Picture a sex worker, what comes to mind? Berlin’s most famous sex strip is probably the Kurfürstenstraße, but beyond these more obvious sites the reality of what sex work entails remains largely a mystery. In 2002, the German government passed a law that would ultimately legalise sex work. According to this law, sex work was no longer seen as immoral, but could be viewed as a legitimate profession which people could choose to pursue.
20 years later, however, Berlin’s sex industry remains elusive. Few know just what goes on behind the scenes and many remain sceptical of the highly controversial profession, and some recent discussions want to return to the criminalisation of sex work altogether. In 2020, at the height of the pandemic, some prominent German lawmakers called for the introduction of the contentious Nordic Model, which crimininalises clients of sex workers, but not the workers themselves. Too often, they present the workers as powerless victims and the voices of actual sex workers are often absent from the debate.
June 2 marks “International Whores’ Day” and, in Berlin, sex workers are taking the streets to have their voices heard. We spoke to five sex workers who each gave their perspective on the meaning of their work today – and the stigma that comes with it.
The gentrification of sex work
Leo, who identifies as non-binary, was 18 when they first walked into a brothel. “I had short, blonde hair, I think I looked very cutesy. I thought I was going for an interview. I had answers prepared. Then there’s this big German lady who opened the door, and she was like: ‘You want to start right now?’ I had no damn clue at the time.”
The person Leo was 11 years ago is nowhere to be seen today. They speak with a confidence that makes it difficult to imagine the 18-year-old. Leo still has short hair, but rocks a body full of tattoos and radiates assurance and authority. Looking back, even Leo seems a little surprised. “It was very much a working class profession, and most of the people I worked with were women of colour. I was making a crap ton of money, so, obviously they had good reason to be aggressive towards me. I was huge competition.” Young, white, and middle class, Leo was an exception at the time. “Today, you see more and more students, who want to do sex work on the side, and who are genuinely interested in it. A friend of mine once called it the gentrification of sex work.”
Today, Leo works mainly as an independent escort, but sometimes misses life in the brothel. “What I love about the brothels is that no one is pretending Santa Claus exists. We’re here to exchange money for very explicit sexual services. When working independently it’s different, the clients are not comfortable with the fact that they’re seeing a sex worker.” Brothels may have a bad rap with outsiders used to their portrayal in Hollywood movies, but they are actually an important source of community for a lot of sex workers. Leo says working independently can get quite lonely. “The other day, I did a day at a brothel, just to be able to work with colleagues.”
After years of leading a double life working illegally the US, Emma Pankhurst decided to move to Berlin to pursue sex work. Now, she doesn’t need to hide what she does, and she speaks completely frankly. “Everyone that’s nice to us deserves sex. You can just stop in for 20 minutes and buy a fuck for €50. In the US, we commence a session as if we’re boyfriend and girlfriend, he leaves the money in the bathroom, and services are never discussed. Here, I’m like, haggling: Do you want to go down on me? Do you want a blow job? Do you want to come? Every little thing has to be discussed and bargained for. When I enter the room, he’s already lying naked on the bed in all his overweight glory.” Emma’s new sense of freedom is reflected in her look: glittery eyeshadow paired with a casual outfit, eye-catching and strikingly comfortable.
Berlin has given Emma the freedom and openness she needed, but there’s one thing that haunts her. “I can show you,” she says as she pulls out her American passport and flips to the page with her residence permit. In bold capital letters, it reads: “ESCORT UND TANTRAMASSEURIN”. The label is the result of a highly controversial law introduced in 2017, the Prostituiertenschutzgesetz, or “Prostitutes Protection Act”. The law states that all people who engage in sex work must register their profession. They provide their registered address, the places they work, and undergo a mandatory health screening each year. All brothels must be registered and may not employ unregistered sex workers.
The law also requires all registered sex workers to carry a special ID card, that has now been dubbed the “Whore Pass”. As full time sex workers, both Emma and Leo are legally registered – but for Emma it carries even more weight: she’s fearful of the consequences when she goes home to the US. “When I go through passport control, I just pray that they don’t open this page, and it makes me very nervous.” In Emma’s home state of Massachusetts, sex work is illegal, with a maximum prison sentence of nine years. For this reason, many foreign sex workers who come to Berlin to work choose not to register. In 2020, Germany counted around 25,000 registered sex workers but the estimated real number is supposedly as high as 400,000. Apart from the dangers they may face of getting prosecuted in their home countries, many more vulnerable foreign sex workers can’t even get an Anmeldung, needed to register their work in the first place.
The reality of the periphery
Diana is trans. She has been a sex worker for 10 years. It started out of need: “I was always very visible as a queer person, so finding work was very hard, and when you experience rejection from your family, as I did, it was one of the only options. I started working on the street when I was very young. It was scary, but also sort of liberating, and gave me control. But the only reason I am here today is because I am white and I’m conventionally attractive.” It’s true, Diana is beautiful, softly spoken, but firm – she wants to call our attention to an unseen reality for many sex workers.
