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Schwarzer went quiet in January when she got embroiled in a scandal involving a Swiss bank account. “She hates me,” says Beretin jovially. “I would smack her in the face but she’s smacked herself in the face already.”
Beretin knows the law is full of holes, though. “The law wasn’t thought through well enough 12 years ago. It’s not strong enough and it’s going to be stricter.” Some politicians are trying to introduce brothel licences and ban “flat rate” offers. Others want to criminalise punters who buy sex from a coerced prostitute.
The standard argument against increasing regulations is that it will push prostitution underground. But, as Simon Haggstrom, an officer in the prostitution unit of the Stockholm Police, observes, “If a sex buyer can find a prostituted woman, the police can do it.”
Herbert Krauleidis is the only person I speak to who is completely at ease with the law as it stands. “Oh, my colleague!” trills Beretin when I mention Gesext to him. “It’s a big problem that women can sell themselves on the internet. You can’t control if it’s really a woman alone or if there’s a man in the background. It’s too dangerous, the internet.” Beretin thinks (of course) that “bigger clubs are a much better way to control the business. Easier to regulate.”
That’s debatable, but at least clubs like Paradise and Pascha have onsite security which gives prostitutes a safe environment in which to work. “Prostitutes are undoubtedly the most vulnerable group of people in society,” says Chris Armitt, the national police lead for prostitution in England and Wales where around 80,000 prostitutes work.
Armitt’s Merseyside force has an excellent record when it comes to punishing crimes against prostitutes. Since 2006, it has stopped arresting streetwalkers (even though soliciting is illegal in Britain) and started working with them instead. “The sex workers will tell us, ‘there’s a girl being pimped and she’s had her passport taken,’ and that information gets to us quickly and we’re able to act.”
I t’s a gloomy day and the clouds hang heavy above the “sex boxes” on Cologne’s Geestemünder Strasse. It’s an incredibly depressing place. Tucked behind some trees, amid the chugging machinery of a steel works and the smoking chimneys of a rubbish incineration plant, is a small loop of road fenced off by barriers.
Behind them is a series of miniature bus stops sitting against a ribbon of green tarpaulin. It’s feeble shelter on this wind-whipped day. The women hover around the bus stops, blowing their noses and pulling on woolly gloves. If and when a man selects them they’ll get in to his car and drive to a row of pastel-coloured "boxes" – that look like somewhere you’d keep cattle.
The boxes are completely bare inside apart from a panic button. The partition is hard against the drivers’ side so he can’t open the door and there’s a clear space on the passenger side to enable a quick escape. “These women are fighting for their survival,” says Sabine Reichert, a social worker with SkF Cologne, the Catholic women’s group that runs the “sex boxes”. “Some are funding their drug use. Others use drugs so that their work will be more bearable for them.” Between 30 and 50 of them come here each day.
One of them, a skinny lady in her 50s with a low ponytail, looks like someone you’d see doing the supermarket shop, her Mazda 2 parked outside. Others look ravaged. A puffy-faced blonde waggles her fingers at a passing van, her enormous breasts popping out of her stretchy top. It’s lunch hour and the road is busy. When a policeman stops our car for a few minutes a queue forms behind us.
The policeman wants to know why our male photographer has brought two women in to the area. Is he a pimp? I’m heartened by this until Reichert points out that most pimps aren’t stupid enough to drop their girls off at the gate.
The women at Geestemünder Strasse are the lucky ones. The social workers invite them into the neighbouring drop-in centre to warm up and slowly build up trust. They start with hot drinks, condoms and clean needles and move on to housing, jobs and legal aid. “We strengthen the women in their self-esteem,” says Reichert. The streetwalkers working in Germany’s autobahns, parks and forests don’t even have this.
The fact is, prostitution is not a job like any other. You’re in daily physical danger, your health is at risk, it’s difficult to have a relationship and, as you get older, you’re left with dramatically diminished earning potential and little to recommend you to an employer.
A prostitute prepares for an evening’s work in the dressing room at Pascha, a mega-brothel in Cologne (Albrecht Fuchs)
All the sex workers I spoke to, in Britain and in Germany, told me it’s “not for everyone.” Kristina Marlen, the Berlin dominatrix, sees her work in terms of “celebrating the sexual part of the person” (though “sometimes people come in and I am like ‘Ew’. But I can work with them.”) She’s bisexual and currently in an open relationship with a woman. She thinks of prostitution as its own kind of “sexual orientation”.