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I would like to start the interview with questions about the current situation facing those who work in prostitution in general, and their personal situation. Prostitution is one of the industries hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions and bans that have come with it. Since March 2020, up to and including today, brothels in Hesse have remained closed throughout due to the pandemic and the accompanying measures to stem the spread of the coronavirus. In some federal states, sex work has been explicitly banned, while in others there was no fundamental ban on sex work, but rather a ban on opening establishments that offer prostitution as a service. This is a special situation in which we are conducting this interview. 

IN WHAT WAY ARE YOU AFFECTED BY THE CLOSURE OF BROTHELS? WHAT IMPACT HAS THIS HAD ON YOU AND YOUR ABILITY TO PRACTICE YOUR PROFESSION?

Júlia: Well, we can’t work.
Manuela:
We all can’t work.
Amelia:
No money, no life. It’s very hard to pay for accommodation and everyday life.
Carmen:
It has affected me in every area of my life. Financially and, therefore, also health-wise. I suffer from diabetes. Last week, I almost went to hospital because of it. I’m currently living with a friend to whom I give EUR 300 a month to as a rent subsidy, then I have just over EUR 100 left over. With my diabetes, I’m not supposed to eat badly, I have to watch what I eat carefully. But that is hardly possible under the current circumstances – I just don’t have the money. My blood sugar level was almost 500 last week. I have a problem with my kidneys because of the quality of my diet. The medicine I need costs almost EUR 40, leaving me with about EUR 60 a month. I can’t survive on EUR 60.
Claudia:
The brothel closures have had a big financial impact. For me, it mainly affects my ability to pay rent. This is because the support the state gives us is just enough to survive, but no more than that.
Maria:
The truth is that we can’t live on EUR 446. We can’t pay for accommodation with that. We are currently living with friends and acquaintances. I, for example, have to move every fortnight. Sometimes, I find myself at the station when I can’t find an accommodation. How am I supposed to live if no one takes me in? What am I supposed to eat?
Zuzanna: I’m not affected by this because I don’t work in a brothel.
Ella:
I don’t work in a brothel, but mostly through an agency, which has closed down now. As a result, I now earn a lot less than before. This is because the agency had agreed on much higher prices than is typical online on “kaufmich”. With the agency, it was also less work looking for customers and doing advertising. Now, I work without an agency, but that means less money and more effort.
Zuzanna:
For me, I work much less because of Corona. But I do that more out of a feeling of insecurity about how much I can or want to meet with clients. For me, it doesn’t have so much to do with prohibitions or other legal regulations.

WERE YOU ABLE TO MAKE A LIVING WITHOUT ADDITIONAL FINANCIAL SUPPORT?

Amelia: No, that’s difficult. I got EUR 446 from the state for three months, but that’s like pocket money. My family helped me a bit, though.
Júlia:
No, that was not possible, but I was lucky that they actually funded me, that is, the state.
Ella:
No, I’m still earning money with another job, but I’m also currently receiving unemployment benefit (ALG II).

THERE WERE AND STILL ARE SOME GOVERNMENT AID PROGRAMMES AND EMERGENCY AID FOR THE HARDEST-HIT SECTORS. THERE WAS ALSO EMERGENCY CORONA AID FOR THE SELF-EMPLOYED, TO WHICH YOU ESSENTIALLY BELONG, BUT THIS WAS TO COMPENSATE FOR “OPERATIONAL LIQUIDITY BOTTLENECKS” AND NOT FOR “LOSS OF EARNINGS”. THIS LINKING OF EMERGENCY AID TO OPERATING EXPENSES WAS INSUFFICIENT FOR MANY SOLO SELF-EMPLOYED WORKERS. THIS WAS NOT ONLY COMPLAINED ABOUT IN THE PROSTITUTION INDUSTRY, BUT ALSO IN THE CULTURAL SECTOR. IN THE CULTURAL SECTOR, THERE WERE GRADUALLY MORE ASSISTANCE AND SCHOLARSHIP PROGRAMMES THAT WENT BEYOND THE SCOPE OF INITIAL EMERGENCY AID. WHAT ADDITIONAL OPTIONS IN TERMS OF SUPPORT / FINANCIAL AID FUNDS HAVE BEEN SET UP FOR YOUR AREA?

