Prostitution is legal in countries across Europe, but it's nothing like what you think

Axel Heimken/picture alliance via Getty ImagesLegal prostitution has a lot of problems.
  • Prostitution is legal and regulated in Germany,Switzerland,Greece,Austria, and many other countries in Europe.
  • Many major European cities have red-light districts and regulated brothels that pay taxes and follow certain rules.
  • Regulating the prostitution industry was supposed to help limit sex trafficking and connect sex workers with critical health and government services, but reports say there hasn’t been much success on either front.

Prostitution is big business in Europe.

By some estimates, the number of prostitutes across the European Union’s 28 members states ranges between 700,000 and as many as 1.2 million. In Germany alone, the industry is estimated to be worth $US16.3 billion, according to Germany’s Federal Statistics Office.

While prostitution has a long history in Europe, it’s legality varies from country to country. In countries like Germany and Greece, the sex trade is fully legalised and regulated, whereas is many northern European countries like Sweden, it is illegal to buy sex, but not illegal to sell it.

Brothels and red-light districts have been a part of major European cities like Amsterdam and Hamburg for decades and, in some cases, centuries. But the current era of prostitution began around 2000 when the Netherlands became one of the first major European countries to formalise prostitution’s legality and regulate it like any other industry. Germany, Greece, and others followed suit, though Switzerland has had fully legal prostitution since 1942.

Legalizing and regulating prostitution was supposed to make the trade safer for sex workers, helping them access critical health and government services, but by most accounts, it mostly resulted in turning prostitution a major industry with hotel-sized brothels, brothel chains, and a cash cow of tax revenue.

Here’s what the sex industry in Europe is actually like.

While laws vary, Europe has a more permissive attitude towards prostitution than in the US. In Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Greece, Turkey, the Netherlands, Hungary, and Latvia, prostitution is legal and regulated. In other countries, it is legal but not regulated.

Wikimedia Commons

For most Americans, prostitution in Europe likely calls to mind Amsterdam’s red-light district. In 2000, the Netherlands was one of the first countries to legalise and regulate prostitution …

Horacio Villalobos/Corbis via Getty ImagesNight view of De Wallen red-light district with its many red-light windows, in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 24 April 2004.

… leading to scenes like this in Amsterdam’s famous De Wallen district, a neighbourhood famous for marijuana coffee shops and sex-worker windows, where prostitutes try to solicit customers for a 30-minute soiree.

Horacio Villalobos – Corbis/Corbis via Getty ImagesProstitutes wait for clients behind glass doors in the Red Light District on April 19, 2017 in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Though the Netherlands began regulating prostitution in 2000, the sex trade was more or less tolerated for decades before. The idea behind legalizing the trade was that it would it would root out organised crime, limit human trafficking, improve worker access to healthcare, and make sex work safer.

Getty ImagesThe red light district in Amsterdam in 1976.

Source: The Independent

While prostitution has been legal in Switzerland since 1942 and is protected by the constitution, Petit Fleur, the first legal brothel, didn’t open until 1998. Typically, sex workers work in a brothel or buy a daily “ticket” to sell sex in designated street areas.

Source: Dignity, Spokesman

Europe’s ‘biggest brothel’ is Germany. While sex work was tolerated as early as the 1800s, the government formally legalised it in 2002. The trade has since exploded into a $US16.3 billion a year business with as many as over 1 million sex workers.

Axel Heimken/picture alliance via Getty ImagesRevelers visit the ‘Große Freiheit’ Street in Hamburg, Germany, 01 January 2017.

Reeperbahn in Hamburg, Germany has long been one of the world’s most famous red-light districts. In its 1980s heyday, it was home to over 1,000 prostitutes, but in recent years, the area has become better known cheap bars and binge drinking.

Axel Heimken/picture alliance via Getty ImagesPedestrians walk past various brothels and pubs on the Reeberbahn. St. Pauli, with its sparkling subculture, has always been synonymous with the city of Hamburg.

Source: The Independent

Hamburg’s main sex-trade street is blocked by 12-foot high barricades on either end, and men under eighteen and women are prohibited from entering. The barricades are a major point of contention for feminist activists, who frequently demonstrate nearby.

Source: The Independent

German red-light districts like Reeperbahn are typically populated by ‘eros centres,’ where women can rent one-room apartments for $US90 to $US160 a day. The women then sell to customers at prices they negotiate directly. The brothel takes only the room rental fee.

Source: The Independent

The oldest brothel in Hamburg is Hotel Luxor, which opened over 60 years ago. In 2008, Waltraud Mehrer, the Luxor’s “madame,” closed the brothel due to declining business. “Yes, many people see our closing as a sad development,” she told The Independent, “But you can’t make money by offering real sex on the Reeperbahn any more.”

Source: The Independent

One of the largest ‘eros centres’ is Pascha, a 12-story brothel-nightclub in Cologne, Germany.

ullstein bild / GettyThe Pascha brothel in Cologne, Germany.

