Navigation – Plan du site

Space power(s) gender – socio- spatial control of prostitution and the bourgeois gender order

Renate Ruhne

Texte intégral

1Using the example of the city of Frankfurt am Main the paper    examines the conflict relationship between increasing acceptance and persistent demands for stringent controls that characterizes the perception of prostitution in Germany today. Focusing on prevalent socio-spatial forms of control, that aim at excluding the field from « normal » everyday life, the first part will demonstrate how and why prostitution, though legalized and more and more accepted, remains   powerfully stigmatized to this day. In the second part the paper indicates how spatially oriented regulation- and control-strategies are central stabilizing factors of enduring bourgeois gender orders.

  • 1  Original German citations are translated by the author of this text.
  • 2  In small towns such as Bad Kissingen with a population less than 50,000, approval of prostitution (...)
  • 3  Cf. (book review): http :// literatur/?em_cnt=2 (...)
  • 4  As a part of the international tourist information in Frankfurt the City Guide is edited in Englis (...)

2Attitudes to prostitution appear to be undergoing a significant change in Germany today. Though previously an « intentionally secretive and suppressed grey area » (Laskowski, 1997, p. 801), the field today seems to be characterised by increasing acceptance. Until recently, cities and municipalities have tended to fight against « a proli-  feration of the “milieu” » (Frankfurter Rundschau, July 22, 1989) ; by contrast, the mayor of the resort and spa town Bad Kissingen, today talks explicitly of « battling » (Der Tagesspiegel, February 21, 2003) for the approval of prostitution in his town2, claiming it fulfils an urgent « primary need » (ibid.) of the resort’s guests. Autobiographical descriptions of the trade by prostitutes have become best-sellers in bookstores (see e. g. Moos, 2005) and clients — for a long time perceived mainly as an « anonymous, shapeless mass » (Bilitewsky et al., 1994, p. 12) — not only attract more attention, but now a kind of attention with markedly positive connotations. In her book Indulge Yourself (Laß dich verwöhnen), journalist Tamara Domentat (2003) openly argues for « the benefits of paid-for sex » (fr-online, May 2, 20033). Tourists visiting Frankfurt am Main, particularly the « lonely business traveller », are recommended by the Essential City Guide4(January/February 2005, p. 28), available in hotels, to visit the several areas of prostitution as well as other locations of urban distraction.

  • 5 Gesetz zur Regelung der Rechtsverhältnisse der Prostituierten also known as Prostitutionsgesetz (Pr (...)
  • 6  I focus here on the general public perception of the ProstG and prostitution in today’s Germany. I (...)

3These examples not only demonstrate that « sexual services » are becoming more and more visible in Germany, but also how they are regarded with increasing acceptance. This fact is quite clearly exposed by the 2002 Law Regulating the Legal Status of Prostitutes also known as the Prostitution Law or ProstG (for Prostitutionsgesetz5). Prior to this law, any agreement between clients and prostitutes was viewed explicitly as immoral and contrary to public policy (German Bundestag, 2001, p. 4), this meant for example that a prostitute — as opposed to other service providers — had no right to sue for payment should a client refuse to pay. With the new law the legislator ascertains that the former assessment of prostitution as immoral « does not correspond with contemporary convictions and is not shared by large proportions of the population » (ibid.), meaning that the law has to be changed. Against the background of the ProstG prostitution in Germany is perceived as « completely legal » (Essential City Guide, 2005, p. 29) today6. Not only are prostitutes entitled to claim their rights but the whole field appears to have shed most of its former taboos and stigmatisation, as exemplified by the Frankfurt City Guide :

« Visiting a brothel in Germany carries about as much stigma as eating a punnet of strawberries. Visit any of the numerous Eros Centres on Frankfurt’s Taunusstrasse on any evening during the week and you’ll see all sorts of business types popping in for a quick session of frenzied activity on their way home from work » (ibid.).

  • 7  Cf.  http :// anwohnersteigtarticle 6568 30 (...)
  • 8  Cf. http :// /niederrheinsued/Krefeld/ nachrichten/Krefeld (...)
  • 9  Cf. -  /article 6568 3 (...)
  • 10  Cf.
  • 11  Cf.
  • 12 Sperrgebietsverordnungen. Cf. Regulatory agency of the City of Frankfurt am Main, Information zur S (...)

