Three days into the World Cup and a global fan club has its eyes glued to the television set. The luckiest ones are either in Germany or booked on a flight there. If the marketing hype can be believed, as many as 4.5 million visitors will turn up for matches during the next month. Hero worship, nationalism and the promise of a non-stop, uninhibited party atmosphere combine to make the tournament the most popular sporting event in the world. As a German cop said politely on Deutsche Welle television, with rowdy British fans cavorting in the background, “It’s nice to see people enjoying themselves.”

Germany, with a proud record of World Cup wins and an economic recession to get over, is proving to be a generous host. The Economist reports, “Stadiums have been refurbished, a splendid new central station has opened in Berlin, and even fans without tickets are being welcomed to watch the games on big screens scattered throughout the big cities.” Citizens have been primed for a charm offensive under the slogan, “A time to make friends.” One would like to wish Chancellor Angela Merkel and the German people a good return on their investment in the cup.

With one exception: there is an unsavoury side to the country’s hospitality that has drawn international criticism from human rights activists and figures from across the political spectrum. They say Germany’s liberal approach to prostitution guarantees that the tournament’s sexual sideshows will bring an increase in forced prostitution, as traffickers make a bid to get their share of the commercial bonanza.

To drive home the point, in April Sweden’s equality ombudsman Claes Borgstrom called – without any fear of being taken seriously – for a boycott of the cup by his country’s team. Ahead of Angela Merkel’s visit to the United States last month Republican politician Chris Smith declared it was an “outrage” that the German government was “facilitating prostitution” and therefore the exploitation of women.[1] French politicians from the five main parties have made a similar statement, with Communist leader Marie-George Buffet going so far as to call for all brothels to be shut down before the World Cup took place.[2] On the eve of kick-off the Vatican weighed in, followed by the European Union justice commissioner renewing calls for a greater effort from FIFA and individuals countries to tackle the problem.

Mega-brothels and drive-ins

The background to these protests is Germany’s legalization of prostitution in 2002 on the ground that it was no longer a moral issue but only a question of preventing crime and disease. Prostitutes and brothel owners can now conduct their business without fear of prosecution if they pay their tax and observe certain restrictions. Those engaged in the trade are, at least in theory, entitled to social security and to sue customers for non-payment. In the run-up to the World Cup this normalization of prostitution has taken a grotesque turn. Anticipating the grosser appetites of some football fans – or rather, encouraging them – sex profiteers and city officials have been vying with each other to provide the best facilities.

Berlin's new stationLast year a four-story mega-brothel opened in Berlin just three train stops away from the Olympic Stadium where the cup final is to be played. It has room for up to 100 prostitutes and boasts that it can cater for 600 “clients” a day. In addition, a number of red-light moguls are ready to turn a major street near the stadium into a new area of street prostitution. In Hamburg, a consortium of 200 sex shop owners in the Reeperbahn district has found the World Cup an incentive to smarten up the area, flush out unfair business practices among the women and re-establish its reputation as one of the global sex capitals.[3]

That sort of thing might have been expected. Truly bizarre, however, are the steps taken by the city of Cologne to provide a “safe” environment for commercial sex. On the outskirts of the city a fenced off area the size of a football field offers drive-in facilities for prostitution. Small huts known as “performance boxes” are equipped with condom vending machines, showers and alarms, and are thoughtfully designed so that the woman can exit easily to the street in an emergency. This “supervised line” concept, borrowed from the Netherlands, is also being used in Dortmund. Other cities may be providing mobile brothels.[4]

Cologne official Robert Kilp is proud of the Longerich project, which was planned well before the World Cup as a social service to the city’s 4000 prostitutes: “It is an area where prostitution can happen and where police and social service apparatus are on site. It is an environment free of the crime that surrounds prostitution and one where women can get support.”[5] However, he was not amused when foreign journalists started turning up recently to gawp at the facilities and film them. “Anyone filming or taking pictures there will be liable to prosecution,” he warned. “Prostitutes are having sexual intercourse in cars there. It is not a good thing to be filming.”[6] Well, he got that right.

Protesting forced prostitution

It is a safe bet that many Germans are far from happy about the status of the sex trade in their country and the profile it has assumed leading up to the World Cup. But few groups want to confront the issue of prostitution itself. Instead, protests have focused on the likelihood that thousands – the most common estimate is 40,000 – of illegal “sex workers” will pour into Germany along with the football fans, and that many will have been duped by criminal gangs and forced to sell themselves.

