Sex Work Discourse in Germany: Historicizing the Legalization Debate

Friday, September 12, 2014
Nora Gerien-Chen

This past summer I worked on my research project examining discourses on sex work in Germany. Enacted by the German Bundestag in 2002, the Act Regulating the Legal Situation of Prostitutes was passed formally recognizing sex work as labor. Prior to the reform, prostitution was strictly prohibited but was classified as an immoral transaction that would not be recognized and protected under German Civil Code. Therefore, sex workers were denied legal rights to remuneration and access to social insurance among other rights. Operating a brothel also was not strictly prohibited but rather actions beyond basic accommodation (i.e., provision of condoms, fostering a discreet atmosphere) were criminalized as the promotion of prostitution. According to Dr. Barbara Kavemann, these regulations were meant to cultivate intolerable working conditions that would “compel [sex workers] to leave the industry.” In elevating the labor rights of sex workers, the Prostitution Act echoed political demands made by sex workers since the early 1980s and significantly departs from the German convention of governing sex work, which Rebecca Pates describes as a historically regulatory regime that has prioritized the protection of public mores, public health and public order over the rights of sex workers.

Sex worker rights activists agreed that this shift in the legal and ethical framework was significant, but not sufficient to protect the rights of sex workers. However, the most publicized criticism of the Prostitution Law came from Alice Schwarzer, founder of EMMA and one of Germany’s most prominent feminists, denouncing legalized prostitution as state-sanctioned violence against women in a media campaign. In an appeal endorsed by politicians, academics and celebrities, Schwarzer asserts the 2002 reform demonstrates state support for prostitution, which she describes as a “modern form of slavery (referred to internationally as ‘white slavery’).” “White slavery” does not refer to a single phenomenon but rather has been with imbued with varying meaning and metaphor depending on the historical, geographical, and ideological contexts of the abolitionist mobilizing the term. Schwarzer’s reference to prostitution as “white slavery” highlights the historical roots of three critical elements in EMMA’s abolitionist campaigns that are emblematic in transnational discourses on human trafficking and prostitution: agency, sex, and race.

My project aims to deconstruct the EMMA’s abolitionist campaign through a historical lens that examines the dynamics of sex work discourse in Germany. Though EMMA magazine is now the main engine for the modern abolitionist campaign in Germany, I have located articles from the early 1980s that focus on the expansion of sex workers rights. Historian Sonja Dolinsek argues that there was a significant shift in the mid-1980s when EMMA began to distance itself from the prostitution rights movement and started covering the victimhood of migrant sex workers. Through the latter half of the 80s, feminists in Germany began to increasingly focus on trafficking, characterizing the phenomenon as a product of global patriarchal order and colonial continuity. This discourse overwhelmingly denies migrant women agency in participating in sex work and still dominants contemporary debates on human trafficking and prostitution. I want to investigate this shift a bit further--why did a paradigm equating prostitution and sexual slavery of women arise in the 1980s? Before the 1980s, sex workers were thought of as having full sexual agency and the existence of forced prostitution was overwhelmingly denied. In contrast, EMMA's current abolitionist campaign describes prostitution to be an inherently violent violation of human dignity, "including that of so-called 'voluntary prostitutes.'"

Using archives at HYDRA, I have located pamphlets from the past 30 years utilizing symbolic and stereotypical constructions of prostitutes similar to the white slavery metaphor that imply agency (or lack thereof) through other rhetorical or visual media strategies. Interestingly, while many human trafficking pamphlets I have found have echoed the abolitionist rhetoric of EMMA’s appeal, two social workers from signatory organizations of the campaign have distanced themselves from Schwarzer’s radicalism. I interviewed a sex worker of 20 years who referred me to the Internationales Sommerfestival Conference on Images in Sex Work in Media and Art in early August and the Sex Work Congress in September. The Internationales Sommerfest was fascinating and I really regret forgetting a camera. The conference exposed me to the most innovative researchers of the politics of sex work representation that is coming out of Institute for Queer Theory in Berlin and Goethe Institut as well as the work of relevant international advocates and academics.

Throughout the course of the summer, my stance on the politics of sex work has changed quite a bit. I used to be an advocate for the Swedish model (criminalize the buying of sex, not the selling) because it acknowledged that the prostitution industry is rife with abuse and aims to eliminate the industry without punishing exploited sex workers. However, under the Swedish Model sex workers are still treated like criminals by those who "rescue" them, are vulnerable to police violence, categorically denies all sex workers agency, and particularly endangers migrant workers. I have come to learn that, first and foremost sex work need to be recognized as labor-- yes, not all sex workers feel empowered by their work but they are not necessarily victims and were not coerced into their circumstances any more or less than a factory worker or housekeeper. As laborers, sex workers experience a unique denial of social and economic rights that must also be recognized as systematic violence against sex workers. My interviews with activists and social workers (even those who identify as abolitionist) illustrated a vastly different picture of the sex work industry than what is presented in popular international media campaigns. I am very happy to be able to continue working on my project throughout the fall semester while I study in Berlin.