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Rob Schmitz. The entrance to Herbertstrasse, the heart of the red-light district in Hamburg, Germany. Prostitution is legal in Germany, but the coronavirus pandemic prompted lawmakers to ban sex work in March.
Among the twisting alleys of the St. Pauli district in Hamburg is the Reeperbahn, Germany's busiest red-light district. One stretch, Herbertstrasse, is blocked off to women who aren't sex workers. Usually, "you can get whatever you want if you go on the right street," says Natalie, a Hamburg brothel manager. NPR is using only her first name to protect her identity as a figure in a controversial industry that's come under increased police scrutiny.
But now, "it's a ghost town," Natalie says. Prostitution is legal and regulated in Germany, but lawmakers banned it in March to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. At the start of the summer, as this country and the rest of Europe began to reopen their economies, Germany's prostitution ban remained in place.
That has angered sex workers and brothel owners and managers such as Natalie, who say the prohibition has not only meant a sudden loss of income, but, more importantly, it has put the workers' lives in danger.
Natalie rents her brothel from a landlord and leases rooms to dozens of sex workers who charge their clients hourly rates. This economic chain, estimated to include as many as half a million sex workers and billions of dollars in revenue nationwide, was broken when the authorities shut the brothels. The workers responded over the summer with protests in Cologne, Berlin and Hamburg, demanding that the government let them go back to work, but Germany's government hasn't budged.