Tracking cookies

To make our website even easier and more personal, we use cookies (and similar techniques). With these cookies we and third parties can collect information about you and monitor your internet behavior within (and possibly also outside) our website. If you agree with this, we will place these tracking cookies.

Yes, I give permissionNo thanks
{aantal_resultaten} Resultaten
  • Countries
Human rights/Germany

"Don't save us!" What life is like for sex workers in Germany and the Netherlands by Svetlana Kolchik


Prostitution is increasingly being referred to as "work" in Europe. Sex workers pay taxes, form unions, and receive social security.

Recently, prostitutes staged a real demonstration in Amsterdam's Red Light District to protest the eviction of tourists from the city centre, who were throwing rowdy parties and using the services of the district extensively. About 150 sex workers took part in the march around the town hall.

Svetlana Kolchik reports on how prostitutes' rights are protected in the Netherlands and Germany, countries where the industry is fully legalised.

"Look, the girls are already out to work!" - a tour guide named Claudia points in the direction of a small group of blondes in dark leggings, trainers and sports tops.

Had it not been for the location in the heart of Hamburg's "mile of sin" - Reeperbahn, where the main brothels, sex clubs and peep shows are concentrated - I would never have thought they were prostitutes (or, rather, "sex workers" - which is how they are now commonly referred to in Europe). More like regular girls, even if they emphasise their sexuality, on their way to a health club.

Romanian prostitutes in the "Pussy Club" brothel in Schönefeld, Germany, 2009
Photo: REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

"Girls work all night, so comfort comes first for them," explains the tour guide. If it was raining, they'd be wearing mackintoshes, if it was cold and snowy, they'd be wearing ski suits."

Several of our company - four occasional giggling girlfriends in their thirties and an older married couple - sneak pictures of the "girls" on their phones. I'm curious as to what made these people choose such an unconventional way to spend a summer Saturday night - signing up for the "Sex Work in Hamburg" tour, also paying 33 euros in the process. But despite the fact that prostitutes are an essential attribute of the multi-faceted German sex industry, tickets for these tours do indeed almost always sell out.

The clock strikes 8 p.m., which is when prostitutes start their "working day".

Leather handbags around the waist are another distinctive feature of sex workers. "It's more convenient for them to have their hands free - just in case something might happen," the guide explains.

Prostitution, however, is perhaps the most guarded business in this seedy neighbourhood. The police, who literally cordon off this part of the St. Pauli district, are on hand to help in case of emergency.

Our tour begins at the Davidwache police station, a neat old brick building with a pointed roof. It's been featured in many German crime films and TV series. Exactly across the street, two well-dressed young lads negotiate with a petite blonde with a striking shoulder tattoo and a high, literally protruding bust. The lads laugh out loud-they sound very drunk already-and gesticulate wildly: they must be negotiating a price. When they come to a consensus, they quickly follow the sex workers 'to the rooms' - the rooms the girls rent next door (usually for 100 Euros a night).

We turn off from the bustling Reeperbahn and head in the direction of the Elbe River and harbour, which flows into the North Sea. The proximity of the latter, of course, contributes to the fact that one of Europe's oldest and most famous sex quarters is located here.

On the right is the Herbertstraße, Hamburg's main red light street, which has existed for at least 100 years. The street is only 60 metres long and is bordered on both sides by a painted iron gate, between which there is only a narrow passage. On both sides, sex workers sit in sexually suggestive outfits and poses in dimly lit, red-lit display rooms.

Herbertstrasse gate
Photo: Kyra Garske

Since 1933 women have been banned from Herbertstrasse. While during Hitler's time they simply tried to hide the "sinful street" from everyone (unsuccessfully, of course), now, despite numerous protests from women's rights activists, this way the city authorities "protect" prostitutes from the unnecessary curiosity of those who are unlikely to pay for their services.


Prostitution was legalised in Germany in 2002, equating it to other types of business, with all the rights and obligations it entails. Five years ago, another law was passed that further regulated the sex business: the Prostitution Protection Act. It requires sex workers to undergo a yearly health check, and to register and obtain a "sex-worker ID" card. The new law sparked an outcry, with members of the "oldest profession" regarding the measure as an invasion of their privacy.

