Sex workers in Germany are appealing to politicians to ease coronavirus restrictions that have prevented them from working during the pandemic.
Groups representing the more than 40,000 sex workers officially registered in Germany have said that many have been forced underground since the closure of brothels in mid-March. There are growing reports of sex workers being subjected to violence, underpayment and being forced to compromise their health because of clients’ demands during meetings in non-formal settings.
Sex workers across Germany have taken their complaints to the streets, in demonstrations in Hamburg, Cologne, Stuttgart and Berlin.
This week, Berlin’s government appeared to give way to their demands after announcing a “graduated return to sexual services without intercourse”. From 1 September, intercourse will be allowed to take place between sex workers and their clients in the German capital, but only under strict hygiene regulations.
Sex workers operating in Germany’s 15 other states hope the governments there will soon follow suit.
Berlin’s senators recognised that a relaxation of restrictions in the sex industry were “necessary from both a health and also a female politics’ perspective”. Otherwise, the senate declared, “there is a danger that those affected, due to economic necessity will stumble into relationships of dependency and pursue their occupation in secret and under conditions that are a danger to health”.
Pressure groups say that the pandemic has already done just that, forcing thousands of sex workers to turn to online platforms to advertise their services, and to meet clients in alternative, less safe settings to brothels, often in their homes.
In the process the clock has been turned back on what many see as the progress made for workers in the industry since it was legalised in Germany in 2002, becoming strictly regulated. Sex workers pay tax, and are entitled to employment contracts, social security benefits and health insurance.
The Federal Association of Erotic and Sex Services has accused lawmakers of failing to address the concerns of sex workers because of the stigma attached to the industry, while giving hairdressers, tattoo parlours, massage and beauty salons, fitness studios, saunas – even swinger clubs – the green light to reopen weeks ago. They point out that in neighbouring Switzerland, the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium and the Czech Republic, brothels are being allowed to operate again.
“Sex workers,” the association said, “seem to have been deliberately neglected by Germany’s politicians.”
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The organisation Aidshilfe or Aids Help (DAH) said sex workers were often disadvantaged, but that the coronavirus crisis had pushed them into an even more vulnerable realm.
“People who before coronavirus found themselves in precarious and threatening situations, are now experiencing this in a more exacerbated way. What is at stake not least is their health. In this time of need they require solidarity – independent of any moralistic judgment,” Björn Beck, the head of the DAH told the broadcaster RBB.
He said sex workers were vulnerable to violence and infection. Hygiene rules in brothels, which are controlled by health officials, or safety mechanisms such as emergency alarms, were not available once sex workers were forced underground, he said. They have a much weaker bargaining position without the strict payment structures in a brothel and are often forced to accept much lower fees, as well as to discard safer sex practices, such as the use of condoms.