4But at the same time— and in spite of these changes — public perception of « sexual service » continues to be seen as a sleazy and threatening social issue, as « explosive » (Berliner Literaturkritik, April 5, 2007), or a « hot potato » (NRZ online, April 26, 2007) and even as a grave and serious problem that « is becoming increasingly intolerable » (Berliner Zeitung online, November 27, 20097). Local residents « fear » (Der Tagesspiegel, October 5, 2007) an increase of prostitution in their city, they are « concerned » (ibid.) or « are afraid that the red light district will spread even further » (Rheinische Post online, May 11, 20078). Here emphasis focuses not only on better protection for « honourable » people and particularly for children and young people, but connects « a proliferation in prostitution » (Berliner Zeitung online, November 27, 20099) to a tendency towards « dilapidation and neglect » (ibid.) and/or « the rise and spread of crime » (Berliner Morgenpost, June 13, 200510), ranging from « prostitution up to trafficking » (Neue Westfälische, January 11, 200511). As a result, the local authorities’ socio-political approach continues to view and treat prostitution as a social problem in need of strict control. Thus in spite of legalisation and increasing acceptance, the main aim of the German federal government is to enforce « a narrow corridor around legal prostitution by obligatory permits and tighter penal provisions » (Die Tageszeitung, January 25, 2007). The main political steering mechanisms in this context are Prohibited Zone Ordinances12 that control prostitution in a spatial way.

5The conflict relationship between acceptance and control that characterises the perception of prostitution in Germany today causes an ambivalent situation, which I will analyse more closely below. In so doing I will show how, in particular, socio-spatial forms of control, demanded and implemented as a reaction to a social problem, simultaneously play an active part in producing the phenomenon of prostitution as a stabilising factor of social orders and more specifically gender orders.

  • 13 The Effective Structure of Space and Gender : The Example of Prostitution in Frankfurt am Main (Ger (...)
  • 14 This means « key informants » or in other words people with a structured, institutionalised insider (...)

6The analysis is based on the results of an ethnographic research project into prostitution in Frankfurt am Main13. The project focuses on female heterosexual prostitution as the dominant, that is to say, the most frequent form of prostitution in Germany. The complex, for (honourable or respectable) citizens as well as for social researchers « hardly accessible » (Brückner and Oppenheimer, 2006, p. 24) field of prostitution is investigated in this study by a triangulation of multiple qualitative research methods, precisely by a combination of media, document and secondary literature analysis, expert interviews14, participant observations and problem-centred interviews with prostitutes, brothel owners, punters and with residents in the prostitution areas of Frankfurt am Main. In addition the spectrum of methodical approaches is expanded in the analysis below by a historical reconstruction of contemporary perceptions and control mechanisms related to prostitution in particular.

7Methodologically, I focus on the categories of space and gender (particularly on their dichotomous forms of public and private spaces as well as of maleness and femaleness), which I basically conceptualize as social constructions. However, although both categories are open, process-oriented, and in this way mutable social constructions, they can at the same time become extremely manifest (e. g. in   materialised, that is to say, objectified, gendered and spatial bodies). A process-sociological reconstruction of contemporary forms of (regulating) prostitution can increase our awareness of « historical sediment formations » as very effective structures to this day. Spatial and gender-related social processes and structures do not exist independently in this context, but influence each other reciprocally in an « interactional web » determined by societal power relations (cf. Ruhne, 2011). Furthermore, when focusing on the increased demand for prostitution to be socially controlled and regulated, we are confronted with one more pair of opposites : norm and deviance, which are socially controlled (and thus constructed) too.

8Implementing the methodological tools offered by such an interactional web of space and gender, I propose firstly to take a closer look at municipal (spatial) strategies and regulations to keep prostitution under control in Frankfurt am Main — strategies that are fairly common throughout Germany.

Controlling prostitution by controlling urban spaces

  • 15  German : « Verordnung zum Schutze der Jugend und des öffentlichen Anstandes ».
  • 16 The assumption of a prostitution-specific « need of close surveillance » (Hubbard, 2004, p. 1696) t (...)

9In addition to many other legal and regulatory specifications, prostitution in Frankfurt — and many other German cities — is primarily regulated and controlled by the spatial instrument of the Prohibited Zone Ordinance. This « Ordinance to Protect Young People and Public Decency15 » — to give Frankfurt’s Prohibited Zone Ordinance its full title — is the « main political steering medium » (Beste, 2000, p. 280) here16. The primary objective of the ordinance is to enforce a comprehensive exclusion of prostitution from other forms of everyday urban life and in particular to keep it away from family neighbourhoods and places of worship. The demand to enforce the separating off of prostitution, articulated in this ordinance, is supported and pursued not only by local authorities as representatives of the regulatory agency for instance, but also by a public majority and even by some members of the field itself who clearly speak for a « certain control of prostitution by public authorities » (a brothel owner) or at least « understand the public requirement for separating off prostitution » (a prostitute).

  • 17  A supraregional daily newspaper.
  • 18 A similar development — an increase in « indoor prostitution » — has taken place not only in German (...)

