The presence of thousands of brothels and hundreds of thousands of prostitutes has heightened competition and pushed prices down steeply in the German sex trade. One tourist from Florida, who visits the country three times annually to pay for cheap sex, compares the scene to a discount supermarket: “Germany is like Aldi for prostitutes,” he says.
Prostitution became legal in Germany in 2002, and the open sex trade has taken off in the years since. There are reportedly around 3,000 red-light establishments in the country, and 500 brothels in Berlin alone. It’s been estimated that more than 1 million men pay for sex in Germany every day.
One of the classic arguments for legalizing prostitution is that recognizing and regulating the world’s oldest profession would improve the conditions of sex workers. Instead, recent reports paint legalized prostitution in Germany largely as a failure.
In May, Der Spiegel published a series of stories highlighting the atrocious conditions endured by prostitutes in Germany, some of whom say they arrived in the country against their will. Typically, the stories involve young women from Romania and Bulgaria who were unwittingly duped into coming to Germany, where they were forced to service dozens of men daily in flat-rate deals where customers can have all the sex they want for an allotted time period, starting at just €49 (around $65). The women say customers are known to take drugs to improve their sexual performance in order to get their money’s worth. Some women report getting paid a pittance and never being allowed to leave their brothels. During rare breaks from work, they share a room with other prostitutes, where there is a single bed and no other furniture.
In early June, a documentary aired on ARD, Germany’s public-broadcasting station, called Sex — Made in Germany. The film was made in part by bringing hidden cameras into brothels over the course of two years. “Sex is cheaper than anywhere else,” one brothel owner in Berlin says on camera. “Germany is the biggest whorehouse in Europe, no question,” a Danish brothel customer notes, according to Die Welt.
Germany’s prostitution scene has attracted visitors from around the world. Specialty tour operators have been booking groups of men from Asia, the Middle East and North America on “sex tourism” trips to Germany for years. As more men and money have flowed into the country thanks to prostitution, more and more women have arrived to serve them with the hopes of making a decent living. Instead, what seems to have happened is that the brothels have been aggressively competing with one another for business, and prices have plummeted. Alia, a 23-year-old prostitute working in Cologne, related the following account to Der Spiegel:
The going rate for oral sex and intercourse used to be €40 [$54] on Geestemünder Strasse. But when the nearby city of Dortmund closed its streetwalking area, more women came to Cologne, says Alia. ‘There are more and more women now, and they drop their prices so that they’ll make something at all,’ she complains. Bulgarian and Romanian women sometimes charge less than €10 [$13], she says. ‘One woman here will even do it for a Big Mac.’
An English-language news site in Germany called The Local interviewed a 39-year-old man from Florida named Andrew about his brothel-frequenting habits. He said he originally visited Germany in his mid-20s because he was interested in the car culture and the history, but has since kept coming back three times annually because prostitution is legal and the prostitutes are so affordable. He even compared the marketplace for the world’s oldest profession to a discount grocery chain:
‘There’s a risk of being arrested in the U.S., but not here,’ he said. ‘And it’s cheaper. Germany is like Aldi for prostitutes.’
Twenty minutes with a woman in Frankfurt costs as little as €20 [$27], he said. ‘This is more than enough time,’ he admitted.
Despite the critics’ claims of atrocious conditions brought on by legalized prostitution in Germany, there are many who don’t want to go back to the days when the trade was cordoned off in the black market. “Prostitution is still socially stigmatized, and that has not changed in the few years in which the law has been in effect,” Monika Lazar, a spokeswoman on women’s issues for the Alliance 90/Greens party, said, according to the Guardian. “But the law is helping to strengthen the position of prostitutes and ensuring women, and men, are much better protected.”