Since late last year the National Council of German Women’s Organisations has been leading a Red Card for Forced Prostitution campaign involving trade unions and political parties. The allusion is to penalty cards given soccer players forcing them to leave the pitch. Appeals to the German Football Federation and individual players had a slow response but the Federation came on board in March under the new banner of Final Whistle – Stop Forced Prostitution. The German government itself has stepped up border security (for other reasons as well) and is currently keeping a tight rein on visas.

(Just by the way, border security under these conditions seems to cast a shadow over all young women arriving for the cup, especially since, as one trade union expert, a woman, affirms, many of those who end up in prostitution will not be forced but will arrive of their own free will. How can an official at the airport tell a non-coerced, would-be prostitute from a perfectly ordinary young woman, without first suspecting the latter and possibly insulting her?)

The Council of Europe, the Nordic Council and Amnesty International have also spoken out but all these groups have limited their concern to forced prostitution. Apart from what was implied by Rep. Chris Smith and the French politicians, it was left to the Vatican to break out of the straightjacket of political correctness on this issue and state clearly that prostitution itself is exploitation of persons, under any circumstances.

On the eve of cup kick-off Archbishop Agostino Marchetto, told Vatican Radio: “Prostitution, in fact, violates the dignity of the human person, making the latter an object and instrument of sexual pleasure. Women become merchandise that can be purchased, whose cost is even lower than a ticket to a soccer match.” He stressed the responsibility of the German authorities, saying, “the ball is in their court.” Exploited women should receive aid from the authorities to be reintegrated through a temporary or permanent residence permit, he said, and they should be helped to find proper work.[7]

Prostitution itself is the problem

Marchetto is secretary of the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Travellers, a body which last year held a world conference on prostitution and human trafficking. He was not downplaying the evil of these practices, which are clearly serious crimes involving misery and danger for the women involved. But he was pointing out the more general evil that allows women to be treated as sexual slaves: the acceptance by society that a woman is free to sell herself (and sex is not some accessory that can be separated from the person) if she does it freely and therefore “safely”.

Some women involved in the sex trade defend this right to the hilt – women like the much-quoted head of the Hydra prostitute advice centre in Berlin, who said last year: “It goes without saying that the World Cup is a great opportunity to make money. We expect some great revenues. It’ll be good business.” But it is surprising and rather shocking to discover that a women’s social service group assisting with the Cologne drive-in brothel is a Catholic one.[8]

Church-based women’s groups are doing all sorts of things to help prostitutes in Germany. One Protestant group is running a pilot scheme in North Rhine-Westphalia retraining them as care assistants to work with the elderly. The idea is help women out of the sex industry. Excellent. But a scheme to help women practice prostitution in safety is deeply misguided and unworthy of a Christian organization. If it is meant to help women exit the trade eventually, it seems too subtle by half.

In truth, the carefully designed, sanitized, supervised and publicly funded model of prostitution operating in Cologne is more offensive than the traditional brothel or street scene. Nothing shows more clearly than the clinical and mechanical detail of “performance boxes” how the selling of sex dehumanizes and objectifies the person – not only the woman but the man who uses her as well.

Perhaps this is the moral lesson that the mega-brothels and drive-in sex parks of Germany’s World Cup will ultimately teach. Writ large and spread out neatly in the suburbs they must make ordinary citizens ask themselves whether the elevation of prostitution from underground activity to “industry” was really a good idea. Whether they want such an industry to grow. And what that would mean for Germany’s future, not just its passing reputation.

Carolyn Moynihan is Deputy Editor of MercatorNet

[1] “World Cup goal: stem prostitution,” Christian Science Monitor, May 5, 2006
[2] “French lawmakers decry World Cup prostitution,” Expatica, May 29, 2006
[3] “Sex, Sports, Money and Morals,” Spiegel Online, Nov 28, 2005
[4] “World Cup – a Magnet for Forced Prostitution?” Inter Press Service, Jan 4. 2006
[5] “Cologne Leads the Way in Safe Prostitution,” Deutsche Welle, Jul 6, 2005
[6] “Media banned from red light district,” MediaGuardian, May 3, 2006
[7] “Vatican Assails Sex Industry at World Cup,” Zenit, Jun 8, 2006
[8] “Cologne Leads the Way in Safe Prostitution,” Deutsche Welle, Jul 6, 2005. According to the Guardian, the group is the SKF – Sozialdienst Katholischer Frauen.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet