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John Riceburg: My two cents on the prostitution debate

Should Germany keep prostitution legal? Despite the recent Alice Schwarzer outcry, John Riceburg says yes. Even if he might not sign up for the profession himself.

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Photo by Michal Andrysiak

“Would you like to have a sweaty old man stick his penis up your butt?”

That is what a friend asked me the last time I ventured an opinion on the Prostitutionsdebatte. That shut me up for a while (heterosexual man’s guilt), but after doing a number of interviews for the February issue of Exberliner, I’m ready for a double confession:

1. I do not want to have any kind of sex with a sweaty old man.

2. I think sex work should be socially accepted. Prostitution has been legal in Germany since 2002, but the hoped-for emancipated sex worker has still not become the norm. However, I think a lot of the problems can be traced back to ongoing persecution via immigration laws and social stigmatisation.

Now don’t get me wrong, no one should have to sell their body if they don’t want to. Anyone who forces women to prostitute themselves should get the book thrown at them – there are already laws against kidnapping, assault, rape and human trafficking.

Nonetheless, statistics claiming that 95 percent of prostitutes in Germany would escape if they could can be deceptive. Not only do most of the numbers in this Debatte lack any legitimate source, but… How many cleaners would escape their jobs if they had an alternative? What if the same survey was done in a call center, in a meatpacking plant, at Lidl?

For me, sex work seems like an especially intimate way to sell one’s body compared to, say, picking items at Amazon. I would personally like to work in a brothel even less than in an Amazon warehouse. But I’ve interviewed people who prefer sex work to low-paid jobs, and to quote Pope Frank: “Who am I to judge?”

A few simple measures could help prostitutes:

  • Counseling and education. A police officer reported that pimps often tell women from Eastern Europe that prostitution is illegal in Germany so they won’t turn to the authorities for help. Exploiters benefit when the women are – or think they are – working underground. They need to know their rights.
  • Legal status for immigrants. I was shocked to learn, as reported in an interview in the February issue, that women from outside the EU who are liberated from human traffickers are given just a temporary residency permit – and then deported! Is it a surprise that more victims don’t make statements to the police?
  • Free health care for all people in Germany. It was also shocking that women who are rescued from traffickers don’t get any kind of health care (except in emergencies). How can conservative politicians express so much concern for these women and then deny them basic counseling?
  • Good jobs for everyone. It’s possible that women can’t get out of prostitution because the alternative, for many people without job qualifications, is cleaning houses for €3 an hour. This is the case for many women from Southern Europe. That’s why Germany needs a universal minimum wage right.

With these measures in place, no one would have to sell their bodies.

Anyone who is against prostitution but doesn’t talk about these measures is, it seems to me, a hypocrite. That’s why I don’t trust Alice Schwarzer – who recently admitted to dodging taxes with an illegal Swiss bank account – because she talks about saving women from prostitution, but doesn’t talk about saving women from other degrading jobs, like in retail.

Researching for the new issue, I had my first long conversation with women who work in the sex industry. Both of them are specialists in different sexual techniques. Is it wrong for someone to enjoy the work of a “sexpert”, the same way we enjoy food by a master chef? Is it immoral to assist people who, due to disabilities, are unable to express themselves sexually?

There are bad conditions for many, perhaps most, sex workers in Germany. But to fight against this, we need to do the same thing we do about terrible conditions at Ikea, in cleaning, in child care, etc.: organise, form unions, fight for rights. There is a long tradition of trade union organisation of prostitutes in Germany going back to the 1920s. I think we should aim for a world, as Missy Magazine argues, where sex workers are treated like in the TV series Firefly: as respected craftspeople and not as pariahs.

Make sure to pick up our February issue to read more on the topic. You can buy a copy here.