On Berlin’s Kurfürstenstrasse, they are out in force: women in their late teens to late forties, some of them perhaps older but dressed to look younger. On a November night, many are wearing puffer jackets and tight-fitting jeans under their miniskirts.
A shiny grey BMW stops and silently winds down its window. One of the women steps up on the passenger side. There’s a brief exchange of words – five or six syllables, not more – then the car drives off again. A few minutes later the same woman can be seen walking towards the LSD (“Love, Sex & Dreams”) adult entertainment store on the corner with Potsdamer Strasse, a client in tow. A girl on her way home from school is skipping down the road in the other direction.
A scene like this can probably be witnessed in most large cities around the world. What is unusual about the situation in Germany is that prostitution here has been legal since the Social Democrat (SPD)-Green coalition government changed the law in 2002.
The aim of that change was, as the SPD politician Anni Brandt-Elsweiler put it at the time, “to improve the situation of prostitutes by giving more power back into their own hands, by strengthening their self-confidence and their legal position when dealing with clients and pimps”.
In Berlin, political support for the pioneering law change is still strong. Earlier this year SPD and Green city councillors compiled a little booklet that they distributed among Kurfürstenstrasse residents, pleading for more tolerance and understanding towards the sex trade in their midst. “City life and prostitution have gone hand in hand for more than 100 years,” it said. “Prostitution is not illegal.”
But across the border in France politicians are contemplating a ban on paying for sex, and the tide seems to be turning when it comes to German public opinion as well. Last month the veteran feminist Alice Schwarzer published a book entitled Prostitution: A German Scandal. Emma, the feminist magazine started by Schwarzer in 1977, has also published a petition against the current law, signed by 90 celebrities from both the right and the left of the political spectrum.
They argue that Germany’s experiment with liberalising prostitution has failed spectacularly, turning the country into “the bordello of Europe”, with more and more brothels popping up near the border. The 2002 law was trying to make sex work a job like any other. But currently only 44 sex workers in Germany are registered with the national insurance scheme.
Social workers say that most prostitutes cannot afford the luxury of putting aside money for a health insurance policy.
Schwarzer and her supporters have championed the legal situation in Sweden, where it is illegal to buy sexual services but not to sell them. She likens current attitudes to prostitution in Germany to those towards paedophilia in the 1970s: a wilful blindness towards an apparent injustice. “Prostitution, like paedophilia, is characterised not by equality, but drastic power imbalances,” she recently wrote in Die Zeit.
Schwarzer is not without her critics. At the launch of her book last week, she was harangued by a group of pro-prostitution campaigners.
Alexa Müller, 38, is one of the sex workers who passionately defend Germany’s unique path on prostitution law. “Women can run brothels responsibly here and not be prosecuted, that’s an incredible achievement. And sex workers are autonomous legal agents. They can take a client to court if he refuses to pay up,” she said.
She accused Schwarzer of spreading ignorance and churning out misleading figures. Criminalising the clients of sex workers, as it is done in Sweden, she says, would only cement their victim status. “We are not victims, we are adventurous sex goddesses!” she said.
If only 44 sex workers are registered for the public health scheme, she claimed, it is because 10 years of the new law haven’t been enough to remove social stigma. Most sex workers lead a double life where they do more than one job, and even if they work full-time, they are more likely to register as a “performance artist”.
“Do you really think I would call up my dentist and say: ‘By the way, I now earn my living mainly as a whore’?” she asked.
Müller originally started having sex for money in order to fund her degree in design, and went full-time seven years ago. “To be frank with you, I found it more creative, fun and fulfilling work than being a graphic designer. And I can say no to a client when you don’t want to work for him.” Her family knows about her work and supports her.
Müller volunteers for the sex workers’ support charity Hydra, and claimed she regularly meets and talks to Romanian and Bulgarian prostitutes who are in more desperate circumstances than she is. But the criticism remains that those defending the current law tend to be those who can afford to pick better jobs and reject the more debasing work.
“The biggest problem with the debate around prostitution is that we don’t have any reliable figures – mine are as much a stab in the dark as Alice Schwarzer’s. If there really is a problem and we want to fix it, a serious effort to get an idea of the scale of prostitution would be a start,” she said.