“The demand to decriminalise sex work is a necessary step but it doesn’t go far enough.”
By Theodora Becker*
With its decision to issue a recommendation to governments on how to safeguard sex workers’ human rights, Amnesty International has caused outrage, because it includes the demand to decriminalise sex work. What this means is to abolish laws and regulations that either directly subject sex workers to prosecutions, arrests and fines, or criminalise the organisation, support and intermediation of sex work. [According to Amnesty’s draft policy on sex work,] third parties participating in transactional sex should only be penalised, if they exert force and pressure on or violence against sex workers. Clients, too, should not be penalised simply for being clients.
“Germany is not the role model for decriminalisation”
Among opponents of prostitution, this suggestion has caused outrage. They are of the opinion that it would promote pimps, human traffickers and other exploiters of prostitutes and enable them to avoid prosecution, while the poor prostitutes would be exposed to them all the more helpless. People like to refer to the German situation to decry what decriminalisation would lead to. However, there are several things to note. Germany is not the role model for decriminalisation that Amnesty has in mind. Prostitution in Germany is largely, but not completely decriminalised. The main relic of the old criminalising and regulatory regime are off limit ordinances, which allow cities and municipalities to prohibit prostitution in certain areas “for the protection of youth and public decency”. They use them plenty, and in a discriminatory manner, too. A new off limit zone in the city of Dortmund was recently justified with the argument that street prostitution had become too attractive for [female] sex workers from Romania and Bulgaria, and that the city no longer wanted to provide such a magnet for Eastern European migrants.
It is necessary to distinguish between decriminalisation and legalisation. Decriminalisation signifies the abolition of criminal laws and ordinances that [exclusively] deal with sex work in a discriminatory manner. Legalisation would be the implementation of certain legal regulations of sex work. Sex worker organisations around the world demand decriminalisation as a necessary first step. Amnesty remained consciously noncommittal with regards to a concrete model of legalisation but established minimum standards that such a model should fulfil. Once again, Germany is hardly a role model in that regard. The plans for the new “Prostitutes Protection Law” [#ProstSchG] include mandatory registrations for prostitutes, which are not only problematic in terms of data protection, but in addition, they are discriminating against sex workers, for whom the measure has no benefits. In addition, the access to social security and labour rights, which Amnesty both calls for, is also not always guaranteed in Germany, especially not for migrants. And the fight against stigmatisation, which Amnesty demands from governments, is also not really fought with dedication in Germany.
“Decriminalisation must include third parties”
That the decriminalisation must include third parties to protect the human rights of sex workers is obvious: in France, for example, even lessors of apartments, where people engage in sex work, are liable to prosecution. If sex workers would report such a lessor, for example for an unacceptably high rent, they would effectively find themselves working on the street. Only in a decriminalised setting would they be able to insist on fair conditions.
Amnesty does not just talk about the decriminalisation of sex work but about various other measures governments should take to contribute towards providing people, who only choose sex work due to a lack of alternatives, with more opportunities. Those include socio-political and anti-discriminatory measures. Amnesty acknowledges that poverty, a lack of education, discrimination, and restrictive migration policies are jointly responsible for people working as sex workers who would prefer not to. It would be nice if opponents of prostitution would also come to this realisation: instead of constantly pushing the narratives of pimp networks and organised crime, they could say a thing or two about the economic conditions that push people into prostitution – just as they push people into other precarious labour conditions. The entirely undifferentiated reaction to Amnesty’s resolution once more unmasked the position of [prostitution] abolitionists.
*Theodora Becker is a PhD candidate at the Free University Berlin and an activist with Hydra e.V., a meeting and counselling centre for sex workers. The German original of this article was first published at leftist weekly Jungle World. Translation by Matthias Lehmann, Research Project Germany. As in the translation, Theodora Becker used the terms “prostitute” and “sex worker” interchangeably in her original text.
Italian feminist blogger Eretica Whitebread recounts her conversation with an Italian sex worker living and working in Germany.
Clicca qui per la versione italiana di “Le abolizioniste della prostituzione violano i nostri diritti!”. Please note that the copyright for this article lies with Abbatto i Muri and is not licensed under a Creative Commons License.
