Twenty Four Hours in Berlin's Red-Light District
Rafaela, a 52-year-old sex worker, showed me around the stuffy cafes and dark corners of Berlin's biggest prostitution area.
All photos: Flora Rüegg
This article originally appeared on VICE Germany.
It's 8 AM on a Saturday. Rafaela is 52 years old, smoking a cigarillo and talking to me about how she believes in true love. A few feet away, two rats are rustling around in a parking lot. Over the last night and day I've spent around her Rafaela has only had sex with one man, but says that, on a good night, it can be eight or even more.
Rafaela is a sex worker here in the Kurfürstenstraße, Berlin's biggest red-light district. "My dream man is out there somewhere," she confides. "And when we meet, I'll feel warm, even if it's minus 25 degrees outside—you know what I mean?" Rafaela laughs loud, deep, and often. Sometimes it sounds like she's coughing. She claims to be an optimist, "though that doesn't help you much."
By this point, Rafaela and I have known each other for about 24 hours. She has been awake the whole time—keeping herself going with coffee, vodka, and beer while passing her spare hours on slot machines in local bars.
In order to better understand this area of Berlin, Rafaela and some of her fellow sex workers agreed to let me spend an entire day and night wandering around with them in the red-light district. Over the course of those hours, I met a woman who has worked here since she was 12; a local parish leader trying to offer sex workers a way out; a 78-year-old who sits on a portable chair all day just to watch the women stroll by; and, of course, Rafaela.
When I started the day, at 8 AM on Friday morning, only one sex worker had started working—a woman in her 50s in a short black dress. I met Rafaela a little later, sitting in front of the cafe Bistro Adler. She was soon explaining that she began her life as a prostitute at the age of 18, but only recently returned to the streets. For the past seven years, she's worked as a street cleaner in Berlin, which, she told me, was her dream job. But she claimed she then fell in love with an IT specialist, who, as time went on, started asking her for more and more money—for things like a jacket, and then for a full stereo system. "I thought that if I came back to work here I would be able to get the money together quickly," she said. Rafaela eventually moved in with the guy, but after he admitted he didn't actually have a job she soon found herself homeless.
Inside Bistro Adler, a woman was throwing coin after coin into the slot machine, while another slept huddled in a chair—her blonde wig had slipped off, exposing her head. "Look at it all," said a man who introduced himself as Toni. He's been a regular here for 20 years—"since I was 18." He gets a blowjob a few times a month, for which he always pays €25 [$28]. He works as a waiter by night and sleeps during the day. "I can't stand sunlight for very long," he told me. Toni came to Germany at age 17 on a boat from Algeria. His father paid €2,000 [$2,276] for the trip.
"My hobby is anal sex," he said after I asked him what he loves most about this lifestyle. "I'm really into that." Moments later, a woman in her 50s came over with a mop and bucket. "Everyone out, I have to clean here."
"Come, I'll show you the really beautiful corners," Rafaela said. Prostitution is legal in Germany, but politicians in Berlin are constantly threatening to ban it as more and more local residents complain about people having sex in their gardens and bushes. Where there used to be parking lots for sex workers to meet their clients, there are now luxury apartments. The newest residential building is called "Carre Voltaire," where a single square foot of space costs a minimum of €5,000 [$5,690].
Rafaela walked into the back courtyard of one of the remaining old buildings. Strewed across the tarmac were condoms, a red thong, empty cigarette packs, paper cups, and literal human shit. She then walked me into a garage that somehow managed to smell even worse. Somebody had tried nailing boards to the entrance in an attempt to keep people out, but the boards had since been broken. "Only stupid Eastern European girls use garages, undercutting everyone else's prices," Rafaela complained. She charges €50 [$56] for sex and meets her clients in rented rooms or cars, while some sex workers, she said, charge as little as €20 [$22]—meeting men in rundown places like where we were standing.
Rafaela met her first client when she was 18 and was paid 150 Deutsche Marks (the equivalent of around $85 today). She responded to an ad in a newspaper, which read: "Model wanted for house visit." When she called the number in the paper, it didn't take long for Rafaela to realize the man was not looking for a model. Nevertheless, she went over the next day. "I was standing in front of the door for a long time, trying to summon up the courage to ring the bell." Then she did a woman inside led her to a room where different men would come in and choose women. The first person who walked in chose her. Later, she would tell him that it was her first time, so he explained what he wanted from her. "I was seized up like a stuffed animal the entire time."
By the end of that first day, she had made hundreds of dollars. "On the way home, I thought everyone could see what I had done. I got off at the next station and just walked."
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About an hour later, a woman led Tom*, 27, into one of those shitty garages. Seven minutes later, Tom was sitting in front of a pub drinking a beer when I asked him to describe his experience. "Cool," he answered. "I just wanted to fuck. Just to fuck, without having to respect anyone." And how was it for her? "She said I had a big dick."
Tom ordered another beer—his tenth of the day, he told me, before revealing that he's never had a real girlfriend. "I don't know what love is," he said. "I come here often, but it isn't a place that makes you happy." Five hours later, I noticed Tom was still drinking in front of the same pub.
Gerhard Schönborn, the 56-year old owner of nearby cafe Neustart (The New Start) cannot understand men like Tom. "There is a rapist in all of them," he told me. At Neustart, the women working on the streets can get a free pasta salad and cheese slices, and also find help if they want to get off the street.
When I caught up with Gerhard in his cafe, four women were sleeping in black armchairs, with one on the sofa. On a small chalkboard behind them was a line of scripture: "Neither life nor death can separate us from the love of God." There's a box in which women can place their prayers.