Carmen: None. There were no other funding opportunities for us.
Júlia:
None.
Ella:
In Hesse, you were only allowed to cover running costs with emergency funding, for example, retail unit rent, which I don’t have, so I didn’t apply for it. I did, however, apply for November and December assistance and got it. Otherwise, I get unemployment benefit (ALG II).
Zuzanna:
I didn’t bother with that at all.
Ella:
You also have to file an income tax return. So, without an income tax return, you don’t get any November or December financial aid.

EVEN FOR SOLO SELF-EMPLOYED WITHOUT HAVING HAD EXPENSES LIKE RENT?

Ella: Exactly, the November and December aid corresponds to roughly 75% of the profit in the comparable period of the previous year. And you have to prove that on your tax return.

DO YOU FEEL SUFFICIENTLY SUPPORTED BY THE STATE IN THIS DIFFICULT SITUATION?

Maria: They supported us to perhaps 20%, because the EUR 446 are at least something. Yes, they offered us German and integration courses. And, in some cases, they offered to pay part of the travel costs to the courses. But you can’t live in Germany on EUR 446, and certainly not in a city like Frankfurt.
Júlia:
No, I really need help.
Ella:
No. (All the other interviewees agree, editor’s note).

WHAT WOULD YOU HAVE LIKED IN TERMS OF SUPPORT?

Amelia: They should have opened the brothels again.
Carmen:
In my opinion, there needs to be greater financial support and the provision of housing.
Claudia:
An apartment!
Carmen:
At the moment, I’m looking for a flat and I’m looking, looking, looking, but because I get money from the job centre, nobody wants to rent out a flat to me. They all say no straight away. And like Maria, I move from one friend to the next, every three days.
Claudia:
Having your own flat would help us a lot, so you don’t have to stay at someone else’s place all the time and pay something here and there.
Carmen:
One idea would be for the city to provide us with temporary accommodation where we can sleep and eat until the situation is over.
Júlia:
Of course, the best support would be to reopen the brothels. If that’s not possible, we need more financial support.
Ella:
Maybe something like lump sums that are paid out in an uncomplicated way for people who are self-employed and no longer have any income, or something similar to the financial assistance in November and December for all months. In other words, something that is not unemployment benefit (ALG II), because that is the subsistence level, that’s not how you lived before and that’s not how you want to live.
Zuzanna:
I think something like a basic income would be appropriate.

IN SOME FEDERAL STATES, SEX WORKERS ARE FINED UP TO EUR 25,000 (BRANDENBURG) IF THEY ILLEGALLY ENGAGE IN PROSTITUTION IN VIOLATION OF THE BAN ON PROSTITUTION, WHILE IN OTHER PROFESSIONAL AREAS, VIOLATIONS ARE ONLY MET WITH WARNINGS OR LESS SEVERE FINES. WHY IS IT THAT PROSTITUTION IS BEING CRIMINALISED HERE?

Maria: Because we are still discriminated against. Even though prostitution has been legal in Germany since 2016, we are still discriminated against here in the eyes of the law. They don’t rent out a flat to us because we don’t have anything.
Carmen:
But, at the same time, we pay our taxes.
Maria:
Exactly, we pay taxes! Since 2016, since prostitution is legal, we have paid taxes. So why don’t we have the same rights as normal workers?
Júlia:
Yes, I think it’s discrimination. I think the rules should be the same for everyone.
Ella:
It probably depends on the politicians who have something to say in the federal states and the stand they take on prostitution, but I don’t think a fine of EUR 25,000 is proportionate.
Amelia:
That is unfair. 
Zuzanna:
I think it stems from the fact that prostitution is very quickly equated with criminality in society, and then it is probably obvious for many not to take a different view on the matter.

