Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

How Germany became one giant brothel

Liberalization experiment originated in feminist, left-leaning movements of the time; was it a failure?

  • Print

How modern and liberated Germany's Social Democrats and Greens sounded in 2001. They were in government and wanted to raise the legal and social status of prostitutes, so they enacted a law to remove the stigma from sex work by, for example, giving prostitutes full rights to health insurance, pensions and other benefits.

"Exploiting" sex workers remained criminal, but merely employing them or providing them with a venue became legal. The idea was responsible employers, running safe and clean brothels, would drive pimps out of the market.

Germany thus embarked on an experiment in liberalization even as Sweden, a country culturally similar in many ways, was going in the opposite direction. In 1999 the Swedes made it criminal to pay for sex. Pimping already was a crime and, by stigmatizing not the prostitutes but the men who paid them, even putting them in jail, the Swedes hoped to come close to eliminating prostitution.

The two countries' divergent paths have become hot political fodder in Germany. The center-right camp led by Chancellor Angela Merkel voted against the 2001 prostitution law. In September it won the election but fell short of a majority in parliament. Merkel is now negotiating with the Social Democrats, the co-authors of the law, to form a coalition. Although the Social Democrats are reluctant to acknowledge they made an outright mistake, they are conceding changes are needed.

Prostitution seems to have declined in Sweden, unless it has merely gone deep underground, whereas Germany has turned into a giant brothel and even a destination for European sex tourism. The best guess is that Germany has about 400,000 prostitutes catering to one million men a day. Mocking the spirit of the 2001 law, exactly 44 of them, including four men, have registered for welfare benefits.

The details vary regionally, because the federal states and municipalities decide where and how brothels may operate. Berlin is the only city without zoning restrictions. In some places streetwalkers line up along motorways with open-air booths nearby for quickies. In others, such as Saarbrºcken, near the border with a stricter country like France, entrepreneurs are investing in mega-brothels that cater to cross-border demand.

If all these sex workers were in the business of their own free will, that would still be within the spirit of the 2001 law. Prostitutes' associations insist that this is largely the case.

Nobody denies, however, that women become sex workers involuntarily. Of particular concern are girls from poor villages in Bulgaria and Romania who may have been forced, tricked or seduced to come to Germany. Once there, they are trapped as "Frischfleisch" (fresh meat) in brothels, perhaps because they owe money to their traffickers or fear reprisals against their families at home.

Extreme opponents of prostitution in Germany, such as radical feminist Alice Schwarzer, conflate modern slavery and sex work, arguing they are "inextricably entangled." Schwarzer has issued a petition, signed by celebrities, urging Germany to criminalize paying for sex as Sweden has.

Social researchers Barbara Kavemann and Elfriede Steffan say, however, slavery and sex work are in fact separate phenomena, and occurrences of forced labour by Bulgarians and Romanians in the trade, as in agriculture and other sectors, "have little to do with the prostitution law" and much more with the accession of those countries to the European Union in 2007.

Known cases of human trafficking actually have decreased in Germany, from 987 in 2001 to 482 in 2011. Skeptics counter that most cases never become known because the girls are afraid to testify. The link between liberalization of prostitution and human trafficking thus remains controversial. One study of 150 countries found legalization expands the market for sex work and thus increases human trafficking. Prostitutes' associations have attacked the study as poorly sourced. In the end, the policy choice comes back to culture and ideology, argues Susanne Dodillet of the University of Gteborg. Both the Swedish and the German laws originated in the feminist, left-leaning movements in these countries. Whereas progressive Swedes view their state as able to set positive goals, however, Germans -- and the Greens, especially -- mistrust the state on questions of personal morality as a hypocritical and authoritarian threat to self-expression.

Only this can explain why Swedes continue overwhelmingly to support their policy, and Germans theirs.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 23, 2013 D9

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Lawless in the Morning: It's playoff game day

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • Susan and Gary Harrisonwalk their dog Emma on a peaceful foggy morning in Assiniboine Park – Standup photo– November 27, 2011   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • Marc Gallant / Winnipeg Free Press.  Local- (Standup Photo). Watcher in the woods. A young deer peers from the forest while eating leaves by Cricket Drive in Assiniboine Park. A group of eight deer were seen in the park. 060508.

View More Gallery Photos


Do you agree with the sale of the Canadian Wheat Board to foreign companies?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google