In Germany, Sex Workers Feed a Meter

A ticket machine prints receipts for those who work the streets. Oliver Berg/DPA, via Agence France-Presse – Getty Images

NY Times | Aug 31, 2011


BERLIN — The city of Bonn has begun collecting taxes from prostitutes with an automated pay station similar to a parking meter, proving again that German efficiency knows few if any bounds.

Bonn is not the only city in Germany to charge such a tax, but it is the first to hit upon the idea of a ticket machine that prints out receipts for the nightly flat fee of 6 euros (currently about $8.65) for the privilege of streetwalking. The meter went into service over the weekend, and by Monday morning had collected $382 for the city’s coffers.

Prostitution is legal in Germany; the Reeperbahn in Hamburg is one of the largest red-light districts in Europe. Attempts are often made to regulate the industry, unionize the workers and tax the proceeds, but they are not always effective, given both the discretion and the unpredictability that are inherent in the business.

Street prostitution as practiced in Bonn, once the capital of West Germany and a town better known for sleepiness than sexiness, would be unfamiliar to many people outside Germany for its unusual degree of organization and institutionalization.

The women wait for customers on a stretch of the Immenburgstrasse in a largely industrial part of the city. In addition to the Siemens-built meter machine, which cost $11,575 including installation, the city has built special wooden garages nearby where customers can park their cars and have sex.

“They are called, in fairest and finest administrative High German, ‘performance areas,’ but I believe the Italian prime minister would say ‘bunga bunga,’ ” said Monika Frömbgen, a spokeswoman for the city. Still, she said, the serious issue that the meter was intended to address boils down to tax fairness.

“The women in the bordellos and the sauna clubs also pay the tax, and so should those working on the streets,” Ms. Frömbgen said.

The city estimates that it has 200 sex workers, of whom about 20 ply their trade on the street. The Bonn government spends $116,000 a year for a private security company to guard the area and to provide security for the sex workers.

Under the new meter system, street prostitutes must purchase the tickets to work between the hours of 8:15 p.m. and 6 a.m. Leaflets explaining the system, translated into several languages, are handed out to the prostitutes. After one warning, a sex worker caught working without a ticket would be fined up to $145.

Opinion was divided Wednesday on Bonn’s blocklong strip where the women cruise for customers.

“The other night I worked all night but didn’t get any work, but I still had to pay it,” said a young woman from Hungary who gave her name only as Monica and said she thought the new system “stinks.”

Vero, a middle-age woman who spoke Italian but no German, said the tax was “proper.”

“It’s like rent, food or all the other things everybody has to pay for,” said the woman, who declined to give her last name.

Franz-Reinhard Habbel, a spokesman for the German Association of Cities and Municipalities, said he expected other cities “to follow Bonn’s example.” The country’s 11,000 municipalities are struggling under a combined $11 billion in debt and are searching for new, “relatively simple” sources of income, he said.

Advocates for sex workers say the tax is unfair because prostitutes in Germany already pay income taxes. But the meter itself is not an issue, said Mechthild Eickel, a spokeswoman for Germany’s Alliance of Counseling Centers for Sex Workers. “An automat is no worse than a person,” she said.

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