The majority of prostitutes (of whom there are 400,000 in Germany) work under false names, and not everyone is crazy about the idea of carrying around a sex worker ID card.

Especially since many of them have already long held a sole proprietorship (although the documents often indicate a different field of activity, such as massage and wellness services). And those who work in brothels, as a rule, conclude employment contracts with the owners.

Manuela, 57, in her window on Herbertstraße in Hamburg
Photo: Michael Philipp Bader / Edel Books

Brothels themselves are regularly inspected for compliance with health and other regulations and may only operate with a "Permit to Practice Prostitution as a Business" as well as a number of other licences. These places, by the way, have long been accepting credit cards, and even individual "sex entrepreneurs" are often able to pay by card.

German sex workers pay several types of taxes (income tax, VAT, business tax, and in some states, an additional "entertainment tax"). Consequently, they are entitled to the same social benefits as other citizens. This includes unemployment benefits, maternity benefits (prostitutes working in brothels are entitled to take official maternity leave), and even quite generous "covid bonuses" paid by the state to brothel owners and employees during the lockdown period, when everything was shut down and the industry went underground.

Sex workers also have the right to take legal action if a client has not paid for their services and to refuse to have sex without a condom, even if it is oral sex.

And if girls, for example, want to change their field of work, there are free counselling centres in different languages in every city.


We meet the Bangkok-native with the unusual name of Prapariat Mix at a small café near Hamburg Central Station and another of the city's hotspots, the St-Georg district. The cheaper prostitutes who sell their bodies there are mostly immigrants, about a third of whom are from Asia, especially Thailand.

Prapariat (she asks to be called Pet) is a social worker with 30 years of experience. She has worked all these years for Amnesty for Women, an organisation which also specialises in supporting girls of easy virtue.

Pet knows the underbelly of the European sex industry like the back of her hand, including its darker sides. She has spent years visiting brothels with her colleagues, passing out condoms and pamphlets with useful information, taking girls to doctors, listening to their stories...

Pet recently published a book about Thai prostitutes in Hamburg called To Walk in Her Shoes. The book contains long interviews with sex workers from Thailand. Some of their "revelations" gave me the creeps.

Pet suggests not jumping to conclusions: "Prostitutes are often viewed as victims, but this is not always the case. Even in the case of newcomers.

Yes, some are lured into the business by deception. Yes, the business is easy to get into, but not so easy to get out of. And yes, many girls abuse drugs and gambling... But I assure you: most are well aware of what they are doing and why.

Many Thai prostitutes have grown up in slums, they have a family to feed. And this work brings in quite easy and very, very good money."


My interviewee adds that since prostitution became fully legal in Germany, crime has decreased, sanitary conditions have improved, and sex workers themselves have stood up for their rights more often.

However, due to the need to pay taxes as well as market segmentation (e.g. Thai massage parlours with "bonus services" such as erotic massage are now a serious competition for brothels), their revenues have decreased. Not many brothels manage to earn over 3,000 euros a month. But even this money is usually enough to support a crowd of relatives in Thailand.

The Thai police have recently fined more than 100,000 euros for one of the Thai prostitutes they hired.

For many, it becomes a career for the long haul. Some stop providing sex services themselves and start working as Puff Mutter - the manager or owner of a brothel, while others continue selling their bodies into old age, growing old with their regular clients.

“Sex workers satisfy a lot of needs, in addition to sexual ones, Pet says with knowledge of the matter. - I know prostitutes who are already over seventy - they have been doing this all their lives. They've been seeing the same clients for years and they don't need sex any more; they just come for a coffee and a chat."


Our sex tour continues on Hamburg's other legendary street, Grosse Freiheit. Before we turn there, we pass the six-storey Sex House, considered to be one of Germany's largest brothels. It looks like a giant adult Barbie House: a bright pink building with shutters on which women's bodies are painted in explicit poses. Women aren't allowed in either, but men crowd in that evening.

Sex House, Hamburg

In this tour guide Claudia goes on to explain the highlights of Hamburg's long history of prostitution: The legendary Dominatrix, who ran a mini-bordello near Herbertstrasse and indulged in decades of erotic whipping; a maniac who murdered light women in the 1980s; and celebrities who frequented the brothels.

