From Stigma to Empowerment: Sex Work

April 6, 2019

Sex work is very diverse. It's impossible to state generalized assumptions. But one thing is clear: It's not a job like every else. We spoke to sex workers about their lives!


[This article was originally published in German for Berlin's SIEGESSÄULE magazine.]


photo credit (left to right): Finn (photo by Andreas Neu), Jorge (photo by HoliStick_TheRapist), Josefa (photo by Luka Wahl), Candy (photo by Jo Pollux), Kristina Marlen (photo by Ivo Hofste)

"About 10 years ago I started as a camgirl", Finn states. "Today I work among others as an escort and performer, and I give workshops about BDSM, erotic dance, body- and sex-positivity." Finn identifies as a queer and transgender sex worker. "It has always been a wet dream of mine to be an escort." Finn laughs. "I love giving other people pleasure and joy."


Finn [photo credit: Tamir Lederberg] 

The two sides of sex work


Jorge agrees: "I love to help people to explore their sexualities and to fulfill their phantasies." Apart from being an escort Jorge – who identifies as a gay cis man – also engages in therapeutic and artistic sex work. When people talk about sex work and prostitution, most would think about completely different lives than those of Finn and Jorge. They would think about strongly marginalized people working in precarious circumstances. In the Frobenstraße, a street in Berlin where many trans* people do sex work, there had been reports of transphobic attacks. Some people had been attacked with knives and glas bottles. "In that area, there are especially people of color and trans women or trans*feminine people working on the streets at night. Sometimes it's not even clear whether they have the right to reside in Germany", Finn explains. "Those are some of the most vulnerable and least privileged sex work groups."



Berlin as "Europe's brothel"?


Since decades Germany and especially Berlin have a reputation for being "Europe's brothel". In the Roaring Twenties, thousands of people – estimations go up to 150.000 – were doing sex work. From the "Münzis" (pregnant women working for in the street "Münzstraße" and making a lot of money with customers that had the kink of having sex with a pregnant woman) to the "race horses" (masochistic sex workers working in so called language institutes with class rooms equipped with BDSM instruments) – already back then there was a huge sex work scene in Berlin.


Some few thousand sex workers were given control cards that officially allowed them sex work but also forced them to undergo monthly medical procedures. All others were doing there work illegally. However, since they could only be arrested when verbally addressing somebody offering them sex for money most developed an unmistakable code of gestures and clothing to attract people's attention – and sometimes even started new fashion trends copied by bourgeois women.


Jorge [photo credit: Andrea Galad] 

"Use our bodies how we want to"


Lots has happened since then, also in regards of the legalities. Compared to other European countries, Germany has a slightly more progressive approach to the legalization of sex work. Sex work is legal under certain circumstances, however, sees more and more problematic regulations. Nonetheless there are also positive developments: Berlin seems to undergo – especially in some queer-feminist circles – a strong upward revaluation of sex work.


"It is about being able to use our own bodies how we want to", Josefa says. Josefa is from the Professional Association of Erotic and Sexual Services ("Berufsverband erotische und sexuelle Dienstleistungen e.V."). "However, I would not say that the job becomes more attractive. Because interestingly enough the more people know about sex work, the less they want to do it." Assumptions that one could make a lot of money with little work and just a bit of "spreading your legs" are wrong. "There are a lot of tedious tasks like bookkeeping, marketing, and paying taxes."



Shame and stigma


Still, it is remarkable how many people do sex work in Berlin. Candy thinks that people are more open-minded here. Candy identifies as genderqueer and works as escort at home as well as in hotels, but also works as a sub in a dominatrix studio: "Within my queer-feminist circles I meet a lot of people seeing this as empowerment and not necessarily as oppression." However, Germany's reputation as Europe's brothel was wrong and the apparently profound liberalization a myth, criticizes gay escort Jorge. Additionally, in 2017 Germany has introduced new legislations stigmatizing sex work and pushing many people into the underground or illegality. 


The stigmatization of sex work was and still is very high. On one hand many stress out that it is a job like every other one. "But society still heavily  stigmatizes sex workers and in that respect sex work is not a job like every other one", Candy emphasizes. Queer transgender sex worker Finn has similar thoughts: "It's not like one could tell people: 'Hey, I opened a bakery, come along and celebrate with me.' That's not how sex work works." The fear of how people will react is always there. "Your whole life you are being shamed", Finn continues. "That already started when I was still identifying as a woman. And as trans* person there is already so much shame around your body and your sexuality. As a sex worker I can take back part of the control over my body and my sexuality. But due to the stigma of sex work that taking back control is, however again, used against me."


Josefa [photo credit: Gerrit Meyer]

Who are the laws protecting?


This leads us to the harsh criticism against the new German regulations ("Prostituiertenschutzgesetz" or in short "ProstSchG"), which force sex workers to register with their full name and to always have a "prostitution identity card" with them. The law literally means “law to protect prostitutes” but to many people it seems like the law is much more supposed to protect society from sex workers. After all, it’s mainly those people that are now being rigidly controlled and registered. “Because of the high level of stigmatization, this registration is neither useful nor expedient”, Josefa criticizes. “The majority of sex workers would lose their regular jobs if they were outed. With that information, we are not treated like other people in our private lives. The new laws are rather harmful to us.”


