A Million Johns Can’t be Wrong

First, a general note: there will be only light blogging as I visit friends in Berlin this weekend.  Lucky me!  Further, to echo something Atrios said, "I do request that people occasionally pause for a minute before they post a comment."  So far, I think the pretty-much-unmoderated comments policy here works pretty well, but the occasional trolling comment, gratuitous insult or ad hominem attack always makes me reconsider. 

With that friendly request, onto today’s topic.  It’s a little blue, so send the kiddies to bed. 

According to figures released by the former German government, there are approximately 400,000 prostitutes plying their trade more or less legally in Germany, servicing around 1.2 million men per year day.  I’d say the 1.2 million is an understatement, but that’s probably as close as we’re going to get to official numbers on this subject. 

My local public-radio station just interviewed some of the men and women (G) in this trade.  Of course, you never know how reliable these informants are, but none struck me as totally implausible.  Some of their voices seemed to have been disguised.  The johns ranged from a divorced father of three who liked to visit conventional bordellos to a younger single man who frequented a street in the Rhineland known for street prostitution.  The men gave the usual reasons for prostitution: not enough sex from their wives or girlfriends, or not the kind they want (there still seems to be a taboo against oral sex in Europe), inability to start relationships with women (too shy/too busy), or a decision, after several failed relationships, that paid sex is better than no sex at all.  One of the men said that he knew full well that sex was supposed to be best when it was experienced as a "whole" along with love and companionship, but that paid sex was still worthwhile because it created at least an echo of the "whole" experience.  (Isn’t that basically what television does?).

Only one prostitute was interviewed, ‘Elvira’.  She said she began working to finance a heroin habit, but has since gone clean and gotten a traineeship in a "reputable" firm.  She still nevertheless goes out on the street once a week for adventure — to "dive in" to another world — and to supplement her pay so that she and her child can afford some luxuries once in a while.  Most of the men don’t want anything particularly adventurous; many want nothing but oral sex ("french style", in German slang), because they can’t get it from their significant other. (This, by the way, is probably the number one complaint about German women in the masculine world.  Ladies Respected female colleagues, don’t flame me in comments, I’m just passing it on.)  When asked whether she was turning tricks voluntarily, she thought for a minute, and said yes.  She feels sorry for the women who are obviously drug-addicted, and thinks the men who hire them are creeps.  She also finds the language the johns use to desrcibe the women in online forums degrading.

The largely legal status of prostitution in Germany is one of the most interesting points of cultural comparison (I say "largely" because not all aspects of the trade are legal; the details are complex, and I don’t want to bore you with them here).  The political polarities surrounding prostitution are very different from those in the U.S.; the recent left-wing Red-Green government, far from trying to eliminate prostitution as inherently degrading and dangerous to women, instead passed a "prostitution law" to give working women some rights.  The new grand coalition government has not sought to repeal the law; the consensus you find in Germany is that prostitution is an inevitable part of all human societies, so trying to wipe it out would be fultile and probably counterproductive.  Besides, prostitution has a long, storied, and more-or-less open history in Europe.  Just because you may not like the Catholic Church doesn’t mean you’re going to go around tearing down cathedrals.

However, I wonder how long this will last.  Just look at all the public-policy initiatives Germany and/or Europe has taken over from the U.S. in recent years.  (Note that I’m not endorsing any/all of these.  Once again, just passing it on).  Fifteen years ago, Germans were snickering at the puritanical Americans who had outlawed smoking inside public buildings.  Couldn’t happen here, they said.  Five years ago, they were chortling at the politically-correct Americans who had destroyed private contractual autonomy by making racial and gender discrimination between private persons illegal.  Couldn’t happen here, they said.  They’re still amazed to find out that you cannot drink alcohol in public places in the U.S., but the voices are growing ever louder to limit public drinking in Germany as well.  And let’s not even mention speed limits on the autobahn…

Is largely-legal prostitution going to be next?  I personally doubt it, but I’m not sure exactly why I doubt it.  Perhaps someone can help me clarify what I think in comments.

UPDATE: A commenter spotted my mistake, it’s 1.2 million men per day.  I’ve corrected the post accordingly.

16 thoughts on “A Million Johns Can’t be Wrong

  1. I found it distressing, during my own recent visit to Berlin, to see so many women standing along dark streets waiting for exploitative johns; not that I’m a prude; I pity them.

    That said, I can’t imagine outlawing prostitution; it would just go underground, and prostitutes would be more, not less, endangered, by sadistic pimps and sexual diseases.


  2. > Is largely-legal prostitution going to be next? I personally doubt it

    I don’t (both personally and impersonally, if I may). While there are loopholes[1], they won’t prevail[2] over here in the long run, for reasons geographical, demographical, and dependent doctrines on righteous livelihood. This enlightened bodies[3] big boss strongly opposes the issue[4], and won’t bother with complexly detailed cultural comparisons. “Völker, hört die Signale!” some demand, and others do diligently[5] – the times, they are a changing. Heil diversity.