10In establishing this broad separation, the Prohibited Zone Ordinance in Frankfurt strictly defines and differentiates parts of the city where either particular or all forms of prostitution are permitted or prohibited. According to the ordinance, areas of total restriction where prostitution is completely banned, are the districts Sachsenhausen and the Frankfurter Bahnhofsviertel, a central district around the main railway station. Nonetheless, within this station district there is a small area featuring a number of buildings close to one other, licensed for brothel prostitution thus denoting a small but quite clearly visible red light district. This ambivalent or just paradoxical situation in the station district is the result of long-term attempts to control and banish prostitution in the town that « gathered steam » in the 1950s when prostitution — which at that time denoted street prostitution — was seen as a large, « overflowing » problem in the city and particularly in the station district. To solve this « annoying situation » in 1960 the municipality enacted a first Prohibited Zone Ordinance declaring (amongst other things) the station district a zone where prostitution was completely forbidden. Nonetheless numerous prostitutes remained on the streets and despairing that the « hopeless struggle of the police against whores » (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung17, August 2, 1968) could not be won, the authorities decided in 1969 to permit a first brothel in the station district to get prostitution activity out of plain sight and at least behind closed doors. The decision encouraged other investors to request similar permissions and bit by bit, in accor- dance with the municipality, several brothels opened their doors in the aforementioned tiny area within the station district. By circa 1985, a far-reaching process of « domestication of prostitution » (Löw and Ruhne, 2009) through a displacement of prostitutes from the streets into closed houses, had taken place18. The new situation, i. e. the establishment of a small area where brothel prostitution is permitted in the midst of a basically prohibited zone, was defined and officially legalised by a new Prohibited Zone Ordinance, put into effect in 1987, that is applicable to this day. As a preliminary conclusion one can argue on the one hand the public municipality’s ordinance achieved its aim in this way : those initially « unpleasantly » conspicuous prostitutes on the streets vanished from the public space and thus from the public eye. But on the other hand, it has transpired that to this day the station district — though defined as a prohibited zone for prostitution — is a focal point of (concentrated) prostitution. The act of clearing street prostitution and replacing it with brothel prostitution has resulted in what is today the dominant form of prostitution in all of Frankfurt (Molloy, 1992, p. 55).

  • 19  Paradoxical situations as a consequence of regulation or control strategies for prostitution are a (...)
  • 20 Although drug-related prostitution is picked up here, it was no main focus of the analysis since dr (...)

11The paradoxical situation19 delineated above is supplemented by another paradoxical or ambivalent development of the early 1980s. At that time local authorities decided to « solve » drug-problems elsewhere in the city by relocating the drug scene to the station district — already tagged as « degenerated ». Against the backdrop of a « breakup » (Beste, 2000, p. 257) of a well-known drug addicts’ meeting place in Frankfurt in which the police in 1980 cleared the « Haschwiese » (« pot lawn » in English), and the establishment at the same time of several drop-in centres in the station district, many drug addicts « rushed » (ibid.) into the station district in that time. This was accompanied by a de facto illegal but more or less tolerated (drug-related) street prostitution scene that persists to the present day20. Though perceived as a large-scale problem the authorities tolerated the situation feeling no real solution could be envisaged : « There is no doubt, that we », that means the police and the regulatory agency « strive to get the street prostitutes out of the station district […] but it is a Sisyphean undertaking, we haven’t a chance of achieving it », as a representative of the local regulatory agency for instance explains in an interview.

12Thus — based on the Prohibited Zone Ordinance guidelines and on a « traditional localisation » and an accumulation of « problems » perceived as « self-evident » in the area — the station district is in an ambivalent or paradoxical situation in a double sense today : on the one hand it is clearly defined as an area of total restriction where no prostitution is allowed at all, but on the other hand the same district includes a small but well-known brothel oriented area of legal prostitution and furthermore an illegal yet (volatile) tolerated, drug-related street prostitution scene — I will return to this point later.

  • 21  According to the Prohibited Zone Ordinance there are also some larger areas in Frankfurt that are (...)

13Aside from the station district, brothel prostitution in Frankfurt is concentrated in two other, fairly small urban areas : in the Breite Gasse close to the Zeil (a big shopping street) where four brothels are in operation, and a small area close to the river Main in which a relatively well-known brothel — the Sudfass — is located21. Legal street prostitution is tolerated only in two specially licensed roads — one close to the exhibition centre and the other near the river Main. In line with the attempt to concentrate prostitution and/or to locate prostitutes as far as possible « behind closed doors », in almost all other parts of the city it is « prohibited to practice prostitution on public streets, paths, in squares, public parks and other spaces » as well as in « prostitutes’ accommodations and similar facilities » (§ 1(2), Prohibited Zone Ordinance, Frankfurt). The only form of sex work tolerated in these areas is entirely discreet (i. e. publicly invisible) apartment or flat prostitution.