Many see the new laws as a dangerous step backwards. Because the more sex work is criminalized the higher are STI rates and risks of experiencing violence because sex workers that are pushed into illegalities have more difficult access to help and support. Additionally, police are now allowed to access sex workers’ private homes even without a specific reason. “The invulnerability of your own home has been removed by the new laws”, Josefa explains. “Just imagine you are having dinner at home with some friends and suddenly the police is in front of your door to inspect it.”



Policed in your own bedroom


Another problem of the new laws is the precept that every paid vaginal, anal, and oral sex has to be performed with condoms. “Actually, this part does ‘bother’ me the least because in most cases sex workers practice safer sex in any case”, sex work activist Kristina Marlen says. She works with high-class BDSM and tantric touch rituals. The femme has several genders that are her customers. “However I wonder how they want to control the condom imperative.” However, Josefa sees this as an intrusion into one’s sexual autonomy. “It’s problematic when legislature commands you how to have sex.” She thinks it would be better to create more counselling and guidance offers and to send people to offer advice and condoms especially in those areas where sex workers are living in precarious conditions.


What’s interesting is that the condom imperative does exist already since several years in Bavaria. At the same time, the customers’ demand for sex without condoms is nowhere as high as in that German state. It seems that the taboo of sex without condoms has an unwanted side effect: The seduction of what’s forbidden creates an eroticisation or fetishisation. (ORGYSMIC has already written about this phenomenon here.) What’s also remarkable is the phallocentrism. Because what do you do when the paid sex doesn’t involve any penis or when you perform oral sex on a cisgendered woman? There is no imperative to use dental dams. “Those people that are creating the laws do have a very specific picture of sex work in their minds”, the genderqueer sub Candy thinks. “Specifically that of the whore that more or less passively offers herself.” In reality, sex work is incredibly diverse. But the safer sex regulations don’t do this fact justice.

Candy [photo credit: Jo Pollux]

"Sex work is political"


As privately as sex can be, as political do many sex workers see their jobs. “Sex work fundamentally changes what society regards as normal”, Finn stresses out. “With us, intimacy is not something that is limited to a married couple or to friends. Rather it is something that can be exchanged with money. Especially if a person likes to give intimacy then why should that person not be able to make money with that as long as all participants give their consent? And that point of view is highly political.” Candy adds to this: “For me, sex work is political also because it allows me to make relatively good money in a relatively short period of time. Even if it’s not that high amount that many people think it is. That way I don’t have to expose myself so much to that capitalist belief system and work 8 hours a day 5 days a week. I have more time for my own projects.”



Are sex workers "the new LGBTIQ"?


Obviously, sex work is also linked to sexuality and by that to sex and gender identity. Which is in it by itself already very political. “How sexuality treats us mirrors their sexual culture”, Kristina Marlen says. “It shows which sexualities that culture regards as legit and which ones it controls, regulates, and marginalizes. Sometimes I felt that sex workers are the new LGBTIQs. Because the question is: What does this society tolerates beyond the heterosexual, monogamous, nuclear family?”


What’s rather remarkable is the fact that there are hardly any offers for women*. Kristina Marlen thinks the reason for that lies in our patriarchal legacy. There have always been people that were allowed to have a lot of sex and that had access to resources to also get that sex. Those people had been in most cases male. Admittedly, Kristina Marlen does think it’s problematic to divide people in only two sexes. However “we are interacting with those categories historically, socially, and politically and there is definitely a power imbalance”. This was mirrored in the self-conception of our sexuality. “Civil law determined that in a marriage, men had a right to sex. And you can see that mentality also in our job.” Our culture doesn’t allow women* to pursue their own sexualities. You can’t find that in the way women* think, it’s not culturally envisaged, this restraint is even inscribed into our bodies and desires.


Kristina Marlen [photo credit: Ivo Hofste,]


Despite different forms of socialization that encourage male and suppress self-determined female sexuality women* apparently still very strongly take advantage of Kristina Marlen’s offer. “If sex work is even-handed and fair towards all genders it also doesn’t promote patriarchy. Much rather the opposite is true.”


Despite all the problems, many have an incredible passion and joy to work with sexuality. “Sex work is a very positive part of my life”, Finn confirms. “It’s very different from all the prejudices that even I still had some years ago. I am able to work with so many interesting people. And sex work does give me the possibility to educate people, for example about trans* bodies or sexual consent. It is activism paired with work.” Candy emphasizes: “For me, it’s important to see sex work as care work. Capitalism is orientated to dissolve family structures more and more. Sex work can be an interpersonal service to process emotions.” This could happen out of love within families but wouldn’t have to.



“If sex work is not stigmatized it can be a place of sexual education, sexual unfolding, and sexual culture”, adds Kristina Marlen, “as long as there are autonomous and inspired sex workers as well as respectful and curious customers.” The gay sex worker Jorge regards taboos – including the taboo of sex work – as a “social disease”: “Some of my most beautiful experiences I had with elder men or people with disabilities that cried after I kissed them, after I’ve given them a sense of beauty and love.” We have doctors that take care of our bodies, psychiatrists and psychologists to take care of our psyches, therapists to explore our emotions, and spiritual leads to guide our souls. But Jorge wonders: What about our sexualities?

“We should accept and ‘normalize’ our taboos. We can only find ways to heal if we talk about them. Sex work should be met with more than just acceptance. Sex work deserves respect. Because sex work is necessary.”

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