    Spam comment filters crimp my style – Vorsprung durch Technik this isn’t. Anyway:



  3. @ Paul

    Hey! I live on one of those “dark streets”. The Rosenthalerstraße / Oranienburgerstraße is hardly “dark” – it is one of the most vibrant and gaudy corners of the city and is full of people day and night! Which makes the level of prostitution there all the more startling. I walk by them every night, recognize all of them, and provided I am alone (I am male), am absolutely invariably accosted by them, regardless of the fact that I have said “no thank you” or “nein danke” every single one of the hundreds of times I’ve been asked. None of them appear to be strung out junkies, they all look reasonably kempt and healthy and upbeat, and they are – without a fault – exceptionally kind to anyone (male or female) asking directions.

    I found a recent discussion of this facet of Berlin fascinating: apparently that street has been a draw for prostitution since the 1700s, when it was situated just outside of the town gates. In 1933 prostitution was banned there, and the ban was continued throughout the DDR. As early as 1990, prostitutes had resumed activity – after an almost 60 year lapse. Who told them that this corner / street was the traditional spot for Berlin’s prostitutes? How did a city maintain that fact in its collective consciousness after such a period of upheaval and then stagnation?


  4. On the schedule right now is a “reform” of sexual harassment laws, esp. wrt. minors, very much in the spirit of the US laws that we Germans one used to laugh about.
    Part of the reasons for this “reform” is that minors should be protected from being introduced into child prostitution. I wouldn’t be surprised if adult prostitution is further down the list.


  5. @ Koch

    The “dark street” of my post was Einemstrasse, off Nollendorfplatz. Returning to our hotel from city center over several evenings, I and my wife kept noticing a woman on the corner of Kurfürsten and Einem who looked like a Hollywood cliché of a prostitute. One Friday evening I left for a party in Kreuzberg at 8 and she was standing there looking for a client; and returning toward 1:30 I saw her still standing there–and it was cold and she looked desperate. If a Starbucks or Balzac were on Einem I would have bought her a warming cup of coffee.

    What struck me was that she and several other women were spaced out at strategic intervals along Einem. It suggested a certain amount of organization: a pimp or two sitting in a car somewhere, keeping tabs on the action; measures to ensure cooperation and to fend off competition; and arrangements with the local authorities, about whose legality I can only speculate.

    I can’t imagine prostitution being outlawed in Germany. There are crimes associated with it that definitely should be, though, such as smuggling in women from poor countries and leaving them with no choice but to prostitute themselves.

    Ideally, no woman (or man) should be forced into prostitution.

    But then, what exactly is prostitution and how widespread is it? How many housewives in wealthy suburbs wake up every day feeling that they are prostituting themselves? How many workers are trapped in degrading, subservient relationships with their employers? And so on….


  6. Koch, Paul, the discrepancy can be explained: Oranienburgerstraße is top class (regarding street prostitution), while Kurfürsten is one of the last stops of the value chain. I understand that most prostitutes on Berlin streets are drug addict. Cocaine and those fancy newfangled drugs I can’t remember the names of keep you fresh & happy–sort of–for some time, and when that time is up you go south. Residents are not happy about it. As for seemingly merry Oranienburgerstraße street life, you can see the pimps if you want to[1]. Most look like, say, Jürgen Drews on steroids; usually they stay in their 4x4s and hummers when they drive by for inspection – it’s easy to confound them with Johns of the more robust kind. Tourism is paramount for their trade and they know to behave, while trade representatives in the Kurfürstenstraße are less debonair.

    …don’t get me started on these funny phenomenons of perception.


  7. Thanks, Marek, for the link to the “Spiegel” article. It confirms my impression that most of the Berlin prostitutes are auf dem Strich to finance a habit of some sort and that many are lured to the West from poor countries and mercilessly exploited. The extent of prostitution in Berlin–as compared to Bonn or even Cologne–is also now explained. Grosz and Dix redux.


  8. “Besides, prostitution has a long, storied, and more-or-less open history in Europe.”

    Oh really? Prostitution is “das älteste Gewerbe der Welt”, as they say in BILD (providing local prostitutes’ telephone numbers for their readers every day but otherwise rejecting the habit, of course). So I would think prostitution has a long open history anywhere in the world. I for one I would like to ask Americans, who proudly refer to the “large freedoms” one enjoys in the US, what larger freedom can you think of than that of being able to have sexual intercourse whenever you want?


  9. 1.2 million men “served” per anum really sounds like an understatement, but actually at the page of the WDR they give a figure 356 times as high – 1.2 million men per day!!! – sounds more realistic to me –


  10. 1.2 million men “served” per anum really sounds like an understatement, but actually at the page of the WDR they give a figure 356 times as high – 1.2 million men per day!!! – sounds more realistic to me –


  11. The rationale behind keeping up the ban on prostitution in the US (religious beliefs aside) seems to be that prostitution is seen as NOT being a “victimless crime”. Law enforcement authorities are always quick to point out that prostitution, STDs, violence and drugs go together almost invariably.

    Although it would be naive to think that there are no HIV-positive working girls here who do it all to support their drug habit, and although human trafficking and eastern European girls being brought here against their will have been the underbelly of sex for money for years, I think there is still consensus that prostitutes serve a valuable purpose in society. That being to help johns who have no other way of experiencing sexual intimacy than to pay for it. Among prostitutes, and not just among prostitutes, a commonly held view is that if it weren’t for them, many more men would commit sex crimes because they would really have no other way of relieving sexual stress.

