Photo by Astrid Warberg
Is prostitution anti-feminist? The sex work debate in Germany shows no signs of abating and prominent feminists like Chantal Louis of Emma magazine have spearheaded a campaign against it. But that’s only one side of the argument. Some sex workers in Germany argue the merits of their profession.
Fabienne (aka Lady Velvet Steel) and Kristina Marlen, both in their mid-30s, have been working in the sex industry for more than five years, as a classical dominatrix and a tantric dominatrix respectively. Both are active in the German Trade Association for Erotic and Sexual Services.
How did you enter the profession?
Lady Velvet Steel: I was involved in BDSM for a long time previously. The bar where I was working shut down and I needed money to get through the winter. So I started working professionally. Before that I used to work in a workshop for plastic models – breathing toxic fumes for €5.50 an hour! I felt much more prostituted then than I do now.
Kristina Marlen: I trained as a physical therapist. But I didn’t want to exclude my sexuality from my work. It’s my passion, you could say. Plus, as a therapist I was only making €10.50 an hour, and that wasn’t working out for me.
The prostitution law passed in 2002 was supposed to empower prostitutes by making them eligible for social security and health insurance benefits – but according to Die Welt, there are only 44 Angestellte prostitutes in Germany. Why might that be?
If someone is unhappy with their job and does it anyway, does that person need to be rescued?
KM: The law wanted to make prostitutes normal Angestellte (employees), wage earners. But the reality is that most sex workers are self-employed in one way or another and for them, it’s still hard to get social insurance. The biggest problem is the stigmatisation of sex work.
LVS: We understand we’re both in a privileged position. Not everyone can live in Kreuzberg. In a small town in Brandenburg you can’t register at the Finanzamt as a whore because everyone knows everyone. And both of us don’t have children – if you have a kid, sex work can be used against you in a custody case, or the child can get harassed in the school yard. So lots of people are officially registered with other, related trades: masseur, partner therapy, sexual counsellor, etc.
What’s your take on the scandal sparked by Alice Schwarzer’s 2013 book Prostitution: A German Scandal?
KM: Schwarzer is starting this debate just to sell her book. She doesn’t want to listen to the women she claims to speak for. Do-gooders and so-called feminists are working together with extremely reactionary forces against prostitution. Amazingly, despite all the discussion there are no good statistics about the sex industry, just imaginary numbers repeated over and over again.
LVS: Any big research institute could do a serious study – it’s just a question of the political will to pay for it. Journalists who write about the sex industry only confirm the drastic picture they already had.
So sex trafficking is just an invention from scandal-hungry journalists?
KM: Of course there are abuses in the sex industry. But you can also find immigrants from eastern Europe working in terrible jobs in meatpacking plants or in home care. No one talks about prohibiting these professions. What we want to do is strengthen the position of sex workers so they can have their rights.
According to Detlef Ubben, head of the Hamburg Commission for Human Trafficking, 95 percent of sex workers are in one way or another “forced prostitutes”. What do you answer to that?
LVS: If someone is unhappy with their job and does it anyway, does that person need to be rescued? What does ‘forced’ mean anyway? People who are forced with violence and treated like slaves? Or does this include people who are ‘forced’ because they have to pay rent and feed themselves or their children? Many foreign construction workers in Dubai work under conditions of modern slavery. Does this mean we should prohibit the construction industry? In many years in the industry, I’ve never met a sex worker who didn’t choose the profession herself. Every case of trafficking is one too many, but that can’t be used to criminalise the whole sector.
The police claim that the 2002 law prevents them from fighting against the criminal part of the industry.
KM: The police don’t need more power – they can already go into brothels at any time if they want to. But shouldn’t it be the Gewerbeamt, the business department, doing inspections, the same as at a café? Is it good for sex workers to be visited by police with guns and body armour? Any attempt at prohibition goes against the interests of the prostitutes. There are cases where johns report human trafficking. Will anyone be willing to report if that implies denouncing oneself for a crime? If the client can be punished, that only creates disadvantages for the sex workers themselves.
What about the long-term psychological effects of the profession? Especially in ‘flat-rate’ brothels, where women might see dozens of men per day...
LVS: In the current discussion flat-rate brothels are portrayed as horror stories. But colleagues from our association have worked in these places. There might be abuses at some, but women there generally get a fixed rate. Some people prefer that to a situation like mine with a studio, where I might not have any clients in a day and therefore no income. In reality, flat-rate is just a marketing trick. Be honest: how often can you go more than three times in a night?
From a feminist perspective, isn’t sex work ultimately an expression of inequality between men and women?
KM: Sex work mirrors power relations in a patriarchal society, but it also means playing with them. From Focault we learned that power relations are complex. I grew up with a subscription to Emma and wore a “Por-No” sticker on my backpack when I was 15. But that doesn’t fit with the experiences I’ve had in the industry. For example, there is sexual therapy for people with physical or mental disabilities. I just came from a session with a person who has a muscle condition and can’t masturbate. Many of the clients in this sector are women.
What does your trade association propose?
KM: We need to improve working conditions through comprehensive counselling, health care and education services. All these measures cost more money than prohibitive laws that make the problems less visible. This whole discussion ignores the fact that there are women like us who like our jobs. A ban won’t help the women involved – or did people stop drinking during Prohibition in the US?
Originally published in issue #124, February 2014.