Germany legalized, decriminalized and regulated prostitution in 2002, and since then, it has remained a highly controversial topic. The new documentary by German director Rosa von Praunheim, Rent Boys, (Die Jungs vom Bahnhof Zoo), explores the lives of five male sex workers working in and around Berlin’s Zoo Station. It aims to bring to light the brutal realities of a “profession” that many fall into, often at an early age. The film’s release gives us a good opportunity to examine how and why Germany legalized prostitution — and whether or not it’s benefiting society.
Critics of the prostitution law feared that it would only increased human trafficking, drawing sex-trafficking rings from Africa and Eastern Europe. According to German police, however, the number of cases of human trafficking reported in Germany actually decreased from 1235 cases in 2003 to 710 in 2009.
Stephanie Klee, a prostitute working in Germany for twenty-five years, told the German daily newspaper Der Tagesspiegel that she felt prostitution was becoming a legitimate business. “Sex work is slowly becoming more similar to other professions,” she explained. She currently works as sex worker with senior citizens, as well as the disabled. Apparently, many German brothels are now “handicapped-friendly”, with special entrances, locker facilities and changing rooms. Der Tagesspiegel noted that “Sexualassistenz,” or “sexual assistance,” is a well-known term in German insurance bureaucratese.
Before Germany legalized and began to regulate prostitution in 2002, it was not exactly illegal to run brothels. But it was illegal to keep prostitutes in financial dependency. The new laws were largely put into effect to regulate financial and working conditions of prostitutes, and the brothels began being referred to as “Eros Centers.” (There are also massage studios, Domination Studios, spas, “Boys Houses,” etc.) The German courts had strangely made it illegal (pre-2002) for the brothel owners to “create an elegant and discreet atmosphere” or the provide the use of condoms.”
The logic was that the more terrible the working conditions the working conditions were, the faster the prostitute would get out of the business. Unsurprisingly, this approach failed. The “unbearable working conditions” are why so many prostitutes turn to drugs to salve these conditions in the first place. One of the main tenets of the German “Prostitution Act” was to not only legitimatize the social standing of prostitutes, but to make it easier for prostitutes to actually leave the business.
But this is, of course, isn’t always happening: German journalists made a cult superstar out of teen prostitute and heroin addict “Christiane F,” after interviewing her from the ages of 12 to 15. A book and then film was made about her life in 1981, and today, it was reported that Christiane is back on drugs, her 12-year old son being taken away by authorities.
Another one of the ideas behind the prostitution law is curbing organized crime’s involvement in the practice: “By improving the legal status of prostitutes, the criminal activities that often surround prostitution and often have to be classified as organized crime, will have the ground cut from under them.” Yet some reports not only show that sexual trafficking persisted in Germany, but that the prostitutes are getting younger and younger. While the legal age for prostitution is 18, organized crime rings continue to bring in very young girls from Eastern Europe and Africa.
It is commendable, certainly, for these governments to work to improve and legitimatize the life of a prostitute. But sex workers continue to be ostracized, exploited, and abused. Perhaps, as Klee says, prostitution will continue to become more legitimized, better tolerated, and better understood. Until then, others continue to fear that the laws help mask a harsh reality that persists beyond a veneer of legality. Time will yet tell if Germany’s progressive stance on prostitution will improve the lives of sex workers, discourage organized crime, or properly clamp down on human trafficking.
Prostitution is also legal and regulated in the African countries of countries of Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal; in Lebanon, Austria, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Turkey, Mexico, Panama, the United States (in Nevada only) Australia (in most eastern states) and New Zealand; and the South American countries of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela.
Featured Image: Artemis, a German brothel, via Darker Vision