14In the following I will clarify the specific effects of the Prohibited Zone Ordinance focussing on the example of brothel prostitution in the station district, which, as said above, is restricted to a very small tolerance zone. An estimated 1200-1500 women work in this sector, thus brothel prostitution is by far the most prevalent type of prostitution in Frankfurt today, located mainly in the station district.

Brothel prostitution in the station district — exclusion through spatially limited concentration and confinement

15Despite being defined, in principle, as a restricted area, the station district is the centre of (brothel) prostitution in Frankfurt, because it includes a — spatially strictly limited — brothel-oriented « exception area » forming a clearly visible and well-known red-light district. The term brothel is used here to indicate Eros Centres or so-called Laufhäuser — roughly translated as « walk-through-houses » — where prostitutes rent rooms in which they offer their services. Potential male clients, dubbed punters or « johns », walk freely up and down the stairwells and along the corridors, passing closed and/or open doors, where the female tenants present themselves in the doorways soliciting custom verbally as well as in an active display of their physical attributes.

16Basically, the reputation of a brothel is « fed » by its popularity, as was explained by a prostitute interviewed. Thus to make the brothels highly profitable and gain wide publicity, effective, eye-catching public presentations are extremely vital. In addition to adverts in city guides and/or on the internet, this is mainly achieved through the buildings’ facades featuring highly conspicuous attention-grabbing signage and graphics such as red hearts, outlines of women’s legs, signboards announcing « Eros Center », « Sexyland » or « Erotic Bar », typically pink claims of « Girls, Girls, Girls » blinking arrows at the entrance areas to exhort the potential client. All the while, down on the street, doormen and « stylish » females continue the enticement verbally. And the conspicuous reaching out of prostitution in the station district increases even more at night when those « red hearts » shine brightly : chains of lights, illuminated signs, neon lights in windows and doorways, etc., now shed any doubt whatsoever of what kind of business is on offer here. The « advertising for prostitution is loud and yelling at me », an architectural student for example, staying in the station district for a seminar paper, describes his perceptions.

17As well as the public visibility of each « walk-through-house », the brothels within the tolerance zone of the station district are concentrated in a relatively small area between the Mosel-, Taunus- and Elbestrasse. They are « the three streets », where the « mass takes place and where the big brothels are », as the regulatory agency representative stated in the interview. Even in daylight hours it is difficult to ignore the sex trade here, in spite of the streets being crammed with shops, cafés and snack bars. Formulations such as « the district where the red hearts shine », cropped up in interviews and conversations time and again, indicating how the station district is one of the few areas in the city where prostitution is highly concentrated and — as a result — highly visible. In this way the regulatory measures have an important impact on the perception of prostitution in the town. Similar to the other tolerance zones for brothel prostitution in Frankfurt, prostitution in the station district today is characterised by deeply symbolic, eye-catching presentations aimed at conspicuousness to maximize income. While apartment prostitution for example, that is distributed over almost the entire city, is barely noticeable on the streets (and for its apparent discretion is a subject barely raised in urban debates), the intense concentration of brothels in small confined spaces by contrast creates vivid, flashy and therefore highly visible « spaces of Other » (Hubbard, 1998, p. 56) — closely connected and symbolically charged with local stigmatising « side effects », as I will point out in what follows.

Spatial concentration and stigmatisation

18As shown above, the control strategy of banishing prostitutes from public streets into closed houses i. e. mainly into brothels, and excluding and confining brothel prostitution to small tolerance zones,    effects a very particular dissemination and conspicuousness of the (visible) sex trade. In this way the Prohibited Zone Ordinance has a central and steering influence not only on the structure and shape of the field itself but also, and perhaps mainly, on perceptions of the field, what the field of brothel prostitution means and also the field of prostitution in a broader sense, because its dominance on the streets permits brothels to be used to represent prostitution as a whole in Frankfurt am Main.

  • 22 The fields of brothel prostitution and of drug-related street prostitution are very different. Stud (...)

19But the perception of (brothel) prostitution in the station district is not formed purely by the relatively conspicuous « marks » set by the field itself, but also by location-specific patterns of perception with intense and primarily stigmatising effects, rarely taken into account in the research carried out on prostitution. For example, the spatial pro- ximity between legal and illegal forms of prostitution may be cited : although there are barely any direct connections22, (legal) brothel prostitution in the station district is repeatedly associated with drug-related street prostitution that is in itself illegal yet tolerated by the authorities in the station district. The situation here is defined by unwritten and insofar « open » rules between the police, the regulatory agencies and the prostitutes thus creating a de facto « toleration zone » for street prostitution even though it is extremely uncertain and volatile. The very individual drug users described by inhabitants and visitors as « pauperised creatures » for example are conspicuous on the streets and are particularly visible in the « queues of drug addicts » at drop-in centres.

