Legalising the sex trade in Germany has benefitted pimps more than prostitutes. (Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)

September 25, 2023   6 mins

“Do you have what it takes to become a Brothel Tester?” Unsurprisingly, this sentence caught my eye while I was researching the latest atrocities in the sex market in Germany. Legalisation of all aspects of prostitution in what I call the “pimp state” has massively boosted the sex trade, while enabling off-the-scale violence towards the women involved. So, are brothel testers being employed in an effort to improve their working conditions?

A look at the job advertisement offers clues. The first requirement is: “Practical experience from several years of visiting brothels”, and “experience with escorts is an advantage”. You’ll need a “clean, well-groomed appearance” and a “health certificate”. You have to “enjoy dealing with people” and have “no fear of contact”. The job description is simple: “You will test brothels for service, cleanliness and compliance with safer sex practices. You have fun having sex with the different ladies and then create an evaluation.” Something tells me only a man could do this job.

Many legal brothels employ undercover inspectors, a practice known as “test purchasing”. The aim is to assess the quality of “service” a prostituted woman is providing. If it is found that her performance is lax in any way — for example if she fails to convince the punter that she is enjoying herself, or refuses particular sex acts that he demands — she can be fined on the spot by the brothel owner. This is the reality of legal prostitution: it benefits the pimps and the punters and offers the women no protection whatsoever.

The advertisement for the brothel tester was on a website run by Kaufmich, a business that describes itself as a “social network for sex workers, customers, brothels and companies in the erotic environment”. If you are looking for any type of paid work in the German sex trade, Kaufmich is your go-to website. It also offers tips to punters on everything from the best local “gang-bang sex parties” to sourcing heavily pregnant women who are selling sex.

In countries such as Germany, Holland, and Switzerland — where all aspects of prostitution are perfectly legal — the women are marketed as merchandise, the sex buyers viewed as clients, and the pimps merely managers. At the heart of the project to sanitise the sex trade is the language used to describe it. In the Seventies, Carol Leigh, an advocate for blanket legalisation, coined the term “sex work” to suggest that prostitution is “a job like any other”. I’ve seen this phrase — as well as “sex work is work” and “blow jobs are real jobs” — emblazoned across placards and heard it chanted at rallies to promote legalisation. If prostitution is simply a job, then how can it be abuse? If it is merely labour, how can it be detrimental to wider society?

It’s a nice idea. But in practice, legalisation has left women terrifyingly vulnerable. In Germany, the current legislation imposes almost no rules on the punters. Condom use is supposedly compulsory, but as one woman in a “mega-brothel” pointed out: “Who, exactly, is going to enforce that rule and put one on his dick and stop him from taking it off, as they often do?”

Meanwhile, a high degree of control is imposed on the women. They are expected to be onsite for periods of up to 15 hours — until 3 o’clock in the morning — to allow brothel owners to confidently advertise that there are always dozens of different women to choose from. Partial or full nudity is required of all prostitutes while they’re on the premises. They don’t get to decide what acts they perform: management decides what “services” are on offer; whether “blow jobs are included in the basic rate”.

In German culture, prostitution has been whitewashed. There are many legal pimps on mainstream television. Michael Beretin, one of the pimps running the Paradise mega-brothel, had his own TV show, Redlight Experts, in which he reviews brothels. Beretin had seriously assaulted his then wife when he signed the TV contract. And in 2013, criminal investigators discovered that criminal gangs were operating within the business. Significant numbers of women had been trafficked from other countries. The brothel owners were sentenced to five years in prison.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. No other job on Earth exposes the so-called workers to such extreme violence, abuse and degradation. One 2018 study found that more than 60% had suffered a traumatic brain injury.

And yet, European authorities continue to enable the sex trade. In Zurich, there is a large “sex performance box” zone — a drive-thru outdoor brothel on the outskirts of the city — which is maintained by public money. Every day, local municipality workers empty bins full of used condoms, soiled tissues, and empty tubes of lube. The Swiss government spends more than $800,000 per year maintaining the booths. It is clearly keen to make it easier for men to pay for sex with financially desperate women. In 2014, it was revealed that inmates of La Paquerette, a social therapy department for prisoners near Geneva, were allowed to visit prostituted women being held in a local immigration detention centre. Members of End Demand, a feminist human rights organisation in Switzerland, tell me that the idea behind the visits was that the male prisoners could “let off steam” ahead of being released into the community.

