Any discussion of prostitution soon finds itself confronted with various types of myths. Here is a typology – with examples. In the end, they all are toxic.
These are the primary myths around „sex work“ itself, still believed and peddled by many, but losing some of their shine and glitter in recent debates. Apparently reality is taking its toll on these stories.
“ ‚Sex workers‘ enjoy this work, they freely choose it, it offers good earning opportunities and flexible working hours.“ (1)
The freedom of choice has been addressed well and often, the enjoyment has been thoroughly debunked both by exited women and many still in the sex industry. Let’s talk about the great earning opportunites.
Quite. Cities in Europe and across the world, and especially Eastern European countries are full of happy healthy women who became rich as „sex workers“ and who are now happily and successfully getting on with their lives. The only thing lacking here is any evidence.
Unfortunately, there are indeed as yet hardly any studies on either the income of women in prostitution or on their later courses in life. In Germany it is becoming clear that their paths lead to public welfare in very many cases – for a number of reasons. And that would be those who remain in Germany, not those who drop from sight as they are sent back to their countries of origin, the better to perish discreetly without disturbing any sensibilites here.
The only German study into this field I know of is one into the situation of women from Bulgaria. This study – not in itself critical of prostitution as such – points to prostitution as a poverty trap and not as a means of exiting poverty (2), the failure to exit poverty then creates both financial and emotional barriers to exiting prostitution.
In Canada, research into this topic was conducted by DeRiviere in 2005, who compared the annual income by women in prostitution to the losses in education and on the job training and thus estimated the overall cost of prostitution to the women over their life cycle (3).
On the other hand, we can surely expect the pro-prostitution lobby to soon come up with something glossy. And don’t forget the one about the student who became so rich that she could pay off her house/flat (she had no problems in getting a mortgage, apparently) in three years by the time she was 23, and who is still part time in sex work in addition to her well-paid job as investment banker/insurance broker/psychologist because she likes it so much! She must be very famous, or there are hundreds like her, given this tale appears so frequently in pro-lobby tweets and sites.
We can, in fact, be absolutely sure that there are great earning opportunities in prostitution. Brothel owners in Germany will proudly tell you that they pay more than € 1 Million annually in taxes. The investments into brothels here also run into the millions and the industry is estimated to have a turnover of €14.5 bn.
But since the industry is legal, there is no reason to investigate it, and so Germany has no clear data on prostitution. The numbers cited are often more than 10 years old and were estimates at best. In other words, present figures are likely to be much higher.
These myths do not really concern themselves with the people – predominantly women – in prostitution, but with the legal framework around prostitution. They are popular among academics who wrinkle their noses at such mundane things as prostitution and what it actually is.
„The German Prostitution Act was made to de-stigmatise „sex work“, to give those in prostitution better access to social security insurance and to improve their situation.“
This myth could also be called „polite myth“ and serves as the introduction to countless texts about the developement of the prostitution sector in Germany. But it is a myth, nontheless.
The Prostitution Act was never about the prostituted women. That is merely how it was sold to us. Prostitution as such had been legal in Germany for decades, and brothels in the larger cities were doing well. Leierkasten in Munich recently had its 30th anniversary, Kathleen Barry researched the sexual exploitation of women in Hamburg in the late 70s. (4) In Hamburg, where there is a public street closed off to „women“ – except for the female beings in prostitution, who apparently are not „women“. So there had been prostitution and brothel keeping well before 2002 with very little police or court interference. The new law only gave this a more systematic approach and made it mandatory for cities to accept prostitution (and brothels) if they have more than 50 000 inhabitants. The new law came at the same time and within a frame of slashes to the German welfare system, known as „Agenda 2010“ – an austerity programme by the then Social Democrat and Green government. It came at the same time as significant changes regarding the support of single mothers or of women after divorce were implemented, in effect pushing any divorced or single woman who ever made the mistake of reducing her employment while looking after children into old age poverty.
The aim wasn’t to improve any woman’s or prostituted person’s life. It was to facilitate the payment by prostituted women into the German social security system, and to legalise the enormous profits generated by brothel keeping and the forms of trafficking that were legalised in the coming years. When pimping and trafficking into the sex industry were removed from „sexual crimes“ to „crimes against individual freedom“ in criminal law, and when these practices were made punishable only when they were proven to be „exploitative“ – leaving the definition of „exploitative“ to case law.