By Eretica Whitebread
I wrote this article after a conversation I had with F., an Italian sex worker living in Germany. She works at a place that is perfectly legal and pays taxes. She has a son from a previous relationship and her current partner is a woman. A few years ago, she moved away from Italy, where she had been charged with abetting ‘exploitative prostitution’. At the time, she was sharing an apartment with another sex worker. They had intended to help each other in order to work more safely. But under Italian laws, merely living with a sex worker can put you in trouble and see you charged with ‘exploiting the prostitution of others’.
After she served her sentence, F. chose to relocate to Germany, but currently, she feels quite unsettled there. Having already suffered due to the unfair legal charge in Italy, which made her the victim of a law that criminalised her without reason, a law not intended to support her in any way, she now learnt from the news that fanatic feminists want to make sex work illegal, thus driving sex workers underground. F. is afraid that she might again face a law that will criminalise her job.
Abolitionist feminists – feminists who want to prohibit prostitution – affirm they want to rescue victims of prostitution, but in fact, laws against human trafficking already exist. What they really want is to declare all prostitution illegal, including for those who voluntarily chose to engage in sex work. Their beliefs enforce the idea that no woman could ever freely choose such a job, just because they never would. “But that’s not the case where I’m concerned,” F. said. “I feel confident, and this is in fact a job I chose for myself. Nobody compelled me and I have no regrets.”
In F.’s view, the abolitionist feminist movement in Northern Europe is responsible for abuses against people like her. She told me how, after a rally to protest against the criminalisation of sex workers and their clients, some of those feminists confronted the protesters and spat on them. At a nearby alley, they also attacked two others sex workers who had left the group earlier. After they refused to accept a flyer, and after saying that they had actually participated in the protest, those abolitionist feminists insulted them, telling them they were “insensitive people who do not care about victims of trafficking”, and that they had been “brainwashed by male chauvinists”. They also told one of the sex workers, who was a transgender woman, that she had no right to express her opinion because transgender people were in fact men who perpetuated the very same “sick ideas about sexuality” held by men. Those abolitionist feminists acted just like members of anti-abortion movements who attack pro-choice women, and while they walked away, they continued to hurl insults and accusations at them.
“This is madness,” F. said. “Sex workers are against human trafficking and they fight in order to put an end to exploitation”. There are places where sex work is perfectly safe and legal. All that those verbal verbal attacks and the lies spread by abolitionist feminists through the media accomplish is to push sex workers underground, particularly migrants. F. explained how organisations who defend sex workers’ rights are constantly slandered by abolitionist feminists. But if it wasn’t for those organisation, many women engaged in sex work would not have access to STD (sexually transmitted diseases) prevention. What abolitionist feminists do is the very same some religious extremists do: by fighting against condom use, they actually facilitate HIV infections. According to abolitionist feminists, prostitution is a perverted way to express one’s sexuality, and it appears they would prefer the spread of sexually transmitted diseases in order to get rid of self-conscious sex workers.
Due to the activities by the prostitution abolitionist lobby and religious anti-porn groups, sex workers all over Northern Europe feel pessimistic. F. said she couldn’t stand to move to another country again. She said she became all too aware of what those fanatics were doing against her, when her son came back from school one day and asked her whether or not she was a free woman. F. heard about institutional decisions in favour of terminating sex workers’ custodial rights, and it’s only because her son is old enough – he is already attending high school – that she is not particularly afraid the same could happen to her.
“How is it possible that we are going backwards instead of making progress? Who are those women and why do they want to ‘save’ us even though there is no need for us to be rescued?” I replied that I wouldn’t know either. One thing is sure: they call themselves feminists and they are transforming the internal debates between different feminists into a sort of war between fundamentalism and secularism. As a result, it has become impossible to have any meaningful discussion without suffering their insults.
I asked F. if she would stay in Germany, if the government would go through with its plan to pass legislation requiring sex workers to register with the police, a measure last seen under the Nazis, and a number of other anti-libertarian impositions. She replied, “No. I’ll probably go to Switzerland or Austria. I don’t want to be thrown in jail again simply for doing a job that nobody forced me to do.”
