“Prostitution law reform won’t protect sex workers but intends to protect society from prostitution” – Interview with Tanja from sex worker association BesD
“Your protection is oppression” – In August 2014, sex workers protested in Nuremberg, Bavaria, as Family Minister Manuela Schwesig, chief proponent of toughening Germany’s prostitution law, visited a counselling centre for sex workers. | Photo: Voice4Sexworkers
This interview was conducted by Ariane G. and published at Kaufmich magazine, a social network for escorts and their clients. Clicca qui per leggere la versione italiana di “Intervista a Tanja dell’associazione lavoratori del sesso BesD”.
Tanja Sommer, Escort and Sex Workers’ Rights Activist
Ariane: How old are you and where do you live?
Tanja: I‘ve lived in Bavaria for the last ten years, in the metropolis of the beautiful Upper Palatinate (Oberpfalz), in Regensburg, to be exact. At 53, that’s my actual age, I am probably not the youngest escort anymore, but I can’t complain over any lack of interest from men.
Ariane: Since when do you work as an escort?
Tanja: I made my first experiences eight and a half years ago, and since eight years I am working independently.
Ariane: Do you have experiences with different types of sex work?
Tanja: Since I’m curious, and also because I’ve tried from the start to network with colleagues via the Internet, I visited and tried out different work places. Sometimes, I also wrote reports about them. I started at a massage parlour in an apartment, I did outcalls to private homes and hotels, worked as an escort via escortservice23, and then I worked on a daily basis at an apartment of es23, which I decorated together with other colleagues. At some point I wanted to get to know colleagues in person whom I had met over the Internet and so I drove to their work places to see how the work was in other settings. I worked at a private house, the “Susie” in Pirmasens, and that’s still one of the nicest locations I’ve ever seen. There are apartments shared by several colleagues and a madam, or you can also rent single apartments on your own.
I also wanted to get to know clubs, since Nasti, a colleague, was working in one, so I went several times to the Sakura in Böblingen, and once to the Paradise in Leinfeld-Echterdingen [near Stuttgart], and I also went to the “notorious” Pussyclub in Fellbach once. It was very educational for me. Through the talks with my colleagues there and the insights I got, I changed my opinion about flat rate clubs. I’ve also taken a look at Laufhäuser [walk through brothels] and rented a room there. But over time, I found my own niche, and now I am almost exclusively working as an escort or do outcalls at hotels. When I’m at home, clients can visit me at my nice apartment or stay overnight.
Ariane: Since when are you involved in the sex workers’ rights movement?
Tanja: It started around 2007. At first, I was a moderator at sexworker.at [an online forum by and for sex workers in German-speaking countries] and then in forums for clients.
Ariane: Why did you get involved?
Tanja: When I notice that things aren’t right, I can’t keep my mouth shut, and I don’t just talk but try to really change things. Providing sexual services was a big chance for me to work independently and successfully on my own terms, and it allowed me to work with a flexible schedule. There were frequent misunderstanding between colleagues and clients, and there were arguments and certain social interactions that I found unacceptable. That’s why I tried to allow people insights into my and our world and everyday experiences, and I think it made a real impact. I have always stood by my colleagues, when I felt they were treated unfairly and couldn’t defend themselves. Already back in 2007, I felt that things started to change for the worse, and it was my opinion that if we don’t join forces to establish our own rules, then we will end up getting regulated from above. But that would happen through people who have no insights and no connection to our work and therefore can’t empathise with us.
I tried time and time again to raise awareness for that among my colleagues but it fell on deaf ears. The responses I got were always, “nothing’s going to change”; “I don’t know why you’re so worried”; “that’s so typical German, you want rules for everything”. To be honest, I am not happy that tim proved me right, but I am very glad that in the meantime, many colleagues have come to agree with me and start to stand up for their rights, even if it’s just with a passive membership at the Trade Association erotic and sexual Services [BesD]. Finally we got a voice, and we are being listened to, even if it means an incredible amount of work and personal commitment, as I know all too well as one of the board members.
The Government’s Prostitution Law Reform Proposals
Ariane: What is your opinion about the proposals for the reform of the Prostitution Act laid out in the key issue paper?
Tanja: I fear that it’s only the tip of the iceberg, because a key issue paper is nothing but a preliminary statement about which points the ruling parties are already in agreement and do not wish to discuss any further. In my opinion, the public and the media should pay very close attention, as otherwise nobody will take notice when it comes to the actual bill proposal, and then it will just get rubberstamped in the parliament. I can’t shake the feeling that there’s more in store for us, which they haven’t even mentioned yet. Many points fail to take our everyday work experience into account, and contrary to what politicians loudly proclaim, they won’t do anything to protect us but will only serve to render our work impossible.