Diana works as an escort, studies Political Science, and is active within the organisation Trans*Sexworks, which can be found regularly on Frobenstraße, a lesser known hub just one street down from Kurfürstenstraße. “There’s a lot of instances of violence. People will try to shoo the girls away by throwing trash, eggs or water on them. Some of the girls have been stabbed.” According to Diana, this violence is a result of gentrification, as well as the Prostituiertenschutzgesetz, which has been pushing trans sex workers out of Frobenstraße. Many have nowhere to go. Often foreign, homeless or with a history of drug abuse, registration is not an option – they can’t work in the mainstream brothels.
“There are no facilities specifically for trans sex workers to get help, so they stay on the streets,” Diana says. “Galleries are being opened, and high-rise apartments marketed towards families. This creates an atmosphere where people expect a fancy, modern place. When they see the girls on the streets, they call the police.” Diana believes people should be more informed about the importance of Frobenstraße as a safe place to work for trans sex workers, to prevent them from having to work under even worse conditions. “The state has now put up toilet boxes for them on the street, but they are never cleaned. It’s dehumanising.”
Sex work saved my life, it really did. It got me out of homelessness, and it’s fucking fun.
Diana has experienced the dark sides of the industry, but she still advocates for it. “Sex work saved my life, it really did. It got me out of homelessness, and it’s fucking fun. I love sex, I love being desired, I love being in control.” While there are still many instances of violence, Diana doesn’t believe sex workers are victims of the industry. “Yes, sex workers are still getting attacked, but why? Sex work is not the issue, it’s the underlying systems of oppression.”
The new face of sex work
Many come to sex work out of necessity, as a way to survive, but for others it is a way explore their own sexual identity. Jay represents a new generation of sex workers who advocate for sex work as a legitimate way to explore one’s own sexuality, without being financially reliant on the work. They recognise that this is not the case for everyone. “I am definitely privileged. Sex work is a side gig for me, and I can easily turn down dates if I feel off about a person.”
Jay is shy and well-mannered: a copywriter by day, by night, they are a whole new person. Dabbling in the world of escort and BDSM, being new to the industry does not make them inexperienced. Sex work is a way to experiment with their sexuality, learning to appreciate and love their own body. “I used to have a very low sense of self worth, but having people actually want to pay for my company – this external validation has really helped me accept my body.” For Jay, the best thing about the job is getting paid to have fun. “Sometimes it’s genuinely hot, and I think, wow, I just got paid for that, I would do that for free!” They have even made friends on the job, some of whom they hang out with outside of “work hours”. “I have done writing for friends that I got paid for. That never caused an issue in our friendship, so why would this?”
A different kind of care worker
“Most of the guys, they’re total social creeps,” says Lola, who works as a high class escort. She got into sex work to support her career as an actress. Her clients won’t be seen at the brothels of Kurfürstenstraße. They’re old, rich – and almost always white. Unlike in the brothels, Lola’s job is less direct. These clients want an experience that goes beyond the explicit sexual services. Two hours with Lola will cost you €1500. If you want a five to seven hour date, be prepared to pay up to €2000. But her high prices haven’t made her rich. “I’m very much an outsider in their world. I get to go to extremely expensive restaurants and fancy hotels, but my bank account is empty.” Lola’s prices are there for a reason: the exclusivity of her services make the client pool small, she usually only has one or two dates a month. On top of that, she also pays a lot of taxes, just like everybody else. “I’m very normal, I take the U-Bahn or my bike to work!”
Sometimes, it won’t even result in sex. “Sometimes they want to talk about things they can’t talk about with their friends or family.” Lola sees herself as more of a care worker whose uses sex as an instrument. To her, it’s not the main part of her work, but simply a by-product. “They want me to come, like, every time, but it’s impossible,” says Lola, “I get pleasure from being able to provide a service they cannot get anywhere else.” Enjoying her work does not mean she will always enjoy the sex, but that’s okay. “One time, I had a date with an 80 year old man. He wanted me to put on the clothes of his dead wife, use her perfume and talk like her. Then we had sex. I thought it would be impossible, but somehow it worked, he wasn’t even that bad.” It might be untraditional, but Lola likes to think she helped him get over the passing of his wife – and she’s just glad he was able to book a professional, instead of approaching other, less safe means.
After 20 years, sex work is still a highly debated issue all over Germany. Some famous feminists, like Alice Schwarzer, have campaigned for its criminalisation. But Lola believes sex work can have genuine benefits to society. Emma adds: “These women come from an era where they were fighting for the right to say no to sex. We are saying we have a right to say yes.” She shares how she’s been able to have a positive impact on her clients’ lives, even helping a client through his marital problems. “He had all kinds of abandonment issues and came to me in a therapeutic way to work on getting better at feeling okay being sexually desired. I worked with him for two years – and then he didn’t need me anymore. He was happy in his marriage.”
These women come from an era where they were fighting for the right to say no to sex. We are saying we have a right to say yes.
And even if exploitation is always in the background, Berlin’s sex workers want more recognition. Their one major message? Sex work is work. “You don’t have to love your job to have the right to do it. And the fact that money is exchanged doesn’t negate my consent,” says Emma. “Are there days when I don’t feel like sucking dick? 100%,” adds Leo, “but there are also days when baristas don’t feel like making coffees for minimum wage, and they still do it, because they need to make money. That’s just the capitalist truth.”
*Some names have been changed to protect the interviewees’ identities.