Rethinking a legal sex trade

When it legalized prostitution two years ago, Germany sought to bring the industry under state control, providing sex workers with labor rights and greater health protection. But some Germans are now saying the law has failed to achieve its objective.

The issue came to the fore earlier this year when a 25-year-old waitress looking for work was told that she faced losing her unemployment benefits because she had turned down a job at a brothel.

The woman was desperate to work, although not in a sex establishment. But under a new welfare law aimed at easing the longtime jobless back into the workforce, women under the age of 55 who have been out of work for more than a year must accept any job offered to them - or give up unemployment benefits.

"There is now nothing in the law to stop women from being sent into the sex industry," Merchthild Garweg, a Hamburg lawyer specializing in such cases, told the German newspaper Die Tageszeitung. "The new regulations say that working in the sex industry is not immoral anymore, and so jobs cannot be turned down without a risk to benefits."

The threat, many were quick to point out, was not a real one.

"In reality in Germany, no one will be forced into prostitution," retorts Emilija Mitrovic, a Hamburg-based social scientist who studies prostitution.

Nevertheless, the case has driven the country to reexamine the difficulties connected with one of the most controversial pieces of social legislation Germany has ever dealt with.

An estimated 400,000 prostitutes work in Germany, and 1.2 million customers are said to use their services daily. Revenues are estimated at 6 billion euros every year - equivalent to those of companies like Porsche and Adidas.

It was mainly to offer prostitutes protection from violence and exploitation that two years ago - against the opposition of conservative politicians - the German government legalized prostitution.

Now, legal contracts between prostitutes and clients can be established. The government withholds a portion of their earnings to pay social benefits like pensions and health insurance and to guarantee a regular 40-hour-workweek. Sex workers can now even unionize.

When it comes to taxation and regulation of the industry, legalization has been beneficial in some places, advocates say.

In Stuttgart, where 2,700 prostitutes are registered, brothels now pay 15 euros or 25 euros per day, per prostitute, to financial authorities. The city of Cologne receives roughly 700,000 euros per month from the business. In Dortmund, owners of sex establishments have been creating contracts with prostitutes that offer benefits.

Legalization has also - in some cases - allowed the government to offer prostitutes incentives to leave the trade. In the town of Esslingen, for example, officials from the unemployment department have been offering those willing to exit the profession double welfare - 600 euros instead of 300 euros.

Little improvement in conditions

But when it comes to the goal of improving conditions for prostitutes and containing the sex trade, most experts agree that legalizing prostitution has not succeeded.

"When it was set up there was much talk of securing proper contracts, proper health insurance, but a lot of this hasn't materialized because of big holes in the legislation," says Marion Detlefs of the Hydra prostitute advice center in Berlin.

Across the country, no more than a dozen contracts have been signed. Prostitutes, who often have to share their income with brothel owners and other parties, are reluctant to pay taxes.

"The contribution for social coverage is too expensive," Felicitas Schirow, the head of a Berlin brothel, told the magazine Der Spiegel recently.

Health-insurance companies are reluctant to take on prostitutes as customers.

German conservatives, who opposed legalization on moral grounds, say such failures justify their opposition.

At the same time, advocates for prostitutes complain that - despite the national law - prostitution is still treated differently in each region, giving each city the right to ban prostitution in certain areas.

In Munich, street prostitution is forbidden almost everywhere. In Berlin, it is allowed across the board. Hamburg allows it at the train station at certain times of the day. Many smaller cities declare city centers and residential areas off limits.

Challenges elsewhere in Europe

Germany is not alone in its experiment with legalization. In the United States, prostitution is legal in most of the state of Nevada. In the Netherlands, prostitution was legalized four years ago. Belgian legislators are considering a bill to legalize prostitution there.

But in some other countries legalization has brought problems similar to those faced in Germany.

In the Netherlands - as in Germany - the law doesn't apply to illegal workers. It is estimated that 6 out of 10 prostitutes are aliens who live and work illegally.

Across Europe, the future of legalization is unclear. Advocates predict such laws will spread, offering prostitutes improved conditions throughout the European Union.

Opponents say other Europeans need only look to Sweden to see the future of legalization. The country - which legalized prostitution 30 years ago - recriminalized it in 1998, after complaints that legalization had solved few of the problems it set out to address.

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