Sex Work and Human Rights

Commentaries in the international media

The following is my letter to the editor of the Japanese Times that was published on November 27th in response to the article “Germany is having second thoughts on legalized prostitution“.

Japan Times OpinionI’m a German researcher and I was a co-organizer of the protest against Alice Schwarzer’s recent event in Berlin.

The fact that many guests at the event didn’t seem to mind when Schwarzer, a privileged woman in a powerful position, dismissed critical comments by a Bulgarian sex worker as grotesque and implausible, illustrates how little Schwarzer and her followers understand about the diversity of experiences made by sex workers.

Schwarzer’s book and her appeal against prostitution have been widely criticized for using entirely unreliable data. The counter-appeal, launched by the German sex workers’ union, has been signed by numerous experts, including counseling centers for sex workers and victims of human trafficking as well as social scientists, social workers and sex workers themselves.

In opinion polls, a majority of the German public has consistently shown not to support a move to roll back the German prostitution law. Suggesting otherwise and believing Schwarzer’s and Louis’ unscientific claims is, pardon me, sloppy investigative journalism. Schwarzer’s press conference for foreign journalists has certainly been noticed by her opponents. Thankfully, there’s a currently a more diverse discourse in the German media than your article provides.

You can read a more detailed and more accurate description of the event in the news section of the International Committee for the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE).

“Sex workers protest against Alice Schwarzer’s panel discussion about prostitution in Berlin”

You can read the appeal to strengthen the rights and improve the living and working conditions of sex workers here.


The ObserverThe following is a comment I left on the article “Germany rethinks its liberal ways on sex workers“ in the Observer, written by Philip Oltermann, the Guardian and Observer’s Berlin correspondent. I am glad to report that Mr Oltermann acknowledged that his unintended choice of words could have been misinterpreted. The passages in question have now been revised.

All in all not a bad summary of the current discourses in Germany but a couple of things should be noted. It is not “Germany” that rethinks its liberal ways on sex workers. In opinion polls, a majority of the German public has consistently shown not to support a move to roll back the German prostitution law. (See recent polls by infratest or ZDF login, or even an older one conducted by SOLWODI – Solidarity with Women in Distress, whose chairwoman is one of the fiercest anti-prostitution activists around). Reports suggesting otherwise are based on Alice Schwarzer’s press conference for foreign journalists, which provided them with more of the same unscientific claims from her book.

Speaking of “claims”: call me a nitpicker but I find it odd that Philip Oltermann let’s Alice Schwarzer and her fellow campaigners “argue” but Alexa Müller “claim” (in regards to the ’44 sex workers [who] are registered for the public health scheme’ and the fact that she regularly meets and talks to Romanian and Bulgarian prostitutes). It appears the author doubts Müller’s accounts.

Where the ’44’ are concerned, a report by the German government from as early as 2005 outlined some of the reasons. As the main obstacle, sex workers named the uncertainty whether or not labour contracts would actually provide any social and material benefits for them, and to what extent they might be faced with unexpected disadvantages. The most common answer was that they simply could not imagine how such contracts should work.

“I think that labour contracts wouldn’t really be helpful for any prostitute. You have to be very careful with labour contracts, because through contracts, there could also arise possibilities of a very different type of exploitation. Okay, you get a labour contract, but then you have to do [oral sex] or have to offer any service, that the customer wants. If that’s price that women are offered to pay for social insurance, then I would advise each and every woman not to do that.” [p.55, Translated from the German version; the English version (which doesn’t include this quote) can be found here.]

And where Eastern European sex workers are concerned, let’s hear it directly from them then.

Following an account by social worker Sabine Constabel at the book launch of Alice Schwarzer about young women from Eastern Europe who, as she claimed, are predominantly uneducated as well as diseased due to insufficient health care in their home countries, a Bulgarian sex worker commented:

„For 3 years, I worked at a brothel in Berlin, before that, 4 years at Artemis, 6 years at another business. I have never met a Bulgarian woman as you described them, who were sick. … 2 women sought protection, they [contacted the police]. Where do you meet these women?” [Video and transcript can be found here.]

A word about reliable figures. While it is true that there are no reliable figures, there are some important facts to be known.

The German Prostitution Act of 2002 has in no way impacted the powers of law enforcement. In several states (‘Bundesländer’), the police can and does control brothels and brothel-like businesses at any time. The fact of the matter is that the Prostitution Act, even 11 years after it was adopted, is still not being implemented in all of Germany, and the powers of law enforcement are interpreted differently between different states.

A recent report by the criminal office in North-Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous state of Germany, stated that despite an increasing number of controls, the number of victims of human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation has decreased. The report also stated that the Prostitution Act has had no visible impact on human trafficking.

And finally, there is sufficient evidence that laws banning prostitution, including those that claim to punish sex workers’ clients only, are harmful, not “only” where sex workers’ rights are concerned but also where efforts to combat actual human trafficking are concerned. (See “Criminalising the payment for sexual services – An introduction for the uninitiated”)

Germany, for all its needs to improve on the existing law, is at least on the right track.

Matthias Lehmann, Berlin


One response

  1. One of the pseudo stats doing the rounds in the yellow journalism of the english speaking world is the claim that there are 20,000 sex workers in France but 400,000 in Germany! So, we’re talking in per capita terms 15 times more sex workers in Germany than in France. It really annoys me no end that one. Guesswork as a substitution to researched findings.

    December 28, 2013 at 9:45 pm

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