“Mandatory registration” and “mandatory notification” – they intentionally use terms that the average Jane and Joe know and accept as good. That’s why they don’t think about it and eagerly shout “Yes, that’s good, everybody has to do that anyway”. This isn’t the same, however, as citizens or self-employed people having to register with authorities. It actually attempts to make sex workers the first workers engaged in a legal occupation that have to register with the police of their home town. They promise to protect our data but my personal experience tells me that that isn’t even happening today!
We are also supposed to receive a “whore pass”, which we will then have to present to inspectors, operators, police officers and clients. Mandatory notification also doesn’t mean to give notice to tax authorities, because that is already mandatory. In the future, we are supposed to give notice to the local police station whenever we leave our home town to work elsewhere, announce where we plan to work next, give notice to the police at the new location when we arrive and inform them how long we intend to stay, and then report back once we are back home. The way it is planned now this would apply for all sexual service providers, regardless if they are escorts, street-based sex workers, work at a Laufhaus [walk through brothel], club or any other venue. We could go through all the points of the key issues paper in that way, but I suppose it would go beyond the scope of this interview.
Ariane: Could you get used to that? What do you criticise?
Tanja: No, I cannot get used to that. Apart from the prohibition of advertising unsafe practices like AO [‘Alles ohne’: ‘everything without (condom)’], the reform won’t serve to protect us, as is claimed, but intends to expand the rights of the police and to protect society from prostitution. The intention is to curb prostitution. There’s no differentiation made between visible prostitution and that which occurs in private, and no attention is paid to the different needs that arise from them. They create obstacles that will make it impossible for many of us to work legally, which in turn will criminalise those who simply cannot afford to register without having to fear consequences, e.g. single mothers or women who have a main job elsewhere, and so they will be forced to work without protection or quit.
These measures will foster the very circumstances they are supposed to prevent. They will create a parallel universe where you have to pay for your protection, including protection from the police, and they will create dependencies that no woman wants. What really annoys me is how human trafficking is understood as exclusively occurring in the context of sex work, and that prostitution regulation is expected to fight human trafficking. In other industries, exploitation is tacitly accepted and even promoted: in care, agriculture, industry, temporary employment, 1-Euro-Jobs, low-wage labour and so on.
Reform proposals by sex workers
Ariane: What would be the ideal legal situation to regulate sex work?
Tanja: First of all, sex work must be decriminalised, and then more needs to be done to further destigmatise our work. Sex work has to be accepted as a freelance occupation, and there’s a need for a nuanced view of the different types of sex work to find regulations that serve to improve the work and living conditions of sex workers in their respective circumstances. Off-limit zones must be abolished and only be discussed as pragmatic solutions if there are problems with visible prostitution, and local residents, sex workers, operators and politicians have to be involved in those discussions.
There might be a possibility for contractual employment at flat rate clubs, massage parlours, at agencies and perhaps where sexual assistance is concerned, but it shouldn’t be mandatory. Sexual service providers must have the right to decide whether they wish to enter a contractual employment or prefer to work as freelancers. In all other types of sex work, contractual employments are impossible without impeding the mobility of sex workers and forcing them to remain at one location, even if they don’t want to. In addition, any future law needs to be a federal law that the federal states [Bundesländer] are required to fully implement. Otherwise, we’ll see more of the arbitrariness of the authorities in each of the states. Just look at Munich: the city refused from the very start to implement the Prostitution Act of 2002 and declared 97% of the city as off-limit zone.
Sex workers must be involved as experts in negotiations over any expansion of the Prostitution Act. The different concepts need to be clearly defined in advance so that everyone is working on the same basis. The federal government must provide funds to expand free health consultations for sexually active people – not just for sex workers and clients, but anyone who frequently changes sex partners.
Roundtables must be established regularly in all federal states and involve experts. Occupational counselling for newcomers and programmes for job reorientation must receive funding, too. As the hurdles to enter statutory health insurance schemes are too high for most freelancers, I advocate for the introduction of a social welfare office for freelancers to enable them to get health and pension insurance. There’s a long and difficult path ahead of us but that shouldn’t dissuade us from pursuing and shaping it.
Ariane: Thank you very much for the interview. I wish you a lot of strength for the tasks ahead.
Tanja Sommer is a sex worker and a board member of German sex worker organisation Trade Association erotic and sexual Services (BesD). She tweets at @TanjaBesD and can be reached via email at tanja[at]berufsverband-sexarbeit.de. You can follow the BesD on Twitter and Facebook. Ariane G. is a former sex worker and an advocate for sex workers’ rights. She tweets at @hauptstadtdiva. Voice4Sexworkers is a project by and for sex workers and anyone interest to learn more about sex work. You can follow V4S on Twitter and Facebook. Translation by Matthias Lehmann. Some links were added. Click here to view the German original.