In practice, trafficking and pimping have become almost impossible to prove, police spend years investigating the cases only to see the perpetrators walk free or leave with paltry sentences, often handed out „on probation“, i.e. the perpetrators do not even do jail time. As a result, police resources get diverted into other criminal areas, as police learn to their cost that time spent on trafficking issues is practically wasted when the cases come to court.
Criticism by the US and the EU and the general public has led to higher sentences in the recent months – but of course our courts are totally independent. Of course.
„Police and the state use allegations and worries about sexual exploitation and trafficking in the general population to implement new laws on the storage of data and to disregard fundamental human rights to the privacy of individual homes, telephone conversations, and internet habits. They use this to implement a Big Brother State.“
The same auxiliary myth turns up every time people dare criticise child porn.
Certainly – the recent NSA scandals and the involvement of the German secret service in this and both implemented and attempted anti-terror legalisation plus developments in technology that facilitate unlimited data storage, supervision, spying … we are well advised to be wary.
At the same time, things like court orders, legal supervision, judges‘ or state attorneys‘ signatures as requirements for search warrants etc. do exist. They don’t evaporate because somebody addresses prostitution or child porn.
And let’s have a word about freedom, about civil and other liberties.
What we are talking about here is a particular set of human rights and freedoms – those surrounding our privacy, computers, homes. These rights are recognized as universal, human, true and important worldwide, basic. To be guarded at all costs.
These rights affect and concern „us“, those who write about prostitution, legal frameworks, and especially those of us who have access to computers, to the internet, and to the kind of education and the kind of public sphere you need to engage in debates on these matters.
But there are other freedoms. The freedom not to be viciously sexually abused in child porn. The freedom to go to school or take up an apprenticeship at 15, 16, 17 or 18, or 22 – and not to be kept for sexual exploitation for the profit of others in clandestine flats across Germany, in brothels both in Germany or the Netherlands.
For some strange reason, these rights seem particular, important certainly to some individuals, but unlike the rights, the liberties, the freedoms cited above, not universal. After all, they don’t concern „us“. This isn’t „our“ children. The children and women and others exploited in the porn industry are – children of colour, children from extremely poor backgrounds, children from broken up abusive families, Romanian teenagers, indigenous women, Roma women, in other words – „others“. Their rights are not universal. Of course they must be protected sort of. But not at all costs, and certainly not at the cost of „our freedoms“. They ARE the cost, the price „we“ pay for our freedoms. Except of course we don’t pay it, they do.
Our freedom world wide is protected by sending young men and women to fight in countries, across the globe, according to German politicians it is being defended in the mountains of Afghanistan and when it comes to our global economic freedom in Somalian waters. I’ve never really understood what that was supposed to mean.
And our freedom of the internet and of privacy is being defended by pre-teens in the porn industry and by teenagers in prostitution.
Talk to me about freedom.
As an aside – I never hear the liberal strand of feminism pipe up about „intersectionality“ here. But to them, of course, intersectionality has a different meaning. Not a means to ensure the same rights and freedoms for all, but a means to gauge which degree of freedom or human rights best fits which segment of the population. Or as the German Missy Magazine and their writers put it so charmingly:
„.. maybe we should leave it to those who are less privileged than we are, themselves to define where the boundaries of their dignity lie.“ (5) A view that is so accepted in German politics that the writer can move on with her career in feminism (libTM) and within the Green Party.
Here’s a thought: Let’s make the safety of children, of girls and teenagers, of women and their rights not to be sexually exploited a pre-requisite for „our“ right to privacy. Grant rights for all or none.
In countries like Sweden, prostitution only goes underground. Police and social services therefore have no idea what is happening.
Legalised and decriminalised systems, on the contrary, offer clear data and access.
This myth has become so tired and old that it causes instant MEGO and poorly stifled yawns when it comes up. Louder pro-prostitution advocates in Germany tend to lump Sweden and Norway together, placing Oslo in Sweden and Sweden on the North Sea, which tends to mix up their arguments but does provide critics with some sort of mild amusement. But I digress. Simon Häggström from the Stockholm police has debunked this myth countless times as have the various studies into prostitution in Sweden – those, that is, that actually looked into the matter. (6) Data on the situation in Sweden is clear and concise, areas where „dark“ fields remain are clearly identified. Suffice it to say that the ability to find and read internet advertising and to use a phone is not restricted to those who buy sexual access to other people, i.e. to men seeking to safely exploit women sexually in return for a fee.