Translation by Antonella Garofalo. Edited by Matthias Lehmann. Research Project Germany. I would like to thank Eretica Whitebread for her permission to reblog this article and Antonella for translating it from the Italian original.
Reflections about Sex Work, Solidarity and Political Efficacy
After the Conference “Fantasies That Matter – Images of Sex Work in Media and Art”
I am a sex worker from Berlin and for the last two years, I’ve been an active participant in the sex workers’ rights movement. Fighting against the tightening of Germany’s prostitution legislation, which thankfully was relatively liberal so far, is crucial for me. On the weekend from August 8-10, I attended the conference “Fantasies That Matter – Images of Sex Work in Media and Art”, part of the International Summer Festival at Kampnagel in Hamburg.
As a sex worker activist, I am particularly concerned with and unhappy about the presence and lopsidedness of the prostitution myths, which are reproduced by the media. Ever since I began to engage in political work, I realised that the methodical dissemination of horror scenarios about sexual services is the main obstacle to my political goals. The public as well as the political actors, with whom we negotiate, including those who are progressive, seem to be entirely fact-resistant when faced with rational arguments, because an emotionally charged myth, exclusively fed by propaganda lies, has replaced factual analyses.
That is why I was very glad when I learnt about the “Fantasies That Matter” event. Last year, I participated and co-organised various political events by sex workers; I’m a member of the newly founded professional organisation for sex workers; I previously managed a network for sex workers myself; and I also attend a regular get-together of sex workers in Berlin. Sex worker-only spaces are essential and irreplaceable.
Images of Sex Work in Media and Art
The conference “Fantasies That Matter” was a continuation of the initiative of Missy Magazine, which greatly contributed to a more differentiated journalistic examination of the subject throughout the last year. The organisers managed to put together a cultural-scientific, political, and artistic event and embed it into the summer festival at Kampnagel, a renowned venue for cultural, dance, and theatre events. For a whole weekend, the focus was given to images of sex work in media and art.
The conference marked the first time that dominant discourses about sex work were examined in this way in a public, cultural-scientific setting. The organisers had widely distributed their invitations and the conference pass was free of charge, to reach the widest possible audience. The plan worked and the diverse members of the audience took the opportunity to question their own fantasies and projections about sex work.
I was especially grateful for the opportunity to experience pioneers of the sex workers’ rights movement live and get to know them. The memory of the encounters with Annie Sprinkle and Carol Leigh will stay with me for a long time.
In addition, there were further sex workers present on stage, delivering both speeches and performances. Some of the speeches were a little cumbersome and quite a bit distant from my own reality as a sex worker. Then again, it was the very subject of this event to look at the images that exist of my occupation, which often have little or nothing at all to do with reality.
The fact that the event was almost entirely held in English wasn’t ideal, as some of the contributions and debates were so complex, that even those with a good command of the English language had difficulties to catch it all.
Nevertheless: the conference was extremely informative and gave me new perspectives on the fatal, argumentative link between human trafficking and prostitution that is material to current debates.
The myth of the whore who gets abducted against her will – she’s almost always female – disqualifies her as an agent whose decisions need to be respected. One of the purposes of the so-called “rescue industry” is to deport people back to their native countries – “in their very best interest”.
The whore who speaks for herself, on the other hand, and who doesn’t submit to the victim discourse, is taboo. She is ignored because it is assumed that she is traumatised, abused, unable to judge the circumstances she’s in, she lies, or she’s been bribed or blackmailed by the imaginary pimp lobby. She is losing her status as a human being. If she doesn’t want to be saved, she loses her right of support. She is dangerous for those who oppose prostitution because she could point out that that sex workers are by no means all female or that she considers other measures as important to solve real existing problems, e.g. poverty, legal discrimination, stigmatisation, uncertain residence status, and many more. The talking whore who points out that prohibitions take away the basis of her livelihood without offering a better alternative must not exist. Her demands and her existence threaten the very foundation of bourgeois morality and order.
“Fantasies That Matter” provided plenty of information and good arguments that reminded me again of the nature of the propaganda machine which we are dealing with, and how the political discourse about sex work is embedded into the political order of gender, race, ethnicity and migration policies. I am glad and very grateful for the work of people who have made it their profession to deconstruct these myths.
