Germany Bans Prostitution During Pandemic. Sex Workers Say That Creates New Dangers

Aug 26, 2020
Originally published on August 31, 2020 8:49 am

Among the twisting alleys of the St. Pauli district in Hamburg is the Reeperbahn, Germany's busiest red-light district. One stretch, Herbertstrasse, is blocked off to women who aren't sex workers. This part of Hamburg is nicknamed in German "die sündigste Meile," or "the most sinful mile." But for the first time in two centuries, this mile is less sinful than ever, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.

Usually, "you can get whatever you want if you go on the right street," says Natalie, a Hamburg brothel manager. NPR is using only her first name to protect her identity as a figure in a controversial industry that's come under increased police scrutiny. But now, "it's a ghost town," Natalie says. "It's like a Western movie."

Prostitution is legal and regulated in Germany, but lawmakers banned it in March to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. At the start of the summer, as this country and the rest of Europe began to reopen their economies, Germany's prostitution ban remained in place. That has angered sex workers and brothel owners and managers such as Natalie, who say the prohibition has not only meant a sudden loss of income, but, more importantly, it has put the workers' lives in danger.

Natalie rents her brothel from a landlord and leases rooms to dozens of sex workers who charge their clients hourly rates. This economic chain, estimated to include as many as half a million sex workers and billions of dollars in revenue nationwide, was broken when the authorities shut the brothels. The workers responded over the summer with protests in Cologne, Berlin and Hamburg, demanding that the government let them go back to work, but Germany's government hasn't budged.

"If we only had one single [coronavirus] case among sex workers, it could potentially, during one day, reach more than 60 other people who would then spread it themselves," says Martin Helfrich, spokesman for Hamburg's Ministry of Social and Health Issues, the agency in charge of regulating the city's sex work industry.

He says the nature of sex work is justification for banning it during the pandemic. Contact tracing — which Germany has excelled at — is also difficult in an industry in which documenting clients' personal details is "expected to be flawed, since who wants to leave the correct contact details of his house and his wife with a prostitute?" Helfrich adds.

The city of Hamburg has stepped in to help by sending welfare checks to registered sex workers and even renting a hotel to house those with nowhere to live during the pandemic. But it has also overseen strict enforcement of the ban, issuing fines of more than $6,000 to sex workers caught working. (In Hamburg, there are no fines for their clients.) This has left workers such as Emily Adaire vulnerable.

Adaire, who identifies as a transgender female, asked NPR to use her professional name for fear of revealing her work to her family and the police.

She says she now earns a quarter of what she made before the shutdown by working in online porn and by defying the ban by meeting a handful of regular clients who she knows aren't police officers. But one client, she says, used the threat of a police fine to take advantage of her.

"He demanded more stuff than usual for a quite low price, and I accepted," Adaire says. "I was like, 'OK, I can do it.' And then afterwards, he was not fully satisfied and he demanded back one-third of the cash."

She says she didn't know what to do. "And usually I don't do that because I think, 'OK, I got naked for you. I had sex with you. And it doesn't meet your expectations. I'm sorry, but I can't do anything about it,' " she says. "And then I was like, 'OK, you can just call the police on me.' And he was also a bit angry and I was a bit scared. So I just walked home and cried a bit."

Alina Prophet, who works at a community center for sex workers that is mostly funded by the city of Hamburg, says the ban means the workers are now just as vulnerable as their counterparts in much of the world where prostitution is illegal.

Social workers Alina Prophet and Anna Waxweiler counsel sex workers in Hamburg. They work at a center that is mostly funded by the city of Hamburg. Prophet says Germany's ban on sex work has made the workers more vulnerable.
Rob Schmitz / NPR

"If they work now, they work in worse conditions because they can't do it officially," she says. "They can't call the police afterwards, if something bad happens to them."

Some of the most vulnerable among them are the many sex workers in Germany who aren't registered and are typically from Romania, Bulgaria and other parts of Eastern Europe. "They've lost the place where they stayed because the brothels closed, and now many have left, some have returned home, and some are staying at a client's place and are now in dependent relationships," Prophet says.

To help implement measures against the spread of the coronavirus, brothel owners and managers such as Natalie collaborating with sex workers came up with a hygiene plan they've shared with health authorities. "It's very smart because it goes from A to Z," Natalie says. "Even the people who were concerned at first, they were like, 'Oh yeah. That makes sense.' "

The plan calls for sex workers and their clients to wear masks at all times except for during oral sex. "When it comes to oral sex, the face of the sex worker and the face of the client needs to be 90 centimeters away from each other," Natalie says. "We are Germans. We always stick to rules, and we do that even in the bedroom."

