Against prostitution or against prostitutes? Opposition to prostitution, or abolitionism?

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translation: Inge Kleine


A pro sex industry lobbyist, a woman who was very visible when the German Prostitution Act finally legalizing all sorts of brothels etc. was passed in 2001 (and came into effect in 2002) wrote a very personal statement on Facebook detailing her situation.

She had started out as a woman, a teenager, in prostitution, allegedly “voluntarily”, and proceeded to  small time brothel keeper. Her own “café” cum brothel went bust some time ago, when the bottom dropped out of the market following Berlin’s decriminalization approach, and the woman in question is now where the entire system of prostitution leads women, and needs to have them, to keep them and to lead them, to function: destitute, desperate and with very few if any options left.

In the comments that followed, the usual load of woman hating trolls and people aside, some commenters who oppose prostitution failed to make a distinction between this woman’s political views and her role as a brothel keeper, both of which we all criticise, and her situation as a woman in prostitution, and now as a destitute woman thrown at the mercy of welfare officials.




Today I want to say something regarding my own situation.

The last days have been, to put it mildly, not good. I haven’t slept in three nights now, and wept a lot.

The last days have seen the rise of strange discussions and the dropping off of strange phrases. Things like:

  • Prostitutes don’t know what is good for them, “normally thinking people” know that
  • Prostitutes don’t know what is good for them, “psychologically healthy people” can tell them
  • Prostitutes have not defended their “dignity” enough, instead of, like “normal people” be decently poor (and heroically starve)
  • Prostitutes do not prostitute themselves, because they are in an economic, emotional or other crisis, but because they have a “leaning towards prostitution”

This from women who call themselves “allies”. Some of these women also think it is legitimate to designate prostituted women who are part of the pro prostitution lobby “Nutten” – the most offensive term for “prostitute” in German, and do not realise that when they shame one woman for her prostitution, they shame ALL prostitutes for their prostitution, and that it makes a difference if I disapprove of somebody because of her thoughts, because I think them to be wrong, or because of her prostitution.

Some women let themselves be entangled in discussions with women from the pro lobby. But instead of discussing the concept of prostitution they shamed prostituted women, made them responsible for the misery of the other women and arrogantly set themselves up as speakers for women in forced or in poverty prostitution, without seeing that they were actually talking to  women in poverty prostitution. No, not everything that comes from this lobby is garbage just because it comes from this lobby. Yes, when prostituted women tell us about the exit barriers confronting them, we should be all ear. No, to begrudge or deny a prostitute and brothel keeper like Felicitas Schirow her exit via welfare or social security is not okay. No, it is not her fault if she now, as she says, has to prostitute herself without wanting to do this, because she is being denied payment from ALG2, i.e. the social security that is her due.

Yesterday evening then saw a further discussion about which women we are to meet with understanding for their entry into prostitution, and which do not belong to this group. I have often heard something like “I don’t have any understanding for German women here, there are other ways.” It does not become true by incessant repetition. I am amazed at how often women turn into experts on other women’s lives and then pass judgements. She didn’t have to prostitute herself, she had other options. She prostituted herself voluntarily and thus has made herself guilty of contributing to the general view of prostitution in society, and towards other women. She hasn’t merited anything better now, it’s her own fault she can’t exit because she is being denied welfare, after all she helped get the 2002 Prost Act done. Where do you get this knowledge of other women’s lives? The readiness to judge them so fast? The ability to be blind to all the cracks in our welfare system that you can so easily fall through? The belief that poverty is the only reason for entry? And they even rub our noses into our poverty. There are other people, after all, who are poor too, and they don’t prostitute themselves. So there!

I am so tired and so sad right now.

I had thought, up until now, that we were FOR prostitutes and AGAINST prostitution. I thought our solidarity was for all women in prostitution. I didn’t know it was dependent on these women bearing their victim status in front of them like a shield. I did not know that as prostituted women we owed an explanation to anybody about why exactly we prostitute ourselves, why we entered prostitution, and I didn’t know that we may be condemned, shamed and found guilty if we don’t justify ourselves. I did not know that this solidarity was reserved to those showing proper behaviour.

Up until now I thought we all wanted the same.

Up until now I thought there was a consensus among us to show understanding towards women who are in prostitution and who, for whatever reasons, do not exit (because they don’t want to, because they can’t, because they don’t have any other options, because they have been in prostitution all their lives, because whatever), when they try to make prostitution as good as possible for themselves at least.

That women who explain that at age 60+ they are being harassed by the job centre, can’t find a job and then have gone into prostitution, are being shouted at it was their fault that all the women in “forced and poverty prostitution” are being exploited here, has hit, and hurt me. That women who have had it with prostitution at 60+ and who demand what is their due, i.e. welfare payments that guarantee their existence, are being mocked for not getting them, deeply shocks me. That they are told that this is their own fault is beyond good taste. That women who want to abolish prostitution do not somehow understand that prohibition takes away the possibility for these women to finance themselves without giving them any alternatives, bothers me deeply. A woman who prostitutes herself although she wants to exit does not need any lectures on awful punters. She will know this better. They are HER punters. And neither does this lecture help her. Because she can’t use it to buy herself food. And to charge her with minimising the dangers of “sex work” only because she wants to survive, isn’t fair.