The work of Annie Sprinkle, for example, is absolutely irreplaceable for the motivation and vision of my own type of sex work. The creative energy with which she lives, performs and spreads her feminist, sex-positive agenda, and how she links radical political activism with art, humour and passion, is time and again a source of inspiration and positive strength for me.
She vividly demonstrated again how very essential solidarity and a broad political basis are for the fight for sex workers’ rights. Among other things, Annie reported how web masters, decorators, people who book sex workers’ appointments and anyone else involved in any “promotion of prostitution” risk jail time in the US, and how there were cases where very high bails were set and these people had to spend time in jail while awaiting bail money. As a German sex worker, I find it almost unconceivable. It made it clear to me, how many cultural differences there are in the movement that I’m a part of, and how much more important it therefore is to demonstrate global solidarity with the whores’ movement.
Annie’s call for general solidarity and for the demystification of the term “sex worker” was met with broad approval from the audience.
At the closing discussion on the final day of the conference, some of my colleagues took the stage, demonstrating with their creative, performative act at this quite theoretical event how to appropriate the discourse – superb!
Only when as many of us as possible speak up and make themselves visible will our diversity ever be perceived.
After the conference, a massive wave of criticism swept through different blogs and Twitter feeds, which quickly turned into a shitstorm. Although I deem some of the criticism as important and consider it worth discussing, I find the atmosphere in those debates entirely inappropriate, untenable, and destructive.
Therefore, I like to address some of the points of contentions that appeared both during the final discussion and afterwards on social media sites.
Who can call themselves a “whore“? Sex worker – an identity?
The concluding panel discussion sparked a lively debate about the question whether or not it would be appropriate if people called themselves “whore” if they weren’t in fact sex workers themselves.
The debate was triggered by Annie Sprinkle’s call for as many people as possible to demonstrate their solidarity with sex workers who are imprisoned and threatened with repression, and to refer to themselves publicly as “whores”.
The critics, who unfortunately also hit below the belt, feel they need to maintain a sharp division here, and they go as far as to deny Annie Sprinkle her identity as a “real” sex worker. Annie Sprinkle worked for over 20 years in the sex industry and was imprisoned as a result of that. She is now working as an artist using explicit content, and because of that, she is not only threatened with further imprisonment, but also experiences hostility and even murder threats, as her work touches upon deeply ingrained moral taboos.
I can of course understand the argument that there is a difference between experiencing discrimination, violence and persecution because of working as a sex worker, and “simply” feeling and acting in solidarity. I also have no interest in seeing the term “sex worker” become the sort of fashionable or lifestyle term as is by now the case with the term “queer”.
Nevertheless, I believe that in focusing the political debate on maintaining the exclusivity of the term “sex worker”, one loses sight of the political goals of the sex worker movements, and doesn’t support them but weakens them.
By means of an example, I will once again explain how I understand Annie’s appeal and why it makes sense to me.
The conference was an initiative by Missy Magazine, the only German feminist publication that continuously defends the rights for sex workers. As a result, the magazine has lost subscribers, just like anyone in Germany who speaks out in favour of sex workers’ rights instantly loses their legitimacy to call themselves feminists due to the monopoly position of a “vulgar feminism” in Germany that is absolutely hostile to prostitution. In the United States, Missy’s work in solidarity with whores might even be considered as promoting prostitution and result in criminal prosecution. For Annie Sprinkle, this means that their work falls under her expanded definition of the term “sex work”. Therefore, the Missy women were “media whores”.
I also consider conceptualising the term “sex worker” too narrowly as problematic since it is very fragile, for various reasons.
Sex work on its own is not an identity but an occupation, which in most cases, people engage in temporarily. Strictly speaking, people thus permanently acquire and lose that status again.
Many who engage in sex work wouldn’t even call themselves sex workers. They would also not have come to this conference or attend one of the self-organised sex worker conferences. Shying away from labelling oneself a sex worker is deeply connected to the stigma that remains attached to sex work, even in Germany, over ten years after the Prostitution Act has come into force.
