When 35-year-old Joanna Soriano Garcia was taking a stroll in the district of St. Pauli at Hamburg in Germany this August, a woman suddenly splashed water on her and asked her to leave. Garcia was perplexed for a while. Later, she discovered, she had entered the street forbidden for women – Herbertstraße.
About six-ft-high metal gate at the entrance of the street declares: “Entry for men under 18 and women prohibited”. “One of the sex workers had thrown water at me,” Filipina traveller Garcia says. “I left immediately but my husband stayed back. He said, the women were far more pleasant to him.” Tour guides tell visitors, the sex workers don’t want women around as they see them as potential “competitors”. Social worker Anna of Sperrgebiet, a St. Pauli-based non-governmental organisation for women, believes that the barrier at Herbertstraße protects the sex workers from becoming a tourist attraction. But women’s rights activists don’t buy such arguments. “Even police told us, it’s to protect the women in prostitution. But the question is – by whom should they be protected?” asks Hellen Langhorst, a member of the women’s rights group, FEMEN Germany.
Langhorst and her colleagues in FEMEN Germany, wearing body paint with slogans saying “women are not goods,” broke the gate on March 8, International Women’s Day, last year. “The gate marks gender apartheid. The violence in prostitution came from the pimps and not from other women. In the end, it’s protecting just the men, to use the women for prostitution without any witnesses,” says Langhorst. This gate was originally a wooden screen installed by the Nazis in the 1930s to not let others see the forbidden sex trade. Men, who still wanted to go there, hid themselves behind the gate. In the 1970s, signages were put up to prohibit women to enter Herbertstraße. The dismantling of the gate by the activists went viral on social media last year. But the government repaired it the same day, and it is business as usual at Herbertstraße, which runs parallel to Reeperbahn – Europe’s largest red-light district, and Germany’s most “sinful mile”.
In the evening, Reeperbahn gets a purple glow with the flashing lights, neon signs and huge interactive billboards. Young girls in lingerie and high heels stand at the doorstep of the shops lining the street. Some are spotted enticing men to follow them to some “secret” room. Reeperbahn, however, has changed over the years. It’s no more just brothels here, there are sex-toy shops, pornography theatres and table-dance clubs. In the past half a decade, this place has also given birth to gangs linked with organised crime and drug smuggling. Young migrants, especially from eastern Europe’s Bulgaria and Romania, are sex-trafficked and brought here. “Many social and charitable organisations run advice centres for victims of trafficking here,” says a member of Hamburg-based Coordination Centre against Trafficking in Women (KOOFRA), an NGO for victims of human trafficking and forced prostitution. In 2002, the country legalised prostitution, under which sex workers have employment contracts, health insurance and pension plans. But a 2007 report by Germany’s Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth said there was no proof that the law had reduced crime. Germany’s legalised prostitution industry is about $16.3 billion, according to Federal Statistics Office.
Out of at least four lakh sex workers in Germany, nearly 5,500 are in Hamburg.
Langhorst argues that the law helped the pimps and the brothel owners more than the prostitutes because it legalised the former’s business and reduced their chance of being raided. “And young boys grow up believing that it is okay to buy women because it is legal,” she says. Women rights activists also question Germany’s Prostitutes Protection Act, introduced in 2017, that obligates all sex workers to register with the government authorities and undergo regular health check-ups. When registering, authorities, ideally, should recognise indications of trafficking and refer the victims to advisory services but that doesn’t happen, say activists. Anna says, “We doubt that human trafficking can be uncovered in a one-time conversation with authorities. Victims of human trafficking mostly reveal themselves when a relationship of trust is built over the time.”
Some also believe that the new law does not protect those who need the most support, especially those who do not have the right of residence or whose passports have been taken away by pimps. “Most of them don’t work in brothels, but on the streets or apartments. We know of cases where sex workers were registered under the law but not identified as victims of trafficking,” says the KOOFRA member. FEMEN Germany’s protest was also a fight against legalising prostitution, which sanctions violence against women by men. “Tearing down the wall at Herbertstraße meant denouncing the sanctioned sexual violence against women that happens behind the closed doors of the sex industry,” Langhorst says. “Today, we tear down the wall. Tomorrow, the patriarchy will fall.”
Sonia Sarkar is a Delhi-based writer.
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