Let’s leave Sweden and move to the safe haven for prostitution that is Germany.
Figures on the number of prostituted women in Germany vary between 150 000 and 700 000, most newspapers put 400 000. The figures have been in circulation for more than ten years, ever since the Prostitution Act was prepared and debated, and were at the time put forward by pro prostitution lobbying groups.
In other words, the number of women in prostitution in Germany cannot even be fixed by six-digit figures. But hey – Sweden is really the place where it’s all underground.
Since „sex work“ is legal in all its aspects – especially buying, brothel keeping, pimping, advertising, renting out mobile homes/caravans, apartments etc., there is no need to investigate. And since „sex workers“ are all regarded as responsible adults who know what they are doing, entire regions go without any support centre or help or counselling.
Data as such has become a cheap ploy of derailment. Each and every abolitionist will be told that their data is faulty, that there is no data, that they cannot draw any conclusions from such uncertain data. (Step one) The pro sex-industry texts are then filled by anti-feminist bashing and by spurious drivel on „morals“. Then there will be a fourth or later paragraph in which the pro-prostitution advocates will use the same data they just invalidated to push their own agenda. And this is not only the tactics on blogs – it has become a perfectly accepted method in publications by the German government, by „researchers“ funded by the EU, Berlin etc. The publication by the German Institute for Human Rights, offered free of charge by the Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung (a kind of federal publishing organisation providing civic and political education material for free) is a case in point, as are publications by those who first instituted the Prostitution Act and who still can’t admit they fell for the manipulations and marketing strategies of a multi-bn-dollar business. (7)
These myths are especially toxic, not only because they are such blatant lies that they leave those who have taken the time for research into the matter speech- and breathless. They are toxic because they serve to manipulate well-meaning people into supporting the sex industry’s political demands, and because they utterly deny the experiences of those in prostitution, render their voices invalid, and seek to manipulate the very language used to describe what prostitution is about so that any talk of abuse or violence becomes impossible. They too appeal most to a certain type of academics. You need to occupy an upper floor in the ivory tower for those to work.
Example 1: „Stigma kills“
According to this myth, the violence, the murders are not committed by the pimps who exploit the women (and others) in prostitutiion, nor by those who sexually or physically or emotionally abused them in childhood, nor by the buyers who find it perfectly acceptable to use them, nor by the traffickers. Cases where this has happened are only few and far between, unfortunate individual incidents, and above all: They only happen because of the criticism directed against the sexual exploitation and the violence that is prostitution (but had much better be termed „sex work“). If people, especially feminists, would at last stop speaking about the violence, it wouldn’t happen. It is high time to finally separate the „discourse“ on female sexuality from the „discourse“ of violence to finally free all women in their sexuality. By publishing statistics on violence in prostitution, by researching it, by denouncing it, feminists and all those who oppose prostitution are in fact responsible for it, because they are the ones who give ideas to violent people, who normalise it etc.
All that is needed is a „positive“ discourse on prostitution, because this will give the women in it self-esteem and thus they wouldn’t be attacked by buyers, they wouldn’t have pimps and could negotiate „fair“ terms with their traffickers. And buyers would treat the women with respect if it weren’t for those feminists.
The German Association of Women Lawyers say that, the head of the German group „Pink Stinks“ says it, countless others say it – don’t talk about it or reframe it (derail it) if you must talk about it, and it will disappear as a phenomenon contingent with prostitution, and the few cases that persist (in other words, mangled bodies in ditches that cannot be explained away or denied) can then easily and efficiently be prosecuted.
Statistically there is nothing wrong with this line of argumentation. Redefine violence and exploitation in legally acceptable terms and you’re golden. In 2013 the Green Party in the Bundestag proudly put a written question (Kleine Anfrage) to the government where they cited the fact that prosecutions for pimping had gone down by 95% and convictions for pimping by 99% since its legalisation. (8)
In Germany, this passes for serious argument.
