Germany Wins the Title of 'Bordello of Europe': Why Doesn't Angela Merkel Care?

05/27/2015 03:50 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2016

In 2002, Germany decriminalized prostitution, reportedly due to pressure by the sex trade lobby and a few brothel managers who petitioned the government to develop safety standards and reduce the stigma and violence found in the sex trade. This law effectively rendered the prostitution industry a legitimate business. Today, this experiment is failing. Violence, abuse and trauma have increased for prostituted women in Germany. Some 400,000 women are now in prostitution, the vast majority poor women from abroad, with a linked exponential spike in sex trafficking. Alarmed by this state of affairs, prominent German trauma experts and psychologists signed a petition in December 2014, calling on their government to repeal its decriminalization law as a preventive measure against sexual violence and trauma. Below is an interview with Dr. Ingeborg Kraus, who initiated the petition.

Q: The media has recently labeled Germany the "Bordello of Europe" when describing countrywide mega-brothels. Are these a product of the decriminalization of prostitution in Germany?

Dr. Ingeborg Kraus: Yes. The 2002 law is the most liberal prostitution law in the world in that it eliminates any kind of regulation. The law renders prostitution "a job like any other job" and calls the women "sex workers." This was supposed to make the industry safer and less exploitative, but it hasn't worked. Even the Bundeskriminalamt [German federal police] reported that the sex trade and related human trafficking has become more organized and aggressive as a result.

Q: What is the reality for prostituted women?

IK: Today, approximately 90 percent of prostituted women in Germany come from the poorest European countries, especially Bulgaria and Romania. Most of these women don't speak German and don't know their rights. The reality looks like this: For its opening weekend, the Pussyclub brothel chain in Stuttgart, offered beer, bratwurst and an unlimited number of women for a flat rate of 69 Euros. Close to two thousand sex buyers were expected that night. The women, mainly Romanian, broke down crying realizing they would have to cope with so many men. Some brothels now have menus.

Q: What is a "brothel menu"?

IK: Since the law destroyed any questioning of the harm in men buying women for sex, the acts are becoming increasingly dangerous, violent and degrading. Buyers pick from a long list of sexual acts, most of which could easily be defined as torture. They are too graphic to describe here, but for example you can order a "sandwich" (two men and a woman), "blood sports" (involving cutting the woman) or myriad "à la carte" selections involving urination, ejaculation, defecation or worse inflicted on women. The brothels have "gang-bang" floors if a man wants to bring his friends and nudist floors where all women wear are stiletto heels. Even Ellen Templin, a well-known dominatrix and brothel owner in Berlin, says that before the 2002 law she sold sexual services to men, but since the law, she has to sell sexual violence. These acts cause extremely deep, enduring and traumatizing harm to the women.

Q: How did you get involved in this field?

IK: For many years, I worked as a psychologist specialized in trauma with victims of war rape in Bosnia. The goal of sexual violence in conflict and rape as a weapon of war is for the victor to dominate by destroying the enemy from inside, from within their culture. With rape, women are not only deeply traumatized, they are dishonored by their communities and as a consequence often rejected by their own families and by society. This destroys the core social structures of a community.

Q: Do you see any parallels between your work in Bosnia and prostituted women in Germany today?

IK: When I returned to Germany, I also counseled women who were in or had left the sex trade. Learning about their life journeys, it became clear that prostitution was, in all cases, a continuation of violent experiences in their biographies. It surprised me that even in peaceful Germany, approximately half of the female patients I treated had experienced sexual violence as children. Also, the psychological effects of sexual violence on women, whether in war or in prostitution are clinically similar. Many rape victims of the Bosnian genocide were forced into prostitution. The only real difference between a "rape camp" and a German brothel is that, in the latter, money is changing hands.

But I see other parallels between the experiences of Bosnian women who survived sexual violence and the realities of prostitution in Germany as a result of decriminalization. The vast majority of prostituted women here come from disenfranchised countries. They are being been bought and traumatized primarily by men with economic and social power. Even the women who may know they are heading to a brothel in Germany, often sacrificed by their own families to earn money, cannot imagine the daily violence that awaits them. They are overwhelmingly very young, 18 or 19 years old. When they are too traumatized to continue, the traffickers typically send them back home, and like so many women who survived sexual violence in conflict, they are scorned by their own families and societies. Germany doesn't want them either; they become women with destroyed lives and without a country, so to speak.

Q: What role can the medical community play in addressing the situation you are facing in Germany?

IK: There is no "occupation" in the world that causes as much harm as prostitution, so we have to stop thinking about it as a so-called free choice. Women are in the sex trade because of lack of choice. Our group of German trauma experts has developed a very clear understanding that prostitution is violence. The striking asymmetry of power and the potential for violence in the relationship between the mediator (trafficker or pimp) and the woman generates a form of enslavement and highly dependent relationships. Some patients can experience suicidal ideation, dissociative disorders, depression, post-traumatic stress disorders, anxiety, drug addictions and the list goes on. In our long years of psychotherapeutic experience, many of my colleagues and I are now weary of trying to patch up an endless stream of extremely damaged women. We must focus on working preventively as well. I managed to unify leading German trauma experts who all agree it is time to start tackling the demand for prostitution and enact the Nordic model in Germany. I am also in contact with French and Danish psychotraumatologists who share our point of view. I would like to see the medical community in Europe coalesce on this issue.

Q: This is a massive undertaking - are you hopeful?

IK: We have to tackle this dilemma from many angles. Earlier this year, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in New York marked the 20th anniversary of the World Conference on Women in Beijing. My colleagues and I took this opportunity to send a letter, signed by close to 100 organizations worldwide, to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, urging Germany to abide by international law and repeal the 2002 decriminalization law. We just launched a Change.org petition to mobilize the public. Our voices have been ignored so far, but the government will have to respond at some point. While things are changing slowly, we're seeing progress. Mainstream publications like Der Spiegel are examining prostitution for what it is and are critical towards the sex trade lobby. We can no longer sit back while thousands of women (and some men) are subjected to unimaginable pain and suffering every day at the hands of exploiters and buyers until they are physically and mentally shattered. The oaths we take as medical providers forbid us to remain silent.