Germany is sometimes called the brothel of Europe because its legalised prostitution system has resulted in a vast sex industry with – until recently – more than a million men visiting brothels in the country every day.
This hideous bonanza was interrupted somewhat when many of the brothels were closed as part of public measures against Covid-19. There is growing support for the Nordic Model in Germany and some parliamentarians responded to this hiatus by calling on the federal states to not re-open the brothels and instead to implement a Nordic Model approach.
The German political parties that form the coalition government of North-Rhine Westphalia responded with a motion vehemently opposing this idea and making many claims about the dangers and negative consequences of the Nordic Model.
Helmut Sporer, a recently retired senior police officer made a searing rebuttal of this motion and its spurious arguments. This article provides a summary of some of his key points – particularly those that draw on his intimate knowledge of the German sex industry. However, his statement is an extraordinary piece of work and we recommend reading it in full.
Note: All quotes in this article are from Sporer’s statement. Some of the quotes have been edited for clarity and length.
Helmut Sporer worked for approximately 30 years (from 1990 until very recently) investigating and monitoring prostitution and human trafficking in Germany. During his career, he observed a progressive deterioration in both the conditions for the women involved in prostitution and the ability of the authorities to effectively deal with the proliferation of organized crime and abuses within the system – in spite of, or because of, the various changes in the law relating to prostitution over that period.
Prior to 2002, prostitution was legal in Germany but was considered damaging to the community and was subject to some restrictions. The Prostitution Act of 2002 swept aside those restrictions and introduced full legalisation.
It eventually become apparent to even the most ardent supporters of legalisation that it had been a failure and the Prostitutes Protection Act 2017 (PPA) was passed in response. Under this Act, prostitution is still legal but is now subject to significantly tighter regulations. Unfortunately, these are directed almost entirely at the women involved rather than the pimps, brothel keepers and punters. So, it is not surprising that it has failed to improve the situation.
In 2013, Sporer spoke publicly about the failures of the German system, but then he didn’t go as far as arguing for the Nordic Model. Perhaps he hoped that further regulation of the German system would ameliorate the worst excesses. After seeing first-hand that the hoped-for improvements did not materialise after 2017 and after lengthy discussions with police officers and others in Sweden, he has come to the overwhelming conclusion that the Nordic Model is the only appropriate approach.
Why is this relevant to the UK (and elsewhere)?
In the UK (and elsewhere) there is a large, vocal and well-funded lobby for the full decriminalisation of the sex trade – which means the removal of all prostitution-specific laws including those against brothel keeping, pimping, and kerb crawling. Under full decriminalisation, prostitution is treated as a business or job like any other with no special measures or regulations.
Lobbyists argue loudly that full decriminalisation is totally different from legalisation – because legalisation includes prostitution-specific regulations. Therefore, they claim, what has happened in Germany is irrelevant because it in no way reflects what we could expect to see under full decriminalisation.
Sporer blasts this claim out of the water – because the problems that he describes are less to do with the German regulations and more to do with the huge scale of the industry, the ease with which vulnerable women are exploited within it, and how it is more or less impossible for the police and other authorities to hold exploiters to account when they are operating under the cover of a legal system. All of these factors apply equally to full decriminalisation as to legalisation.
There is every reason, therefore, to believe that if a fully decriminalised system were to be introduced in the UK (or any other European country or US state), it would not be long before we saw similar problems.
This means that we must listen very closely to the reality that has unfolded in Germany during the last 20 years. There are few more qualified than Sporer to tell us about that reality.
In the early 1990s German women were the vast majority of the population in prostitution in Germany. Now, however, German women are a very small minority and are mostly involved in niche areas, such as BDSM studios and luxury apartment brothels. These women are generally independent and are rarely under the control of a third party. They tend to be publicly visible and many are able to advocate effectively for their own interests.
Sporer says that you now seldom see a German woman in what he calls the mega-businesses – the mega-brothels, rent-a-room brothels, nudist clubs, and on-street prostitution – that make up most of the German sex industry.
Unlike all other German industries, there are no reliable statistics about the numbers involved, but Sporer estimates the total population in prostitution in Germany to be 250,000, with about 5% of those involved in the niche sector and the remainder in the mega-businesses.
Most, of the women in the mega-businesses show signs that they are being exploited and controlled by third parties; signs such as their young age, low education level, inability to speak German, lack of social contacts outside the prostitution milieu, and symptoms of PTSD and other emotional and psychological disturbances.