HOW DO YOU EXPERIENCE THE PUBLIC DISCUSSION ON THE TOPIC OF PROSTITUTION IN THE CONTEXT OF THE PANDEMIC RESTRICTIONS?

Amelia:
People talk badly about us. Now that we work on the street, they take a very dim view of us.
Maria:
Most people still think that prostitution is illegal, that it is not a normal job. Yet prostitution is a completely legal, tolerated and normal profession in Germany. But society does not accept it that way.
Claudia:
It doesn’t accept it.
Carmen:
But men do use them, which is the saddest thing. Because if these men didn’t exist, there would be no prostitutes. It’s very simple: If there are no clients, there is no prostitution.
Júlia:
People know that we need help.
Ella:
There are already some voices arguing that it should be reopened. However, in many newspapers and television news, prostitution is almost always portrayed as poverty prostitution, and that those involved have no other choice and that it is not a profession that people choose to go into. And it is portrayed as if those who work in it have always lived in misery anyway and will continue to be miserable.
Zuzanna:
I have the feeling that, generally speaking, very little is said about the fact that brothels have been closed for so long here in Hesse, for example. In societal discourse, I hardly notice it at all, and that’s how you can tell that people don’t care or even approve of the closures. I mean, last year the word “Seuchenschleuder” or “disease spreaders” was brought up in relation to prostitutes. The image that prostitution is somehow unhygienic, of course, fits very well for many people now in the time of Corona.

DO THE CORONA-RELATED RESTRICTIONS AND BANS ENCOURAGE A DISCUSSION ABOUT A GENERAL BAN ON PROSTITUTION? TIME AND AGAIN, A BAN ON THE PURCHASE OF SEX OR THE PUNISHMENT OF PUNTERS ALONG THE LINES OF THE SWEDISH MODEL IS PUT FORWARD BY VARIOUS PARTIES. WHAT OPTIONS WOULD YOU HAVE FOR PRACTISING YOUR PROFESSION?

Maria: Yes, these discussions are taking place without any doubt. The politicians are using Corona to close down our livelihoods. It’s just a political pretext.
Amelia:
But I don’t think that the majority of people want a ban on prostitution.
Júlia:
Hopefully not, hopefully not. But that could happen. Because you know, right now some states are taking advantage of the pandemic not to open the brothels. But hopefully, at the end of the pandemic, they will open again. Because it’s normal. People need these places, men need this outlet. But if they do decide to ban paying for sex, then I have no way of practising my profession. If they decide to punish the punters, then they won’t come any more. Do you understand? Just like in France.
Zuzanna:
I think it is already showing. I can very well imagine that some brothels will no longer open after the lockdown has been lifted. So it’s already practically encouraging a ban. Maybe not a nationwide ban on paying for sex, but it will no doubt become clear that the industry will be very weakened by this, especially in economic terms, and will also remain weakened.
Ella:
I’m also afraid that this could happen. Because women are always portrayed as victims. And that makes you wonder whether this industry should be helped at all to get back on its feet, if it’s all poor people and poor women anyway, who might be helped more by getting out of prostitution. Because the image is simply painted in such a negative light, how women lived before and how they live now.

DURING THE PANDEMIC, VARIOUS HYGIENE AND OPENING CONCEPTS FOR BROTHELS WERE DISCUSSED TIME AND AGAIN (E.G. TAKING A PERSON’S TEMPERATURE BEFORE ENTERING AN ESTABLISHMENT, GIVING OUT CONTACT DETAILS, WEARING MOUTH AND NOSE PROTECTION DURING WORK, REGULAR DISINFECTION OF ALL SURFACES). HAVE THERE BEEN PRACTICAL CONCEPTS THAT WOULD HAVE MADE OPENING JUSTIFIABLE?

Carmen: Good hygiene monitoring and firm rules would protect us.
Zuzanna:
I honestly haven’t read through any of the concepts.
Ella:
Many of the concepts I’m thinking of right now emphasised that you could also work with a mask. To be honest, I find that completely inappropriate. Sexual services are very close to the body, where we should not wear masks, unless you are perhaps working in BDSM. Since we only ever have 1:1 contact, brothels could also be reopened, and of course, we would have to ventilate and disinfect, which we have done so before anyway.
Amelia
: In other professions involving contact between people, people are also working, so why can’t we work? There are also big companies where many people work together in one hall. We don’t all work together in one room. In a brothel, the women stay alone at the door and they stay alone in their room. And there is a lot of hygiene, we always wash.

