Frankfurt: Turning a Red Light District into Disneyland

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The event “Bahnhofsviertelnacht” is an annual event in the area around the main train station in Frankfurt. This is also a famous red light district with lots of brothels, bars and a lot of social problems (drug addiction, homelessness …)

It’s no secret that the Frankfurt Red Light District is in the hands of the Hells Angels. About 97 per cent of the prostituted women here are non-German and come from poor countries. The price for “standard service” (oral and vaginal) is 25 Euro. The women pay a daily rent of 140 Euro and 25 Euro a day tax. That means seven sex buyers a day, just to break even.

The “Bahnhofsviertelnacht” is not about a close look at any of that. It is a party organized and significantly funded by the City of Frankfurt and the city’s own marketing agency Tourismus-Congress GmbH. The mayor, Peter Feldmann, holds the opening speech. Feldmann likes to emphasize the “positive development” of a run-down area into an “in” and “hipster neighbourhood”. Obviously he therefore tends to soft-pedal the criminality and problems of the quarter.

On this night, around 40.000 visitors come to party in the streets, dance and peek behind the facades: “Open Doors” invites especially women into the brothels and table dance clubs (and also the crack rooms and shelters of the quarter), guided tours are available for free. Tours in which you are told what a great business this is and how happy the prostituted women are to “work” in prostitution.

To make it short: We were there and it was disgusting and worse than expected. Although the claim was that everything was cleaned and glossed up for the occasion: You can’t “clean” utterly foul shabby buildings, used to terribly exploit women, into something cosy and wonderful. You can’t clean out the terrible smell and you can’t make women pretend that they love to stand there, if they simply don`t.

It was heartbreaking to see the almost naked and very confused women, who, as we found out later, had not even been informed in advance that thousands of people would invade their privacy – while “normal” “business” was still running. We saw a sleazy poorly kept older man come out of one of the rooms into the crowded corridor, glaring at us and zipping up his pants in front of us before walking away. The women spoke no German and hardly any English and yet were asked questions all the time, to which all they could do was shrug, saying “I don`t understand”. Some women were so frightened that they closed their doors or even pushed the “alarm button” as I was told.

It was very muggy, dark and smelly. Still, there were women visitors who thought this was “so nice” or “cozy”.  A visitor saw how a run-down brothel room had a butterfly decoration on the wall and commented this with “Very nice. Your room is very nice”.  There were comments like “some have it quite cozy,  with stuffed fluffy animals”. (One could draw conclusions at seeing grown up women decorating their place with stuffed animals – but obviously some people think this is just cute).

One of our activists who speaks Romanian was told by a young woman that her ex-boyfriend had forced her into prostitution. He had promised her a job as a waitress – and so she ended up in the brothel. She also told her that she knows a lot of women who don`t want to be there. (Surprise, anybody?)

The “advocacy group” “Doña Carmen” (who claims to be a support organisation for prostituted women, but is very obviously simply a lobbying group for the sex trade) guided women through a nearby brothel and insisted that all the prostituted women love to be there and love what they are doing. They also held an info event on the new prostitution law, where we were not welcome, however, and got rudely pushed out of the building as soon as we tried to step in. The woman heading Doña Carmen spotted us, waved about with her crutch and yelled at us “Everyone connected to this woman: OUT OF HERE!!!!”) Yes, we … have met before.

Before the event there was a serious quarrel among city officials and representatives concerning a leaflet that was supposed to be handed out in the streets. It had been produced by the city and written by a “red light journalist”. Objections came first from the Conservative, and then also the Social Democrat and even the Green Town Council groups, after criticism of the  “romantisation of prostitution”, and the racialising othering of the Romanian and Bulgarian “girls” . The result was that it was withdrawn only hours before the event.

Still: This whole event had and has a relentlessly normalizing effect on how the sex trade is perceived: People, both young and old, partying on the streets, between all these prostitution spots and voyeuristically taking an avid peek into the brothels. It felt like the area had been turned into a mixture of amusement park and zoo. Have some food and beer here, dance a bit there, and then take a glance at the animals in this zoo almost naked and scared women beside their worn out beds in their smelly rooms.

The development is clear: The Bahnhofsviertel is hyped as a trendy place, and the marketing efforts are international: the Guardian (“Boring” Frankfurt gets the party started … finally) and even the New York Times (Frankfurt`s rough Red Light District becomes cool) recently joined in this appraising chorus.

But the owner of a music store nailed it when he said to a newspaper: “Actually there is nothing to celebrate here in this neighboorhood.”

He is absolutely right.  That event is nothing but another example of the nightmarish mess that needs to be abolished here in Germany.

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