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Prostitution was legalised “for the government to make a lot of money,” Beretin says, strolling past a woman in a lime green lycra shrug (and nothing else) while another woman, nude except for black hold-up stockings, leans against the bar. Quite a few people agree with Beretin – and not all of them are brothel owners grumbling about their tax bills. But that isn’t how the legalisation argument was won 12 years ago.
The idea of the law, passed by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democrat-Green coalition, was to recognise prostitution as a job like any other. Sex workers could now enter into employment contracts, sue for payment and register for health insurance, pension plans and other benefits. Exploiting prostitutes was still criminal but everything else was now above board. Two female politicians and a Berlin madam were pictured clinking their champagne glasses in celebration.
It didn’t work. “Nobody employs prostitutes in Germany,” says Beretin. None of the authorities I spoke to had ever heard of a prostitute suing for payment, either. And only 44 prostitutes have registered for benefits.
What did happen was the opening of Europe’s biggest brothel – the 12-storey, neon-wrapped Pascha in Cologne. Not to mention a rash of FKK, or “naked”, clubs where men can spend the evening drifting between the sauna, the bar and the bedrooms. Bargain-hunters might try the “flat rate” brothels, where an entry fee of between 50-100 euros buys you unlimited sex with as many women as you want, or cruise the caravans at motorway truck stops, or the drive-through “sex boxes” in the street-walking zones. (They look like stables and are known as “verrichtungsboxen” – “getting things done boxes”.)
At the truck stop on Am Eifeltor near Cologne, prostitutes work out of caravans. There are around 30 caravans here. The prostitutes pay 150 euros a month in tax to the city (Albrecht Fuchs)
The Netherlands legalised prostitution two years before Germany, just after Sweden had gone the other way and made the purchase of sex a criminal offence. Norway adopted the Swedish model – in which selling sex is permitted but anyone caught buying it is fined or imprisoned – in 2009. Iceland has followed suit, and France and Ireland look set to do the same.
The Home Office insists Britain’s byzantine prostitution laws (in brief: you can buy and sell sex indoors under certain circumstances) are not up for review. But that might not be the case for long.
Mary Honeyball, the Labour MEP, has been leading the charge to have the Swedish model adopted across Europe. Her bill was voted through by the European Parliament on 26 February, formally establishing the EU’s position on the issue. A few days later, on Monday, a cross-party report in Britain also recommended the model.
Pressure to review prostitution laws is coming from an EU anti-trafficking directive that obliges member states to “reduce demand” for human trafficking. Given that at least 70 per cent of trafficking in Europe is into forced prostitution, a lot of people are arguing that the best way to reduce demand for trafficking is to reduce demand for prostitution. And one way to do that is to criminalise the buyer.
Sex trafficking statistics are frustratingly incomplete, but a recent report estimated the number of victims in Europe at 270,000. And Germany and the Netherlands have repeatedly ranked among the five worst blackspots.
There is “absolutely” a correlation between legalised prostitution and trafficking, says Andrea Matolcsi, the programme officer for sexual violence and trafficking at Equality Now. “For a trafficker it’s much easier to go to a country where it’s legal to have brothels and it’s legal to manage people in prostitution. It’s just a more attractive environment.”
She points out that Denmark, which decriminalised prostitution in 1999 – the same year Sweden made the purchase of sex illegal – has four times the number of trafficking victims than its neighbour despite having around half the population.
It’s one reason the Netherlands has gone into reverse with legalisation. The Deputy Prime Minister, Lodewijk Asscher, has called it “a national mistake”. As Deputy Mayor of Amsterdam he spent millions of euros buying back window brothels, turning them into shops and restaurants in an effort to rid the city of the gangs that had moved in.
Chancellor Angela Merkel attempted to raise the issue in the summer of 2013 but things got so out of hand (there were riots at conferences) that the matter was quietly dropped.
M eanwhile, men like Michael Beretin and his business partner, Jürgen Rudloff, are getting rich. They’re in high spirits about the opening of the new Paradise in April. Saarbrücken is a small city of 180,000 inhabitants that happens to be just five kilometres from the French border. It’s about an hour’s drive from the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
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