Pascha makes money by charging women $US195 a day for a room. Typically, a woman has to sleep with four men to break even. Pascha has hair, tanning, and nail salons, a restaurant, and a boutique for the women.

Source: The Telegraph

Pascha is run by Hermann Mueller, whose father opened the brothel. Mueller told The Telegraph in 2014 that his girlfriend of several years is a prostitute. Her profession doesn’t bother him. “Well, if you work in this industry for so many years, prostitution becomes like a regular job,” he said.

Source: The Telegraph

Legalised prostitution has spawned even bigger ventures than Pascha, like Paradise, a chain of five brothels across Germany, with more on the way. In 2014, Paradise opened a 15,000 square foot, $US5 million brothel near the French border.

Becker & Bredel / ullstein image via Getty ImagesThe operator of the brothel Paradise, Jürgen Rudloff, in a suit at the interview together with his marketing director Michael Beretin.

Source: The Telegraph

Not everyone is happy about the increased sex trade. In Saarbrücken, Germany, many locals protested the opening of Paradise. Mayor Charlotte Britz told The Telegraph in 2014 that “Prostitution has reached intolerable levels” in Saarbrücken.

Becker & Bredel / ullstein image via Getty ImagesDemonstrations against the opening of brothel Paradise in Saarbrücken Burbach, Germany in 2014.

Source: The Telegraph

All entrants to Paradise — both sex workers and customers — pay an $US89 entrance fee. From there, anyone can use the facilities, which include saunas, a movie theatre, a restaurant, and rooms. Sex workers negotiate directly with customers. The going-rate for 30 minutes is about $US56.

Source: The Telegraph

Most sex workers, whether in Germany, the Netherlands, or Greece, tend to come from Eastern European countries like Romania or Bulgaria, according to Public Radio International. Many are coerced or trafficked.

Source: PRI

Not every customer wants sex. One worker (not pictured) told The Telegraph that she’s had customers that want to be walked on a leash “like a doggy,” while others only want to tell her stories about their childhood. “You know, you must be like a gum — malleable. Become whatever they need,” she said.

Source: The Telegraph

While the sex trade has encouraged “sex tourists” from the UK, France, and the US to visit, many customers are locals that have been going for years. A man named Michael told Reuters he’d been going since he was 13 and had a favourite sex worker he frequented.

ANOEK DE GROOT/AFP/Getty ImagesMichael, who walks around in the red light district of Amsterdam since the age of 13, comes to visit his favourite prostitute in the neighbourhood on December 8, 2008.

Like any other industry, it fluctuates with the economy. In 2006, with Germany seeing a flood of tourists for the World Cup, many brothels saw a boom in business. After the financial crisis in 2009, business tanked.

In Greece, the economy has been so bad that it has pushed more women into the sex trade, with Athens seeing a 7% increase in sex workers since 2012, even as the price for sex has dropped.

Source: New York Times

One researcher found that the price for a prostitute had dropped from $US41 in 2012 to $US20 in 2017.

Iakovos Hatzistavrou/Pacific Press/NurPhoto/Getty ImagesA brothel in the Metaxourgio District of Athens, Greece.

Source: New York Times

Switzerland and Germany have both pioneered so-called “sex boxes” to eliminate street solicitation. In 2012, the Swiss government spent $US2 million to build a facility where sex workers pay a daily fee to work the facility. Customers drive in, negotiate with a worker, park in a box, and then do their thing,

Source: USAToday

The facility includes security and on-site social services and is open at 7 p.m. until late in the night. A city spokesperson told USAToday that the facility has been effective at stopping violence against sex workers and reducing human trafficking.

Source: USAToday

The industry has developed its own mini-celebrities over the years. Molly Luft, who passed away in 2010, was once considered Germany’s most famous prostitute. She regularly appeared on talk shows and even had her own late-night show at one point.

Source: BZ Berlin

Meanwhile, Martine and Louise Fokkens at 70 years old are considered Amsterdam’s oldest prostitutes. They have worked the De Wallen district for fifty years and written books about their experience.

AFP Photo/Anoek de GrootProstitutes Martine (R) and Louise (L) Fokkens, 70, walk around the red-light-district of Amsterdam on November 15, 2012, the Netherlands.

Some cities even have holidays to celebrate their red-light district. Each summer Frankfurt hosts “Bahnhofsviertelnacht” or “Train Station Quarter Night”, a festival that runs through the city’s famous red-light district.

Boris Roessler/picture alliance via Getty ImagesTwo dancers entertain the public during ‘Bahnhofsviertelnacht’ (lit. train station quarter night) outside the ‘My Way’ bar in the red light district of Frankfurt am Main, Germany, 17 August 2017.

Amsterdam even has a Museum of Prostitution celebrating the city’s history of the sex trade …

Schöning/ullstein bild via Getty ImagesMuseum of Prostitution – Red Light Secrets, Oudezijds Achterburgwal, Rotlichtviertel, Amsterdam, Niederlande

… where you can see a what a typical sex room would look like.