  • 23 This is essential specifically for external visitors who are not familiar with the station district

20As it is difficult to differentiate clearly between both forms of prostitution — i. e. illegal street prostitution and legal brothel prostitution — in the street scenario23, the drug- and obviously problem-related street prostitution not only underscores the perception of the area as an eye-catching « red light district », but simultaneously reinforces the perception of the area as a problematic red light district which « of course » necessitates stronger social control and exclusion.

21In a similar manner, for example house facades that are in a bad state, rubbish and (bulky) waste distributed in the streets, etc., contribute to shed a bad light on the station district and to define it as a « social problem » that « depresses » people here as a female resident e. g. declares. The very public visibility of poverty and neglect makes inhabitants and visitors insecure, so that the area is persistently described as « fear- and awe-causing » (a local shoemaker) in interviews.

22And last but not least : the highly visible presence of the police and the regulatory agency in the streetscape of the station district may, in some cases, reinforce a sense of security, but at the same time and in a more general way the conspicuous readiness to combat dangersymbolises and indicates a significant and exceptional level of the pre- sence of danger. In this way and regardless of crime rates and levels of danger, the prominent presence of forcefully deployed measures to prevent danger not only serves to create a « space of Other », but in particular a « space of Other » perceived as a social problem which should be controlled and solved. So the very physio-spatial location of (visible forms of) prostitution integrates the field in a multi-problematic context that is forced and/or tolerated by the authorities resulting in a kind of « vicious circle ». The perception of a problematic field that needs to be controlled and excluded is continually reiterated — almost irrespective of the actual dangers or threats existing.

Social control of prostitution and the bourgeois gender    order

23As stated above, in Frankfurt as in many other German cities the most significant controlling instruments for prostitution are Prohibited Zone Ordinances. Claiming it to be « protecting young people and public decency » it indicates to the present day a prevailing scenario of repeated attempts to exclude prostitution from urban everyday life. Apparently our sense of decency is threatened by the public amorality and/or abnormality of sexual services. The issue is still « delicate and controversial » as Munich’s police chief termed it in a newspaper. According to him, loosening Prohibited Zone Ordinances in German cities would « end in chaos as of that in Sodom and Gomorrah » (Süddeutsche Zeitung, February 5/6, 2005).

24Fears such as these continue to dominate public debates on prostitution in Germany thwarting any increase in acceptance and liberalisation of the field. In view of the broad denigration and resulting exclusion of prostitution, which in times of increasing acceptance and liberalisation is barely explainable, one question rises above all others : What is it that is feared when we debate about the « delicate and controversial » field of prostitution ?

  • 24  For a deeper comprehension of connections between urbanisation processes and prostitution, see Ruh (...)

25To answer this question, I suggest a historical review. The fact is that the demands for more stringent control and the practices of separating off prostitution as they are common today, assumed more and more importance in many European cities only since the 18th and particularly the 19th centuries. From their very first implementation, the aim of such strategies was to exclude « immoral » prostitution from the morality of the developing bourgeois everyday life. General background was a rapid growth of cities during this time all over Europe, connected with a widespread perception that the enlargement of public spaces would result in expanding moral decline. Within a frequently discussed ambivalence — a « promise of greater freedom » (Schlör, 1991, p. 26) closely connected to urban growth on the one hand, and a « threat to morals and decency » (ibid.) on the other hand — many European cities became embroiled in intense « conflicts and public debates about prostitution and all its “attending ills” » (ibid.)24. Alongside greater freedom for male and (initially) even female city inhabitants, urban area growth was also considered to lead to a lack of moral clearness.

26However, the perception of a « threat » to morals and the demands for stricter social controls that accompanied it were applied not exclusively to the behaviour of prostitutes, but to the behaviour of women in general. On the one hand this generalised women-specific suspicion was linked to the rapid growth of cities and the increasing complexity and ambiguity of public spaces, where women in general too expanded their freedom. On the other hand stricter control mechanisms were put into force motivated by the fact that these increasingly cluttered and anonymous urban spaces made it extremely difficult to  differentiate between « decent » women and prostitutes (Schulte, 1984, p. 27), while at the same time such differentiation was rapidly gaining in importance as the bourgeois ideal of women and femaleness began to take hold.

  • 25  Bourgeois gender ideals were strongly propagated in education and child upbringing for example.

