More and more women from bankrupt Italy, Spain and Greece are coming to Berlin to earn fast cash in the city’s streets and brothels.
It’s 10pm on Bülowstraße, and business has never been worse. Silvia*, a 24-year-old from Valencia, is trying hard, taking short steps back and forward to stop cars. She headed for the Berlin labour market after losing her job in a restaurant: “Then no money, nothing,” she says in a hasty whisper. Nobody stops, so the girl next to her comes over to give her some advice. Silvia doesn’t seem to have much experience in the tough, highly competitive prostitution business. She’s badly equipped for a January day in Berlin: with her short leather jacket and jeans, she’s shivering with cold.
Silvia is part of a new Berlin reality that social workers on the ground have just started to acknowledge: girls from crisis-stricken Europe, mostly Greeks, Italians and Spaniards, coming here to prostitute themselves. “I had never come across a woman from Greece before and I have done this job for 13 years,” says Wiltrud Schenk, head of the counselling department of the Centre for Sexual Health and Family Planning in Wilmersdorf, one of five in Berlin to support and offer health services for sex workers.
Women from eastern Europe, including increasing numbers of Romanians and Bulgarians, still make up a huge majority of the sex workers in Berlin, but “since the austerity policies, we’ve seen more and more women coming from southern Europe. Of course this is not forced prostitution in a strict sense – but it is economic-driven prostitution. Many of those women lose their jobs and are left with few alternatives, often with debts and mortgages to pay back home.” According to Schenk, those women tend to stay in Berlin for just a few weeks at a time, scheduling daily or weekly appointments and earning enough fast cash to support themselves or their families in their country of origin.
Most of them work in brothels. One particular five-room flat on Danziger Straße is indistinguishable from its surroundings, marked only by a discreet sign outside and a special doorbell reading “Maison D’Envie”. At the brothel’s entrance, past the typical bike-filled Hinterhof, sculptures of Jesus and Mary stand in a row on a covered plinth, dividing the way into two short corridors that lead deeper inside the flat. Of the six women who work there, only one is German; the others are from Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Spain.
Diana*, 23, started to prostitute in Mallorca one year ago. Before that, she had worked as a chambermaid. Since a friend told her about Maison D’Envie, she’s been making regular trips to Berlin, none longer than a month at a time. Her Spanish passport allows her to travel and work freely throughout Europe. In her skinny black leggings and blue blouse, Diana gives a nod of absolute certainty: “I travel to Berlin for the money, the most important thing, and I stay just the time I need to work well.”
The room is painted with violet stripes and sparsely accessorised with a small sink, porn magazines, a TV and a DVD player. Sitting on red sheets with legs crossed, she vividly recounts the consequences of the Spanish economic crisis on the sex sector: “Men in Spain buy fewer minutes of my service, or they come once instead of three times per month. Here in Berlin I can ask for more money and the clients, also tourists, are more educated.” Still, despite seeing “five or 10 men per week”, she says her monthly income rarely exceeds €700-800, which is just enough to pay her Berlin rent (a shared flat) and send cash to her family.
Sex workers at Maison D’Envie don’t invest much in seductive clothes. “Berlin isn’t as smart as Frankfurt, and not as rich as Munich,” says Lucia, a thirtysomething from Cuba, comfortably dressed in a dark blue bathrobe and green slippers. Latin beats blare in the background. She’s a bit of a mentor in the house with experience in networking and on the streets. “Clients here don’t necessarily ask for a professional woman – and they seem not to have much money.” She praises the family atmosphere of the house: “The boss isn’t strict. If there are problems, we solve them in meetings.” None of the girls will divulge the cut they give to said boss, though. “All the chicas here work to survive, not to get rich,” says Lucia, ducking the question.
According to Schenk, quite a few of these newcomers are highly educated: “Teachers, engineers, the ‘brain group’. Prostitution for these Spanish, Italian and Greek women is seen as a moment of transition. They do it while they look for another job.”
Or, as in the case of Pamela*, an architect from Italy, they already have one. The architecture graduate holds a part-time job in Berlin while simultaneously working in a brothel. “In Italy I would earn much, much more money than here because prostitution is illegal, but here it is safer and I work better.” She knows “enough” Italian women working in the German capital’s sex milieu and realistically argues: “Taken seriously, this job has a time limit. Society requires appearance, a solid body, savoir faire. A high level in the hierarchy, and consequently money, is achieved only by being in excellent shape.”
As a Greek woman, Agnes*, a twentysomething employed in a ground-level brothel in Schöneberg, is a minority in Berlin compared to Spaniards and Italians. Standing near the entrance in black heels and a light orange bra and underwear, she politely offers us a glass of water but suddenly clams up when we ask her about her current work in Berlin, demanding the usual €35 fee for 20 minutes of her time. A private conversation is out of the question. “She has a family,” explains one of the brothel’s doormen.
And her family at home may not be aware of what she does abroad. “My brother, my mother and my father don’t know that I work on the street here in Berlin,” says Maria*, a 25-year-old from Malaga, Spain. “They think I work in a restaurant.” She has lived in Berlin for one year, sharing an apartment with a Dominican friend. They work together on Bülowstraße, usually until 5am. “Here I feel freer – no one knows me. In Malaga it would be impossible,” she says, while immediately clarifying that her normal outfit isn’t the long fake leather boots and short tight black pants she wears “now”, during working hours. She makes occasional trips to work in Italy and France, and speaks good Italian.
It is difficult to say exactly how many southern European women are working on the streets and in brothels in Berlin, and how many more will join them as economic conditions in their home countries continue to worsen. When called about the issue, an employee of the Berlin Senat Department for Women, Work and Integration claims: “I heard about the issue of prostitutes from Spain, Greece and Italy for the first time just 45 minutes ago.” These women may not have entered the stats yet, but their real-life stories are out there.
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Originally published in issue #124, February 2014.