WHAT IS THE IMPORTANCE OF BROTHELS WITHIN PROSTITUTION? WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO WORK IN A BROTHEL?

Júlia: Brothels are much better than working on the streets. They bring with them more security, more hygiene.

WHAT EFFECTS WILL THE BROTHEL CLOSURES AND THE PARTIAL BAN ON PROSTITUTION HAVE ON THE TRADE IN THE LONG-TERM?

Maria: There will be illegal prostitution, which is even worse. No more taxes will be paid. And then the state doesn’t earn anything either.
Claudia:
And the women would do it anyway. (meaning, work in prostitution, editor’s note).
Júlia:
Many houses have already closed. Because the rent still has to be paid, even though there is no work. I have friends who have houses and they have to close.
Zuzanna:
Yes, as I said, I think there will be many closures.

WHY WERE BROTHELS CLOSED THROUGHOUT HESSE, UNLIKE IN OTHER FEDERAL STATES, EVEN THOUGH PROSTITUTION ITSELF WAS NOT PROHIBITED?

Amelia: That was and is wrong. Either everywhere should be open and given a try to make it work, or nowhere. Because here the pandemic is no different or worse than in any other city. I don’t know, but it should have been handled differently.
Maria:
This is simply a political trick, a political plan. So that they can boast that they have ended prostitution here in Frankfurt. For that reason alone. To enhance their image, not for us, not for other people. That’s all.
Ella:
I think the industry lacks a good lobby and a good image in the public eye. In the case of restaurants, for example, everyone felt sorry for them and realised that the poor restaurant owners shouldn’t go bankrupt; it was understandable on a human level, and a lot was made of that in media reporting. And with the brothel operators, if it’s all such a bad business anyway, why should people hope that the brothel operators don’t go bankrupt? And with that, the brothels have slipped down the priority list compared to restaurants, museums, cinemas – where there are more people everywhere than in brothels – where human contact is only 1:1. I simply believe that brothels have missed out on the right amount of sympathy.

HAS THIS LED TO A SHIFT BY PROSTITUTION INTO AN INFORMAL SECTOR?

Claudia: Yes, of course.
Carmen:
Of course. Because of the hardship, the lack of money, the obligations and responsibilities that we prostitutes have: Family, children, for the parents, you work not only for yourself but for the family.
Amelia:
Yes, sometimes I work here on the street and then in the hotel. But not every day because I don’t earn that much money and I can’t pay for the hotel every day. I work mostly at the weekend. When it’s expensive, the punters don’t want to pay. In the brothel, there is security, but outside we are afraid to work. Because who will help us in the hotel if we’re suddenly in an emergency situation?
Maria:
It will get worse because the Mafia will also take advantage of this. They will be able to come in without any control. Before, when everything was legal, the woman first applied for her so-called “prostitution pass” (“Hurenpass”) and the police had control over which women worked and which did not. What control do they have now? None at all!
Júlia:
I think so. Firstly: The woman has to work. Second: The man is searching for that outlet for satisfaction. And since they have no place else, they look for a way to get that satisfaction for themselves. And then they find us, we – the ladies of the night – who are waiting for them. (All laugh)

SO NOW WOMEN WORK IN SECRET?

Júlia: In secret, yes.
Ella:
When I walk through the station district, I see that people work there in the restricted area and no longer in the brothel, which is then more or less an informal sector. Otherwise, women work via the internet. But that also existed before. For women who don’t speak German well, it has definitely become more difficult to work and perhaps also a bit more dangerous.

WORKING IN SECRET – WHAT IMPACT DOES THIS HAVE ON WOMEN'S HYGIENE, HEALTH AND SAFETY?

