Sexual violence and prostitution: The problem is your image of us
“It’s not my occupation that’s the problem but your bourgeois morality.“
© Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved.
By Marleen Laverte1
Sexual harassment happens in prostitution as it does in any other job. Solutions are needed that do not criminalise all clients.
“If somebody grabs at you, take his hand away immediately and make it clear that he mustn’t touch you without paying!” That was one of the first tips I got from a fellow sex worker. Back then, in 2011, when I began doing business at Café Pssst!, a bar with back rooms. I sounded out potential clients while flirting with them – the kind who put their hand on a woman’s ass or breast but eventually would not go to one of the back rooms with them. They had to go to the bank first to withdraw cash, they would say, and then simply did not return, as expected.
Generally speaking, our clients know very well how to behave and treat us respectfully – after all, they are sons, partners or fathers, not monsters devoid of empathy. As in the gastronomy, however, the risk of encountering the occasional client who will grab at you without your consent is relatively high. Or steal your time, i.e. money.
In most brothels, prostitutes warn each other of such transgressive clients. We swap information about what to watch out for or what kind of clients to better reject, if you had enough of their attitude. At some of the online portals, we warn each other of clients who acted violently or inappropriately.
Sex worker networks in English-speaking countries run their own databases, so-called Ugly Mugs schemes, to save fellow sex workers from having the same bad experience with a client that they made, from transgressions to violence. For the German-speaking area, we got a “Client-Knigge” [etiquette manual] where clients can read in cold print what is and is not acceptable.
Despite all competition, whores generally support one another when it comes to sharing how to best deal with those rare “black sheep”. Peer projects of the sex workers’ rights movement – like Hydra, Trans*Sexworks or profiS by move e.V. – empower sex workers to stand up against violence and process their experiences better.
Contradictory role expectations
Although it is obvious, let me make one thing clear: each transgressive or violent client is one too many! Encounters with those clients are the ones that occupy our minds for a longer period of time. To digest them, we reflect on those experiences time and time again.
The dominant stereotypes about prostitutes, which also influence our own thinking, make it difficult where to draw the line when it comes to transgressions or violent behaviour: some say that as “fallen women” we have no one but ourselves to blame and consider those experiences as occupational hazard.
Then there are also those who believe that prostitutes cannot be raped since we are apparently ready to go to bed with anyone at any time. Others again believe the exact opposite: that any and all sex with clients is rape.
Even if you do not need to process any rudeness, these contradictory role expectations can subtly unsettle you about which point of view to adopt. And yet, we are neither “fallen” nor incapable of expressing or withholding consent, nor are all our clients perpetrators.
The range of violence perpetrated by clients is wide and diverse. At worst, it includes murder, and serial killers – not just in the US – more often than not choose prostitutes as their victims since they can reasonably expect that police investigations into murders of sex workers will be conducted less rigorously. Besides, due to the stigma attached to sex work and fear of the police, sex workers hardly report incidents. Not in Germany, and certainly not in countries that criminalise clients.
The police are not innocent
And yet, recent reports by fellow sex workers from France [and Ireland] have shown that ever since the criminalisation of clients was adopted, it is especially the respectful clients who stay away, whereas the brutal ones readily accept the small risk of getting caught. In turn, the decrease of clients means that whether they like it or not, sex workers have to accept significantly more violent clients if they want to avoid falling into poverty as adequate job alternatives are few and far between.
It should not come as a surprise that the combination of different forms of discrimination – having a trans* identity, poor knowledge of the German language, being Black or of colour, being of Romni or another ethnic background – increases the level of violence people experience in sex work, too.
Besides violence by clients, one must not ignore the enormous amount of violence perpetrated by police officers around the world. More often than not, perpetrators hide among the very people of whom politicians and anti-prostitution activists expect to protect us. In Germany, cases of extorted sex (“give me a blow job then I’ll let you go”) are perhaps not as high as elsewhere but the German police is not innocent either. Fellow sex workers have reported of psychological violence, e.g. through forced outing during driver’s license checks, sexualised remarks during raids, pretending to be clients, or being asked transgressive and patronising questions when trying to file a complaint.
Social exclusion, especially the attempts to rid cities of street-based sex work, has led to the adoption of laws whose sole purpose is to displace or jail prostitutes. When initiating contact with potential clients gets outlawed, as has happened in Hamburg’s St. Georg Quarter; when sex workers return to off-limit zones [Sperrbezirke] in order to make enough money to pay fines levied against them and are repeatedly caught until the initial administrative offence is converted into a criminal offence; when a dozen sex workers sits in jail as a result of all that – then I consider that a deprivation of prostitutes’ liberty by legislative and executive authorities
Sweepingly pigeonholed as victims
Our boundaries deserve the same respect as everyone else’s. Arriving at this self-evident realisation can be hard sometimes in a society that segregates and sweepingly pigeonholes us as victims.
Sex workers are robbed of the opportunity to lead a differentiated public debate about violence in prostitution. How do you deal with the fact that you chose this occupation after careful consideration, knowing full well about the potential dangers? Who do you take as a role model? How do you deal with violence, without playing it down and without generalising it?
Solutions are needed that do not criminalise all clients. There is a lack of understanding that first and foremost, it is social prejudices about prostitution that render it difficult for us to protect ourselves. That is because they lower the threshold to use violence against us – among clients, among the police, among everyone. I wished that sex workers would be listened to, and that we would be consulted about which measures we consider useful to prevent violence, and which we do not recommend.
Even if may be uncomfortable for many people: publicly visible campaigns representing our clients and us as respectable people would be more effective than forced registrations.2 Because we are not the problem but the prejudices you have against us.
1 The author is a sex worker and wrote here under her pseudonym.
2 The “Prostitutes Protection Act”, which came into effect on July 1, 2017, introduced the mandatory registration of sex workers as well as mandatory health counselling sessions and the possibility of issuing administrative orders against them. For further information, please refer to the Briefing Paper by the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE), titled “Professed Protection, Pointless Provisions – Overview of the German Prostitutes Protection Act (Prostituiertenschutzgesetz – ProstSchG)”. Interested readers may also refer to ICRSE’s Community Report “Exploitation: Unfair labour arrangements and precarious working conditions in the sex industry”.
Translation by Matthias Lehmann, co-founder of SWAT – Sex Workers + Allies Translate.
“The aim of SWAT is not only to provide sex workers and allies with a network to enable sex work knowledge sharing across as cultural and language barriers, but also to reward contributors for their work whenever possible.”
The translator would like to thank Marleen Laverte for her comments on the first draft of this translation. Every effort has been made to translate this article verbatim. The photo and video above as well as the second footnote did not appear in the original article.
The German original of this article was first published as “Sexuelle Gewalt und Prostitution: Das Problem ist euer Bild von uns” at die tageszeitung (November 20th, 2017). Please note that the copyright for this article lies with die tageszeitung and is not licensed under a Creative Commons License.
This entry was posted on December 29, 2017 by Matthias Lehmann. It was filed under Translation and was tagged with consent, discrimination, Germany, human rights, Hydra, inequality, law, Menschenrechte, MeToo, Nordic Model, Police, police brutality, profiS, Prostitution, rape, Sex Work, sex worker, Sexarbeit, sexual harassment, sexual violence, sexualised violence, stigma, Stigma Kills, Swedish Model, taz, trans*, Trans*Sexworks, transgender, VAW.