If these women are asked during a brothel inspection whether they have been forced or coerced, they invariable say no. But they usually do admit this in the rare event of their pimps and traffickers being arrested and imprisoned.
“Only a fraction of these women are ever identified officially as victims. Unable to see a way out, they resign themselves to their situation. These women have neither voice nor lobby, and simply endure their victimization.” [Page 2]
There is little dispute among German authorities that a large proportion of the women in prostitution are, to varying degrees, there against their will. There is, however, debate about the size of this proportion – is it 60%, 80% or 90%? Sporer makes the important point that it’s irrelevant what the exact numbers are. Even if it’s only 60%, it’s far too high.
He asks which group the government should focus their support and protection on – the tiny minority who are genuinely independent or the large, very vulnerable majority.
It was in part a response to this shameful reality that the PPA was introduced. However, in practice it has accomplished nothing of substance because it focuses on the small group of independent women and not the silent, victimised majority, whose fate he compares to temporary workers in the meat industry:
“Their conditions are roughly comparable to the temporary workers of the meat industry, only that the women’s situation is much more extreme, as it is not their capacity for labor that is being exploited, but their most personal and intimate sphere. Many of the working conditions rightfully lambasted within the meat industry, relating to work hours, living quarters, hygienic conditions, ill-treatment, etc. can be equally applied to prostitution. While politicians acted quickly and decisively on exploitative conditions in the meat industry through a labor protection law, we have been waiting for workable solutions for the prostitution sector for a long time.” [Page 3]
Would moving to the Nordic Model drive prostitution underground?
One of the arguments that is most beloved by the lobby for full decriminalisation is that the Nordic Model drives prostitution underground – forcing those involved to work in more dangerous places and to advertise online, etc.
Sporer explains that the concerns elaborated in the motion about a move to online advertising is curious because over the last decade this has happened in all European countries, including Germany, regardless of the legislative and policy approach in place. He also states, as many others have done, that prostitution is predicated on punters being able to find the women and if the punters can, so can the police and other authorities.
He explains that Germany already has a huge underground industry and the idea that the Nordic Model would make it worse is based on an utter lack of understanding of the reality:
“There is already an underground industry operating within official German prostitution establishments. This observation may seem confusing, but it is true. In many brothels, especially large ‘mega businesses,’ but also in the street prostitution sector, one finds predominantly young foreign women, who are highly likely in situations of exploitation. The authorities who are familiar with the situation on the ground, are usually aware that these women are controlled and exploited by third-parties. However, proving this requires extensive investigation, usually bolstered by a prostitute’s statement. This rarely occurs due to the aforementioned reasons (e.g. violence, threats, intimidations). This is why authorities are often forced to wait rather than acting, despite obvious cause for concern.
A brothel’s public facade rarely reveals the real conditions behind closed doors – which is where you find the real ‘underground.’ A well-known example of this phenomenon is the Paradise mega-brothel in Stuttgart. For years its operators advertised it as a prime example of ‘clean, legal brothel prostitution.’ They were routine guests on famous TV talk shows and one of them was even handed his own weekly TV-show as a ‘brothel reviewer.’ Paradise was viewed by the public as a modern, fair, and women-friendly model brothel, even though experts at the time already knew that the media framing of the brothel contrasted with its deeply criminal reality.
In 2013 the Criminal Investigations Department of Augsburg uncovered suspicions against the operators of Paradise and my department led undercover investigations into it. The investigations were later continued by the authorities in Stuttgart with great success. What was found behind the façade surpassed our worst fears. A cleverly camouflaged network of highly organized serious crime was revealed. In 2019, after strenuous investigative efforts, the brothel owners were sentenced for repeated crimes such as assisting serious human trafficking and pimping in 18 cases, leading to a sentence of five years’ prison time.
The four perpetrators all admitted their crimes in front of the Stuttgart federal court. Their sentences were final.
It must be assumed that there are similar criminal networks dominating other brothels throughout Germany and this has been confirmed by investigations into other German mega-brothels. Without this successful investigation, Paradise would still be held up as a model-brothel and proof of the effectiveness of the Prostitution Act. […]
There is no doubt that prostitution and exploitation will continue to exist after a shift to the Nordic Model, but their extent would be considerably less than currently. On the one hand, the underground criminality that happens inside regular legal brothels would disappear, because there would be no more legal brothels. On the other hand, there is a limit to how much prostitution can move into hotels or private apartments, as there would be specific laws limiting the options of hotel owners or landlords to offer their rooms for prostitution.