Note to readers: Stigma doesn’t kill, pimps and buyers do. Stigma isn’t caused or spread by feminists, it is used and spread by pimps and buyers who seek justification for their doings, and by a society that is very happy to turn a blind eye to the exploitation and sexual abuse of women and children. That is happy to see women kept in their place, and that is a place where they can easily be exploited. The stigma directed against prostituted women is part and parcel of the misogyny in our societies that has given us rape culture, sexual objectification, pornography, and prostitution. It will not disappear by being coy, polite and 1950s style shtum about it, or about the violence that is used to uphold male dominance.
The „positive discourse“ has been tried for decades. The honest brothel keeper in Western Movies like High Noon, the Belle du Jour, Irma la Douce, Pretty Woman, Young and Beautiful – and there must be many more. And this discourse has had its impact. It has glossed over the sexual exploitation of women, normalised and romanticised it and seems to serve as research material for the pro-prostitution lobby.
These days a different sort of „positive discourse“ abounds in addition to the fluffier type. The blurbs on the covers of porn films offer this kind of discourse. Readers with strong stomachs (they’d better be empty stomachs) may want to check out the „film report“ on the Teenie Tina Gang Bang Party quoted on this blog. No condoms (but face masks available), € 35.-, drinks and snacks included – and added fun factor: Teenie Tina is 19 and pregnant, in her fifth month. The party was a huge success and she had lots of fun. And this is about 10% of the entire report, a translation of which you can find here, at the end of the text („from forums“), and this goes with a MASSIVE TRIGGER WARNING.
Conversations with pro-prostitution activists break down when this is mentioned or go back to the beginning. Please do not be so gauche as to mention such stuff. It doesn’t exist, and by mentioning it you make it exist.
I’m not sure that there are enough floors on ivory towers to sustain that one.
Example 2: Legal makes it safe
The uninformed repetition of this myth – that the decriminalisation of buying, and of all other aspects of „sex work“ or of some aspects of „sex work“ or of the buyers or of the venues will contribute to make this form of exploitation safer for the exploited – is one of the most toxic arguments there are. Partly because it is used to manipulate well-meaning people into supporting the pro sex-industry lobby’s demands, but above all because it is such a blatant lie.
These days, this myth is even peddled when it comes to the prostitution of teenagers. A pro sex-industry website from Toronto offers links to an article about teenage „sex work“ and „youth sex workers“. (9) The article deplores the fact that child protection services take children (those under 18) into custody when they come across someone in prostitution who is underage. These child protection services have apparently been known to act even if 14 or 15 year-olds were only „considering sex work“. The article then lists „Things that could help a youth sex worker stay safe“. „Sex-work-positive spaces“, „harm-reduction materials and practices“, „Knowledge about how to complete a sex-work call quickly and safely“ ….
Let’s hope German authorities don’t hear of that one. After all handing out condoms and safer drug-use equipment is much cheaper than really looking after these children. (10) (At what age can children be taxed? Just askin’… but of course we do have some laws in Germany restricting the money they can spend on things, the „Taschengeldparagraf“ which makes it illegal to sell very highly priced stuff to children. This might cause some pesky problems, so they need someone to look after their income, no doubt.)
In Germany this myth is used to stifle any and all attempts to offer special protection for those in the age group of 18 to 21, while so-called „advocacy groups“ call for „entrance help“ into the sex industry and use their public funding to hand out free legal advice to traffickers and pimps on how to avoid arrest when selling this age group. (11)
Germany and The Netherlands have full decriminalisation of buying, and of brothel keeping, pimping, even trafficking as long as it’s „not exploitative“. Of course they changed the names for these practices, but the procedures, acts and channels of profit remain the same. Older regulations about zoning also remain the same, and there are no points for guessing who pays fees or goes to jail for disrespecting these zones. No, it is not the buyer. Nor the pimp.