    You could say that the red-green government moved in the complete opposite direction regarding prostitution laws than their American counterparts. Instead of curbing prostitution-related crime by imposing ever-tougher laws against prostitution itself, the Schroeder administration tied sex for money more deeply into Germany’s social framework. The effect being that it has become easier for prostitutes to make a legit living, enjoy social benefits in return for their work, and that it gives them a chance to live a life away from prostitution-related crime.

    It would be sad to see a rollback on all these achievements. Same with the impending law against youth prosititution. There is no need for the law that is in the works now, because for one thing, it will criminalize youths on a large scale rather than protecting them from prostitution, and also, I believe legislation should always reflect the culture of the country that it is intended for. §182 of Germany’s criminal code in its current form is the result of thirty-plus years of sexual revolution and lawmakers who have successfully balanced an adolescent’s right to sexual experiences with the “Schutzwürdigkeit” of minors. Adopting puritan American laws verbatim to replace this well-crafted compromise would set off an erosion of liberal, sex-positive moral values in this country that we should all be proud of.


  12. Please, folks, if you’re going to use gutter talk to refer to the male clients of prostitutes, don’t capitalize th ‘j’.

    John M.


  13. Agreed that there shouldn’t be any rollback of the 2002 reform of German prostitution law to the status quo ante, because pre-2002 conditions mainly punished prostitutes. Nonetheless, the present law and its implementation still are insufficient and faulty and need reconsideration.

    The Swedish law, which criminalizes solely the purchase of sexual acts, is an interesting alternative, though I realize the line between the prostitute as victim and the client as perpetrator cannot always be easily drawn.

    Any debate cannot ignore the roots of prostitution in gender and labor power politics in the wider society. There are questions here which go beyond prostitutes and which we may fear to face.

    Prostitution isn’t “victimless.” I’m not a Puritan, either literally or figuratively, but I doubt that prostitution is morally neutral. It’s not a transaction like any other. It’s not as simple as giving sexual pleasure to someone else in return for payment.

    Prostitution is only one manifestation of the general prostitution which characterizes most working relationships. It’s a matter of degree. I pay for a stamp so that a mail carrier can deliver a letter to me. So I’m using the mail carrier, but I doubt if anyone would find that objectionable unless the mail carrier isn’t getting paid enough. But that’s different from having sex for money. In one case a letter is being delivered and in the other a body–and not just a body but the emotional life that accompanies it.

    Prostitution is another arena in which power struggles between men and women are played out, with the men, at least superficially, dominating the women. The relationship is one in which the woman is selling herself as merchandise and is one of deceit and manipulation on both sides.

    The prostitute always bears the opprobrium of social stigmatization. That stigmatization will persist even if a few libertarian legislators decide the occupation is just another contractual relationship. Social engineering cannot erase the long cultural history of prostitution as a symbol of female degradation.

    Many males fear, distrust, even hate women. Street prostitutes regularly get punched, kicked, burned with cigarettes and worse by procurers and clients.

    Prostitutes are often trapped in a vicious circle of past and future abuse. They may have psychological issues that make them seek out exploitation. Some prostitutes need to be protected from social predators as well as themselves.

    Though prostitution need not lead to crime, crime often accompanies it, including slavery, human trafficking, heroin and cocaine addiction, as well as the danger of spreading diseases like HIV.

    Those are just a few reasons why I think prostitution is not just another business transaction.

    That said, allow me to distance myself from all those intolerant people who in the name of God or some other creed are obsessed with punishing prostitutes. Often they themselves are emotionally impaired and sexually frustrated. To them I say, go re-read John 8.7.

    There may be instances in which prostitution can be condoned. If someone who can’t find it elsewhere finds warmth and comfort in the arms of a prostitute, who enters into that relationship freely and without harm to herself, that is in itself redeeming. Love can be found in many places.

    The kind of prostitution must be considered in any moral assessment. One prostitute might be standing on an icy Kurfürstenstrasse corner, the other flirting in a luxury brothel catering to wealthy patrons. One bruised, exploited, vulnerable; the other well-paid, protected, receiving medical attention. And then there are the women not nominally prostitutes, mistresses or married, exploiting as they are exploited, but who are nonetheless prostituting themselves, entering into relationships of mutual use for material gain.

    Prostitution may not be inherently degrading. It is what is done within the prostituting relationship that makes it degrading.

    Not to confuse the label and symbol with the actual act and its effects.

    When you think of it, who is not engaged in prostituting their minds or bodies? Who is more injurious–a prostitute simulating an orgasm or a physicist building better weapons of mass destruction? Prostitution takes place against the greater landscape of a society in which deceit, fraud, and manipulation are practiced daily and perpetrators and victims are everywhere.


  14. As for the oral sex controversy, Americans do seem to be more oral-sex friendly than Europeans societies. Believe it or not, there’s actually been sociological investigation of just why this is, which I will post about sometime.


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