Further, the police would be able to monitor the industry with far more precision. The law in Germany currently requires monitoring of prostitution. As there are an estimated 250,000 prostitutes, spread out among thousands of brothels, streets, and other prostitution venues, this monitoring requires an immense effort and sizeable staff from the police (and since 2017 from the licensing authorities), which is often vastly insufficient. Brothel inspections are consequently not possible to the degree that they are required and occur rarely or in a superficial manner. Professional monitoring measures that would enable results that can be used in court require far more effort than merely checking IDs. […]
With the introduction of the Nordic Model the market would experience an estimated 80% decrease. Initially, there would be at most 50,000 active prostitutes left (with a further decrease to be expected). The police would be able to monitor this smaller and more manageable market with the same personnel costs as now, while being more effective at identifying victims and convicting perpetrators.”[Pages 5-6]
Debunking other anti-Nordic Model claims
Sporer demolishes the other claims in the motion equally robustly. He shows that they do not stand up to scrutiny and are based on false assumptions, ignorance of the reality of the prostitution industry and scaremongering. Here are just a few examples, but there are many more.
In response to the claim that the Nordic Model would lead to a worsening of working conditions, lack of access to contraception and an increase in sexually transmitted infections (STIs), he explains that conditions are already abysmal. Pressure from the extreme competition, the extortionate fees that brothel owners and landlords charge, and the control that they are allowed to exert, and the low prices that result, mean that in practice women have little or no option but to accept unprotected sex and dangerous and painful sexual practices. Many of these pressures would cease to exist under the Nordic Model. There is no reason to believe therefore that these things would get even worse and every reason to believe that they would improve.
In response to the claim that there is no reliable evidence for the effectiveness of the Nordic Model, Sporer refers to his extensive correspondence with Swedish justice and police experts who are clear that prostitution and crimes against those involved have “massively reduced” under this model. He also quotes Per-Anders Sunesson, the Swedish special ambassador for the combatting of human trafficking, who reports that Interpol investigations lead to the conclusion that: “The Swedish market for human trafficking is practically dead.”
In response to the claim that the Nordic Model disadvantages those in particular need of support, he says:
“The opposite would be the case, as the majority of vulnerable women and likely victims of exploitation would no longer have to be or be able to engage in prostitution due to a lack of venues. One needs to let go of the idea that likely victims would remain in prostitution under all circumstances. Instead, alternative avenues of employment need to be created, which do not put human dignity at risk. Prostitution cannot be the state’s strategy to combat poverty or be justified in any other way.” [Page 8]
What are the implications for the UK?
The UK already has a thriving sex industry. In most English cities, brothels operate in plain sight and provided they are fairly discreet, many of them have done so for years and even decades. We also know that large numbers of women from Romania and other former Warsaw Pact countries are trafficked for exploitation in street prostitution, escort agencies, pop-up brothels and more permanent brothels all over the UK. We know that the exploitation of children in prostitution (now known as ‘child sexual exploitation’ or CSE) is widespread.
The UK is one of the most unequal of the advanced economies. In 2017, one fifth of the population (14 million people) were living in poverty and 1.5 million experienced destitution; women and their children, and disabled, Black, Asian and people of other minority ethnicities being disproportionately affected. Large numbers of women are known to be turning to prostitution under the duress of extreme poverty. Since then, measures in response to Covid-19 mean that this situation is now significantly worse.
While Brexit is likely to make it more complicated to bring women to the UK from Romania and other Eastern European countries for the exploitation of their prostitution, the stricter immigration controls are likely to lead to an increase in the numbers of women with precarious immigration status who are easy targets for pimps and traffickers. Moreover, the extreme poverty and inequality mean that there is a large population of vulnerable British-born women and children who are easy prey for third parties who want to profit off their prostitution.
The UK has far more in common with Germany geopolitically than with New Zealand, which is currently the only country that has implemented a fully decriminalised approach. Recent research into the reality in New Zealand shows that it has been far less successful than frequently claimed.
If a fully decriminalised prostitution system were to be introduced in the UK, we could expect to see results every bit as catastrophic as those Sporer describes in his statement.
Download Helmut Sporer’s statement (PDF, translated by Elly Arrow)