As a result of legalisation, influential organisations have now moved on into exploring further possibilites of decriminalising trafficking – the „good kind“ only of course, the one „that helps people make use of their limited agency“. The aim is to legalise the enormous profits derived from this business, which was also the aim when the largely legal or tolerated brothels where fully and systematically legalised here in 2002. The method is the one used for prostitution, where „good prostitution“ as in „voluntary sex work“ was separated from „bad prostitution“ as in „forced prostitution“ or trafficking. Now there’s „bad trafficking“, which is exploitative, and „good tafficking“ which assists the women in their travels as „migrant sex workers“ and which should be legalised to make it – safer. As with the positive discourse, if it were legal, the women concerned could negotiate „fair“ terms, which would all be fair and public, and bad trafficking would disabpear. Because then it will all be out in the open and this will make it safer. Legally speaking, as figures for police investigations and sentences for trafficking would certainly dramatically decline. (The same method is also being applied to the legalisation of child labour, incidentally, another area where trafficking is rife. There is „bad“ child labor – naked in coal mines or 15 hours in sweat shops – and „good“ child labour – weaving baskets while listening to nice music and being provided with snacks and soft drinks … or 5 hours in sweat shops presumably. This warrants another article, but German child advocacy groups have already begun to lobby for this legalisation.) (12)
Germany, The Netherlands, and through their influence the EU channel money into „studies“ and „research“ conducted by pro-prostitution „experts“ whose only claim to faim is sloppy non-research with the kind of conclusions that keep the buck rolling. Whose research consists of interviewing fewer than 20 women in prostitution and on excluding any woman who wants to leave the industry. (13)
The results of this approach in Germany can be seen on the streets in our cities, in the brothels, and read about in local newspapers. It can be seen on the posters – laminated paper with glued on photos – of the prostituted in dismal appartment blocks. Where the photo is provided with descriptions like „Thai child – woman“ and a number, so that buyers will know which bell to ring. Where the prostituted are stacked according to nationality and where there are entire floors for transwomen in prostitution.
German abolitionists have been compiling a list of murdered women and others in prostitution (plus murder attempts), including those murdered in Germany since legalisation supposedly made it all so safe and great (for pimps, brothel keepers, buyers and the profiteers). Unlike the pro-prostitution lobby, who tried to flog the murder of a Swedish woman in prostitution by her ex-partner in a custody case, this list only includes women murdered by buyers or pimps, not general „domestic“ violence. The very few cases included which appear like „domestic“ violence are those where the partner was the pimp, the boy-friend who took them into prostitution or a former client.
You can also find an overview of developments regarding safety on this blog – with links, police inquiries into the matter, government reports etc. And a trigger warning.
Legalising prostitution does not make it safe, and continuing to peddle this particular myth, especially by journalists, politicians, lawyers, amounts to their being assessories to crime, to helping cover up the crimes. It amounts to glorifying and to minimising violence.
Prostitution is not about a loose set of associations sparked off by well-run marketing methods. To pretend that violent practices become safe by giving the enactors of the violence free reign lost its attractiveness in other forms of violence – domestic, rape etc. – decades ago. The idea of „legal makes it safe“ belongs in the dustbin together with the old „do not provoke him“ advice given to women which only served to facilitate rape. With giving in to schoolyard bullies. Violence only stops when society sets up clear and unequivocal boundaries against it, takes a stand, and that is not achieved by rephrasing it.
Take one walk along German streets with street prostitution, and decide what kind of society and world you want to live in.
And then take action.
(1) Stated like this most recently in emails to several abolitionists by members of the German Bundestag, in this case of the Left Party. This view is however not limited to this party (which is at least split on the issue), alas.
(2) Hinz, Arnold, Neli Petrova, „Sexuelle Erfahrungen, Gesundheitsverhalten und Zukunftsvorstellungen von Prostituierten aus Bulgarien in Deutschland“, in: Zeitschrift für Sexualforschung, Januar 2013
DeRiviere, “An Examination of the Fiscal Impact from Youth Involvement in the Sex Trade: The Case for Evaluating Priorities in Prevention” (2005) 31:2 Canadian Public Policy, 80, 2; quoted in Sheila Jeffreys, The Industrial Vagina: The Political Economy of the Global Sex Trade (New York, Routledge, 2009), Maddy Coy, Prostitution, Harm and Gender Inequality: Theory, Research and Policy (Ashgate, 2012) and “No More” Ending Sex Trafficking In Canada. Report of the National Task Force on Sex Trafficking of Women and Girls in Canada. Commissioned by the Canadian Women’s Foundation, Fall 2014
(4) Kathleen Barry, Female Sexual Slavery. New York 1981 and The Prostitution of Sexuality. (New York, 1995)
(5) Missy Magazine, „Firefly“, end of text. In public debate this has now been downgraded to „a text from 2013“. That does not change its impact, its racist undertone, the fact that the author is known for similar statements and still fails to understand what is wrong with it. http://missy-magazine.de/2013/11/19/firefly/
(6) Simon Häggström’s presentations on this can be found on You Tube. Links to various evaluations of the Swedish sex purchase ban:
(7) Link zur bpb und zum APuZ (Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, herausgegeben vom Deutschen Institut für Menschenrechte, vertrieben – kostenfrei – von der Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung: http://www.bpb.de/apuz/155359/prostitution) Der Artikel zu Menschenhandel folgt in etwa dem hier beschriebenen Muster, der Artikel von Kavemann auch.
