Irma is not proud of being a prostitute: Her family thinks she works in a shop. But the German regards her work in Frankfurt's Bahnhofsviertel district as a job like any other. As an employee of the Rotes Haus.com brothel, a high-tech brothel decorated with neon hearts, she now gets the same benefits as other German workers, including health insurance and paid vacations. Under a January law, Germany grants full employment rights to brothel employees. Irma welcomes the security provided by the new law. "Prostitution isn't the greatest job, but I make a reasonable living doing it," she says.
Germany isn't the only country taking a new stance on the oldest profession. In Western Europe, prostitution has boomed since the fall of the Berlin Wall opened up routes from ex-Soviet states to the West. The U.N.-supported Office for International Migrations estimates that some 120,000 Eastern Europeans slip into the European Union illegally every year to work as prostitutes, adding to a steady stream from Africa and Asia. The massive influx--and the health and crime risks that come with it--are forcing governments to reconsider their laissez-faire attitude. Germany and the Netherlands have recently passed laws that regulate, though not formally legalize, the sex trade. Now Italy and Britain are rethinking their approach. "It offers a more pragmatic solution by considering prostitution as a kind of labor," says Marieke van Doorninck, a consultant with the Institute for Prostitution Issues in Amsterdam.
That's quite a U-turn. Although soliciting sex has been illegal in Western Europe, authorities mostly looked the other way as long as prostitutes stayed within traditional red-light districts. But with hookers invading once-quiet parks and neighborhoods, politicians are being forced to address the issue. There's also growing concern about an increase in sexually transmitted diseases and traffickers who abuse and even enslave prostitutes.
Europe's governments are also discovering what underworld types have long known: The sex industry is a good source of revenue. Take the Netherlands, which long tolerated a thriving but untaxed sex trade in the Walletjes, Amsterdam's red-light district. Under a 2001 law, the government collects sales and income taxes on the services of prostitutes working in licensed brothels. In return, sex workers receive health care, pensions, and unemployment insurance. Clients typically pay 70 euros for a session, 30% more than the going street rate. Now Germany expects to start raking in taxes on the trade this year. "The state makes a lot of money out of them," says Helen Ward, a lecturer at Imperial College in London and European coordinator for the European Network for HIV/STD Prevention in Prostitution.
There's mounting pressure for similar action in Italy. Despite Vatican opposition, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is considering legislation to open state-sanctioned brothels. According to the national press, the British public overwhelmingly supports opening legal brothels. By the end of the year, the Scottish Parliament will look at a bill to create "prostitution tolerance zones."
But the push to regulate won't completely solve the problems. Only EU citizens or immigrants with work permits can work legally in Dutch and German brothels--but they are the minority among sex workers. Danny, a Czech who plies his trade on Alte Gasse, a Frankfurt street that is home to many gay bars, prefers working independently and not paying taxes. "It's better to work on the streets," he says.
Indeed, some countries are still trying to curb the sex trade altogether. France's center-right government is betting on a demand-side solution: It will soon introduce a law to impose heavy fines and jail terms on clients of prostitutes. Sweden enacted a similar law in 1999. But officials say it has only forced prostitutes off the streets and into apartments and vans. That experience has convinced other governments that it's easier to regulate and tax sin than to ban it.
By Christina W. Passariello in Paris, with David Fairlamb in Frankfurt