Neon lights flash and pop tunes blast out of bars in Hamburg’s St Pauli area. But there’s one thing that’s not on the menu in this red light district: sex.
That was at least the case until earlier this week, when brothels were allowed to open up after being closed due to the spread of coronavirus.
On Tuesday September 15th, brothel owners and sex workers gathered in the Reeperbahn area to mark the lifting of the months-long ban on prostitution and sex work.
'We must be allowed to work'
Prostitution is legal and regulated in Germany, but it was banned in March, along with other businesses, to curb the spread of coronavirus.
Yet sex and brothel workers felt angry when the country began reopening this summer as the infection situation eased – but kept the prostitution ban in place.
“When we as sex workers and brothel owners saw other things starting again (after the coronavirus shutdown) like hair salons, massage parlours, churches, restaurants, parties and so on we also thought: ‘We must be allowed to work,’ Stephanie Klee, founder and board member of the Federal Association of Sexual Services (BSD), told The Local.
Authorities had a different idea.
“The government said: ‘You are very infectious and very dangerous. You are not able to accept the hygiene standards, you are not able to wear a mask and the clients are not able to give their contact details,’” said Klee.
The clash led to a series of protests. Spelling out the dire situation, a woman held a sign that said: “The oldest profession needs your help” during a protest in Herbertstraße, the famous 'men-only' street in the heart of Hamburg's red light district, on July 12th.
“The girls in Herbertstraße were furious,” said Klee. “They did two fantastic demonstrations with lights, music and drama.”
Domina Ginger in a brothel in Herbertstraße on July 27th after a demonstration. Photo: DPA
Sex workers and brothel owners began talking to politicians. “They agreed it’s not St Pauli without these businesses,” said Klee. But there was a mixed response about reopening brothels after the lockdown.
Some politicians believe it is safer for women, while others have argued they should remain closed.
However, Klee fears opponents of prostitution will use the pandemic shutdown as a way to try and make sex work illegal in Germany.
“The brothels are closed and they want to leave them closed,” she said.
Campaigners scored a big win when a court in Berlin allowed brothels to open from August 8th with erotic massage. Then the city decided to allow sexual services from September 1st.
After another court achievement by sex workers in Lower Saxony, Hamburg decided to reopen brothels on September 15th. Other northern states followed.
'There is security in brothels'
Klee said the closure of licensed premises forced some sex workers onto the streets, which is more dangerous.
“Because the girls need money, they started to work on the streets and in hotels,” Klee said.
In this situation “you have to control the clients, you must be able to see, hear and feel within seconds what the situation is. Then the first trouble came, the first bad clients, the first violence”.
Klee said in brothels “there is security, rules, hygiene and colleagues who give them professional help.
“We don't learn our job at university, so sitting in the kitchen and talking with colleagues is very important.”
How will sex work function in coronavirus times?
In Herberstraße, where women are warned to stay away unless they are prostitutes, sex workers in the windows now have plexiglass between them.
When talking to a client who’s outside, there has to be a distance of 1.5 metres. The sex worker then takes the client to her own room which has windows and must be cleaned between clients.
A sex worker demonstrating in Hamburg with a sign that says: 'The oldest profession in the world needs your help'. Photo: DPA
The sex worker and client talk and the customer has to write down his contact details. They are then brought to a safe and destroyed after five weeks, said Klee.
Klee added that sex where heads are not too close together is preferable, “otherwise you have to wear the mouth and nose covering”.
“And you’re not allowed to consume alcohol or any other substances.”
Klee compared the situation and new rules to other businesses with face to face contact. “It’s the same as in the hairdresser, restaurants, beauty salons, or hotels,” she said.
'Tourism is not coming'
The prostitution industry has been one of the hardest hit by the coronavirus crisis, with many workers struggling to survive financially. Famous brothels, such as Pascha in Cologne, have filed for bankruptcy after months of enforced closure.
On September 14th – the night before licenced premises were allowed to reopen – two small groups gathered at Beatles Platz, at the top of the famous Grosse Freiheit strip in St Pauli, with tour guides.
About five British men wandered around drunk past brothels advertising their 'grand reopening', while people sat outside bars sipping over-the-top cocktails.
The 'Sex House' on the Reeperbahn in Hamburg in April when it was closed. Photo: DPA
As countries across the world, including Germany, imposed travel restrictions to stem the spread of coronavirus, businesses are also missing another important element: tourists.
“We see it in the streets, the boutiques, the hotels – they are very empty,” said Klee. “All the different branches need tourism but tourism is not coming.
“Businesses are not earning much money. This is happening to sex work too. We know it from Berlin, Bavaria and other places that opened brothels first. This will also happen in Hamburg.”
But Klee says there is no other way for those in the sex industry – they have to work. “It’s the only possibility to earn your own money, to not go hungry or have to ask friends for money,” she said.
What's next for sex work?
A handful of states in Germany are still not allowing brothels to reopen or full sexual services, so demonstrations by sex workers are still taking place.
One is being held in Frankfurt next Saturday. A separate demo to ban prostitution is taking place soon, and Klee said there will be a counter-protest by sex workers.
Whether it’s the pandemic or people fighting against sex work, the industry has a tough time ahead.
“Maybe corona will go away,” said Klee. “But the group of people who are against sex work don’t go away.”