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Debate over prostitution re-erupts in 'Europe's brothel' Germany

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AFP/The Local - [email protected]
Debate over prostitution re-erupts in 'Europe's brothel' Germany
A prostitute stands at a red-lit bed in a studio. The Federal Statistical Office says Germany has 28,280 registered sex workers. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Hauke-Christian Dittrich

Two decades after Germany legalised prostitution, a new debate over whether to ban sex work again has erupted, with the opposition conservatives leading a fresh push for prohibition.

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In a proposal put to the Bundestag on Friday, the CDU-CSU alliance argues that the legalisation of prostitution in 2002 has failed to reach its aim of improving the lot of women in sex work through regulation.

Rather, it has worsened the exploitation of women, who continue to face daily threats and violence, said the party of former chancellor Angela Merkel.

Under cover of legalisation, criminal gangs are trafficking women to a growing number of brothels where abuse is rampant, aid groups have warned.

The conservatives want parliament to change tack by banning brothels as well as penalising people who buy sex.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz, taking questions in parliament recently from lawmakers, appeared to back the move. "I don't think it's acceptable for men to purchase women," Scholz said. "That's why it's right that the legislation is looking at how best to clamp down on [prostitution]", he added.

But the BesD professional association for erotic and sexual services said it found the statement "deeply worrying" and invited Scholz to come and "have a chat in a brothel."

250,000 prostitutes

Proponents of legalisation argue that a regulated industry better protects sex workers, who are required to register, carry out mandatory health checks and urged to used condoms.

Banning sex work would only lead to more violence behind closed doors, Kevin, who works part-time as an escort to supplement his wages, told AFP.

Instead, "we should punish pimping and trafficking women more firmly", said Kevin of Callboyz.net who charges up to 1,500 euros for a night, declining to give his full name.

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Birgit, 57, one of Kevin's clients, is also in favour of legal prostitution. "It reassures me that I won't be abused or catch any sexually transmitted diseases during a date," she told AFP.

And besides, "if everyone involved consents, every adult is free to do what they want with their body," she argued.

There are currently around 28,280 registered sex workers in Germany, according to Germany's statistics agency Destatis. However, Dorothee Baer of the CDU-CSU puts the real number of prostitutes working in Germany at 250,000 -- most of them women.

Baer, who leads the CDU-CSU's family and women's affairs file, argues that regulation has done little to stop exploitation.

"Germany has unfortunately become a stronghold of sexual abuse and exploitation," Baer said recently, describing her country as "the brothel of Europe."

Among those who have not seen conditions improve is Bulgarian Jana, 48, who spoke on cover of anonymity. A hood pulled over her face, Jana's voice cracked as she told AFP the story
of how she sold herself to pay back the cost of the bus (110 euros) to the man who helped her get to Germany in 1999.

Decades on, she still sleeps on the street and takes on clients in public toilets or sex shops -- for 30 euros a session.

To cope, Jana took methamphetamine (or "crystal meth") for nine years but said she stopped three months ago.

Hers is "a classic case", said Gerhard Schoenborn, chairman of the Berlin-based Neustart (New Start) association, which aims to help prostitutes leave the profession.

'Penalise clients'

"We help them register with the employment agency, find a doctor, accommodation and possibly a new job," Schoenborn said.

Around 3,500 women a year visit the centre, which is open for a few hours every day.

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According to Schoenborn, prostitutes on Kurfürstenstrasse, where Jana spoke to AFP, tend to charge between 10 and 30 euros per session.

"They really need the money, particularly to pay for their drugs or pimps," he said.

Many agree to work without condoms as it means they can charge extra.

Schoenborn believes the legalisation of prostitution has worsened the situation.

"The original idea was to bring the profession out of the shadows. But all it did was increase the number of brothels in Germany," he said.

At the end of 2022, Germany had 2,310 registered prostitution businesses -- including peripheral businesses such as events companies that supply prostitutes as well as the brothels themselves, according to Destatis.

Schoenborn believes prostitution should be illegal, but it should be the clients who are penalised and not the prostitutes, who should instead receive help to leave the profession.

By Céline LE PRIOUX
 

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