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German brothels get new 'ethical sex seal'

August 29, 2017

A German sex industry association is hoping to improve the lives of prostitutes by launching a "seal of approval" for brothels. But brothels must be members of the association to get the badge.

Red light district in Frankfurt
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Dedert

The German brothel owners' association, BSD, has made a bid to introduce "controlled quality, transparency and service" to the country's sex industry with the launch of a "seal of approval" for brothels.

In a statement, the BSD said that the purpose of the seal was to "counter the general vilification and many false conceptions about the structures and working procedures" in brothels.

The seal comes in three categories, or "stages," the most important being the stage 1 badge, which establishes who the owner of the brothel is, how they can be reached, how big the brothel is, and guarantees that it meets not just the minimum working standards of Germany's prostitution law, but also certain other standards.

The seal also requires owners to sign a pledge to oppose violence, forced prostitution and crime, and to provide fair, responsible and hygienic working conditions. To get the badge, the brothels must include certain facilities for the prostitutes, including spy-holes in doors, lockers, and alarms in all the rooms. The owners also have to prove that all the prostitutes are self-employed and working voluntarily, and can decide which customers they want to serve and which services they want to provide.

The other two stage badges include a more thorough overall assessment of the establishment and involve a kind of star - or "crown" - rating, from 1 to 6, for additional services like catering, a gym and events.

Room in brothel
Brothels must ensure clean, safe conditions to get the sealImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Novopashina

A seal of self-reward

The BSD believes the seal is a better alternative to the recently introduced amendments to Germany's prostitution laws, which force sex workers to register with local authorities and undergo health checks. Sex workers' groups say the mandatory registration will force many prostitutes into more dangerous working conditions.

"This seal has many advantages," said BSD chairwoman Stephanie Klee. "For one thing it means we can look at the individual establishments, how good they are, how they can be categorized, and give them an incentive to improve. And we can tell sex workers, customers, and authorities that these are good, serious places that have transparency."

Prostitution is legal in Germany, but the prostitutes must be self-employed, so brothels effectively exist as places that furnish sex workers with a safe environment to work in. So far, some 24 German brothels have already been awarded the seal, the BSD said, with the first given last week to a brothel in the Bavarian town of Rosenheim.

The seal received heavy criticism from opponents of prostitution. Huschke Mau, a former sex worker who founded Sisters, a volunteers' organization that helps women leave the industry, dismissed the seal as merely "a prize that the brothels award themselves."

Prostitute in Germany
Prostitutes in Germany must be self-employedImage: Getty Images/AFP/J. Macdougall

In a blog post, Sisters member and former prostitute Sandra Norak also angrily dismissed the idea. "A seal of approval as confirmation that [prostitutes] are 'self-employed and confident' is a mockery," she wrote. "To try to put a seal of approval on whether a person working in prostitution is not in a desperate - or forced - situation, is not a victim of crime or human trafficking, is dubious, because no one apart from the person themselves and the people doing it to them can know 100 percent for sure."

A problematic law

Sex workers' associations welcomed the initiative - though with some caution. "Improvements for working conditions are always the right step," said Johanna Weber, Berlin spokeswoman for the BesD erotic and sex-worker association. "The paths to that are especially difficult in our industry and therefore diverse - if a seal of quality leads to establishments undertaking optimizations, then that can be one step."

The BesD believes sex workers and brothels in Germany are faced with much bigger problems in any case. "If the new law is applied consistently, then around 80 percent of the - in many cases long-established - prostitution houses will be closed," the organization said in a statement. "Not because there are problems with them, but just because they are in the wrong districts. This will lead to the loss of some very good places of work, and a seal of approval won't change that at all."

Klee didn't see that as an essential problem with the seal, though. "The prostitution industry is hardly organized at all," she said. "I think it would be right and useful if the brothel owners and sex workers finally joined forces to be heard - so I see joining an association of some kind as essential." She added that the BSD had received several inquiries about the seal from brothels that were not yet members.

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight