Ever been in a brothel?

She smiles incessantly. Talks and smiles. Around her men and women are standing close together, the women dressed in clothes that accentuate their bodies. A nod here, a hello there, more smiling. She has a nice, big mouth.

Even when she scolds someone she carries on smiling. Her white teeth sparkle between her lipstick coloured lips. After all, there is a reason for smiling. She has become famous during the last few months. Almost every significant newspaper has written about her, photographers queue for her, she has been invited from one talkshow to another. Everywhere she has been smiling. Almost everybody in Berlin knows her name. This is all because she gained a hard-won victory, for which some people envy and others congratulate her. Felicitas Weigmann is the first official and legal owner of a brothel in Berlin. The case of her "Cafe Pssst", situated in the respectable Wilmersdorf borough, lasted almost a month. At the end of December it became clear: the brothel can remain and prostitution is, according to the court, no longer immoral on principle.

"It’s a matter of pure interpretation", realises Felicitas Weigmann. She says: "I don’t do anything bad here, I just stand by what I’m doing", but "It makes me terribly sick, that the state dictates what women are allowed to do and what not". Then she cites Article Twelve of the German Constitution, where the freedom to choose and carry out one’s career is assured. Because she loves to talk a lot and exaggeratedly, she adds: "The state is the real pimp. After all, it’s the state which drives women to prostitution because there is not enough money to live a proper life".

Her brothel has had its own homepage for quite a long time already. Besides the diary of her success one can click through the available "models". Now the clients come from all over Germany. Very soon the "Pssst" is going to move into bigger premises with a dance floor. Recently Felicitas Weigmann released her first CD. Sometimes she takes out her red spotlight and gives spontaneous live concerts. That happened right after the end of her case in front of the court building, where she sang a remake of a traditional German nursery rhyme: "Weißt du wie viele Bordelle stehen in dem braven Wilmersdorf…" ("Do you know how many brothels are standing there in well-behaved Wilmersdorf…"). It seems as if she is always in the best of moods.

The accusation of forcing women, especially young girls, into prostitution or hindering them from opting out is, she says, "the biggest lie of all times". According to her, the marriage market in her brothel is bigger than in any disco. Furthermore there were some women who found their way back to "normal" jobs.

Regine Laaser, who worked as a prostitute herself for more than ten years, belongs to those women who look critically at the public behaviour of such "star-whores" as Felicitas Weigmann. Such "personal triumphs" give young girls and women wrong signals, observes the woman who now works as a social education worker and head of the meeting and advice point for prostitutes, HYDRA.

She herself does not know any whore who is really satisfied with her job. In fact she has sympathy for every woman who decides to do the job, because "one always is keen on something at different points in one’s life, and so be it". In addition nobody can blame a woman for wishing for power and money, which play an important role in prostitution. But neither did she ever feel "mental satisfaction" for herself, nor did she ever hear a prostitute talking about it. Instead, one gets lost in an illusion and creates an artificial, hourly paradise for men – not even for oneself. No, she just cannot bear it anymore when prostitutes praise their job in public. Instead she gets angry about the role of women caught up in this vicious circle – "because we serve what men desire".

Regine Laaser therefore strives for a clear change of direction concerning the work of HYDRA – away from fighting for recognition and acceptance, towards a strengthening of the opting out projects. Prostitution is still not recognised as a profession and prostitutes are not entitled to get social insurance even if they pay taxes. But, in her view, at least the "oldest profession in the world" is accepted now and as "a societal phenomenon" no longer discriminated against. Nevertheless it remains in principle an "unwanted phenomenon", paradoxically for women as well as for men, since "all men want is a prostitute for their bed, but no one wants to get married to a whore".

HYDRA offers more than fifty events about prostitution for pupils, students and working people a year. For the last couple of years Regine Laaser has been teaching at the Free University of Berlin. Nothing in her appearance evokes her former profession. The former drug-consuming A-level schoolgirl, nursery school teacher, then prostitute, convicted pimp and, last but not least, social education graduate turned into a woman who reflects on her previous life and seeks solutions for others in the same situation. She says: "I always do the things I’m most afraid of, because one can learn most out of them". Her small, white_painted office is flooded with light and sparsely furnished. The only decorations are a cut-out copy of a painting showing a woman holding her child and a photograph of her fifteen-year old son.

For ten years she has been working for HYDRA. The advice centre once helped her during a court case for procuring. Now she and her five colleagues attend conferences about prostitution twice a year in order to stay in touch with other organisations and to learn about new developments.

One of the most relevant topics of the last conferences dealt with both legal and illegal foreign women who are more or less voluntarily working as prostitutes in Germany. These women are generally not welcomed by their German colleagues and no organisation feels that it is responsible for them. They sell their bodies for less and often are more willing to work without condoms because of their situation as a victim without rights.

Since the fall of the wall the trade in women from Eastern Europe has flourished. In a simple brothel in one of Berlin’s trendy boroughs the women, with a few exceptions, speak only Polish or Russian. The fortunate few have a smattering of German or English. A young Ukrainian woman in a long white dress stands out because of her excellent English. Julya, let this be her name for this article, says that she is an economics graduate. It seems credible, not only because of her knowledge of English. The proud, pleasant woman tells her story: until recently she owned a small enterprise in the Ukrainian capital Kiev. But the enterprise went bankrupt during one of her country’s constant changes. Her fiancee died in an accident 21 days before their planned marriage date.

Thus she decided to follow an "offer" to work in Germany. At least there are some Russian-German relatives living nearby, where she could find shelter – they think she is working as a barmaid. In addition, her widowed, unemployed mother and her little sister, to whom she is sending money every month, do not know where the money comes from. She says that she does not like to talk about her job, because it is "immoral". But, after all, she does not see another way out, and "at least it will be only temporary". In a few weeks she will take up a friend’s offer of work: he owns a restaurant in Spain, she asserts.

Meanwhile the "Cafe Pssst" has become full of people. At the bar an obviously well-off man complains to a nice young woman about the loss of trust in our times. Maybe later they will disappear together through the door at the end of the small room – for a paid hour in a fantasy world. Felicitas Weigmann mingles again with her guests. She talks excitedly to two men, who brought Chinese straw hats at the famous Berlin "Green Week". Now she is wearing one of them. She is still smiling. In the early morning hours she probably will go home alone. Maybe the man with whom she is currently in love will be there waiting for her.. But probably not, since on this very day he made her understand that he cannot love a brothel owner.

Every day 1.2 million German men pay for sex. An investigation from the Ministry of Health shows that almost every fifth German man regularly spends time with a prostitute. Most clients are between 30 and 40 years old.Prostitution in Germany is not criminal on principle. However, it is a crime to promote prostitution, which, strictly speaking, includes the running of brothels or the placing of condoms in hotel rooms.The number of prostitutes in Germany varies from source to source: between 50.000 and 400.000 women.

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