27Closely connected to the rising social purity movement, the ideal of the bourgeois woman and mother, which emerged in the 18th and consolidated in the 19th century25, became contrasted with the « counter image of the prostitute » (ibid., p. 137), what meant that « decent » women who are moving in public spaces were required to be immediately identifiable as non-prostitutes. Control strategies became more and more stringent at that time, culminating in the basic right of almost any man to virtually suspect any woman of « commercial fornication » (Schmitter, 2004, p. 66). The increasing frequency of    embarrassing and excruciating situations experienced by « decent » bourgeois women in public spaces at that time was one of the « central arguments in favour of banishing and confining prostitution » (Schulte, 1984, p. 27) in Germany and other European countries. By the end of the 19th century at the latest, public pressure had led to a comprehensive « system of localisation and banishment » (Schmitter, 2004, p. 71), which largely aimed at generating a spatial separation of « decency » from « indecency » by spatially separating « decent wo- men » from « indecent women ».

28Taking into account the above developments, well documented and analysed in historical research today, my thesis proposes that one of the main dangers of prostitution, which had to be excluded by strong stigmatisation and spatial separation, distils to the fact that prostitution and in particular the prostitutes themselves posed an ominous threat to the structure of the bourgeois gender order, defined as « moral » and therefore as « normal ». In this context prostitution not only dispenses with the basic rule of monogamy, but the prostitute simultaneously warps and corrupts the ideal of the (normal moral) woman in an extended way. Further to her promiscuity she simply breaches the concept of bourgeois femaleness most significantly in not being dependent on the financial support of a husband for her existence. In glaring contradistinction, she often lived with a partner frequently supported by her income. In volte-face to bourgeois marriage, in the field of prostitution the male partner often became the « person who lived off the woman’s income and who was responsible for providing a private and intimate sphere with emotional bonds » (Schulte, 1984, p. 43). Many studies therefore illustrate that prostitutional relationships were stigmatised and rejected not only with regard to prostitutes, but also to men who were involved (long-term) in such relationships, so-called « pimps ». They were also confronted with bourgeois values based on the concept of male superiority. Irrespective of their real circumstances, (unemployed) men cohabiting with a prostitute and living off her money were more or less generally stigmatised and rejected as criminals (ibid., p. 39).

  • 26  The bourgeois gender order has to be seen as an ideal construct, which is basically open without b (...)

29Social « ruptures » as described above were at the same time all the more threatening as the binary bourgeois gender order did not develop consistently or without contradictions: for a long time it was « strangely in flux » (Honegger, 1996, p. 4) and remained open26. Intense and conflicting debates on prostitution during the 18th and 19th centuries can be explained in this context by the (emerging) bourgeois gender order that remains « uncertain » and « insecure » as long as its normative determination was « dangerously » penetrated and thus challenged by prostitution.

Gender orders as sexuality and body orders

  • 27  So women in this context had to be more or less passive and without any desire.

30In addition, and perhaps of more primary significance, prostitution subverted one of the most seemingly objective « foundations » of the bourgeois gender order, i. e. the perception of the male and the female (sexual) body and their respective needs and feelings, defined as being completely different. Referring to the « idea of a fundamental […] biological and anatomical difference between the sexes » (Maihofer, 1994, p. 182), which emerged in the 18th century, the male body was now perceived as being strong and (sexually) active, while the female body was thought to be « naturally » weak and characterised by (sexual) restraint and passivity. The « rise in the acceptance of the apotheosis of female weakness » (Honegger, 1996, p. 163), which spread du- ring the 19th century, was always closely linked to the idea that the « natural » purpose of the female body was dedicated — or more precisely limited — to reproduction. As a result, (decent) education and child upbringing meant that girls in particular grew up more or less « bodiless » and « asexual » (Schulte, 1984, p. 141). As a key concept of femaleness the so defined « natural innocence » became a basic precondition for a « marriage befitting one’s rank » (ibid., p. 145). « Decent » women and especially unmarried girls had to repeatedly « prove » their « chastity » — in particular by distancing themselves from prostitution. Within the emerging bourgeois gender structures, the dichotomous conceptualisation of maleness and femaleness now limited the sexuality of the « decent » or « respectable » bourgeois woman to the monogamous intimacy of marriage, in which it was inseparably bound to feelings of love. By contrast the bourgeois man experienced « two types of love and sexuality, which were opposites » (ibid., p. 153), divided into two different and separated areas of social life. These were, on the one hand the « spiritualised love to the bourgeois woman » (ibid., p. 154), where any sensuality was largely excluded27, and on the other, the lived convention of extramarital sexuality involving prostitution as a « valve » (ibid., p. 151).

