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Whether it’s prostitutes or Uber drivers, we’re seeing a fight over what people can be tricked into doing ever more cheaply.
On Thursday, 900 police descended on Club Artemis in Berlin, one of the biggest brothels in a country packed with such sex warehouses. They were hunting sex traffickers, but mainly they were cracking down on a tax scam that resembles the Uber fight we’re having here.
Few industries are as fraudulent and exploitive as prostitution. Are Artemis prostitutes employees? Or freelancers? Since opening in 2006, Artemis had allegedly evaded $25.5 million in social security payments by forcing the women to call themselves “self-employed,” though many of them worked and lived there, following house rules and sleeping upstairs in dormitories.
The club, a white barracks of a building near highways and a convention centre, attracts locals as well as men across Europe stopping in for sex with village girls from destitute Eastern Europe. The women pay €80 to enter, just as buyers do (Sundays and Monday half-price for seniors), charge €60 for an initial half-hour of sex, and then charge whatever the greasy market in their flesh-toned bathrobes will bear. Anal sex costs €150-200.
I managed to visit Club Artemis in 2014 only because its owners were excited about the possibility of setting up shop in Canada, perhaps near Pearson airport. The place was harrowing. It was huge, windowless and warm, with strange odours. I still dream about it.
The Supreme Court of Canada had given the Harper government one year to come up with a new law to make prostitutes safer. Otherwise it would allow brothels in Canada. So Canada basically adopted the Nordic Model, which penalizes buyers rather than sellers, though Harper offered almost no money to help women escape the trade.
Feminist in intent, the Nordic Model began in Sweden and is being made into law across European nations.
Not in Germany. The Artemis setup was designed to make the prostituted women look independent, with sex so cheap they were practically volunteering. The hard “feminist” left won its campaign to have prostitution legalized in 2002, labelling it a victory for women. There are said to be 400,000 prostitutes in Germany but almost none have registered as such, fearing that the licence will label and doom them to restrictive life where they will be unable to cross borders.
Germany has now become the bordello of Europe, and it’s not happy about it. A new law next year might help, mandating condoms and banning “flat rate sex” which means gangbangs. It’s ironic that the recent sex attacks in German train stations were said to be committed by immigrants who think very little of women. But Germany as a nation has never treated women well, its rape laws lax and workplace equality still distant.
Meanwhile, France, which has up to 40,000 prostitutes, many foreign, has finally criminalized paying for sex, fining men up to $5,500 and sending them to john school.
But I notice a pattern in the resistance to the Nordic Model. There’s the old verbiage battle between “prostitute,” which sounds ugly, and “sex worker,” which sounds as though sex with strangers is like being regional sales co-ordinator for your own genitals.
In these times, the battle is over defining jobs and job conditions. We’re told that prostitutes, like Uber drivers, are cool entrepreneurs doing casual “ride-sharing” for extra money. And we’re seeing a battle in Toronto city council over how Uber drivers can be exploited. I say they’re cabbies, and they need commercial insurance, snow tires, vehicle inspections and so on. They must charge HST and pay tax on their earnings, which are digitally tracked.
But whether it’s prostitutes or Uber drivers, we’re seeing a fight over what people can be tricked into doing ever more cheaply, taking on personal risk. The definition of precarious modern jobs — are they permanent, part-time, contract or on-call — is a crucial part of this.
Are you an Airbnb “host” or are you running an illegal boarding house? Think before you answer.
The sex-work lobby does this too, muddying definitions. They say they want to fight stigma, but there will always be a stigma in exploitative work. Do you want your small daughter to dream of selling her body when she grows up? No, you don’t.
But I say the stigma should land on the sex buyer, the men who exploit their economic power. Prostitution is the last gasp of an ancient male belief in the right to dominate and abuse women. It’s time to call prostitutes, Uber drivers and Airbnbers what they are: not happy campers but people in a real economic squeeze.