Alice Glass in conversation with Alexis and Marie
Claims that legalisation makes prostitution safe are exposed as a myth by women who have experienced prostitution under a legalised regime. Alice Glass talks to Alexis and Marie who have been in prostitution in Germany, where it is legalised.
Hi Alexis, firstly, you suffer from psychological and physical symptoms as a result of prostitution. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
OK, so about my post-prostitution trauma. While I was still in prostitution, I suffered from psychosomatic symptoms which manifested as a severe muscular blockage in my right neck, shoulder and back, which in its acute phase made it impossible for me to sit, stand or move. I was in a lot of pain for about three weeks. This happened four years ago and I am still working to resolve these painful tight muscular patterns through osteopathy, physiotherapy and yoga. It gets worse with stress.
In general, I am not able to handle stress or any other situations in which I feel pressured to do something I do not want to do and cannot escape. In other words, I am not able to work. My anxiety/stress response was through the roof after I exited and it continued for years afterwards. It is much better now as a result of various treatments. My sympathetic nervous system was on high alert all the time, making it very hard for me to relax, sleep, calm myself, withstand stress. I was in a constant state of hyper-vigilance and emotional arousal. I tried self-medicating by smoking weed for years. Because of panic symptoms, I do not feel comfortable in crowds or in narrow spaces – with other people, like bars – elevators or apartment halls.
My sexuality is scrambled. I still get aroused by thinking about rape and violation because I had to eroticise those situations in order to be able to survive prostitution. I cannot relax in sexual situations, my breathing stops or becomes very shallow, I dissociate, I don’t feel my body. I could go on.
I can relate to a lot of this. I am still trying to unlearn being on high alert all of the time, but when you have been – your body – trying to escape a situation it felt to be dangerous – it can take a long time for it to be like, ‘it’s gone now, the danger, you can relax’.
What was your experience of prostitution?
I worked in prostitution between 2011 and 2012. First at a brothel in Berlin, then as an Escort in Frankfurt.
Thank you Alexis. Could you tell me about your experiences in the Berlin brothel, what the management were like, the daily running, the other women?
OK, so the Berlin brothel was a very small operation, it was considered ‘high class,’ not one of those flat rate brothels (where johns/punters can pay a fee, to have as much access to as many women as they want).
I see. How many women on a ‘shift’?
Usually about three to six women at a time usually being accessible from 12 noon to 12 midnight. The management was officially a woman in her 50s who also was prostituted with long term ‘clients’ occasionally. But really she was more the female face of the brothel, it was really run by a man. He was a real estate business guy who had his office near by and he would ‘pop in’ to check up on things. She wasn’t there very often actually, she had psychological issues and addiction I think.
I see, are these kinds of brothels common in Germany compared to the larger places?
No, the larger ones are more common I think. I know that there are small apartment brothels though, run by individual women or a couple of women.
I wasn’t there long enough to find out much about these kinds of operations. They are certainly much less visible than the large scale operations.
If the brothel was small and ‘high class’ (I’m guessing more expensive than the larger brothels) were the specifications for who could work there stricter?
Well, yes it was a lot more expensive, I think the johns paid €180 per hour, of which ‘management’ kept 50%. She interviewed prospective whores to see if they were a ‘fit’. Most women had to be young, in their early 20s and mainly German. But then later an older, alcoholic woman came to work there, and I was surprised to see her, but then they were starting to struggle to get girls. The big brothels seem to get all the staff.
Ah I see, why do you think some women would work at the smaller more expensive brothels and some the larger cheaper ones?
I met a woman there who had come to the brothel from a big one. I think the small ones are somewhat less exploitative, with less pimp control. More freedom to lounge around between clients and not as much pressure to do so many men a day.
The smaller operations offer women more of an illusion of independence.
Once you’re in the big ones it’s really dangerous to get out, you have to work every day all day.
Considering this is the case, that the smaller brothels are less brutal than the larger ones, why do so many women opt for the larger ones (especially considering, as you say, the brothel you were at struggled to get enough women)?
Because you can still earn more at the big ones. The woman who I befriended told me she was really worried because she wasn’t making enough money at the small brothel and was considering going back to the Artemis (German mega brothel) because of that, even though she loathed going back there.
Oh I see overall, so they are cheaper but attract more johns?
Yes. This is one of the things that concerns me most about legalisation for the UK. People think it will just enable prostitutes to open small, local brothels, but evidently it will also enable large operations and they will have the power to make the most money.
It must be the case then, that johns overall favour the large places?
Yes they do. More women to choose from; they get new ones more often because they move the women around between cities. It’s cheaper and men can stay all day and fuck several women.
In the UK johns fear going in to brothels in case they are seen. Do johns in Germany worry about being seen, or caught? I’m thinking if they are married and so forth? What is the attitude in Germany about men who buy sex?
Hmm, I don’t know the German men I saw were too worried. It’s legal and therefore OK you know? Just as long as ‘the wife’ doesn’t find out.
I see. One of the arguments people make for a more legal system, is that the taboo or stigma for prostitutes will dissipate. Do you think that has happened in Germany?
