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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Walking the Red-Light District

How Germany fought human trafficking by empowering sex workers

On the last day of my recent trip to Germany, I’d wanted to check out Deutschland’s brothels. The focus of my writing on sex work has been U.S.-centric thus far. So I wanted to speak to someone participating in sex work in a country where it’s legal. I was running out of time and euros, but it just so happened that the quickest route to my hotel after drinks with locals included an area known for its ladies of the night.

As we walked down a hookah-bar-lined street, the sex workers looked more empowered than any I’ve seen stateside. Tall and healthy-looking, with thick hair and thin waists, beautiful corsets shaping hourglasses, they certainly didn’t look oppressed—except perhaps by four-inch platform Lucite heels. (Those oppress any wearer.)

On our walk I learned that Germany’s decision to legalize prostitution not only helped sex workers, but actually decreased the number of human trafficking victims in the country. But on our stroll, one of my companions told me that German feminists are trying to recriminalize sex work. This is a mistake, she argued. Legalization has improved sex workers’ lives.

Turns out, she was right. According to the data, violence against sex workers is down, while sex workers’ quality of life is up. And after testing began, post-legalization, researchers discovered no difference in sexually transmitted infection rates between sex workers and the general population.

Opponents claim legalizing prostitution has actually increased human trafficking in the country. But the data don’t support that claim. In fact, they show the opposite. From 2001, the year the law legalizing sex work in Germany was passed, to 2011, cases of sex-based human trafficking shrank by 10 percent.

It’s true is that most German sex workers (74 percent) are foreign-born. However, Germany generally has a high immigration rate. Only 81 percent of people living in Germany were born there. Right about when Germany legalized sex work, Eastern European countries joined the European Union, economic crises hit post-communist countries, and globalization increased immigration flows. But these migrant workers are hardly child sex slaves. The mean age of a sex worker in Germany is 31.

Besides not being supported by data, the claim that legalizing prostitution increased human trafficking also defies common-sense economics. Legalization has brought about reduced prices for sex acts people demand. Sure, one might still pay a lot for high-quality service. And as I learned on this trip, nothing is cheap in Germany. But the days of paying more than 15 euros for sex from someone who clearly doesn’t want to be there are over. Time spoke to one tourist who described the country as “the Aldi for prostitutes.”

Whether you think such sexual transactions are a good thing or a bad thing, the fact remains that criminalization makes things more expensive. And price drives pimps to find new ways to satisfy demand. Prices matter for trafficking because it costs a lot to kidnap someone and hold them against their will. The economic realities of legalization have brought about a situation in which it makes no sense for traffickers to keep their human chattel in Germany, where prices are lower. While it’s true that traffickers bring their victims through the country as a corridor, they normally keep going until they get to one of the countries where prostitution is still illegal, like France, where prices are higher.

In Germany, the sex workers are workers, not slaves. For a country that has always taken workers’ rights seriously (certainly more so than civil liberties), sex work is no exception. Workers there are represented by a union and are afforded full police protection when something goes wrong.

The importance of this benefit of legalization simply cannot be overstated. Violence is far more likely when violators know they won’t likely be reported.

And then there’s police abuse by sex workers worldwide: In Ireland, where prostitution is still criminalized, one study estimates that 30 percent of the abuse sex workers report comes from police. And “in South Africa,” writes Fordham human rights professor Chi Mgbako, “police officers often fine sex workers inordinate sums of money and pocket the cash, resulting in a pattern of economic extortion of sex workers by state agents.” Mgbako adds: “South African sex workers report that police confiscate condoms to use as evidence of prostitution; demand sexual favors in exchange for release from jail or to avoid arrest; physically assault and rape sex workers; actively encourage or passively condone inmate sexual abuse of transgender female sex workers assigned to male prison cells; and use municipal laws to harass and arrest sex workers even when they’re engaged in activities unrelated to prostitution.” Of course, prostitutes are abused in the United States as well.

Some German feminists want to criminalize demand instead of supply, which makes sense on the surface. Why lock up the women, but not the men? The Swedish did exactly that, using a new twist on an old idea, fighting trafficking by criminalizing prostitution. They passed laws that prevented sex workers from working together, recommending each other's customers, advertising or working from property they rent or own, or even cohabitating with a partner.

The result was sex workers enduring harassment instead of help from police, like being forced to undergo invasive searches. Sex workers in Sweden were made to testify against their customers and ended up relying more on their pimps to find clients.

And the result was no change in the number of sex workers or the customers.

The truth is that laws against sex work actually help human traffickers. This is why the UN Human Rights Council published a report from the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women that criticizes anti-trafficking measures that restrict sex workers.

According to the report, “Sex workers are negatively impacted by anti-trafficking measures.” Specifically, “The criminalisation of clients has not reduced trafficking or sex work, but has increased sex workers’ vulnerability to violence, harmed HIV responses, and infringed on sex workers’ rights.”

Furthermore, “Anti-trafficking discussions on demand have historically been stymied by anti-prostitution efforts to eradicate the sex work sector by criminalising clients, despite protests from sex workers' rights groups and growing evidence that such approaches do not work.”

Sure enough, my very brief encounter with German sex workers seem to bolster that view. 

  • Cathy Reisenwitz is a D.C.-based writer. She is Editor-in-Chief of Sex and the State and her writing has appeared in The Week, Forbes, the Chicago Tribune, The Daily Beast, VICE Motherboard, Reason magazine, Talking Points Memo and other publications.