Recent evidence shows that physical and sexual violence against women involved in the Swiss sex market is commonplace. Fortunately, there are moves, supported by a growing number of politicians in the country, to end legal prostitution and criminalise the punters.

The problem extends far beyond Europe, however. The picture is just as horrific in Nevada, the only state in the US where brothels are legal. I have visited a number of them, and the conditions inside are nothing like the glamorous images that illustrate their websites. Many women both live and prostitute in a single room, where pornography plays on loop. They are not allowed any of their own personal possessions on display, and are only allowed to leave the brothels — which are often surrounded by metal gates — if they are chaperoned by an assistant pimp. This is in case they pick up a sexually transmitted infections from consensual sex.

There is no requirement for the punters to show that they are not carrying a disease upon entering the brothel, but the women are required to be tested every week. Brothel owners typically pocket half of their earnings, while the prostitutes are expected to pay for their own condoms, wet wipes, sheets and towels.

Of course, this is just good business. While in Nevada, I met with the late Dennis Hof (who died in 2018), America’s biggest pimp — he owned the majority of the legal brothels in operation at the time — who refused to accept the label, because he operated in the legal world. “I am a businessman,” he told me. “I have a license to do this.” For pimps, it is all about profit. The wellbeing of the women is irrelevant. All the prostitutes I interviewed in Nevada brothels spoke of using tactics aimed as dissociating from their feelings while having sex with punters, in order to cope. One woman told me she repeated the mantra, during each encounter: “I am not selling myself, but renting out my body for an hour”.

Prostitutes desperately need protection, but every attempt to unionise these “workers” has failed. Pro-pimp organisations have long been masquerading as “sex workers’ unions” — in 2002, a London newspaper ran a front page with the headline, “Sex Workers To Join Trade Union”. People lobbying for the legalisation of the sex trade had persuaded Britain’s third-biggest union, the GMB, that prostitution was a job and that those selling sex deserved “worker’s rights”. The now-defunct International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW) was never a union; it is a lobby group for the decriminalisation of pimping. In the early days, its main spokespersons were two gay men — whose rather unrepresentative voices (at most, 20% of the entire sex market is men selling sex to men) became dominant in the “sex worker’s rights” debate. One of these, Douglas Fox, was co-owner of a large “escort agency” based in north-east England.

Another organisation that masqueraded as a union was the Red Thread, based in Amsterdam. Founded in 1984 — and funded, from 1987, by the Dutch government — even at its height, it had just 100 members, out of the nation’s estimated 25,000 prostituted people. It never fought a single case on behalf of a “worker” in court. What it did do was act as a propaganda machine for legalisation. The Red Thread only lost its government funding when the international media began to report on the evidence coming out of The Netherlands that legalisation had been an unmitigated disaster. Under this regime, Trafficking and pimping has increased, organised crime is rife, and women are not protected from violence.

Those who advocate for the legalisation of prostitution claim it makes it safer for the women. Those in favour of decriminalisation, including many liberals and some feminists, argue that “sex workers” can be protected by unions and health and safety measures. But prostitution is inherently abusive. There is no way to make it safe.

And, under legalisation, prostituted women are inspected and not protected. After all, if selling sex is the same as flipping burgers for a living, there needs to be quality control of the product. This is another gross example of legalisation benefitting men while betraying women: whoever the lucky candidate is for the brothel testing job in Germany, he can easily pretend it is regular employment, while he is encouraged to “have fun having sex with the different ladies”.

Who cares what those ladies are thinking, feeling and experiencing? When women’s bodies become commodities, they cease to be human, and the men who buy and sell them can no longer claim to be humane. That is what the legalisation of prostitution achieves.

Julie Bindel is an investigative journalist, author, and feminist campaigner. Her latest book is Feminism for Women: The Real Route to Liberation. She also writes on Substack.