It’s just after 4 pm, and the bleak November night as darkness falls. Here on a corner of Kurfürstenstraße, two worlds are about to collide. Pupils from the French primary school Voltaire, vagrants and mosque-goers, white collar workers on their Feierabend mingle on the bustling street …But then as night closes in, groups of girls appear seemingly out of nowhere in front of the notorious Love-Sex-Dreams sex shop, and Kurfürstenstraße becomes the sex strip it’s famed for.
Local authorities lifted Kurfürstenstraße’s Corona curfew on Berlin’s century-old red-light hotspot last August. Since then, Eastern European sex workers, underworld pimps, druggies, pickpockets and deranged freaks have returned to find their old haunts gentrified. Previously bombed-out, vacant blocks now boast six-storey, luxury apartments.
Meanwhile construction sites and security fences have closed off formerly condemned buildings and restricted access to much of the strip. Despite the change of scenery, they’re all back: women prowling the streets, pimps loitering in the doorways, potential customers nervously casting their eye over their options.
Kurfürstenstraße’s old hands and Multikulti shop owners shrug their shoulders at the street’s overnight renaissance. However this isn’t the case for the upmarket newcomers. Many moved in completely oblivious to its colourful reputation, and they’re outraged at the prostitutes and pimps invading their expensive idyll. They’re pinning their hopes on local women’s rights non-profit Terre Des Femmes and its fight to introduce Swedish-style prostitution laws in Germany.
Under this model, punters face stiff fines and a criminal record for paying for sexual services, while sex workers are retrained for “normal” jobs. Pimps’ incomes from female sexploitation dry up overnight, as do the human traffickers’ multimillion-euro businesses. If the law was to be introduced in Germany, it would mean curtains for Kurfürstenstraße’s hedonistic heyday.
However not all the cashed-up newcomers are turned off by the street’s kinky charms. “It’s not so much the sex strip that concerns me but the crime that comes with it,” says a middle-aged female resident of the plush Voltaire Apartments. “The rents are sky-high. Fortunately, we haven’t had any rough sleepers ringing bells and camping in the foyers yet. Nor have the doorways been used as public toilets like elsewhere in the street,” she adds. A two-metre tall German giant clambers into his Mercedes. “I don’t care about what goes on in the street. It all happens at night anyway,” he laughs. Indifference rules here on Kurfürstenstraße.
The sex workers
Hungarian sex worker Katalin has been hooking Kurfürstenstraße’s car and footpath punters for three years. “The Arabs and Afghanis are the real problem. They ask over and over again for the prices. They get aggressive when I don’t reply,” says the twenty-something. “A blowjob costs €30, sex with a condom €40, and sex and a blowjob €50. Love-Sex-Dreams sex shop charges €5 for a cabin, which are about one metre by one metre. Everyone just uses them for sex.”
Katalin usually whisks car-bound punters off for a quickie in the car park opposite Hübner’s furniture store, about 150 metres away in Genthiner Straße. Sometimes she’ll even take them inside a suspiciously parked bus. A 1950s design, the big green vehicle with no windows is occasionally found in the corner of the car-park, and made available for the ladies. Indeed, churchgoers outside Kurfürstenstraße’s Twelve Apostles Lutheran Church pretend not to notice. Katalin charges punters an extra €20 for sex in nearby Bülowstraße’s hourly hotel.
Although the scene really comes alive after dark, Kurfürstenstraße’s sex strip runs non-stop, with ladies loitering around Love-Sex-Dream’s heated foyer 24/7. Whether it’s a stress-relieving quicky at 5am on the way to work, or a blow-job during lunch break, there are always options available.
Despite it all, optimism thrives on Kurfürstenstraße. Two older, plumper, far-gone beauties from Romania follow a pedestrian. “Hast du Lust? Hast du Lust? Ein Dreier mit uns?” (Do you feel like it? Do you feel like it? A three- some with us?)
A turf war breaks out on the corner of Kurfürstenstraße and Frobenstraße after a hefty Hungarian lady stakes her claim on a young German redhead’s corner patch. Tempers flare. The redhead kicks her rival’s legs out from underneath her; the Hungarian thuds onto the footpath, winded. The slim redhead’s an experienced street-fighter. Onlookers moan at the quick end to the brawl between boardwalk brides. “I had to put her out of action,” says the redhead.
It isn’t only the sex workers and residents who are drawn into street’s sex scene. Kurfürstenstraße’s Twelve Apostles Church takes centre stage in Berlin’s red-light roadshow, particularly following Tempelhof-Schöneberg Council’s decision to build a slap-up wooden toilet in front of the church. Here, ladies and punters file in and out of their altar for round-the-clock rituals of quickies, shooting up and calls of nature.
