Interview with Sabine Constabel: “Sex has become consumer goods”

Translated from German

Original by Mathias Bury and Viola Volland published at stuttgarter-zeitung.de on 18 March 2014

Interview with Sabine Constabel: “Sex has become consumer goods”

Every day about 500 women in Stuttgart sell their bodies. The conditions in the oldest profession have become harsher. Sabine Constabel, who runs the prostitutes’ café La Strada, calls for legislators to crack down.

Ms. Constabel, prostitution has been the subject of discussion here again for a while, here in Stuttgart, but also in Berlin.

And the most astonishing aspect is that the debate is a long-lasting one. It has tended to be a topic for the summer slump in the media.

Have things become that much worse?

Prostitution has become more visible. The milieu used to be a world closed to the outside, even  though street prostitution existed. But back then, grown women were selling themselves on the streets. Today they’re really young girls, and nearby you can see men who are obviously their pimps. A pimp standing next to an 18-year-old prostitute was something you only saw on TV 15 years ago. That’s where the dismay comes from.

Where are the girls from?

Most of them are from Eastern Europe. We know this from police statistics. 83 percent are foreign nationals, the majority are from Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary.

What are the causes of this change?

On the one hand, the liberalization of the prostitution laws in 2002, and on the other hand the Eastern European expansion of the EU in 2003, which led to a large influx of poor migrants.

Has the inflow increased since Romanians and Bulgarians have been granted free movement of persons in the EU?

No. People from these countries are now also permitted to be in dependent employment in the EU. They were already allowed to be self-employed. And prostitutes are legally speaking self-employed.

Are Eastern European women particularly affected by forced prostitution?

Forced prostitution also exists among German prostitutes. But it is indeed especially common among Eastern Europeans. These girls would not even be able to travel here on their own. They could neither afford the ticket nor could they book a room due to a lack of language skills. The girls are surrounded by a system of men who lead them into prostitution.

How does this system work?

Many women come from large families that are in dire straits. The family decides: we send one girl to Germany – the daughter, the niece, the cousin – and use her to make money. Then one or two family members travel here with her, take her to a brothel or put her on the street.

This connection with their family must make it hard for the women to exit.

Exiting is extremely hard, as is criminal prosecution. Since the amendment of 2002, it doesn’t suffice for the police to know that the woman is constantly giving over her money and not organizing her own activity. Before 2002, they were able to nab the pimp in such a situation. Now the woman is also required to testify, saying she is being sent to prostitute herself by her brother or father or sometimes even by her mother. None of them do that.

What is interacting with the johns like for the women?

The women report that the johns’ demands have become a lot more aggressive and boundless.  The johns don’t seem to think about the fact that they are dealing with human beings with feelings at all. You can tell that many women are forced prostitutes just by looking at them. They have hematomas, they’re crying and showing that they’re unwilling. They cannot hope for mercy. There is even particular demand for a very high degree of docility. That’s repugnant.

What does this life do to the women?

They know that they are being destroyed psychologically. They find their situation horrible, but they say: I do it for my family. Some feel like martyrs because they grew up knowing they have to sacrifice themselves for their family. They do this until they’re so depressed that they don’t make any more money. Many start taking stimulants because they have such long working hours. Very few get by with less than 18 hours.

Because of the price decline on the streets and in the brothels?

The price for a room in the brothels of Stuttgart is high; they’re between 120 and 140 euros a day. The women usually earn that money in increments of 30 euros. That’s how much the johns pay for the services.

What caused this price decline?

That’s also connected with the prostitution law. Since then, the brothels have been allowed to advertise. They market themselves as businesses that offer wellness for men. Prostitution is trivialized, the women are merely consumer goods. And the advertising works. Entire groups of young men go there. Cinema or brothel – for many, there’s not a huge difference. They go where it’s cheapest. That’s the problem. Many say, five euros for oral sex, that’s enough for a Eastern European. A proper German whore wouldn’t do anything for 30 euros; she’d sooner kick the john out.

So the prostitution law of 2002 was where everything went wrong?