It just isn’t fair.

So much coldness, so little empathy, so few analytical skills as in the last few days, so much readiness to condemn, to shame – to see this has really hurt me.

I am not talking here of all women. But of some, and there were some among them I would never have thought this of. That is paining me very deeply. But even when I said I was being hurt here, they just went on. My explanations were good for nothing. I really have to deal with that one now. For I am only a prostitute. And apparently these are not what this is about.

I want to be perfectly clear about this.

No, abolitionism does not mean to attack prostitutes. It does not mean sorting prostitutes into good and bad women. Into women who conform to our ideas of victims and who say what we want to hear and who get our support and our solidarity, and on the other hand women who do not think as we wish or who do not explain to us why they entered, or who appear too “privileged” for having to do this (because they are entitled to student support – i.e. a public student loan – or welfare, in theory, or whatever) and who we can condemn, shame for their prostitution. To disapprove of people because of what they say or think, is legitimate, if we don’t agree.  To deny solidarity to someone because she or he is prostituting, is NOT ABOLITIONIST. Damn it! It is NOT ABOLITIONIST to attack women for their prostitution! It is NOT ABOLITIONIST to shame women for their prostitution. It is NOT ABOLITIONIST to think it’s okay to impose further prostitution on women, to deny them their exit, just because they think differently from us! It is NOT ABOLITIONIST, to blame women who prostitute so that they can eat, to make these women responsible for other women being forced into prostitution!

I am so aghast that I can’t sleep any more. Some of these things apply to me, too. I, too, was (theoretically) entitled to student support. I, too, am German. I am educated. I studied. Why am I not shamed? But other women in my situation? And why is it not obvious that this means me, too? And where exactly is the difference between these women and me, why are they guilty and I am not? What is this supposed to be?

I am not allowing myself to be separated from other prostitutes. I am not allowing a splitting of the good victims from women who are not deserving of our solidarity. I am not allowing women who were never poor to condemn other women for wanting to survive and to use the possibilities that patriarchy offers them. Often, because they don’t see other possibilities. Often because there just really aren’t any.

I have the feeling that parts of this movement aren’t abolitionist, but merely against prostitution. There is a difference here. Being against prostitution, that is something that can be due to a contempt of the prostituted. Because they are deemed rotten. Stupid. Too traumatised to think straight. Fucked up and without any idea of what dignity is and self-esteem.

And I want to ask all of you to think about that. I do not say that any of you has bad intentions here.

But if you want to help, listen to us.

Do not condemn us.

Don’t play at being experts on our lives.

An analytical analysis of the structures is necessary.

To personally attack prostitutes for prostituting themselves is not it.

If you never had to prostitute yourself because you were never in the situation of entering: good for you. Enjoy that. But do not think it makes you a better person.

It is not abolitionist to use our statements in order to make things more difficult for us.

I can understand any woman in prostitution who tries to make things work for herself there (because she doesn’t want to exit or can’t). Please do not take that which we tell you about our prostitution and use it against other prostitutes or in order to make things difficult for us by pushing regulation forward.

Women who want to exit (and we know they are many) need ALTERNATIVES. The Nordic Model for example offers support in finding alternatives. And financial help and help with officials and authorities. It is a package of measures that is not made up exclusively of penalizing the punter, but that has many other component parts. It does not, above all, place the entire burden on the prostitutes.

A regulatory approach does none of that.

Fines, jail (for failing to pay the fines), registration with the police while that police isn’t trained, raises in taxes do NOT help women in prostitution. Women are usually in prostitution because they see no other option. To make prostitution harder for them, does not magically cause these necessary options to appear!

We need rules and regulations (and punishment!) for punters. For brothel keepers. Yes, the female ones, too. But it would be great to see, occasionally, that many brothel keepers once were prostitutes, and that going from prostitute to pimp was (made) easier than exiting prostitution.

And that is what we want, after all. An easier exit from prostitution. And that women who do not want to, and as we know those are the most, do not have to enter prostitution. Don’t we?

I’ll let you in on something.

My own personal situation is not that good, either.

And I have thought about going back into it for quite some time.

Because I just can’t take this permanent fear in safeguarding my existence and to live in such extreme circumstances any longer. Because right now I don’t see any future, any hope. An activist told me today – yes, you have the choice of shite without money and shite with money. And that is precisely what it is. And I am being despised anyway, from the rest of society, and as it turns out, from some of my allies, too. Because if you despise one prostitute for her prostitution you despise us all.

And I want to make sure my fridge is full. I want to live. I want to eat. I want to pay my kitty-cat’s medical bills. If that makes me egoistical and a perpetrator, as has been stated about other women in my situation, then so be it.

I do not feel not ashamed of this.

What I feel ashamed of is to have women use my statements to make life difficult for other women in prostitution and to scorn them for not managing to exit. I feel ashamed of some women using my engagement to make it so hard for other women, to condemn, to degrade and to devalue them, and when they say what they don’t want, for them to be told to leave thinking to the “healthy” and healthy means: able to think and not “bent” in their moral compass.

That is what I feel ashamed of.

And nothing else.

And I thank all women who have shown me in the last days that their solidarity is for ALL women. ALL prostitutes, including those whose world view they oppose.

Thank you for that.