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Sex workers want peer knowledge, not state control

A proposed law in Germany pretends to help prostitutes by registering them, but it will only increase sex workers’ precariousness and vulnerability. Respect and peer knowledge would go much farther.

Photo provided by author. All Rights Reserved.

In Germany, the regulation of prostitution shifted when the coalition government of the Green Party and the Social Democratic Party adopted the Prostitution Act (ProstG) in 2002. Compulsory health checks were abolished, prostitution was no longer deemed an immoral activity, and sex workers were henceforth allowed to be either employed or self-employed, at least in theory. The law also required them to pay tax and obtain health insurance.

Yet, given a special restriction of the rights of the employer over the sex worker, hardly any contracts are stipulated and sex workers are largely in a state of apparent self-employment. Stigmatising measures through special laws are still present, such as urban ‘restriction areas’, where any type of sex work is prohibited and prosecuted through fines. Sex work is still assumed to operate within a criminal milieu. As sex workers who have lived and worked in other countries where sex work and/or everything around it is harshly criminalised, we must note that access to police and justice for documented sex workers in Germany is way safer than elsewhere. However, undocumented migrants have completely fallen out of the regulated picture since ProstG came into force, as venues and brothels will no longer rent them rooms and police continue to arrest them.

The Prostitutes Protection Act

The current German model is definitely not ideal. Much of it is not properly applied when it comes to workers’ benefits, and it continues to criminalise undocumented migrants and those who don’t comply with its special laws. Yet, we now nearly hope it stays as it is. The global moral panic surrounding trafficking and prostitution has reached Germany, pressuring the parties in power to take measures to redeem its reputation as the “brothel of Europe”. Abolitionist feminists set up anti-prostitution campaigns, and fantastically claim that 90% of sex workers are victims of forced prostitution. Official data has shown a steady decrease in filed trafficking cases from within the sex industry during the past five years. Yet, Germany is pressured to do more to protect its prostitutes. According to the proposed new ‘Prostitutes Protection Act’ (drafted in March 2014, passed National Council review in February 2016, and now awaiting final review), this means registering us, forcing us to undergo regular medical counselling in order to acquire a ‘prostitute ID’, and fining us if we don't comply. Our clients, meanwhile, must only wear a condom to be safe from fines.

The ostensible reason for these new requirements is that they force us into contact with people that can ‘help’ us. Poor victims of pimps and traffickers that we are – not subjects dealing with poverty, gender inequality, and migrations restrictions – we would finally have access to someone to talk to. We would open up to the authorities and beg to be rescued in the very moment of being given the chance to get registered. We laugh out loud.

Sex workers united against the new law

This proposed law is about controlling us not protecting us. It would expose us and leave us vulnerable to the loss of family and friends. It would minimise our already scarce chances of finding another job, if we want, or drive us into illegality if we chose not to register for these very reasons. Moreover, we are sure that enforced counselling and registration would not present us with the perfect environment for reporting situations of abuse or exploitation. Finally, the legal enforcement of a practice within the realm of sex, however advisable, would affect our right to sexual self-determination over our own bodies.

Photo provided by author. All Rights Reserved.

Sex workers’ mobilisation against the new proposed law has been widespread. Different groups have led actions, demonstrations and campaigns, including: Hydra; the Professional Organisation for Erotic and Sexual Services BeSD (est. 2013), which aims to improve the life conditions of sex workers; and Dona Carmen, a sex workers and allies’ association that lobbies for decriminalisation and runs an outreach project. These organisations represent a wide diversity of sex workers, from operators (managers who also work) to street workers, who all claim the same: we don’t want to be registered!

Although not in force yet, we have noticed a growing panic around this threatening new law. Many are unsure of its precise stipulations and are scared of its consequences. The vast majority of us refuse the mere idea of ever getting registered. Sex workers are getting more and more suspicious of authorities and institutions, insecure about their future livelihood, and angry.

Our conviction is that sex workers know best what would improve their lives.

Peer knowledge

Sex work insider knowledge is central to creating fairer, safer, and healthier work. Because of the stigma attached to us and our profession, our knowledge continues to be hidden and socially ignored. We aim at reversing this through collective reflections and exchange.

Peer educators have specific language and cultural skills and migration stories, which generates trust amongst migrant sex workers. We currently do workshops in Bulgarian, English, German, Hebrew, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish and Thai. The themes of the workshops arise from the wishes and needs of the different participants. We walk paths that would be foreclosed to a classic top-down educational approach. We tell about our own experiences of work, including ways of practicing safer sex and dealing with stigma, but also experiences of exploitation, violence, and even trafficking.

We share our own success stories of breaking free from dependency and coercion, and point to possible ways out. Moreover, we pass on information on the current political situation and engage in community building. Our work challenges the common perception of a stark polarisation between migrant trafficking victims and emancipated German sex workers.

As migrants, we should be perceived as people with goals, migration projects, and rights to maintain ourselves and families. ‘Protecting us’ in this manner only serves Germany to recuperate a good moral image in the international arena, as the main effect of this new law will be to drive documented, EU migrant sex workers further onto the margins, where our undocumented colleagues have always lived.

When Sylvia Pantel, a politician for Christian Democratic Union (CDU), was confronted about the damages this proposed law would do to German sex workers, said this law was not for them but for the poor migrant sex workers who are abused and subjugated. This is nothing but false concern, however, as shown by the fact that migrant sex workers are chronically denied access to social benefits.

Some of us peer educators have experienced abuse or have even been trafficked. This makes us aware of the violence and abuse present in our industry. Our aim is to fight back by increasing our ability to resist. Maybe this is what the law would aim at too, if it honestly wanted to protect us. Listening to us would be a good start, but it seems too hard of a task.

Last summer, Hydra's signature protest and campaign against forced registration was translated into several languages and collected over 1000 signatures from sex workers (using their stage names, for anonymity). Amongst these are the signatures of many migrants. This is only one small example, but it shows that sex workers – yes, even migrant ones from the usual suspect countries – do have a voice. We raise this voice often yet it is repeatedly ignored, as our signatures were. The new Prostitutes Protection Act is now awaiting the approval of the German Federal Council (Bundesrat). But we will keep denouncing the hypocrisy of ‘in our name’ policies that indirectly criminalise or stigmatise us instead of concretely improving our lives – lives about which only we know best.

This article is published as part of the 'Sex workers speak: who listens?' series on Beyond Trafficking and Slavery, generously sponsored by COST Action IS1209 ‘Comparing European Prostitution Policies: Understanding Scales and Cultures of Governance' (ProsPol). ProsPol is funded by COST. The University of Essex is its Grant Holder Institution.

 

About the author

Hydra e.V. is Germany's first sex workers’ association. Established in Berlin in 1980, it has run a local, government-funded outreach and counselling centre since 1985. Hydra keeps campaigning for the full recognition of sex work as work and for the end of stigmatising and indirectly criminalising laws within the current model. Since 2012, Hydra provides peer-to-peer workshops by and for sex workers in various work settings and venues carried out by a team of six sex workers from different linguistic and migratory backgrounds. This article is a joint effort of the peer team.


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