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Germany

Has Legalized Prostitution Turned Germany's Government Into A *Pimp*?

A new documentary on German television uncovers the notable tax revenue and nationwide implications of being the "biggest whorehouse in Europe."

Screenshot from the documentary "Sex - Made in Germany"
Screenshot from the documentary "Sex - Made in Germany"
Simone Meyer

BERLIN - "Money doesn’t smell," says Wilfried Hombach, a former employee of the city of Cologne’s tax department, smiling somewhat apologetically.

Hombach was one of the first to collect taxes from the prostitution industry and he’s talking about what up to now has not been a focus of the debate about legalized prostitution in Germany: the fact that when women sell their bodies, the state earns a lot of money from it, either from a flat-rate sex tax or regionally levied entertainment taxes.

Just how much money was not something the two German TV journalists, Tina Soliman and Sonia Kennebeck, were able to find out in the two years they researched their documentary called Sex - Made in Germany. The documentary, shown on June 10 on Germany’s ARD channel, takes an in-depth look from various perspectives at the effects of prostitution legislation that came into effect in 2002.

For 45 minutes, the journalists examine the following question: what has resulted from the federal government having declared prostitutes small-business entrepreneurs who have health insurance and a right to the same social insurance coverage as anyone else? As their film reveals, apparently very little except for the fact that a lucrative economic sector – both real and virtual – has developed from what was once a shadow world.

Particularly frightening is the fact that as Germany’s neighbors tighten up their laws, brothel-keepers – particularly in the south of Germany – are increasingly catering to sex tourists from Italy, France, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Belgium and Sweden. Secretly filmed footage shows tourists from Asia and the United States on six-day package tours of German “clubs.”

A big favorite on the itinerary is the "King George," a flat-rate brothel in Berlin where customers can get a sex-until-you-drop-and-drinks package for 49 euros. "There’s not a lot of margin on that," says owner Sascha Erben, adding that making the package profitable is contingent on "high volume" of customers and the fact that most men overestimate how much sex they will actually be able to have. Erben says his customers come from Russia, Scandinavia, and Arab nations.

"Sex in Berlin is cheaper than anywhere else," he says: Berlin is a sex paradise, no different than Thailand. A Danish customer who is a regular at a brothel in Flensburg (in northern Germany, near the Danish border) confirms that: "Germany is the biggest whorehouse in Europe, no question." The value for money in Germany appears to be unequalled anywhere else in the world.

While Soliman and Kennebeck mostly spoke with supporters of legalized prostitution, they also interviewed some of its victims. What their interviews amply illustrate is that there are many different kinds of women willing to take money for sex.

For example 21-year-old Bettina, clearly delighted by the fact that she earns up to 15,000 euros a month at a Stuttgart “free body culture” (FKK) club. Or former part-time prostitute Sonia Rossi, who earned the money for her education. Also 22-year-old Nathalie, who auctions virtual sex on the Internet the way others might sell their couch on EBay, and pays 15% of her hourly 200 euros salary to the operators of the website.

“They treat you like garbage”

There is also Claudia, who works at the "King George" and earns 150 euros per night "for a maximum of ten guests" while her colleagues from eastern Europe – who their boss praises as being more "resilient and committed" – service at least 20 men in one night. "I need the money," says Julia from Romania. In Germany she can earn in one evening as much as she can earn in a whole month back home.

Another young Romanian woman, who did not wish to be shown in the film, told the journalists that a few years ago a pimp lured her to Germany and she ended up at a flat-rate brothel called the "Pussy Club" where she was expected to service up to 40 men a day and could not eat or sleep on a regular basis. This went on until the authorities raided the place and arrested a group of human traffickers. "In Germany," she says, "they treat you like garbage."

The documentary makers do not address claims like this nor do they include interviews with politicians or human rights activists. They do include statements by customers, one of who says: "What I think is really great about the flat-rate brothels is that you don’t get the feeling that as a customer you’re being exploited." He is one of 1.2 million men per year in Germany who pay for sex.

The sex business in Germany has become socially acceptable. Paying for sex is considered a "lifestyle," and the businessmen behind the scenes are almost always relatively conventional older men who drive Mercedes, wear made-to-order suits, and spend a lot less time thinking about moral issues than they do about making money.

Men like Jurgen Rudloff, who owns a chain of FKK clubs called "Paradise" and is pleased at his growing customer base from Italy, France, Switzerland, Belgium, Luxemburg and the Netherlands. Clubs located near borders are particularly lucrative, he says. A few months ago he opened a club in Graz, Austria, but the experience has shown him that "in Germany it’s much, much easier to run this kind of business.”

However on-going federal government discussions about changing Germany’s prostitution laws may in the future make setting up a brothel in Germany a little more difficult too by requiring brothel owners to apply for licenses. Rudloff complains that local governments have also cottoned on that there’s money to be made in the business. Another man, Armin Lobscheid, owner of Europe’s largest brothel the "Pascha" in Cologne, tells the journalists that his business has to pay taxes amounting to “seven figures” every year.

Added to that is the new special tax for prostitutes that brothel operators will tack onto the room rate charged to the women. That way, state coffers rake it in but the government doesn’t get its hands dirty, say the journalists adding that "the government has become today’s pimp."

Soliman and Kennebeck reach the conclusion that the good intentions to strengthen the position of prostitutes through legislation in fact achieved the opposite. "Women have become a resource, to be used as efficiently as possible," they say.

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