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  • “A woman is not a consumer product.”


“A woman is not a consumer product.”

Is prostitution anti-feminist? One of the leading voices in German feminism, Alice Schwarzer's Emma magazine, ran a virulent campaign against prostitution last year. The campaign's co-initiator and journalist Chantal Louis explains.

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Photo by Astrid Warberg

Is prostitution anti-feminist? One of the leading voices in German feminism, Alice Schwarzer’s Emma magazine, ran a virulent campaign against prostitution last year. We asked Emma journalist and campaign co-initiator Chantal Louis why she thinks Germany should make it illegal for women to sell their bodies.

What is wrong with Germany’s 2002 prostitution law?

The legalisa­tion of the promotion of prostitution has resulted in the creation of many large brothels. The owners no longer have to hide ashamed in the corner: they can come out in public and say, here’s my huge, beautiful ‘wellness brothel’. At the same time, the law took away possibili­ties for the police to intervene. We have created optimal conditions and a very large market for brothel operators, human traffickers and pimps.

And because we now say that prostitution is a totally normal career, Germany has neglected programmes that help women get out of prosti­tution. Studies confirm that 80­-90 percent of women would get out of it if they could. And so it took Germany 10 years after the prostitution law to start a pilot project. We are far away from being able to provide social and therapeutic support to women. 

But the purpose of the 2002 law was to empower prostitutes, free them from submission to criminal elements  ultimately clean the business. It even allows prostitutes to have pensions and health insurance, like any other worker. Did none of that happen?

It is an illusion to believe that you could reduce crime through legalisation. The opposite is the case.

Journalists at Die Welt found out that over the past 12 years, exactly 44 prostitutes in all of Germany signed up for pension and health insurance. That’s what we predicted from the start – you could read that in Emma before the law was passed.

Of course we are against discrimination of prostitutes; of course they should be able to get a pension and health insurance. And of course we’re against the hypocrisy that the prostitute has the stigma of the indecent woman, while it’s not a problem for men to visit a brothel. But we also said that this law has nothing to do with the reality of most prostitutes.

The problem is that we’re dealing with a totally criminal environment. In 2010, the interior ministers of the 16 German states told the federal government that changes to the law were urgently needed because they couldn’t get a grip on this criminal sphere. It is an illusion to believe that you could reduce crime through legalisation. The opposite is the case.

So what changes do you propose?

First, there is a short-­term pragmatic path: the current government should reform the law. For example, in order to fight the trafficking of women with indirect pressure, the police should once again be granted the authority to enter brothels at any time of day without any special grounds.

In Berlin there are allegedly 400-500 brothels. How can the police possibly control them all? 

Good ques­tion. Honestly, I don’t really know either… Another problem is that they are unable to get testimony from the women against their pimps. They’re scared. The police say they would like to be able to investigate the traffickers and pimps without necessarily saving the testimony of the women.

So-­called objective material evidence should be allowed, as is the case in France. Here’s a woman, she has no passport, she speaks no Ger­man, she doesn’t know where she is. And there’s a man who has her passport, who visits her every day to pick up money. If you can prove that, you should be able to say that this man is exploiting this woman.

Another thing would be to raise the minimum age of prostitutes to 21. The women are getting younger and younger, even under 18. At 21, women aren’t quite as easy to manipulate.

There should also be a law against exorbitant rents in prostitution. In brothels, the woman often pay their pimps €180­-200 a day to pay their rent in the brothel. Which means they have to ‘serve’ about 100 men a month. This is simply destruc­tive for the women. And it makes it highly lucra­tive for landlords to rent space to brothels. That would be a way of shrinking this huge market. 

Should Germany make prostitution a crime again?

Long-­term, the only solution is to take the same path as Sweden, Norway, Iceland and France. This market in which 80­-90 percent of women are either impoverished or forced prostitutes exists only because of the men willing to pay for sex. You have to make the purchase of sex punishable by law. The EU Palermo protocol on human trafficking states very clearly that the basic building block to reduce human trafficking is that we reduce de­mand. Germany has done the opposite over the past 12 years. We’re totally on the wrong path. 

But this market continues to exist underground in Sweden, despite their law.

Yes and no. There’s a study by the EU Commission that confirms that Ger­many has Europe’s largest prostitution market and that it’s 60 times bigger than the market in Sweden. Here in Cologne, every third taxi carries an ad for our local mega­ brothel with the lovely name “Pascha”. We have a culture in which we say, “Hey, super, celebrate your stag night in a brothel!” Or business deals are made in a brothel. In Sweden this is not considered okay. It’s considered a breach of hu­man dignity to pay someone to offer their body for sexual use. 

One argument for legalisation is that, no matter what, prostitution will always exist. Why not accept it?

I am always surprised how with prostitution, other standards apply than with other laws. Nobody argues that we shouldn’t have laws against theft because theft will always exist. We don’t argue that there shouldn’t be any laws on violence against women because there will always be violence against women. We would like to arrive at a point in Germany where it is no longer considered acceptable for men to fulfil their sexual needs through payment to women whose desires are totally irrelevant to them. 

So for you, as a feminist, it is also a matter of women’s dignity? Feminists are divided on the issue…

Look, through the women’s movement we’ve achieved equal rights for men and women. Women are also sexual beings, they also have desire. In the brothels we’ve created a parallel universe in which the circumstances of an earlier time – in which a husband could tell his wife to spread her legs – have been reinstated. I don’t want to live in a society in which young men believe they can go to a prostitute with­out having to spare a thought for her desires. A woman is not a consumer product.

Sometimes you hear stories about a young female student who is able to pay for her living costs with three nights of prostitution a month, rather than getting a horrible cleaning job… 

Ask yourself why young male students don’t do that. I have talked to a lot of prostitutes of all ages over the past 10 years, mostly Germans who did it by choice, to pay off debts, for example. All of them told me that it damaged them psychologically and physically The notion of the ‘fast money’ you can make with prostitution is an illusion. 

Then there is the question of choice. There are other fields in which people are doing something by choice and where we still, as a society, say it’s not desirable. We have laws against the selling of organs because we say we don’t want to commercialise the human body. And the same goes for prostitu­tion. We want a law that prevents the human body from becoming a sexual product.