No. Very few women get registered because nobody wants to be known to have worked in prostitution. I was upfront about it with some people. They seemed shocked but tried to pretend they weren’t because it isn’t supposed to be a big deal. But then they still treated me like a whore. I think it largely serves the purpose of removing the stigma from men to treat all women as potential sex objects.
Yes that is one of the things I think. Europe has had legalization in the past in different guises and the stigma for women in prostitution has not changed. Given this, why do you think some prostitutes are still convinced that making brothel owner legal will reduce the stigma and give them a better social status?
I think those women think it just makes it easier to work independently from a pimp and so gives them more control, but nobody really wants to work at the big houses that happen as a result of legalisation. Everyone wants to be an independent high class hooker who can choose their clients and who doesn’t have to work much because of the high prices they try to set.
I guess by its very nature only a small minority can be that
Exactly. And they are the German ones, often with a university degree, who organize and who are vocal. The poor Eastern European women who have to send money home and who are usually in the bigger houses don’t have time to organize politically.
It’s like ‘the American dream.’ People are convinced that socialist or progressive ideals are negative because having collective policies dis-inhibits them from becoming successful individually, but they are more or less prevented in any case because of the competition that neo-liberal policies create. Anyway, thank you Alexis for speaking with me.
Hi Marie, can you give me a little sum up biography of your experience of the sex industry, where, when, for how long?
Yes. I’m 55 years old. I entered the sex industry at the age of 42 and exited about 3 years later. As a child I experienced multiple abuse, early by my father and later, at about 13, by some German left activists … one of them the husband of my teacher. She found out and manipulated my marks and they threw me out of school, the first break in my lifeline because of abuse,
At the age of 40 I was financially struggling, and I couldn’t stand the fear about how to pay the next rent and the unpaid bills got more each day. I worked as a waitress and a taxi driver 7 days a week but it wasn’t enough.
At the point of desperation I thought, I’m a feminist, an independent woman! And decided to take money for what I thought would be ‘Nothing more than a one night stand’.
People are always saying ‘prostitution happens because of this, prostitution happens because of that,’ but it always seems to be an interface between things, bad experiences with sex, rape, with poverty and/or drugs. It’s the combination of vulnerabilities if that makes sense? What kind of prostitution were you involved in?
I put some ads on the internet; there are special websites. You pay €30 a month and can arrange to meet johns through them. In high class hotels, cheap motels, woods, parking lots and brothels. In their homes, cars. Anywhere and everywhere.
I see, legal German brothels?
Yes, in legal brothels you can rent, on an hourly basis, a dirty filthy room. For about €30 an hour.
Oh I see. A lot of different people in Germany making money off prostitutes I see. Did you ever feel you could refuse a punter/john, especially if the context sounded more threatening, such as having to go to a car or outdoors?
I could refuse while negotiating – before we met, but if I made the decision to go I had to do it. The johns are all connected and if you refuse one because of ugliness or dirtiness they talk about you as not being professional and you can lose business.
Oh do you mean on the internet, john’s forums and things, ‘review sites?’
OK, I understand. So you remarked that you were a feminist before you got into prostitution. How did you view the sex industry, politically?
Before legalisation came in place in 2002, people who wanted it argued that prostitutes would be less stigmatised and I thought that sounded OK. Also, they used female pimps, saying these women would be the ones running the brothels.
I see, you mean you supported the 2002 change in the law because you were convinced that it would get rid of stigma for prostitutes? Yes they do tend to do that, promote these ideas with women bosses who are also ‘sex workers,’ they did that in Germany too?
No I didn’t support it, I just watched it happening. But they did say that legalisation would help bring exiting programs for women in prostitution and I thought that was a good thing. Later, when I tried to leave prostitution, and I had PTSD, I reached out and found there were no actual support or exit programs.
I see, so councils said they had no specific support for women wanting to exit prostitution? Despite it being talked about that support services would be put in place with the law?
Yes, not one. No help and prostitution is being pushed out into mega-brothels and in industrial areas. The damage is made invisible.
I see, were there a lot of migrant women in prostitution where you were?
Yes, lots, and so young.
You met them in the brothels?
Yes and on the streets; most of them don’t even speak German and lived in the brothels where they had to service johns.
I see, and they pay to rent the room like you?
No they paid round about €150 a day. I know that because the owners offered me to do that too, but after I refused they told me they would no longer rent to me on an hourly basis, so I had to leave.
And do they also have pimps outside the brothels?
Most of them have some kind of pimp. Often family, because of the poverty in their home countries. Fathers and brothers pimping and trafficking them. Migrant women are bought to Germany as part of family ‘chains’ of women, often Roma, and being used in German brothels. Also controlled by gangs called ‘biker clubs’, like ‘Hell’s Angels’.
I see, so they are all in extreme poverty before they decide to come.
Yes, extreme poverty and they are excluded from education and benefits. A politician in Hungary said in their parliament, “They are animals, they don’t deserve to live!”
Oh my goodness.
Yes. Racism in Europe in relation to prostitution really needs more discussion. German johns like to fuck poor women from Eastern Europe. Poor women being moved across the continent to be used by middle class men.