The Mega Brothel, which debuted on Channel Four 7 last night, shines a spotlight on Germany and the Paradise chain of brothels specifically. Prostitution was legalised in 2002. Today, around 400,000 women in Germany - most of them migrants - contribute to a sex industry worth some €18bn/year. The documentary focused on the biggest of Paradise's establishments. Their Stuttgart branch can host up to 150 sex workers at a time and boasts a full complement of kitchen staff, bar workers, and cleaners. It also contains a sauna, jacuzzi, a porn cinema, and rooms decked out in BDSM paraphernalia for clients with more "specialist" tastes. This self-consciously high-end establishment has 50,000 customers a year and follows a core business model similar to that found in so-called gentlemen's clubs. The punter pays a €79 entrance fee exclusive of food/drink and sexual services. For their part, the women are less employees and more independent contractors. Everyday they pay the same entrance fee and, if they wish to stay the night, a €23 bed and board charge. This insulates the brothel from risk. Whether the flow of punters is good or bad, there is a core complement of women it can make earnings from regardless. In addition, each sex worker has to pay the state a €25 flat tax, meaning each woman is €104 down before she starts working.
What is life like working at Paradise? The documentary followed two young women. Josie presented herself as a sassy, good humoured veteran who had done four years in the sex industry. She was attracted by the money she could makes, which is much more than the McDonald's job she held down previously. She considered a "good day" as having 20 clients, but to do that usually requires pulling a 12 hour shift. Josie planned on studying Criminology in her life after brothels, but acknowledges that it's very difficult to do a normal job afterwards because of the money. It's also reveals that she was sexually abused as a child, which she admits makes selling sex easier, and that she has no permanent friends. The documentary leaves her after a three week stint as she departs to look for work at another brothel.
Felicia is a migrant from Eastern Europe and appeared to be tied to Paradise than some of the other women - the cameras follow her around Stuttgart Folk Festival during a rare day off. However, unlike Josie you can tell the work has deeply affected her. At one moment boasting that it is possible to make €800/day if you're clever and canny, at another she's talking about how much she doesn't like sex and that her nerves have been frayed. Felicia grew up in a children's home and was trafficked into prostitution when she was 15 by her cousin. While it appeared this was no longer the case, the film left her in the brothel, seemingly trapped by the debts accumulated to the house during the down times.
The documentary shows us the brothel-keeping side too. The proprietor is Jurgen Rudloff, a well-to-do man approaching retirement age with a nice big house and equally sizeable car. Yet the prosperity masks a big problem. While Paradise is a chain of five outlets, Germany's liberal laws have allowed for a mushrooming of brothels - they're not an uncommon sight in villages. This competition is constantly eating into revenues and putting the business at risk. A great deal rests on their new shop. Sited in Saarbrücken a stone's throw from the border, Jurgen and his manager, Michael Beretin, hope that moves afoot in the French legislature to penalise the purchasing of sex with a fine will tap into a ready market of risk-averse men. However, probably because the Senate backed the passage of the proposed law at the last moment, business turns out to be less than brisk.
If that wasn't bad enough, four of Paradise's five premises are raided by police clamping down on trafficking and pimping. Jurgen denies that any of "his girls" fall into this category, and claims to be hurt by accusations that he exploits women. Yet when we catch up with Tatiana, an anonymous woman trafficked from Eastern Europe, she says many workers, including some who worked at Paradise, were manipulated into sex work by their "boyfriends" who take a cut of their earnings. The brothel is legally sanctified and apparently above board, but it's a screen used by pimps with or without the owners' connivance. And of this there is a question mark. The documentary ends with the news that Michael was among the handful of people arrested during the raid for pimping and trafficking.
What The Mega Brothel does is dispel any libertarian notion that legalisation will automatically transform the buying and selling of sex for the better. On the one hand the women appear to have an ostensibly safe place to work. Particularly in Paradise they are relatively safe from abusive clients as well as police harassment. Yet the expansion of the industry has created a significant market for traffickers and criminal gangs looking to pressgang young women into prostitution. Pimping hasn't stopped because the law on selling sex has been relaxed. There's also a couple of wider associated problems. The effect it has had on the standing of women in German society has likely to be similar to the baleful effects of decades of Page 3. In particular what effect will it have on the attitudes of boys and young men to women? The second is the state now has a definite interest in carrying on. Not simply because of the tax revenues paid over by the hundreds of thousands of sex workers, but should prostitution be recriminalised and the paying of sex similarly proscribed Germany has an instant increase of 400,000 sex workers and those in secondary employment onto the unemployment rolls. Who wants to be the politician seen to add that many to the dole? All of a sudden German capitalism doesn't seem that rosy.
What are the lessons? I am firmly of the opinion that criminalising the buyer buries prostitution even further underground. It may mean less women get caught up in it, but it also puts those already involved even further at risk. As a socialist, politics is about empowering people and making them masters of their own destiny. Criminalising the women who sell and/or the men who buy removes agency from the women and treats them as victims. For this reason I think the best starting point is that favoured by The English Collective of Prostitutes who favour legalisation but, crucially, the right for sex workers themselves to control their work and provide pathways out of prostitution for those who wish it. For example, rather than the German route of creating a market that attracts capital and criminal gangs, there is no reason why a model based on worker-owned cooperatives can't predominate. Will it solve all the problems? No. Will criminal gangs try and find a work round? Of course. And yet this route empowers the workers themselves - they are not chattel bonded to brothels to work off accumulated debts, or as atomised individual contractors competing with one another as per the German case.