Sex Trade Wars

In the Magazine
A naked prostitute lies in a lounge area at the Artemis brothel in west Berlin April 22, 2006. Tobias Schwarz/Reuters

A new business is opening in the western German city of Saarbrücken, promising to provide nearly 100 jobs and bring paying visitors from neighboring France. You might think the mayor and local residents would be happy, but you'd be wrong. That's because the new business is a brothel, operated by a firm called The Paradise. A mega-brothel, in fact.

"There's nothing like it in Saarbrücken," boasts Michael Beretin, The Paradise's public relations and marketing manager. "We'll have 40 to 50 women working here." As many again will work in such positions as bartenders and cleaners.

Not that Germans mind brothels in general—they are legal, and a federal law passed in 2002 classifies prostitutes as self-employed workers—but local bigwigs in Saarbrücken are beginning to think it's gone too far.

The problem is, they're on the border with France, where attitudes toward prostitution are not so laissez-faire (despite what you might have read about Dominique Strauss-Kahn). The lower house of the French parliament recently voted to fine first-time sex buyers $2,060 and repeat offenders $5,150. Thanks to the EU's Schengen treaty, which went into effect in 1995, the French can simply cross the border into more liberal Germany if they want to buy sex legally.

Saarbrücken, a quiet city of 177,000 that boasts two Michelin-starred restaurants, is already home to several brothels as well as a growing number of streetwalkers. Police in the state of Saarland, of which Saarbrücken is the capital, say the state of 1 million people has around 1,500 to 1,700 prostitutes.

3.28_PG0613_Prostitutes_02 Two naked prostitutes stand in the bar area at the Artemis brothel in west Berlin April 22, 2006. Tobias Schwarz/Reuters

"[Prostitution] is a big problem here, no doubt about it," Peter Strobel, chairman of the Saarbrücken City Council's Christian Democrats, tells Newsweek. "It's a pity that the city's reputation is being reduced to prostitution. Saarbrücken has so much to offer. It's an outstanding city with a great opera house and theater, hiking paths and international festivals."

Alexander Kuhn, an outreach worker for Aidshilfe Saar, a charity focused on prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, says you have to take the good with the bad. "Saarbrücken is a border city, and French people come here as part of their daily lives—to do shopping, to go to the restaurant. We can't tell them, 'Come here during the day, but please don't come and visit prostitutes.' "

Cross-border sex tourism is nothing new. "They've been going to Germany, Belgium, Spain and the Netherlands ever since we closed our brothels in 1946," says Grégoire Théry, secretary-general of Mouvement du Nid, a French anti-prostitution organization.

According to Maud Olivier, a French member of parliament who played a key role in writing the country's new prostitution law, it's Germany's approach that needs to change.

"Everyone can see that policies of regulating prostitution rather than combating it, as is the case in Germany, have failed," she tells Newsweek. "There are 400,000 prostitutes in Germany, compared to 20,000 in France. And we know that our very strict legislation on sex procurement is being bypassed: Pimps from Germany use the Internet to organize prostitution networks in France, and they do so with complete impunity."

German federal police do not release national figures on the number of prostitutes. Sex worker support organization Hydra puts the number at 400,000, though other groups say the figure is closer to 200,000. Given the legal situation in France, it may be harder to do a full count of prostitutes there, but 20,000 is a widely reported figure.

In February the European Parliament—partly based in Strasbourg near France's border with Germany—voted to criminalize the use of prostitutes. Though nonbinding, the European Parliament vote made history as the first pan-European effort to regulate the sex trade.

"EU member states should harmonize their laws on prostitution, adopting the Nordic model, which includes prohibition of pimping, decriminalization of prostitutes and a ban on the purchase of sexual acts, as outlined in the European Parliament bill," says Olivier. "The adoption of my bill in France will reduce prostitution. But to be truly effective in reducing prostitution and fighting human trafficking, we need our neighbors to follow us."

Germany is taking some moderate steps in that direction. The new Christian Democrat-Social Democrat coalition government, which took power in December, is preparing a ban on forced prostitution that is expected to go into effect later this year. According to the Ministry of Families, Seniors, Women and Youth, most of the country's prostitutes are foreign-born, with the number of Bulgarians and Romanians rising particularly fast. Just as there is no official tally of prostitutes, there are no official figures on what proportion of them are victims of human trafficking. Criminal investigators interviewed by the newspaper Die Zeit say most of the prostitutes in Germany are trafficked.

Following a proposal by Saarland, the Bundesrat—the body that represents Germany's state governments—this month asked the government for more restrictions on the sex industry, proposing coordinated programs for prostitutes wanting to leave the business, more support for trafficked sex workers and a registration requirement for sex establishments.

The current measures anger Juanita Henning of the sex worker lobby group Dona Carmen. "Across Germany, we're seeing a conservative rollback in how we treat adult sexuality," she says.

In the absence of a federal ban, some exasperated local politicians are taking the initiative. Saarbrücken Mayor Charlotte Britz has announced she will bar streetwalkers from most of the city. From April, they will have only two streets and a forest road on which to ply their trade, and then only between the hours of 8 p.m. (10 p.m. in the summer months) and 6 a.m.  

And last month, Saarland passed a law that requires prostitutes to use condoms. While the law's official goal is to protect sex workers' health, legislators hope it will also curb demand.

"In theory, the condom requirement sounds good, but what's the use of a law that you can't verify?" asks Anne Schuhmann, a sex worker in North Rhine-Westphalia, another state on the French border. "Are they going to install cameras in the prostitutes' rooms or peepholes in their doors? And if no condom is used, the woman is the one who'll be penalized."

According to Saarland regional Prime Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the state has no plans to follow the example of Bavaria, where undercover police officers pose as johns to verify compliance with the state's condom law.  

Kuhn, who keeps in touch with both female and male sex workers in Saarbrücken, predicts the law won't succeed in improving public health or reducing prostitution. "The customer says, 'I don't want to use a condom.' The woman says, 'But there's this new law.' The man responds, 'It doesn't interest me.' What is the prostitute going to do? She has to earn money," Kuhn says.

Kramp-Karrenbauer also wants to introduce a prostitution tax in Saarland, as well as expand Saarbrücken's no-prostitution zones to the rest of the state.

A number of cities across Germany already take great pains to collect the tax that prostitutes, as legally recognized workers, are obliged to pay. Cologne, the famous cathedral city in North Rhine-Westphalia, uses both police and tax investigators to identify sex workers. According to city spokesman Josef-Rainer Frantzen, Cologne annually collects around $1,004,000 in tax revenues this way.

For now, Kuhn suggests, brothels should get at least as much scrutiny as hot dog stands. "In Germany a hot dog stand has to fulfill countless requirements before it's allowed to open, but a brothel doesn't have to fulfill a single one," he says.

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