I am still hitting brick walls and make myself unpopular here, because I ask tantric masseurs and masseuses to declare themselves to be in solidarity with sex workers and join their movement. There’s a lot of reservation, however, because tantrics don’t wish to be mentioned in the same breath with “common prostitutes”.
In addition, the extent of the stigma follows the usual axes of discrimination: gender, ethnicity, nationality, residence status, age, class, wealth, and beauty, to name just a few.
People of colour with a German passport will make different experiences in a tantric massage parlour than their white counterparts, and both will make different experiences if they worked in a sauna club close to the Czech border. In turn, people without residence permits might not even be able to earn a lot of money in both places but work underground and without protection. But all of them would make entirely different experiences if they worked in countries where selling sexual services is criminalised.
Moreover: what are these sexual services anyway? Does it require penetrative sex? We have come to recognise webcam models, porn actors, strip dancers or erotic masseurs and masseuses as sex workers. In my own work, penetration plays only a minor role, but it falls nevertheless under the Prostitution Act and I consider myself a sex worker. What about the people who predominantly work with sexual energy, lead tantric workshops, or provide sexual assistance? We already know socially recognised occupations that deal with sexuality. In Annie’s view, people in those professions are also sex workers and I share her view.
Which notion of sexuality can a possible definition be based upon? Do we conform to definitions set out in the relevant local legislation? Or shouldn’t we acknowledge that the intensity of the prostitution debate indicates how strong the reactionary force is to maintain control over sexual and reproductive practices and to limit them?
How can we, given how diverse we are, still speak of “we”, and who are “we”?
The experience of the sex work stigma is the foundation of our sex worker community. I believe that if we understand ourselves as a political movement that agitates against this stigma, then it’s crucial to create critical awareness about that in our communities. The more people out themselves and identify as “whores”, the sooner it will become apparent, that sex work exists in the midst of our societies – not at the margins!
Sex workers and clients go to the baker’s, raise children, have relationships and pay taxes. They got friends, lovers, siblings and parents.
It must be evident how diverse “we” are and that the stigma affects some more than others, for various reasons. But I believe what we need above all is solidarity.
The relationship between „allies“ and sex workers – Why solidarity with sex workers is important for everybody
In the internal discussions following the conference the question was raised over the relationships between so-called “allies” and sex workers. The tone in some of these debates really angered me.
If we, as a political movement, do not recognise racism, sexism or the sex work stigma as problems that affect society at large, then a sufficient political force able to make an impact on our societies will never materialise.
Marginalised communities exist at the fringes of societies, but their “problem” affects everyone.
Everyone has the right to explore that, to fight that, to write about that, and to make it the subject of their artistic work!
Moreover, every person who discusses sex work publicly and in a differentiated manner runs the risk of being ostracised, and in some countries they might even get arrested. I can agree or disagree with journalists, I can contradict their assumptions or question their positions. But the reprehension of the so-called “allies” and the speculation about their motives in the debates following the conference seems hair-raising to me.
It can’t be that we silence and deny each other the legitimacy to speak. That is the same kind of censorship that is imposed on us externally. It is a matter of being heard and being visible, especially because we have different things to say.
Research about sex work that doesn’t include sex workers is certainly without foundation. Needless to say, at this conference about images of sex work in media and art, many sex workers were invited and present.
Disrespectful attacks against Carol Leigh, Annie Sprinkle and the initiators of the conference only benefit the enemies of sex work. I appeal to you to not waste any energy on pulling apart our own ranks, because currently, decisions are made that affect the lives of sex workers (and their allies) without including them in any way, not only in the German parliament but also in many other countries.
In this very moment, „whores“ in Germany are losing their status as civil citizens and will soon be forced to register with authorities. I find this alarming and our fighting spirit should be directed against that.
That is why I join in with Annie and Carol and call for: Whore solidarity worldwide.
Kristina Marlen works as a tantric dominatrix in Berlin. She majored in law and physiotherapy before she decided to focus on sex work. She gives sessions and teaches workshops about explorative sexuality. She defines herself as queer. Besides this, she’s a dancer, singer, and performer.
Translation by Matthias Lehmann. Research Project Germany. Every effort has been made to translate this interview verbatim. As a result, the wording may appear unusual on some occasions. A German version of this article is available here.