Maria: There is no control, because often clandestine prostitution takes place on the street, in a car, and what control can you have, what security can you possibly enjoy when a girl prostitutes herself in a car? She could be killed on the street.

AND HOW DOES IT LOOK IN TERMS OF HEALTH?

Claudia:
It’s a risk.
Maria:
Look, on the street you don’t have hygiene. Can you wash your hands on the street? Can you wash yourself? You can’t do that there.

HOW WAS/IS CONTACT AND EXCHANGE ORGANISED AMONG THOSE WORKING IN PROSTITUTION DURING THIS PERIOD?

Maria: There is no union because we are not in our workplace.
Carmen:
There is no connection, there is nothing.
Claudia:
Each and every woman is on her own, but we keep in touch by phone.
Júlia:
Good, good, good. Yes, the contact and exchange with me are good.
Zuzanna:
For me, contact has definitely become very limited because you can no longer meet in person. I’m in contact with some of the people I used to have personal contact with by phone or online. But that’s not the same and I definitely miss that, because I think it’s very important – especially when working in prostitution – to be able to exchange information with colleagues. How to deal with certain situations, with customers, and even organisational questions, and I miss that a lot.
Ella:
I used to be in contact with the agency before and after the date, and I don’t have that any more because the agency can’t place me.

IN SEPTEMBER 2020, THERE WAS A DEMONSTRATION IN FRANKFURT UNDER THE MOTTO “GREEN LIGHT FOR RED LIGHT”. AN “END TO THE CLOSURE OF BROTHELS AND A RETURN TO ACCEPTABLE WORKING AND HEALTH STANDARDS THAT GO BEYOND THE INFORMAL STRUCTURES INTO WHICH MANY SEX WORKERS HAVE BEEN FORCED BY THE CLOSURE OF BROTHELS” IS WHAT WAS DEMANDED. COULD YOU IMAGINE BECOMING ACTIVE YOURSELF AND FIGHTING FOR THE SOCIAL AND POLITICAL RIGHTS OF PROSTITUTES? WHAT WOULD HAVE TO HAPPEN, WHAT SUPPORT AND CONDITIONS WOULD BE NECESSARY FOR YOU?

Maria: Yes, I can imagine that, we could plan a demonstration.
Carmen:
We could sit down together, distribute tasks, form working groups, because we have to organise ourselves well.
Claudia:
Yes, it would have to be well-organised.
Carmen:
So we could demonstrate. Everybody demonstrates, and now it’s our turn.
Amelia:
Yes.
Júlia:
I can 100 percent imagine fighting for our rights!
Ella:
I am already politically active for prostitutes’ rights.
Zuzanna:
Absolutely. For sure, I can imagine that. But if I were speaking as a sex worker, I would want to do it anonymously.

WHAT EFFECTS HAS THE PROSTITUTION PROTECTION ACT (PROSTITUTIONSSCHUTZGESETZ) HAD ON YOUR PROFESSIONAL PRACTICE? WHICH HAS BEEN IN FORCE SINCE 2016/2017? (CORE ELEMENTS OF THE LAW INCLUDE THE INTRODUCTION OF A COMPULSORY LICENCE FOR ALL PROSTITUTION TRADES AND A REGISTRATION CERTIFICATE FOR PROSTITUTES, KNOWN COLLOQUIALLY AS A “PROSTITUTION PASS” OR “HURENPASS”)

Maria: It had a strong impact because, with that, they passed a law that prohibits a woman from sleeping in her workplace because it supposedly enslaves us. Did anyone who introduced this law work in prostitution?
Carmen:
No!
Maria:
Risking our safety by leaving our jobs to sleep somewhere else is completely incomprehensible / is inexplicable. What have they gained by doing this? Nothing! Risking the safety of prostitutes!
Júlia:
The Prostitution Protection Act is good for me because it makes me legal. Yes, I am legal, I pay my taxes. It is positive for me. I have my right to issue demands. If you pay, you have the right to demand things. I don’t feel discriminated against by the “prostitution pass”.
Ella:
Since I only began working in prostitution after 2017, I don’t really know what it was like before that. But I don’t understand this special pass. Why should you register, I don’t see any logical sense behind it, except to exert control. So I would also find it better if I didn’t have to register.
Zuzanna:
I didn’t register, I don’t have the pass, because I find it scary that any authorities then have my data. And it is simply the case that in Germany, although prostitution is legal, it is not socially recognised as a normal profession. And that’s why I don’t want all kinds of authorities to know that I work in prostitution, as long as this profession is not considered normal.

