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Sex workers speak out against German prostitution law

October 18, 2021

It has been five years since the German government enacted the prostitution protection act. Lawmakers say it protects vulnerable people; many sex workers say it is discriminatory, stigmatizing and has increased risks.

Sex worker rights protesters in 2020 hold up a sign saying "sex work is real work"
During the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns, unregistered sex workers in Germany were unable to claim compensationImage: Sebastian Gollnow/dpa/picture alliance

Olivia, who has been a sex worker in Berlin for almost a decade, is pragmatic when asked about the regulation of her industry.

"It's not without reason that people say it is the oldest profession in the world," she says, smiling. "People will always find a way to do sex work."

The job was not always her plan. She moved to the German capital from a small city in the east of the country looking for a more exciting life and fell into the work after a friend recommended it. Now in her late 20s, she has undertaken just about every kind of sex work possible in Germany: with a luxury escort service, as an erotic masseuse, in a brothel and self-employed in her own home.

"There are different levels," she explains — with highly different incomes and safety measures attached. Through her work, she has found a community, also with the Black Sex Workers' Collective, a US-founded initiative for people of color. She is also a member of a sex workers' union.

But she is one of hundreds of thousands of unregistered sex workers in Germany who, for the last five years, has risked prosecution to keep working.

Sex worker Olivia sits with her back to the camera at a cafe
Olivia, an unregistered sex worker in Berlin, wants to stay anonymousImage: Elliot Douglas

Over 90% are unregistered

When she began, sex workers' rights in Germany were relatively well protected. The 2002 Prostitution Act formally regulated sex work and aimed to protect sex workers' access to benefits such as health care and unemployment insurance.

But some lawmakers were concerned that the law was too lax. "There are stricter rules to open up a snack bar than a brothel in this country," former Families Minister Manuela Schwesig, from the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), told German newspaper Die Zeit in 2014. A year later, her coalition government presented the bill of a new law that would require all sex workers to apply to register their work. The law was enacted on October 21, 2016, and came into force on July 1, 2017. 

For sex workers, this means handing over private data like your address, contact details and real name and going through regular compulsory health consultations. People who do not register, some because of privacy concerns and others because they do not have an address or legal residency status in Germany, are breaking the law.

The act also requires condoms to be used during sex work and requires anyone running a sex work business, like a brothel, to have a permit.

The last federal official statistics from 2019 showed that there were around 40,000 sex workers in Germany legally registered under the Prostitution Protection Act, but unofficial estimates say the real number is over 400,000. This means over 90% of sex workers in Germany are unregistered — and technically illegal.

The vast majority of legally registered sex workers work in brothels, suggesting also that most of those who are unregistered work from home or on the streets.

A protester in 2016 holds up a sign saying 'No registration of sex workers'
The 2017 law is unpopular among sex workers: 'No registration of sex workers' says this signImage: Lukas Schulze/dpa/picture alliance

Privacy concerns

The aim of the law was to improve conditions for sex workers and reduce the possibility of human trafficking, exploitation and slavery. But sex workers say it has actually made their position more vulnerable.

"People who have no idea about sex work say: 'It's just a pass, that's not so bad.' But sex work is still a very stigmatized job in Germany. And that means that many people can't really 'out themselves,' or know that their data is being recorded somewhere," Ruby Rebelde, a spokeswoman for the Hydra organization, explained.

The Berlin-based advocacy and counseling service for sex workers was founded over 40 years ago and has opposed the law since it was enacted.

Many sex workers in Germany come from other countries, and the bureaucratic hurdles of the registration process may prevent them from carrying it out. EU members Romania and Bulgaria are the two most common countries of origin for registered non-German sex workers, but Rebelde from Hydra believes that foreign sex workers are less likely to register than Germans.

"And it means people who come to Germany to work as sex workers are additionally 'made illegal' under the prostitution protection act," Rebelde said. Among other things, this meant that all unregistered sex workers could not receive government aid when they were unable to work during the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns. The number of registered sex workers also significantly decreased during this time.

'Working together is safer'

Under the law, sex workers could not live and work together as a pair or larger group — a common arrangement offering security to sex workers if clients prove violent or attempt blackmail — because technically a shared apartment or house would constitute a brothel.

"If I can only work alone at home, in theory, that puts me in more danger," Olivia said. She has experienced more blackmail and abuse attempts in the years since the law was introduced than before when working alone in her apartment.

"Working together is much safer because you can keep an eye on each other and share experiences," explained Ruby Rebelde.

But supporters of the law say it has made sex work less opaque and in fact increased safety.

"With the registration according to the Prostitution Protection Act, the state has the opportunity to shed light on people's rights in the field of sex work," said Ann-Kathrin Biewener, sex work spokeswoman for the city of Berlin and elected representative for the SPD. She is responsible for overseeing the registration process for the whole city of Berlin.

"With registration, sex work does not take place in secret and thus helps to improve working conditions for sex workers," she added.

At Berlin's 2019 'Whore Parade,' sex workers hold up signs saying 'stigma kills'
A 2019 'Whore Parade' in Berlin aimed to fight stigma against sex workersImage: Objects of Desire Collective

The Nordic model?

During the pandemic, when sex work was banned under social distancing rules, lawmakers from the SPD and from Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democrat party took the opportunity to call for an even longer closure to brothels and overhaul of the sex work industry.

The solution touted by them and many others is the so-called Nordic model, under which paying for sex is illegal but selling sex is not.

But Olivia does not believe that such an arrangement could work in Germany and would just send sex work even more underground.

"It would not stop anything. The prices would become more expensive; there would be more criminality and violence, blackmail, more human trafficking," she said. "I cannot see a positive side."

A federal evaluation of the act is planned to be completed by 2025; an interim report covers only the years 2017 and 2018. So far, there is not enough evidence to show whether any of the act's laws, for example in reducing human trafficking, have been successful.

Several states have published their own evaluations in the meantime. The evaluation of the city-state of Bremen from December 2020 describes the smoothing running of the registration process in Bremen but also notes: "Sex workers and professional politicians criticize that the law does not meet the requirements of better protection against trafficking and an improvement in the situation of prostitutes. They fear stigmatization and discrimination as a result of the obligation to register with the authorities and state. They say prostitutes, in particular, remain unprotected because the law is not geared to their needs."

Lawmakers like Ann-Kathrin Biewener in Berlin have worked to collect feedback at a series of "round table" events for sex workers over the years. For Rebelde from Hydra, it is vital that whatever the next steps are, the voices of sex workers are taken into account during the upcoming federal evaluation.

"Talking about sex workers without talking to sex workers — that is not OK," she said.

COVID-19: Let's talk about sex work

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Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH Elliot Douglas
Elliot Douglas Elliot Douglas is a video, audio and online journalist based in Berlin.