The law was focused on the independent German whore [sic]. Instead, lots of forced prostitutes came over here after the eastern expansion of the EU. For them, the law was counterproductive. That’s why the non-independent, Eastern European forced prostitute now has to be the focus.  She benefits from legal force because it targets the pimp. Regulations ease the burden on these women.

Are the conditions especially bad in Stuttgart or are they typical for a big city?

Stuttgart attracts a lot of attention, for example because the brothel Paradise, which advertises aggressively, is nearby, and because the notorious Pussy-Club used to be in Fellbach [town on the border of Stuttgart]. Stuttgart started counteracting very early. La Strada has existed there for 18 years. Social services for prostitutes have existed since 1953. Flat-rate brothels such as the Pussy-Club can be found everywhere, but no longer here. In other cities, they still advertise very differently: a woman, a beer, and a blood sausage – for 14 euros…

Still: what must the city do now?

The inflow of poverty prostitutes must be stemmed. The city can’t do that; the federal legislators have to make those changes. Otherwise the situation will continue to worsen.

But illegal street prostitution is something that could be curbed locally already.

It is being curbed significantly. It used to be a very different picture. Almost everything is closely under control today. Look at street prostitution in Berlin or Frankfurt, it’s worse there; We are complaining despite things being better here than elsewhere.

Okay – so what must the federal government do?

It has to raise the age of entry to at least 21 years. An older woman is more likely to exercise her rights. Mandatory registration for prostitutes needs to be introduced. In Stuttgart we have figures, but they don’t have that on the national level. It’s especially important that the government determines objective elements of an offense so that the women no longer have to testify. This means that criteria are needed in order to determine that exploitation is taking place, such as taking her money or driving her to the brothel. The brothel owners’ authority to give directives also needs to be repealed: since 2002 they have been allowed to dictate working hours. This is the only way the brothels can operate.

So the profiteers of prostitution should be weakened.

This also includes the owners renting out the buildings. For these rooms – officially, there are no brothels –  there are no maximum rent prices. That needs to change. The big profiteers of prostitution are those renting out the premises, those who run the prostitution establishments and the johns. Those who don’t profit are the women.

The coalition agreement says that johns who knowingly and willingly abuse victims of forced prostitution for sexual acts should be punished. Is this a move in the right direction or is it a toothless tiger because this is almost impossible to prove?

It’s the same as with mandatory condom use – there is no officer standing by and monitoring the situation. It’s also about education and about making a statement. And that’s important.

Do you support mandatory condom use for johns?

Yes, that would be sensible. Such a regulation protects the women and strengthens them in getting johns to comply. The state could introduce this via hygiene regulations.

If most of the responsibility is with the federal and state governments: what is left for the city to do?

It can make its position very clear to Berlin. And it can discuss the demand. Prostitution needs to be brought into the public eye. The young men must be made to realize that there are consequences for just going out and using a forced prostitute. It might just be the encounter that breaks her entirely.

The city is planning a media campaign and wants to take it to the schools as well.

That is absolutely sensible. Those who are now 18 have grown up with sex being consumer goods. We have to make visible what prostitution really is. It’s not Pretty Woman. It has tremendously destructive effects on people – not only on the women that are used. If young men make their first sexual experiences via “pay sex”, they will never learn how to see their partners as equals. We have to have a discussion about values: what is sexuality? How should other people be treated? We have come much further with regard to other topics. Nobody would dispute that you don’t just go and buy a poor person’s kidney.

Sometimes it helps to look to other countries. In Sweden, being a john is prohibited. What are the effects of that?

It very much empowers the women. If they go to the police, nothing happens to them. The john, on the other hand, has to be very careful. If that were the case here, many johns would have a problem. It would get quite a few to think. In Sweden, relatively few johns are punished and yet acceptance of prostitution continues to decline every year.

How likely is it that the Swedish model will be introduced here in Germany?

It’s coming. The pressure from Brussels will become too great. The countries around us are regulating. In France, punishment of johns has all but been passed into law now, others are following suit, among them the Netherlands, so Germany can’t continue being the Eldorado of prostitution.

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