Pastor Burkhard Bornemann strolls through his red-light flock every day tending to Kurfürstenstraße’s fallen angels. For many, faith in God and drugs gets them through their nocturnal sexcapades. Bornemann’s “Wednesday Initiative” hands out food parcels and spiritual guidance – key forms of sustenance, no doubt – but he argues that more needs to be done to address the problems he sees on the street.
“Politicians on both sides of the fence dodge the issue of banning Kurfürstenstraße’s sex strip. It’s too hot for them. A ban would certainly allow us to get back to tending tourists’ and parishioners’ spiritual needs,” says the 57-year-old, Berlin-born preacher. He’s right. Tempelhof Schöneberg’s recently appointed mayor Jörn Oltmann (the Greens) has long resisted banning Kurfürstenstraße’s sex trade.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bornemann isn’t the only local religious figure calling for action. About 150 metres up the road and on the other side of the street, 400 Muslim faithful stream out of Semerkand Mosque after Friday prayers – where they are welcomed by Kurfürstenstraße’s streams of sex workers. “It’s a very unpleasant situation for us,” says mosque spokesman Ömer Burak, 24. “We have children and teenagers coming here. They’re exposed to the streetwalkers. It’s even more unpleasant when we have high-ranking visitors. The mosque would definitely support a ban on street prostitution in Kurfürstenstraße.”
Inspector Wolff’s approach
A first-hand witness to some of the problems associated with the strip is chief inspector Ingo Wolff, who fronts the Berlin Police’s Crime Prevention Squad in the area. “Kurfürstenstraße is a microcosm of Berlin’s crime scene. Prostitution, human trafficking, drugs, violence, theft – the street has everything,” he says.
Highlighting the darker side of the sex trade, in 2018 Berlin Police investigated 156 cases of human trafficking, most of them within the city’s thriving sex industry. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, according to Wolff. “Tracing pimps’ incomes and securing a conviction verges on a Mission Impossible. We have to prove that over 50 percent of their income comes from prostitution,” he says.
To help protect sex workers from some of the dangers of the industry, Wolff and his crew take a cooperative approach. “We work with the girls, not against them. We’re their friends,” says the mild-mannered 50-year-old. Indeed, young, happy-looking Romanian streetwalkers frolic in front of the Twelve Apostles Church, paying scant attention to and completely unperturbed by Wolff’s weekly Friday info stand, which sits just in front of the huge, brown Backstein building.
“It’s legal for them to work in front of the church. But a quickie in public is definitely out. They can use the portable toilet in front of the church for that,” Wolff says. “The Voltaire primary school calls us when the girls stray up to the children’s playground. We then call the social workers from Frauentreff Olga to haul them back and tell them it’s not on.” Softly, softly. In words and action.
And despite being on the frontline of the fight against sex industry-related criminality, Wolff gives the thumbs down to Sweden-style prostitution laws. “Kurfürstenstraße’s sex strip is a Berlin institution. It’s been here for over a hundred years. I can’t see it being banned. A ban would make the situation worse because we would lose contact with the girls and pimps. Criminalising punters and retraining streetwalkers has a bad taste for us, especially with Germany’s dark past from 1933-1945,” says Wolff.
Olga’s safe house
The police aren’t the only ones looking after the Kurfürstenstraße girls, though. Just a few doors up from the mosque, streetwalkers mill around the front of Frauentreff Olga, a support centre for sex workers. Olga’s social workers provide counselling, hygiene articles, meals, condoms, needles and a safe place to sleep for those working the street.
“Few women ever get out of the scene. They hardly ever rat on their pimps – out of fear,” says Olga social worker Lonneke Schmidt-Bink, 47. “Unfortunately, plans to get the girls off the street by converting the Love-Sex-Dreams sex complex into a four-storey, walk-through love house fell through when the owner sold the building. He was all for it, but the new owner plans to flatten the building.”
Echoing Wolff’s sentiment, Schmidt-Bink believes that prohibiting sex work would do more harm than good. “Banning Kurfürstenstraße’s sex strip would simply move it to freeway entrances. Or force it underground. That means we wouldn’t be able to reach the sex workers in need of help.”
Schmidt-Bink does however foresee Kurfürstenstraße’s demise on the horizon. “When the construction work is finished and the security fences narrowing the street are removed, the cars and sex workers will be back in force. That’s when the pressure to ban the sex strip will peak,” she says.
Despite the increased calls to rid the stretch of its most famous attractions, those in the middle of it remain defiant. “The strip’s not going anywhere. We’re here to stay,” says Julischka, a Hungarian sex worker who has clocked up six years patrolling the pavement opposite the LSD sex shop. “There aren’t any problems. Everyone gets on fine. From the Muslims leaving the mosque to the pedestrians, they never say a thing. No insults, nothing.” But then the 30-year-old in skin-tight leggings glances over her shoulder and suddenly falls silent. Ten metres away a beefy man stamps his authority on Julischka’s problem-free zone.