Germany is Europe’s largest brothel

The liberalisation of prostitution has triggered a boom in the market for erotic services.

"It's like being in a huge supermarket over here, you find girls of all ages, of all kinds, essentially willing to do whatever takes your fancy. Up to about ten years ago, I used to go to Thailand every so often. I had a great time over there, like so many people do. Then I came to Berlin, and I found Paradise. Getting here by plane is much simpler, the city is perfect, the girls are gorgeous, and what’s more, they're a lot cheaper than anywhere else I've been. Many German brothels offer you a flat rate: clients can have as much sex as they want within 24 hours – if they can handle it – for between fifty and a hundred dollars, depending on the quality of the brothel. Germany is every man's dream, at least for me."

This is Anthony speaking, a man in his fifties from Baltimore, USA, one of the thousands of sex tourists landing in Berlin every year to take advantage of what is considered to be the biggest I prostitution scene in the world.

The sex trade in Germany can count on as many as 3,500 brothels spread across the country, 600 of which in the capital alone – a host of 400,000 prostitutes, 20,000 of which are men, ‘serving’ one and a half million clients every day, according to official estimates supplied by Unternehmerverband Erotik Gewerbe Deutschland (UEGD), the German sex industry trade association.

On the other hand,  according to the Ver.Di, (Vereinte Dienstleistungsgewerkschaft, the United Services Union), the annual turnover clocked up by the sex trade market in Germany is around 21 billion dollars (€16.7Bln).

The sector’s success is also driven by the dozens of tour operators specialising in sex tourism packages. Operating mainly in Asia, Russia, and North America, they offer five to ten-day packages that include flights, hotels, and limousine service, and promise their clients a complete tour of all the most famous red-light establishments in the entire country.

“Germany is Europe's biggest brothel, I don't think there's any doubt about that, you just have to do the math to realise that’s the case,” says the owner of one of the most highly rated German brothels, near Stuttgart. “We have about 60,000 people coming here every year, from Asia, America, and even from the Arab world: our clients are usually very clear about what they want, and our girls have become so skilled and experienced that they are able to meet even the most extravagant requests.”

Germany's liberal turn in the field of prostitution came in 2001, when the Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschland) and the Greens (Die Grünen) decided to promote a major federal reform aimed at improving the legal and social status of so called ‘sex workers’, placing them on a par with other workers and thus giving them access to health insurance, retirement funds, and all other welfare benefits to which workers are entitled to under German law.

According to this law, which is still in force, the exploitation of prostitution per se is still to be considered a crime, whereas it became legal to provide prostitutes with a clean and safe working environment. The objective was to get rid of the criminal element of the business and increase the number of safe places where prostitutes would be protected just like any other worker in the country.

But the end result of the reform has been nothing short of disastrous: according to data provided by the German Federal Employment Agency, only 44 of the 400,000 prostitutes currently working in Germany have chosen to officially register so that they may qualify to receive the benefits afforded to German workers.

“The problem with this law is that nowhere in the world would any person in their right mind want to be ‘officially’ labelled a prostitute. Think about it!” says Uma, a 26-year-old Polish girl who was even younger when she first arrived in Germany in 2006, at the time of the Football World Cup Finals. “Many of us do this job for ten years or so, then move on to something else. I came here convinced that I was going to work in a restaurant, or as a hotel maid. That’s what I’d been promised. Now I work in a brothel and what am I supposed to do? Should I allow myself to be branded for life? Health insurance is also a big mess, the insurance companies expect us to pay a monthly instalment that is way above the average because our job makes us more liable to illness. The final outcome is hardly surprising: none of us has health insurance!”

Since 2004, with the exponential growth of sex tourism, the number of sex workers in Germany has more than doubled. Over 65 % of the girls working in German brothels come from Eastern or Balkan countries. They are very young and some enter Germany hoping to be able to stay in the country and improve their future prospects by holding down a normal job. Unfortunately, they are frequently the victims of criminal traffickers: according to the Trafficking in Persons Report published by the United States State Department, Germany is ranked at the top of the list among European countries for human trafficking cases.

To top it all, the heavy influx of foreign clients has triggered a price war among the brothels, which are now offering increasingly advantageous prices. As a result, prostitutes are now having to service dozens of clients daily to make ends meet. “It's horrible,” says Uma, “but there's nothing we can do about it, we're here to make a living and we have no other choice.”

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