His goal isn't to convert the women, Gerhard said, just to find a way of helping them. His team usually consists of between five to ten volunteers working to get the sex workers into a cleaning job and their own apartment. "But that happens all too rarely," Gerhard admitted.
His church is also in the red-light district. "When this is what you see every time you leave a service, then you have to do something." Despite all this, Gerhard does not want street prostitution banned, as it would "just move the problem to the edge of the city."
Rafaela wouldn't mind if the trade on the district disappeared. "It's just getting worse and worse," she said. There is very little trust between the women. "When you ask someone for a condom they always shake their head."
At 12 PM, Rafaela sat on a barstool in Nil, a bar around 70 meters [230 feet] from Gerhard's spot. Three or four women were working outside. Later, the owner of Cafe Nil explained that he generally doesn't let the women in, just Rafaela. The bar is the only one on the strip where the bathroom doors can be locked. On all the others, the locks have been taken off for fear that someone might die of an overdose inside.
Sandra leaves her house every day at 3:30 PM to start work. She's in her early 30s and only has one tooth left, on her upper gum. Before meeting her first client of the day, she grabbed an ice cream from a nearby shop.
Sandra grew up in Neustrelitz, a city of around 20,000 in Meckenlenburg-Vorpommen, north of Berlin. Her father died when she was young and her mother's new boyfriends were always trouble. One, she said, tried to sexually abuse her.
At 12 years old she ran away and lived on the street, quickly picking up a drug addiction. Still 12, Sandra turned to prostitution to fund her addiction—realizing that she could make in ten minutes what she made in ten hours of begging. Her first client wanted a blowjob, but she "vomited in his pants." He still paid her anyway, she told me. Leaving the now-melted ice cream in her cup untouched, Sandra told me that she would gladly leave the strip, but that she can't afford to. She’d also like to give up heroin, but she can't quite get there. A doctor has prescribed her an opioid treatment, but it's only gone as far as to dampen her cravings.
By then, Rafaela was sitting in a pub called Kurfürsten. Inside, there was one disco ball hanging from the ceiling. Three vodka-energy drinks were placed on the table. With Rafaela was Claudia, 42, who was drinking a vodka and iced tea mixer. The pair were talking about acquaintances who had died recently—an Eastern European girl who had overdosed near the garages last week and "probably died between the trash cans," said Claudia. "Everyone claims to have seen her, but nobody did anything. That cuts right through me."
A few moments later, the barman placed a brown colored vodka drink in front of Rafaela. "I told you, more vodka and less of this gummy bear juice," Rafaela shouted after him.
There is a long scar on Claudia's right thigh. When I asked how she got it, Claudia just shook her head. Neither woman carries pepper spray or a weapon in their bag for self-defense. "If I had a weapon, they'd have one, too," Claudia said. The police recorded 2,345 offenses in the red-light district last year, including 50 serious injuries, 273 shoplifting charges, 49 deprivations of liberty, and 50 robberies.
Rafaela has a scar as well, on her eyebrow, which she got from a pimp 20 years ago. The same guy broke another sex worker's jaw, dangled a woman out of a window by her feet, and threatened to kick a pregnant woman in the stomach. Rafaela had to buy herself out from under him for thousands of dollars. Until she got the cash together, she had to come to the red-light district every day.
For about four hours every afternoon, Horst, 78, observes everything on the red-light district from a fold-up chair. "What else should I do?" Horst asked me. "Just sit at home all day in front of the TV?" Next to him is a much younger guy in a white tracksuit, blaring techno from a boombox. On a concrete box behind them was a packet of biscuits, a bottle of lemonade, and a plastic bag full of clothes, parked there by sex workers. Later, a blonde woman came over, took off a neon green bra and swapped it for a white one.
"Her, there," Horst said, pointing at a red-haired woman in a short gray dress, "she lives right by me." Horst never asks the women for money, but sometimes for sex. When he does, it can lead to trouble. Recently, he was injured by a woman with a knife. She stole his bank card and locked him in his apartment. "I saw her today over there," he said, seemingly without carrying any resentment. He said he realizes that it's a cocktail of addiction, pimps, and poverty that forces many women onto the streets. "It's a sad game."
So why does he play along, I asked. Horst smiled. "Yeah, true. I do play along. But I treat the women well." Horst was a truck driver for 30 years, married four times, and has a son he hasn't seen in five years. As we said our goodbyes, he whispered conspiratorially: "Watch yourself, this is not a safe place. People disappear here."
On one street corner, a 50-year-old woman was sitting out in the open on the lap of a man with greasy black hair. They were having sex. Further down the same block, two men were drinking beer and not paying attention to what was happening right in front of them.
At that stage, late into the evening, around 50 sex workers were active. The local government say they have no idea how many women operate as sex workers. Two thousand have registered with the Health Services authority, as they are required to, but many more could work there illegally. According to Hydra, a sex worker advice group, there could be up to 8,000 sex workers in Berlin.
Rafaela came over to tell me that she wasn't really in the mood to work, which is why she only had one customer all night. From there, she started to rant about men—about how filthy they are, about their small penises, and about how they like to lick her. "Sometimes, if the condom is too big, the tip hangs in your throat," she said, making a choking sound. "I always try to do as little work as possible."
At 3 AM, we were back at an empty Nil, when Rafaela revealed that she was married to a guy who died in his mid-30s. She never told him that she was a sex worker, but would never sleep with him on days she met with clients.
Soon, the sun was rising. On the television, the German singer Udo Jürgens was performing in a silver jacket and a bow tie next to a woman with an 80s haircut. They sang: "I wish you a love without suffering, and that you never lose hope." Rafaela and the barman sang along.
Do you believe there is such a thing as love without suffering?" the barman asked. Rafaela answered with certainty: "No."
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