Koen van Weel/AFP/Getty ImagesA view of a room in the first Museum of Prostitution in Amsterdam, called ‘Red Light Secrets’, in The Netherlands, on January 31, 2014.

Despite Switzerland’s successes with the “sex box” experiment, many are starting to consider sex work legalization to be a failure in the Netherlands and Germany. Despite hopes that legalization would bring sex work out of the dark, little about the industry is in the open.

ANOEK DE GROOT/AFP/Getty ImagesClients and tourists walk around, looking for prostitutes exposed in shopwindows in the red light district of Amsterdam on December 8, 2008.

Source: DW

Only 76 women have taken advantage of laws that would allow them to get social security. Many hoped a 2017 reform law would improve regulation, but it seems to have done little. In Hamburg, about 600 sex workers registered with police as required, but some social services believe there are as many as 6,000 sex workers in the city.

Boris Roessler/picture alliance via Getty ImagesA Romanian prostitute lying on her bed at a brothel at Taunusstrasse during the ‘Bahnhofsviertelnacht’ in Frankfurt/Main, Germany.

Source: DW

Because many sex workers are foreigners and only come for a few months, they see no benefit in registering. They don’t want to pay taxes or be branded as sex workers.

Klaus Roseullstein bild via Getty ImagesThe red-light district in Amsterdam.

Source: The Telegraph

“A lot of people just do it for a short period in their lives. They don’t want to have in their CV, ‘I was a whore from 2007 to 2009,'” a spokeswoman for Germany’s Trade Association for Erotic and Sexual Services (not pictured) told The Telegraph.

Horacio Villalobos/Corbis/Getty ImagesA prostitute covers her face with a cushion to avoid being photographed at her prostitution window-booth in the Red Light district, Amsterdam.

Source: The Telegraph

A bigger issue is that many activists say they have seen an increase in human trafficking since the sex trade was legalised. The vast majority of human trafficking is for forced prostitution, and Germany and the Netherlands are among the worst offenders. Raids on red-light establishments are frequent, but human trafficking is difficult to prosecute.

Boris Roessler/picture alliance via Getty ImagesPolice officers standing in front of a red light establishment in Frankfurt, Germany in September 2018.

Source: The Telegraph

A European Union-funded report found that over 23,000 people were trafficked from 2008 to 2010. Activists say legal sex work makes it easier for traffickers to have coerced trafficked workers in plain sight. Sometimes, workers come willingly, lured by profit, but find working conditions to be abysmal.

Sebastian Gollnow/picture alliance via Getty ImagesA brothel operator (l) arrives in a courtroom of the Regional Court on the day of the pronouncement of judgement in the trial for alleged promotion of human trafficking.

Source: CityLab,BBC

Some sex workers argue that the solution is not to a ban, but better legislation. “Sex work is constantly conflated with human trafficking,” Velvet December (not pictured), an activist for Proud, a sex worker-led organisation based in Amsterdam, told Foreign Policy. “This …  leaves no room for the realities we face and to address the problems we see.”

Robin van Lonkhuijsen/ANP/AFP/Getty ImagesSex workers from more than 36 countries demonstrate as a side event of the AIDS2018 conference in Amsterdam on July 24, 2018.

Source: Foreign Policy

Amsterdam’s mayor, Femke Halsema (not pictured), has called for changes, saying that the industry is “increasingly linked to the humiliation of women by large groups of tourists.” Halsema seemed to be referring to tourists who only come to take selfies of the women, often against their will.

Horacio Villalobos/Corbis via Getty ImagesSex workers are seen behind windows at the red light district in Amsterdam, Netherlands, 24 April 2015.

Source: Sputnik News

There are many feminist activist groups throughout Europe that are outright against any kind of legal prostitution and are trying to ban it. Sabine Constabel, the leader of Sisters, a group that helps women leave the sex trade, considers any kind of sex work to be rape.

Patrik Stollarz/AFP/Getty ImagesTopless members of feminist movement Femen tear down a gate to the red light district on Women’s Day, March 8, 2019 in Hamburg, Germany.

Source: DW

There has been a growing movement for countries to adopt Sweden’s model, where it is legal to sell sex, but not to buy it. Customers get slapped with hefty fines. Some activists believe eliminating demand would curb sex trafficking.

GettyA car passes a brothel along the main road to Germany October 21, 2003 in Pilsen, Czech Republic.

Source: BBC

But given the history in the Netherlands and Germany, it is unlikely such a measure would get through. Previous attempts to curb the sex trade there sparked backlash. A more likely reform is to criminalise people that pay for sex with a trafficked or coerced worker.

ROBIN VAN LONKHUIJSEN/AFP/Getty ImagesSex workers and sympathizers demonstrate on April 9, 2015 against the closure of window brothels by the municipality in the red light district in Amsterdam

Source: The Independent

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