31Even though the bourgeois gender order that emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries, was and continues to remain « in flux », we can indeed recognize clear indications of its persistence — particularly related to the gendered body and sexuality. For instance, the results of a study on « Love, Body, Sexuality » (Barlovic and Ullrich, 2006), published by the youth magazine Bravo, may be cited. While 80% of the girls interviewed in this study would not consider « sex without being in love » only 58% of the boys were of the same opinion (p. 73). In the interviews a « boy who has slept with lots of girls » on the one hand was described as « stupid, thick and dumb » and/or as a « macho » or a « show-off », but on the other he was characterised as « a cool guy » who was « on the ball » and an « experienced pro » ahead of his peers as well (p. 84). A « girl who has slept with lots of boys » was on the one hand similarly described as « stupid, thick and dumb » and/or particularly experienced, but on the other and in stark contrast to the perception of a boy in the same situation she was clearly characterised as « a slut », « a whore » and/or « cheap and easy to have » (ibid.). Focusing on teenagers who had had sexual experiences already, over one third of the boys interviewed would consider « cheating on their partner » whereas only 7% of the girls would consider acting like this (p. 85). In a similar way two thirds of the sexually experienced boys explained that they could imagine having a one-night stand, while an equal number of girls clearly stated that they could not imagine this (p. 83).

  • 28  The prostitutes’ project Hydra in Berlin even estimated that as many as up to 1.5 million men use (...)

32Those gender-specific attitudes, differing towards love, body and sexuality as revealed by the Bravo study, are mirrored in the field of prostitution. Although the precise number of women working in the sex industry is unknown in Germany, as is the number of clients, common estimates assume that around 400,000 prostitutes (German Bundestag, 2001, p. 4 ; similar Mitrovic, 2002, p. 70) offer their services demanded by over one million men as a daily average (Laskowski, 1997, p. 80)28. According to the proprietor of a medium-sized brothel with 33 rooms in the station district in Frankfurt am Main, « on bad days » he counts 1000 men walking through the house ; on « good days », the number rises to 2000 and more. Female demands for sexual services, by contrast, remain marginal at the same time. Despite legalisation and an increasing common acceptance of the sex trade no change of such gender specific sexual demands is in sight. To the present day one of the main reasons for this persisting situation could be that prostitutional sexuality that amounts to « pure », « loveless » and actively promoted sexuality with varying partners remains « a taboo that breaks with our female sexual socialisation », as an employee of a prostitutes’ counselling centre in Frankfurt states in interview.

The (re)production of gender orders through spatial control and exclusion of « disorder »

  • 29  As Rebecca Pates makes clear in her paper, the political background of the failure is that first t (...)

33Although surveys on urban security and social control in German cities and particularly in Frankfurt am Main indicate that prostitution is « not actually a problem of control » (Beste, 2000, p. 247), the way in which the authorities in the city of Frankfurt and throughout Germany deal with the field actually features strenuous efforts to control and exclude it. « Traditional » perceptions and dealings with prostitution to the present day seem to be unbreakable. Even the Prostitution Law implemented by the German government in 2002 with the explicitly expressed intention « to remove stigma and improve working conditions » (Pates, 2012, p. 1) of prostitutes « remains without much effect in practice » (ibid.)29. Federal state governments in Germany argue « that they found the ProstG to violate moral law and thus to be unimplementable […] or […] simply failed to ask its administration to come up with implementation guidelines » (ibid., p. 3). Thus the Prostitution Law, Rebecca Pates states, « might in fact have the distinction of being the only federal law intentionally not implemented by Germany’s public administration » (ibid.) — an astonishing appraisal, that cannot be explained solely by purported problems of the field.

34The aforementioned historical process analysis can expand our understanding in this context by indicating « interfaces » of the attempt to spatially regulate and exclude the devaluated field of prostitution and existing gender orders. It became apparent that in the 19th century the increasing ambition to control prostitution very tightly and in a spatial way in particular, was closely connected to the simultaneously established binary bourgeois gender order basically grounded in normative (idealised) differentiations between « male » and « female » individuals and conceptualized as a natural order. In the context of an increasing biologisation of the dichotomous bourgeois gender order, the (spatial) exclusion of prostitutes aimed notably at excluding sexualised female behaviour and sexualised (i. e. provocatively, indecently dressed) female bodies, perceived as « deviant ». Thus the « instance of frightening, uncontrolled, vagrant and, hence, “wild” sexuality which is applied to the whore’s body […] justifies and even forces » the authorities in the 19th century « to ceaselessly observe » (Schulte, 1984, p. 183) and exclude prostitutes. As the quotation indicates, societalinsecurities and fears of the whore as an uncontrolled, wild sexual individual significantly stimulated the increasing demands for prostitution oriented control and exclusion measures. The very physical presence of prostitutes, who — for economic reasons — preferred or just needed to offer their services in central and popular public areas, was a permanent « thorn in the flesh » of the bourgeois ideal of female corporeality. Offensive, bodily acting prostitutes provided vivid counter-evidence challenging the « natural » concept of decent, passive female sexuality. Even today and even or possibly just for clients in the sex trade, prostitution continues to be a « dirty milieu » (punter N.), which « automatically has a negative connotation » (punter H.), so that prostitutes working in that « milieu » remain « right down at the bottom » (punter I.).