(8) Kleine Anfrage der Grünen: http://dipbt.bundestag.de/dip21/btd/17/122/1712291.pdf
(9) Sex work is real work. (TRIGGER WARNING if you think nobody, and especially nobody under 18, should be in prostitution. But it is a good example of a „positive discourse“.) http://maggiestoronto.ca/uploads/File/SexWork-FEATURE-from-Shameless-Issue-19-FINAL.pdf
(10) Access to condoms is important – and providing addicted men and women with safe equipment as part of outreach programmes an important approach. But we are talking about underage girls here and some boys, and telling them that sex work is okay, that they are fine and handing them equipment to further their abuse is not the approach. It’s brainwashing them further, driving them into even deeper dissociation and illness.
Young people (and everybody) need solidarity, respect, support, and freedom, and not ideas of „harm reduction“ to make their exploitation sustainable, and quick and „safe“.
(11) For example, Kassandra e.V., Nuremberg.
In general, trafficking is only a criminal offence if its exploitative nature can be proven, in German understanding if the pimp or the trafficker kept more than 50% of the prostituted woman’s earnings (after she’s paid the rents in the brothel to the tune of € 120 – € 160 or more a night) – hardly possible to prove as money here is cash. Violence can only be proven if the woman can show the marks on her body at the time of the investigations, non-physical violence isn’t taken seriously (as we know from stalking cases and „domestic“ violence), and the court cases rest on the woman’s willingness and ability to testify, and on the courts willingness and ability to accord her credibility.
However, at some point special provisions were introduced to protect the group of young adults (there are parallels to that in other areas of German law, for example the penal code which allows for this age group to be prosecuted as minors in certain cases). Here, „exploitation“ need not be proven, any trafficking of a person at that age into a brothel counts as a criminal offence/trafficking. Much to the annoyance of „advocacy groups“ who would like to „recommend“ their brothel keeping friends to younger prostituted women. Their attempts at changing this law have failed due to abolitionist action, politicians do not publicly criticise this legal provision any more.
Kassandra, Nürnberg, has a website, and among the „downloads“, the materials include a leaflet „Special regulations for sex workers under 21“. The leaflet explains the legal situation to pimps etc., warning them they mustn’t bring a young woman to a brothel if she hasn’t been in one before etc. It has no information for those under 21, not even the „harm reduction“ lies peddled by the advocacy groups.
Kassandra is being paid for by donations, public money and the Protestant Church in Germany. They also offer courses on how to legally and profitably exploit people (men) with physical and mental disabilities – this is called „sexual assistance“.
(12) Cf. Statements by the Deutscher Juristinnenbund (German Association of Women Lawyers) in the context of the registration of women and others in prostitution (part of the planned bill on prostitution that is to be presented in the German Bundestag in the coming weeks), and various „trafficking“ and „prostitution“ advocacy groups, plus German websites like „Menschenhandel heute“. Their publications and link list leads to articles endorsing this view of trafficking.
(13) The EU recently awarded funds for research into trafficking to Petra Östergren, known pro sex-industry advocate (http://www.etc.se/ledare/eu-projekt-kuppat-av-prostitutionslobbyn) and to Dita Vogel, who has been published on pro sex-industry websites (the same ones that take new and innovative approaches to trafficking).
When the EU made funds available for research and for the compilation of data on violence against women in EU countries (Daphne-Programmes) the funds set aside for research into prostitution also went exclusively into pro sex-industry and pro „sex work“ researchers, sparking protests from the Swedish government. (Cf. Janice Raymond, Not a Choice, Not a Job, chapter 3.