HAS THE LAW BOLSTERED YOUR RIGHTS AND ENSURED GREATER SOCIAL ACCEPTANCE?

Júlia: Yes.
Zuzanna:
No, on the contrary. Prostitutes are subject to “special treatment”, but not in a positive sense.
Ella:
I have the impression that because of the term “Prostitute Protection Act”, many people assume that the law protects prostitutes in some way, but they don’t know how exactly that happens. And because people think that prostitutes have to be protected, they conclude that it is not a normal profession after all.

WHAT IS NEEDED THEN TO MAKE PROSTITUTION MORE VALUED BY SOCIETY? PERHAPS COMPARABLE TO PROFESSIONS IN NURSING OR HEALTH CARE.

Maria: It would be best to be referred to as a freelancer by the authorities instead of a prostitute; actually, we are freelancers. Being recognised as a freelancer would mean that you could state that as a profession instead of “prostitute”. And then? We could make use of banking services, we could rent an apartment. In countries like Holland, prostitutes work as freelancers and they can, therefore, rent an apartment more easily.
Carmen:
We need and demand more rights. Then we can also negotiate better with the operators of brothels and assert ourselves more effectively when up against them. Then we would not be discriminated against.
Maria:
Our work should be recognised like any other work. Because only by doing so can we integrate ourselves into society. At the moment, we have no rights, we have no voice, we have no say. If they make a law that means we can’t rent apartments/houses, why don’t they make a law giving us another job title and then society will accept us, because in Holland they accept prostitutes, in Switzerland the working papers list prostitutes as freelancers, there they accept you and you can rent a house/an apartment. Actually, we are called freelancers, we are not prostitutes!
Carmen:
The term prostitute brands us!
Maria:
Freelancers are tolerated by society! I can be a freelancer, you can be, she can be, anyone! Apart from the fact that the brothels shouldn’t demand so much money from us. Because in this state, for example, we pay at least EUR 150, at least! We contribute a lot to society, although we are not tolerated, but we are also exploited and we pay taxes to this country and this federal state. However, this is not taken into account. None of this. They should reduce the rent for the brothels so that the girls can lead a dignified life, because, up to this point, we don’t lead a dignified life, we work for these exploitative houses. Where are we going to earn EUR 150 a day, we have to eat too! So, in what way has the 2016 law helped us? Not at all!
Ella:
It would be important for the media to report in a different way, so that they don’t just talk about poverty prostitution and human trafficking, because nail salons, for example, are not directly associated with human trafficking, even though this is known to happen there to some extent. Simply a different narrative framework and real reporting.
Zuzanna:
And we need equal treatment before the law, which would mean that there is no longer a need for an extra “prostitute protection law”. Because there’s also no such thing as an extra “baker protection law”.

(laughter)



There are an estimated 90,000-110,000 sex workers in Germany, of which about 45,000 are officially registered. In Frankfurt, roughly 2,100 women are involved in prostitution, of which about 60% work in brothel prostitution. Six of the eight women interviewed work in brothel prostitution, while one works through a placement agency. The names of the women have been changed to protect their anonymity.

The interviews were conducted by Doña Carmen e. V. in Spanish or German.
Spanish/German translation: Katharina Müller, Doña Carmen e. V.
Translation German/English: Kern AG

A project by Silke Wagner in cooperation with Doña Carmen e.V.
Supported by the project grant of the foundation “Hessische Kulturstiftung”.

Doña Carmen e.V.
An Association for the Social and Political Rights of Prostitutes
Elbestr. 41
60329 Frankfurt / Main