Natalie says nobody understands the importance of hygiene like sex workers. The city of Hamburg has hinted it will lift the ban on Sept. 1, but a recent spike in coronavirus cases in Germany may prevent that.

Rob Schmitz reported from Hamburg and Berlin; Esme Nicholson contributed from Berlin.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We also have news today from Germany, where prostitution, we should mention, is legal. The pandemic has prompted lawmakers to ban sex work, though, to slow the spread of the coronavirus. NPR's Rob Schmitz reports that sex workers say the ban has put their lives at risk. And they're demanding to go back to work.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Here in the twisting alleys of the St. Pauli district in Hamburg is the Reeperbahn, Germany's busiest red-light district.

NATALIE: You can get whatever you want if you go on the right street.

SCHMITZ: Natalie, who only gives her first name to protect her identity, runs a brothel along what is nicknamed in German die sundigste Meile - the most sinful mile. But now, for the first time in two centuries, this mile is less sinful than ever thanks to the pandemic.

NATALIE: It's a ghost town. It's like a western movie.

SCHMITZ: Natalie rents her brothel from a landlord. And in turn, she rents out rooms to dozens of sex workers who charge their clients hourly rates. This economic chain, made up of half a million prostitutes and billions of dollars in revenue nationwide, was broken five months ago when authorities banned sex work to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Non-English language spoken).

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

SCHMITZ: Germany's sex workers responded this summer in protests like this one in Cologne demanding that the government let them go back to work. But authorities in Hamburg haven't budged.

MARTIN HELFRICH: If we only had one single case, it could potentially, during one day, reach more than 60 other people, who would then spread it themselves.

SCHMITZ: Martin Helfrich is spokesman for Hamburg's Ministry of Social and Health Issues, the agency in charge of regulating the city's sex work industry. He says the very nature of sex work is justification for a ban on it during a pandemic. He adds that contact tracing, something Germany's government has excelled at, is also made very difficult by the industry.

HELFRICH: Since documentation of guests of sex workers with the correct details might - I guess, owing to the circumstances - be expected to be flawed since, who wants to leave the correct contact details maybe of his house with his wife at a prostitute?

SCHMITZ: Hamburg is sending registered prostitutes welfare checks and has even rented out an entire hotel to house sex workers who have nowhere else to live during the pandemic. But it's also overseen strict enforcement of the ban, issuing fines of more than $6,000 to prostitutes caught working again. There are no fines for their clients. And that's left sex workers like Emily Adaire vulnerable. Adaire, who identifies as a transgender female, uses only her professional name for fear of revealing her work to her family or the police. She now makes a quarter of what she made before the ban. But she does it by breaking the law and meeting a handful of regular clients who she knows are not cops. One client, though, used the threat of a police fine to take advantage of her.

EMILY ADAIRE: And he demanded more stuff than usual for a quite low price. And I accepted. I was like, OK. I can do it. And then afterwards, he was not fully satisfied. And he demanded back one-third of the cash.

SCHMITZ: She says she didn't know what to do.

ADAIRE: And usually, I don't do that because I think, OK, I got naked for you. I had sex with you. And It doesn't meet your expectations. I'm sorry. But I can't do anything about it. And then I was like, OK, you can just call the police on me. And he was also a bit angry. And I was, like, a bit scared. And so I just walked home and cried a bit.

SCHMITZ: In the end, Adaire gave him a third of his money back. She reasoned it was better than a $6,000 fine. Alina Prophet, a Hamburg social worker who counsels sex workers, says the ban means the prostitutes here are just as vulnerable as their counterparts in much of the world where their work has always been illegal.

ALINA PROPHET: If they work now, they work in worse conditions because they can't do it officially. They can't call the police afterwards if something bad happens.

SCHMITZ: And that's why prominent figures in the sex work industry, like brothel owner Natalie, have come up with a hygiene plan they've shared with health authorities.

NATALIE: Yeah. It's very smart because it goes from, like, A to Z, from every step. Even the people who were concerned at first, they'll be like, oh, yeah. That makes sense.

SCHMITZ: She says nobody understands the importance of hygiene like sex workers. The city of Hamburg has hinted it'll lift the ban on sex work on September 1. But a recent spike in coronavirus cases in Germany may prevent that.

Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Hamburg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.