In the early 1960s Grosse Freiheit became famous as a venue for The Beatles - it was in Hamburg that they rose to fame.

Today it is home to the hottest karaoke, strip bars and women's clubs as well as trance and burlesque shows. One of the hottest joints is owned by Europe's best-known drag queen Olivia Jones, author of last year's best-selling book "No Make-up" and a good friend of Elton John and Angela Merkel.

It's starting to get dark, but the Grosse Freiheit is packed. We turn off onto the quieter Schmukstrasse, which has a brothel with a transsexual service as a landmark. Its doors are wide open. Half-naked sex workers bend invitingly in the windows, luring in customers.

Just across the street is an early 18th-century Catholic church with a beautiful baroque façade. But I doubt any of the regulars would think of what's going on here as sin: it's pure business.


The story is told by Melissa (one of her three fake names), a 10-year sex worker from Amsterdam's Red Light District and an employee of the Prostitution Information Centre.

The Red Light District is one of the safest places in the city. There are cameras at every turn, and every brothel has a security guard and a manager to keep things in order. And the police - and the Red Light District has a special unit specializing in protecting prostitutes - are always on our side. If there is a problem with a client, they arrest him, not us.

Red Light District, Amsterdam
Photo: Corbis / Getty Images

Of course, we all pay taxes, we have a sole proprietorship, we have bank accounts. We are entitled to tax deductions for the purchase of "tools" for our work - sex toys, whips, etc. We set the price for our services ourselves. The minimum is 50 euros for 20 minutes.

But there is still a stigma attached to our profession.

For some reason people think that we are forced to do this, that we all had a difficult childhood. They keep trying to get us out, to save us. We don't need to be rescued! Most people do this work by personal choice.

It's all just one way to make money and, for example, pay for university tuition, help parents, cover the costs of raising a child (and the fact that prostitutes are bad mothers is also a prejudice).

I am 45 years old, I am a nurse and I could go back to my main profession at any time. But I love being a sex worker - especially the field I originally specialised in: sex services for people with mental or physical disabilities. It's called "sex surrogate" or "sex assistant".

Since I have a medical degree, I can do this kind of work and often even enjoy it. It has its own specifics. Payment is always by bank transfer. I issue an invoice, and the agency that organises the on-call sex surrogate, for example to a nursing home or a psychiatric hospital, then pays for it. The price tag is higher there, of course, and the price is fixed.

The service goes on for at least an hour: for some clients it may be the first sex they have had in years, or even the first time in their lives. But the need for contact, for touch, believe me, is there for everyone.

I usually alternate between working in the Red Quarter, where I spend a few days a week from about 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and a sex surrogate service.

Our information centre has been open since 1994. We always have masses of visitors: tourists, researchers, journalists, students from all over the world. We give tours, give lectures and do outreach work. I am a member of the Window Prostitutes' Union. It's a useful thing: we sometimes need help filling in tax returns and other red tape.

Honest work or shady business?

Prostitution is fully decriminalised in only two countries in the world: New Zealand and Belgium (from 1.06.2022). This means that sex services can be sold not only in brothels, but also in private flats.

Approximately every fifth EU country has legalised prostitution and the rights and obligations of sex workers are clearly defined in legislation (Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Greece, the Netherlands, Hungary, Latvia), and every second country has partial legalisation, with prohibitions and restrictions in various areas, such as opening brothels in certain areas or providing sex services from home.

The Nordic countries and Canada have a so-called 'Nordic model', where it is legal to sell sex and not to buy it.

This model has been heavily criticised in recent years, and it is argued that when the sex industry goes underground, it contributes to an increase in human trafficking and other criminal activities. Especially since the global trend in recent decades has been moving towards the gradual legalisation of this business.

By: Svetlana Kolchik

Cover photo:


"We are not in love, we don't have sex, romance, we have a pact". More and more European couples are meeting online just to conceive, have and raise a child

Two mums, two dads and lots of

Two mums, two dads and lots of "bonus" siblings. Svetlana Kolchik on European "patchwork" families