Current Affairs / Rory MacLean

Prostitution in Berlin

In the first of two articles, Rory MacLean takes a look at what is being done to prevent women being tricked or trafficked into prostitution in Germany’s capital.

Prostitution in BerlinChristopher Isherwood’s Sally Bowles. Marlene Dietrich’s Lola Lola in The Blue Angel. Christiane F. and Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo. Sonia Rossi’s Fucking Berlin. Prostitution has played a central role in Berlin’s films and literature for over a century. But what is the reality of the profession in the capital? Do Berlin’s sex workers live lives of high glamour, or suffer from criminal enslavement?

Sex seems to be popular in Germany, given that an estimated 1.2 million men pay for it every day. The non-profit organisation Hydra e.V. – a support group for sex workers in Berlin – calculates that some 400,000 prostitutes are at work in Germany, 8,000 of whom are active in the capital’s brothels. Not only is the trade legal but here (as well as in Rostock) there are no Sperrbezirke. Off-limits areas. Women and men may offer their services on any street, at any time, apart from in front of churches and day-care centres.

Prostitution is a very complicated and controversial industry. Many German professionals take pride in their trade, openly promoting it as a means of supporting a family or financing a university education. Others – both German and foreign – have fallen into the business because of debt, drugs or sexual abuse. A third category – which constitutes about 25% of all sex workers – have been tricked or trafficked into the trade.

It is the vulnerable women of this third category who are most in need of help, and a number of organisations – both German and foreign – have been established in Berlin to offer them practical and emotional support, as well as to demonstrate that – even in the darkest moments – there is the possibility of an alternative lifestyle.

Patricia Green is a sixty-something New Zealander who for over 40 years has worked on behalf of sexually-exploited women and children. In 1971 she established the Landmark Christian Home for Girls, a safe house and sanctuary for hundreds of young women in Hamilton, New Zealand’s fourth largest urban area. Fifteen years later she moved to Thailand to found the Rahab Ministries.

Prostitution in Berlin

Liza Minnelli posing on set as Sally Bowles in Bob Fosse’s 1972 film Cabaret, adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s novella Goodbye to Berlin (1939).

‘In the bars and hotels in Bangkok I watched girls appear and disappear and suddenly I understood what was happening. Something happened in my heart and I wanted to do something. I wanted to help them.’

Green learnt to speak Thai and, with the help of fellow Christians, began to visit the bars and bordellos of Bangkok and Pattaya, bearing small gifts for the working women, making friends ‘just as Jesus did’. She found that most girls were treated no better than indebted labourers: their salary often withheld for weeks, or docked for not wearing lipstick or high heels. One young woman told Green that if she could find the money for schooling, she would study hairdressing. Green and the Rahab Ministry began to sponsor women to attend vocational training courses, providing seed money for small businesses (i.e. buying a pair of scissors plus chair and mirror for each beauty shop), thereby enabling hundreds of woman to escape prostitution. Come 2004 Green handed over Rahab to her Thai colleagues, having created a model ministry.

As many of the women’s clients had been German tourists, Green came into contact with the German Embassy which helped her to raise funds and finance some of the girls’ ‘gift packs’. She also advised officials (unofficially) on illegitimate visa applications, enabling a number of Thai women to be saved from being trafficked to Germany. In time she herself visited Berlin, and – as soon as she arrived in the capital – she felt as if she’d come home. She also felt called to help the working women of the city. ■

Read the second part here.

Rory MacLean is a travel writer and author of the UK best-sellers Stalin’s Nose, Under the Dragon, and Falling For Icarus. This article was originally published on Rory’s blog Meet the Germans.

Image courtesy of Skley.

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