The future German government plans to revise the law on prostitution. Women’s rights activists want to legally ban the practice. France also plans to go further and impose fines on prostitutes’ customers.
Fifteen billion euros ($20 billion) – that's roughly the annual turnover of prostitutes in Germany, according to the German Federal Statistical Office. It looks like a prosperous industry. There are no reliable figures about the number of prostitutes working in Germany, but estimates suggest it could be around 400,000.
The former German government between Social Democrats (SPD) and the Green Party intended to improve the social and legal situation of sex workers in Germany when they passed the so-called law on prostitution in 2002. Prostitution has since been recognized as a legal industry. Sex workers can get social insurance, and can take customers to court if they don't pay.
But there's criticism that only a few people working in the sex industry actually make use of the possibility of registering their activities officially. The Federal Employment Agency says only 44 sex workers are currently covered by social insurance. "The problem consists in the fact that the law favors pimps," said police officer Helmut Sporer in a talk show on German public television channel ARD. Sporer, from the southern German city of Augsburg, has dealt with red light district cases for 20 years.
At the mercy of pimps
Article 3 in the law on prostitution, which contains the right to social insurance clause, grants brothel owners a "limited authority to give instructions" to prostitutes, whose supposed self-employed status is often a sham.
According to Helmut Sporer, it's a violation of human dignity to put sex workers who often don't know their rights at the mercy of pimps. He mentioned the particularly high number of young women and girls from Eastern Europe who are forced to work as prostitutes.
The German feminist magazine Emma has criticized the current legislation in numerous articles, claiming that Germany is tolerating, or - worse - promoting this kind of modern slavery. Alice Schwarzer, a famous women's rights activist and the publisher of Emma, is calling for the law on prostitution to be revised. "Our goal is to both protect the women and offer them exit possibilities, and to introduce measures to prosecute those who exploit the women," Schwarzer said in the ARD talk show.
In the coalition agreement of the future government, Conservatives and Social Democrats lay out their intentions to revise the law - especially where the clauses dealing with forced prostitution are concerned. "We will step up prosecution of offenders who sell people like goods and who force them to do sex work. We will also prosecute those who exploit the victims' plight," said Erika Steinbach, chairwoman of the human rights and humanitarian aid working group from the CDU/CSU parliamentary group.
France to punish customers
According to the text of the coalition agreement, the future government plans to extensively revise the law on prostitution with regard to the regulation of prostitution, as well as to improve the legal situation regarding control mechanisms by regulatory and administrative authorities. Victims of forced prostitution, who are often in Germany illegally, are to be given better residence rights when they testify in courts. Courts are to be given the possibility of convicting criminal offenders even without a victim's testimony.
In France, the government has been tackling more than just forced prostitution. Both brothels and the procuring of prostitutes have been forbidden there for decades. Now, the government wants customers caught red-handed to pay a fine of 1,500 euros. Second offenders would have to pay 3,750 euros. So prostitution would not be forbidden per se; however, critics say that women who earn their living from sex work would be deprived of customers.
The bill is being debated in France and has caused controversy. Feminist organizations launched campaigns weeks ago promoting the introduction of the law, but prostitution groups protested against the government plans, and customers collected signatures against it, too.
More cases of rape in Sweden
The French base their planned new legislation on laws in Sweden, where prostitutes' customers have been prosecuted since 1999. At the same time, the Swedish government also legalized prostitution. That means: Women are allowed to sell their bodies, but customers are not allowed to make use of those services. The Swedish capital's cityscape has changed as a result. In places where there used to be 80 sex workers canvassing customers, there are a mere 20 today, Stockholm police told the Austrian daily Wiener Zeitung. Police also claim that there are few countries in Europe today which have fewer problems with human trafficking than Sweden.
Irmingard Schewe-Gerigk doesn't believe that the Swedish system accommodates prostitutes. The chairwoman of the women's rights organization “Terre des femmes” was a member of parliament for the German Green party in 2002 and helped introduce the law on prostitution.
"The fact that the Swedish government turns a blind eye doesn't mean that there is no prostitution in Sweden," she said in the ARD talk show, adding that instead, negotiating conditions has worsened for Swedish prostitutes because they can no longer work openly on the street. What's more, said Schewe-Gerigk, the prostitutes are now more at the mercy of the few customers they have left. A Swedish nurse confirmed the claim upon inquiry by German news magazine Der Spiegel. She said the number of cases of abuse and rape of prostitutes in Sweden has risen steadily since 1999.