‘It’s just like the hairdresser’: How will sex work in Germany function in coronavirus times?

Brothels have just opened in Hamburg after months of shutdown. How will it work and what's been the effect of the closures?

'It's just like the hairdresser': How will sex work in Germany function in coronavirus times?
Sex workers wearing masks in Herbertstraße in the St Pauli district of Hamburg on September 15th. Photo: DPA

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.

READ ALSO: Five things to know about prostitution in Germany

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.

READ ALSO: No sex allowed as Berlin brothels reopen after lockdown

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.”

READ ALSO: Brothels set to reopen in northern Germany with strict rules

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.”

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German states clash with government over new Covid protection laws

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Thursday that the pandemic was "not over yet" but that the country was entering a "new phase". However, states have raised concerns about the plan to drop almost all Covid measures.

German states clash with government over new Covid protection laws

The Chancellor held talks with German state leaders on Thursday to discuss the pandemic, as well as the war in Ukraine and how Germany can better manage and support refugees having to flee their homes.

It came as the German government gets set to drop almost all Covid measures on March 20th. Basic restrictions – like mandatory masks on public transport and in health settings will remain – as well as a ‘hotspot’ mechanism for bringing in tougher rules in areas where Covid cases build up.

The new slimmed-down Infection Protection Act is set to pass through the Bundestag and Bundesrat on Friday.

READ ALSO: The key Covid rule changes this week in Germany

But German states feel that they have been ignored and fear that the law changes planned by the coalition government will leave them with barely any options for combating the pandemic.

North Rhine-Westphalia premier Hendrik Wüst, who spoke by video link because he is in Covid isolation due to an infection, said the draft law was “legally uncertain and practically unworkable”.

Scholz defended the new law for Covid measures against criticism, saying it was a “legal basis on which to build for the future”.

However, Scholz also praised the “constructive discussion” with state premiers.

He said he was concerned about the high Covid infections. But the Chancellor said the situation in hospitals and intensive care units was not developing dramatically, and the Omicron variant resulted in less severe illness generally. Once again, he appealed to citizens to get vaccinated.

READ ALSO: How worried should we be about Germany’s rising Covid infections?

Earlier in the day, the Bundestag exchanged blows for the first time over a possible vaccine mandate in Germany. 

MPs debated two bills and three motions for and against compulsory vaccination.

Several speakers warned of new restrictions on freedom in autumn without compulsory vaccination, while others said they were strictly against vaccine mandates.

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) told MPs: “We can end the pandemic for Germany for the first time with compulsory vaccination. We’ll be in the same place in autumn as we are now if we don’t seize this unique opportunity together.”

Economics Minister Robert Habeck (Greens) said: “People in this country are fed up. Let’s finally get this pandemic over with, get rid of the virus and then return to freedom.”

Opposing views across parliamentary groups became clear.

Tabea Rößner, of the Green Party, said: “Many are afraid, some report strong reactions to vaccination.”

Left-wing politician Gregor Gysi said: “I was for it (vaccine mandate) with measles because that eradicated the disease, the (Covid) vaccine can’t do that here.”

MPs will vote on the mandate in April. 

Support for refugees

After the talks on Thursday Scholz said that the federal and state governments were united and wanted to support refugees from Ukraine in Germany. 

He admitted that “this will be a big, big challenge”.

Scholz said it was now a matter of providing help quickly and without complications, to make sure that refugees can work and that children can go to school “immediately”.

READ ALSO: German states call for more support in managing refugee crisis

Scholz also praised the “overwhelming culture of willingness to help” in Germany. According to the Interior Ministry 187,428 refugees have registered in Germany from Ukraine so far – but the real number is probably much higher.

Scholz pledged more funding to districts across Germany to help support people. A working group is to draw up a plan on this front by April 7th.

The Chancellor also emphasised that the invasion of Ukraine was “Putin’s war”. He said it was completely unacceptable for there to be any hostility against Russian people.