 55 euros. That’s dirt cheap, considering what it costs the women and girls who are typically imported from Eastern Europe to service those places (because there are not many German women who would freely contemplate such a job). EMMA interviewed Karina about what she does when she sees such ads…which, by the way, are illegal according to the local vice code.
EMMA: Frau Alteweier, you’ve been fighting for years against brothel advertising in your city. You’ve even gone to the complaint department of the mayor’s office.
KA: Exactly. I informed them there that according to Paragraphs 119 and 120 of the vice code, advertising for brothels is not allowed.
EMMA: How did you get involved against brothel advertising?
KA: One morning in 2011, on my way to work, I saw a huge billboard for the megabrothel “Pascha”, in Köln. My head exploded. I can’t accept that prostitution gets advertised as if it were ice cream — as if it were the most normal thing in the world. For me, as a woman, that’s discriminatory. And what image of women does that give our young people? I’m the mother of a 21-year-old son, and it’s horrific for me to imagine him going to a bordello. When I asked him about it, he got mad and said, “Mama, how can you think such a thing?”
And moreover, what effect must such an ad have on the victims of sexual abuse? For a woman who was abused as a child or a teenager, it must be like a slap in the face to see the sexual availability of women being advertised so casually.
EMMA: What did you do?
KA: I complained everywhere. I even called the police. There, they were very cranky and downright rude. And at the company that rents the ad space, an employee waved me off: “What’s the matter with you, that’s a chic photo!” So I went to the city offices, where there’s always an open ear for me. I also turned to the press. They reported it in a big, critical way. Some of the ads also hung along a school route, and mothers protested against that as well. Then the ads disappeared.
EMMA: The Pascha ads haven’t appeared again since then. But now there’s a megabrothel in Erkrath advertising for some time with the headline “100 Girls”.
KA: It all started with small flyers pasted up on bridges. I also complained about that to the city. So then the city put up signs in various places: “No advertising!” Meanwhile, this brothel has been putting up huge billboards. I counted them. Here in Leverkusen alone, there are at least ten. So then I called the city offices and had those ads taken down too, but it took three weeks. So my complaints have almost always had results.
EMMA: But that’s not enough for you.
KA: No. I don’t want to have to complain again and again every time there’s an ad. I want the city to make clear that it won’t tolerate any brothel advertising, and that ad space must not be rented to brothels in the first place. For that reason, on May 11, I wrote another letter of complaint to the city and asked to make use of my right to speak to the complaint department.
EMMA: How did the department react?
KA: Before the session, they sent me back a letter saying that there is a “changed understanding on the part of the public regarding prostitution”, and that one would have to deal with the advertising on a “case by case” basis. For instance, one would have to see if there were hints of “forced” prostitution, or “prostitution of minors”. As if they would write that on their billboards! Also, there are other cities, like for example Bremen, that don’t allow any brothel advertising at all.
EMMA: How did the complaint department respond to that?
KA: I told them again that advertising for prostitution is illegal, and then read them the corresponding paragraphs. I also told them that I know many people in my area who are not at all tolerant of prostitution, and don’t find this brothel advertising acceptable at all. But some of the department members didn’t listen to me at all, and just talked amongst themselves. They didn’t want to discuss it, either. After my presentation, they decided to keep things as they were. Luckily, a lady from the press was sitting next to me. She was disgusted at their ignorance and offered to write an article about this consultation.
EMMA: Meanwhile, you have the support of equality commissioner Sabine Rusch-Witthorn.
KA: She accompanied me to the sitting at my request, and plans to keep going with the topic.
EMMA: You too?
KA: Naturally! I have so much support. My chief physician and my colleagues all share my opinion completely. Whenever they read an article on the matter in the paper, they say: “You’re completely right, we see it that way too!” And there are always lots of supportive letters from the readers. That affirms and encourages me, naturally. I’m sticking with it; I can’t do otherwise. Every time I see such an ad, my motor starts running again.
Karina’s battle is uphill, and little wonder: Germany’s bordellos bring in billions of euros a year in gross revenue. There are nearly half a million women in prostitution there, most of them foreigners. It’s a vicious circle: Legalization creates normalization; normalization creates demand; demand spurs traffickers to increase the supply of prostituted persons from out of country; more supply, more normalization; more normalization, more money!
And as long as the brothel operators pay their taxes and the police don’t get too many calls about violence on the premises (even though it happens, and far more often than is mentioned in the media), the city authorities don’t much care what goes on in there. It takes nothing less than the most flagrant human rights abuses, disease outbreaks, and accusations of human trafficking that stick before a bordello gets shuttered. The money apparently matters more than the well-being of the girls, who are typically under 20 and speak little German (or English) beyond what it takes to reel off a price list and negotiate a transaction. It’s a situation where abuse isn’t a glitch, it’s a feature.
And if you think it’s any safer in brothels than it is on the street, read Rebecca Mott’s interview here and find out why pro-prostitution campaigners are so eager to push the “indoors = harm reduction” meme. You’ll see it has a lot less to do with prostituted people’s safety than it does with lack of accountability, and the abusers’ and exploiters’ ability to get away with everything (up to and including murder). Off the street is out of sight, and out of sight is out of mind…or so the pimp lobby reckons.
Of course, as brazen as they are, they reckoned without the likes of Karina and her colleagues, who aren’t fooled by all this defensive, dismissive talk of a “changed morality” in Germany. It’s a bald-faced lie that all German women support prostitution, seeing it as an “escape valve” for “dangerous impulses” that would otherwise lead to rape. Rape is still happening, and in fact is more rampant than ever; unprostituted women are now afraid to walk through red-light districts because drunken brothel patrons often accost them on the street! (Normalization creates demand, remember?)
It’s also a lie that the country is better and happier since prostitution was legalized in 2001. It might be richer in some small parts, thanks to horny foreigners on sex tours, but that’s not an improvement! The wealth is not trickling down. Most prostitutes are desperately poor when they enter, and no better off when they exit. Women are still being assaulted, abused and murdered, and many of them are in prostitution when it happens. The closed doors of the brothel conceal a multitude of crimes against humanity. And the spillover from that reaches onto the streets, too…where prostitution hasn’t exactly abated, either.
These activists, however, know their local laws and are disgusted with the blatant abuses going on under their noses. And they will not stop opposing the pimps’ efforts to turn a profit at everyone else’s expense. Even those with no children to worry about can figure out for themselves what it must feel like to someone who was sexually abused at an early age to see acts similar to those committed against her being “legally” advertised for sale…on a billboard, a wall, or a city bus. To such individuals, the city authorities’ reluctance to step in and stop it must feel like a whole fresh round of abuse.