…The idea of the law, passed by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democrat-Green coalition, was to recognise prostitution as a job like any other. Sex workers could now enter into employment contracts, sue for payment and register for health insurance, pension plans and other benefits. Exploiting prostitutes was still criminal but everything else was now above board.
It didn’t work. “Nobody employs prostitutes in Germany,” says Beretin. None of the authorities I spoke to had ever heard of a prostitute suing for payment, either. And only 44 prostitutes have registered for benefits.
The Netherlands legalised prostitution two years before Germany, just after Sweden had gone the other way and made the purchase of sex a criminal offence. Norway adopted the Swedish model – in which selling sex is permitted but anyone caught buying it is fined or imprisoned – in 2009. Iceland has followed suit, and France and Ireland look set to do the same.
Pressure to review prostitution laws is coming from an EU anti-trafficking directive that obliges member states to “reduce demand” for human trafficking. Given that at least 70 per cent of trafficking in Europe is into forced prostitution, a lot of people are arguing that the best way to reduce demand for trafficking is to reduce demand for prostitution. And one way to do that is to criminalise the buyer.
There is “absolutely” a correlation between legalised prostitution and trafficking, says Andrea Matolcsi, the programme officer for sexual violence and trafficking at Equality Now. “For a trafficker it’s much easier to go to a country where it’s legal to have brothels and it’s legal to manage people in prostitution. It’s just a more attractive environment.” She points out that Denmark, which decriminalised prostitution in 1999 – the same year Sweden made the purchase of sex illegal – has four times the number of trafficking victims than its neighbour despite having around half the population. It’s one reason the Netherlands has gone into reverse with legalisation. The Deputy Prime Minister, Lodewijk Asscher, has called it “a national mistake”.
The standard argument against increasing regulations is that it will push prostitution underground. That’s an argument that underestimates the police. 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.” And, really, what’s the alternative? Just do nothing?