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Positive Reforms in Germany - Not only Legal but Moral Prostitution

The legislation of prostitution is so hotly debated that at times it appears as if the bodies of women and men involved in sex work aren’t as important as the questions of morality surrounding the profession. One country has attempted to legislate morality in the hopes that it will lead to better treatment of the people involved. For three years running, prostitution in Germany is—by law—no longer immoral. Since prostitution in Germany has always been technically “legal,” what does this change mean in concrete terms?

Katharina Cetin is the spokeswoman for HYDRA, a counseling center and a meeting point for sex workers in Berlin. According to her, the law has brought some positive changes to the lives of prostitutes working in Germany. “The new legislation has created a lot of changes since 2002. Women are no longer stigmatized the way they once were. They can go to a judge if they don’t get the money [from a client]. In the past that was not possible.”

Since the changes, brothel owners are able to provide better working conditions for prostitutes, whereas in the past brothel owners could be punished for providing prostitutes with condoms, clean bathrooms, towels and proper sanitary conditions. Police would accuse clean brothel owners of encouraging prostitution. Further making their jobs unsafe was the fact that in the past sex workers were ineligible to apply for state health care. Now they are required to register as self-employed, granting them access to state benefits. Pimps are still under penalty by law for economically and/or emotionally exploiting women so that now women can easily take them to court and press charges.

The visibility of prostitution is important, according to Cetin, because “if women start to talk and think more openly about sex work or imagine what it would be like to be a prostitute they can start to think about their own sexuality in new ways. This is very important. Sometimes, we have found, prostitutes choose to go into prostitution because it is clandestine … if a woman has more possibilities to talk about [prostitution], it is easier for her to make a decision in general about whether it will be good for her or not.” But getting to the stage where the pros and cons of prostitution can be openly discussed and without judgment isn’t as quick to develop as is the legislation. According to Cetin, in some small German towns, women don’t want to register as self-employed “because, for example, the clerk might be the friend of her brother. And the profession is still so stigmatized.” Yet if she doesn’t apply for a tax id number to pay taxes on her earnings, she can be fined not only for that year but for every year that she has worked “illegally.” In other cities, prostitutes can only work in sperrbezirks verordnung (tolerance zones): areas of the city or apartment buildings that are designated for prostitution. Unfortunately, some landlords take advantage of this restriction and charge higher rates for women renting in such zones. If a prostitute chooses not to work in a tolerance zone, her only other option is to work outside the city where it is dark and there are no toilets or showers. Pimps inevitably get involved so that women have some degree of protection but in return they may take a large percentage of her earnings.

While the legislation in Germany is far from perfect, it is one place where some sex workers can enjoy some amount of autonomy over their profession and their bodies. In places where prostitution is legal and openly discussed—such as Nevada, where one group has established an online forum for prostitutes, clients and “newbies”—the flaws of current prostitution legislation and the problems that arise for sex workers come to the surface. This kind of open discussion is what will most effectively begin to change society’s larger moral outlook regarding sex work. HYDRA would like to see Germany’s legislation upheld and further progress made to fight de facto discriminatory practices affecting prostitutes, but when the legislation is up for evaluation this fall, advocates fear that what positive steps have been made could be lost or undermined.

Leading the campaign to dismantle the current legislation are the conservative CSU (Christian Social Union in Bavaria) and CDU (Christian Democratic Union of Germany) parties. They argue that the law is protecting traffickers and have proposed legislation that would punish clients. But HYDRA argues that punishing clients often results in worse conditions for trafficked women because they are taken to even more remote places in order not to be found. The reality that women’s safety often becomes secondary even when legislation is intended to protect them may be the crux of the controversy around legislating sex work. Perhaps, nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the issue of trafficked women. Nearly 80% of Germany’s sex workers are migrants, placing those who work illegally outside of German law. Of these, about 1% have been trafficked.

HYDRA works with an immigration lawyer to find which women have been trafficked and assists them in testifying against their pimps. They are the only organization that is allowed to enter the Kopenick Deportation Prison in the Kopenick region of Berlin, where women caught working illegally are detained and charged 60 Euros a night for their stay. “We go from room to room and talk to each of them,” Cetin says. “This is often difficult because, for instance, right now there are nine Chinese women who need a translator and we can’t find anyone to help us. This has been a problem for nine months.”

At the EU Congress of Sex Workers in autumn, women and men currently working as prostitutes will draft a sex worker’s bill of rights to offer to Brussels. Hopefully, the document will articulate some of the actions that the EU can take in order to best protect them and their bodies, so long as sex work continues to employ women and men, moral or not.