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19 June


German brothels report sex workers plight

The country’s coronavirus restrictions have hit sex workers particularly hard

bar of Berlin Photo: AFP

/NOVOSTIVL/ The issues of children, students and senior citizens in light of the coronavirus crisis have received a lot of attention. But the plight of sex workers? No one seems to care. This article appeared in SCMP.

A campaign organised by the counselling centre Amalie for sex workers in Mannheim, in the German state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, aims to change that by calling attention to the plight of these women.

The centre distributes “survival” bags filled with groceries and hygiene products. Flour, rice, spaghetti, a toothbrush and tampons – women like Natascha, who does not want to share her real name, are very happy about the contents.

“We want to help bridge the time of the coronavirus pandemic, during which prostitution has been banned, and show the women that they haven’t been forgotten,” said Julia Wege, head of the welfare centre that is funded by the city and the social ministry.

The Professional Association for Erotic and Sexual Service Providers (BesD) gets to the heart of the situation: It’s “a catastrophe, the pandemic exacerbates issues like poverty, a lack of health protection and homelessness,” according to spokeswoman Susanne Bleier-Wilp.

The BesD was able to support 100 women, who were neither eligible for basic social security nor had access to other financial sources, with an emergency fund of 25000 euros (US$27,400) from private donations. “But the government should also help, this can’t be the responsibility of individuals,” said Bleier-Wilp.

Natascha recently became homeless and is giving the supplies to a buddy in exchange for a place to sleep. Even so, she is still doing better than a lot of other women, who had to stop working because of the pandemic and therefore lost their lodgings.

Germany has officially registered 33000 sex workers, while estimates are as high as 400000. Nobody knows when the virus restrictions imposed on them will be lifted again. There’s no date, not even a vague perspective for when they will be able to return to work.

Natascha, who wasn’t born in Germany, understands the predicament of the 80 to 90 per cent of sex workers who are from other countries.

“They have to earn money,” she said. Many women from Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary have to provide for their children or other family members back home. According to the professional association, 70 per cent of all sex workers in Germany have children.

The director of the Cologne-based non-profit foundation Sexuality and Health, Harriet Langanke, is certain that “paid sex continues to be offered, we shouldn’t delude ourselves about that.” Many women were being forced to act illegally in this dramatic pandemic situation.

The diversity of the profession is similar to that of the gastronomy branch and requires a differentiated approach, the sexologist said.

Partial openings would be conceivable for bondage and sadomasochistic practises, for example. She also has no concerns about escort services. But “whether this is negotiable with the province or the local authorities is another question,” said Langanke.

Bleier-Wilp is also in favour of at least allowing dominatrix services or erotic massages. Sex work should not be treated differently from comparable body-related services in beauty, piercing or tattoo salons, argues the BesD. Hygiene concepts for the different areas have already been worked out with health authorities.

According to the organisation Dona Carmen, which advocates for the social and political rights of sex workers, lifting the virus restrictions step by step takes too long. The Frankfurt-based group demands an immediate end of the shutdown of brothels, interpreting the measure as an attempt to generally prohibit sex work in Germany.

This is exactly what Social Democratic lawmaker Leni Breymaier has in mind. She is in favour of banning the purchase of sex in the “destination country of human-trafficking” and considers this an opportunity to enable women to withdraw from sex work.

“In some cases, however, prostitution goes on secretly, for example in vehicles, outdoors or at clients’ homes,” Wege said. Natascha, who has spent the past years between temporary jobs and sex work, adds: “Who, after all, wants to control what goes on in the brothel rooms?”

Bleier-Wilp of BesD has a different opinion: “The brothels are closed, and the inspections by police and public order offices are strict.” No sex worker wants to risk a 5000-euro fine for ignoring the ban, she said. “There are fake clients everywhere; in Berlin, officials with the state police are looking to catch women still working,” added Bleier-Wilp, who was a sex worker for 10 years.