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Liberal Laws Juxtaposed with Rigid Control: an Analysis of the Logics of Governing Sex Work in Germany


Three ways of governing sex work dominate the international debate: Prohibition, Non-Regulation, and Regulation. The German tradition has been long been regulatory. Sex work is permissible under certain conditions depending on the location (vicinity to schools and churches must be avoided), the registration (for taxation purposes), and the migratory status of the sex worker (illegal immigrants or tourists ought not to ply the streets). In addition, one has to be of a certain age, compos mentis, and engage in sex work using a certain amount of discretion. Otherwise, one moves into the realm of illegality. The regulatory measures traditionally aim at maintaining three public goods: public mores, public health, and public order. To these desiderata, the prostitution law of 2002 added a new public objective: labor rights for sex workers. The legislators’ intent was to remove stigma and improve working conditions. This law remains without much effect in practice. In this paper, I try to show why. First, the governments of the Länder refuse (or fail) to pass implementation guidelines. Second, the old logics of interference prevail at an institutional level. And third, individual administrators focus on paternalistic or punitive logics rather than on the guaranteeing of human rights.

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  1. Since the Fall of 2011, this model experiment has been stopped, mainly due to the influx of “Bulgarian” sex workers deemed to be unmanageable by liberal practices. Now, Dortmund is one of the most restrictive municipalities with regards to regulating sex work, and the “domestication” of sex workers mentioned above has happened in a matter of very few months.

  2. All translations are my own. Up until the most recent law, all laws and regulations governing sex work have been gendered: Clients, brothel owners, and pimps are always referred to as if they were all men, and sex workers are referred to as if they were all women.

  3. I am here referring to the exemplary pamphlet collection of the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin—Preußischer Kulturbesitz.

  4. The lists, though no longer part of the official municipal regulations, continue to be kept by zealous police departments in various more conservative municipalities. There are separate lists for sex workers and gay men (including men who are not known to be sex workers) and tend to be justified by the potential benefit to the sex worker/gay person themselves: In a rather complicated logic, a Leipzig police officer argued that if such a person went missing, one would know why, so they would be the first to benefit from the keeping of such lists. “Pink lists,” introduced in the Reich, included only “known homosexual” men and continued to be used in Thüringen and Bavaria in 2011. In Dortmund, such lists concern only sex workers and are legitimized by the fact that the sex workers “voluntarily” agree to be included, again for their own benefit, as the Dortmund Police Chief Inspector Volker Mais argues in a presentation given at the “International Workshop: Decriminalizing Prostitution: Experiences, Effects, Challenges” that took place at The Hague, March 3 and 4, 2011. Equally voluntary photos supplement the women sex workers’ names, addresses, dates of birth, and passport numbers. These would be useful, the Police Chief Inspector argued, in case the “ladies” lost their passports and forget how to spell their own names.

  5. Women who were not discreet enough while working the streets could be forced into workhouses in the 1950s and later into Houses of Social Support in which they were supposed to learn the proper socialist values (Falck 1998, pp. 35, 65). After 1968, §249 of the GDR Criminal Law code specified that sex workers could be punished by up to two years in prison (Falck 1998, p. 87). This did render, argues Falck, sex work increasingly invisible.

  6. Above all in the EMMA, the “Magazine for women”

  7. Registration was not a matter of choice, of course—Stieber was arguing for the abrogation of the regulations of this “vile trade.”

  8. Harris’ book purports to be about sex work in the Reich, but she really only discusses Leipzig.


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The Saxon Hochschul- und Wissenschaftsprogramm funded a research project on the public administration of sex work of which I was the Principal Investigator: Die Verwaltung der Prostitution: Sachsen, Polen, Tschechische Republik—some of the quotations of public administrators stem from this project. Special thanks are due to Steffen Jauch with his help deciphering handwriting in Sütterlin and general help with archival work at the Stadtarchiv Leipzig. And finally, the three anonymous reviewers of an earlier version of this article have provided very helpful comments—and I particularly appreciate the wonderful work of the editor.

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Pates, R. Liberal Laws Juxtaposed with Rigid Control: an Analysis of the Logics of Governing Sex Work in Germany. Sex Res Soc Policy 9, 212–222 (2012).

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  • Sex work research
  • German prostitution Law
  • Administrative culture
  • Classification of sex workers