A street scene in Berlin, Germany. Source: Flickr/JonBauer
The German experiment with the legalization of prostitution makes for an interesting look on a society’s varying reactions to one of the oldest and most taboo profession in the world.
Germany legalized prostitution in 2001 with the objective of bringing sex workers under the protection of the state by granting them access to welfare benefits. Since then the country has become Europe’s most popular destination for sex tourists – as disturbing as that sounds.
Over a decade on, feminists, intellectuals, political leaders, sex workers and many other groups within Germany are divided over their stance on the following question:-
Should prostitution remain legal?
For those living in the US, the very notion of legally selling one’s body for sex may be hard to swallow, but it’s an important question because no matter how stigmatized it is – prostitution is a global phenomenon. And as much as the Swedes want to eliminate it – it isn’t going anywhere.
While Sweden’s answer to the above remains a ‘no tolerance’ approach to men paying for sex – which they hope will help eliminate prostitution all together - the Germans are not united in this regard.
Feminists and center-right leaders such as Angel Markel are advocating for the ban on prostitution in Germany once again, citing that it leads to sexual exploitation and/or trafficking. Sex workers themselves want the law to stay in place, as it is providing them with basic rights such as health insurance and pensions.
But these prostitutes, who have galvanized under Germany’s association of sex workers, don’t necessarily speak for the hundreds of thousands that work the streets of Germany everyday (estimates conclude 400,000). Also, The Economist reported that only 44 prostitutes in all of Germany, including four men, have registered for welfare benefits.
Another point to consider before hailing the liberal flag in favor of legalizing prostitution is how many German prostitutes are even German to begin with and therefore eligible for benefits. Several studies, including one by the European Network for HIV/STI Prevention and Health Promotion among Migrant Sex Workers (TAMPEP), 65 to 80 percent of the girls and women come from abroad - mostly Eastern Europe.
It doesn’t require much research to draw the relationship between foreign sex workers – often desperate or coerced - and their vulnerability to sexual exploitation.
With prostitution being legalized, the demand in Germany has gone up faster than the number of women willing to enter the profession voluntarily, opening the door to trafficking and exploitation. The relationship between the legalization of prostitution and human trafficking in Germany remains controversial because official figures for trafficking went down between 987 in 2001 to 482 in 2011, according to The Economist.
However, critics say that these figures are understated because victims fear reporting cases of exploitation. Exploiting sex workers is still considered a crime in Germany. A recently published study by the London School of Economics found that in countries where selling sex was decriminalized, human trafficking increased.
Perhaps better regulation of prostitution and/or making changes to the law will help eliminate the risk of trafficking – which is what Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD), the co-authors of the 2011 law, are leaning towards today.
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But will these changes appease hardcore opponents like Alice Schwarzer, Germany’s outspoken and radical feminist, who argues that slavery and prostitutes are “inextricably entangled?”
Here is a more pressing question for those Germans currently tweeting Schwarzer’s petition to criminalize paying for sex as Sweden has.
If prostitution was made illegal, would people stop paying for sex?