  • 30 In contrast to the « normal » bourgeois sexuality.

35Using the example of Frankfurt’s station district I have already depicted the « vicious circle » of spatially confined concentration and stigmatisation that persistently downgrades the area and the field located here, produces frightening spaces of danger and anxiety and so provokes interminable demands for control regardless of (verified) dangers. Taking into consideration the historical processes, carried out above, this circle can be complemented and deepened by a circle of stigmatising prostitutional sexuality as « abnormal30 » and so « as a matter of course » as illicit and seemingly closely connected with vice and crime — a perception that also and once more enforces demands for control and exclusion, which in turn (re)produce perceptions of the field and the here represented ways of life not only as different but simultaneously as abnormal, deviant and frightening. To the present the « insensible » and « loveless » (punters) prostitutional sexuality is perceived as « strange and scary » (a policeman) — in as much as it contrasts with bourgeois sexual conventions.

36By using measures of social control, the field again and again becomes constructed as a « space of Other », where strange and frightening forms of sexuality and « abnormal » gender relationships are excluded and hidden. The separation of prostitution in defined « abnormal spaces of Other » in this way protects and stabilizes the bourgeois concept of two — and only two — strictly divided opposite sexes and sexualities, with the « moral » and « respectable » bourgeois lifestyle defined as « normal ». Thus demands for tight controls and exclusion measures regarding prostitution are not only a reaction to a social problem, but must be seen simultaneously as an effective stabilising factor of persisting bourgeois gender structures.

  • 31  I. e. spaces where prostitution is not as visible as in the tolerance zones.

37Expanding on the previous arguments I finally want to show that there is also another way in which the spatial exclusion of prostitution became and remains effective in producing or constructing gender orders to this day. Main background is the fact that exclusion strategies not only create « prostitution-free spaces31 » and excluded « spaces for prostitution » perceived as totally different and apparently « abnormal », but that they also create and maintain gender-segregated spaces — a social phenomenon based firstly on the fact that devaluated spaces of prostitution are often perceived as insecure « spaces of anxiety », provoking a mainly women-specific behaviour of avoidance.

  • 32 What actually means « accessible for all people ».
  • 33 This applies to brothels in the station district as well as to brothels in Germany in general.

38Even though punters as well for example « would be afraid » (punter L.) in the station district or « have a nervous feeling » (punter K.) here, such feelings are effective primarily for women who « are afraid here, very afraid » (resident B.). As a consequence, women in particular avoid staying in the area more or less entirely: « They tell me: “I would neither cross nor stay there!” notably in the evening or at night » the head of a local bureau of graphic design quotes his female clients for instance. So mainly in the evening and at night — when the sex trade is very active — men and [or as] punters even on public32 streets in the station district are often almost with their own kind. And an « exclusive situation » like this can be observed even more clearly in the currently favoured brothels that are more or less « prohibited zones » for (decent and/or respectable) women. Signs at the entrances33 clearly indicate that « entry for women and men under 18 » is prohibited. As a consequence, men particularly within the brothels move only amongst other men. Women are strictly kept out here unless they are prostitutes, meaning they are prepared to endure the stigmatisation and exclusion associated with this role model and to relinquish their status and existence as « decent » and « respectable » women.

39Exclusion and stigmatisation of prostitution thus « secures » a strictly spatial segregation of man and (« decent ») women that is scarcely be found anywhere else in the German society today. In a description of a visit to a sauna club in Frankfurt am Main, Michael Herl, a local journalist, illustrates the exclusive situation of men within the zones and rooms of prostitution in a vivid way:

« Then the man entered a changing room, of the type that can be found in any gymnasium or mine. Green lockers, benches, clothes hangers, the smell of feet. The differences are still visible. This man here is a medical doctor; that man over there is the director of a major bank; the man in the far corner sings in the opera, next to him is a stockbroker. And the man who has just entered the room is just an ordinary man. He has come here straight from a football match.

But then all the men […] knot a towel around their rapidly unclothed bodies, they slip into open, waterproof shoes — and suddenly they are all equal. Each of them is simply and exclusively male. Nobody speaks much; everyone is close, everyone is aroused. They all think the same, feel the same, desire the same » (Herl, 1994, pp. 27 sq.).

40« Respectable », « decent » women, wives, girlfriends, etc., are « literally out of the game » (Bourdieu, 1997, p. 204) here — a requirement that Pierre Bourdieu states as inevitable for the creation of the male habitus. Spaces of prostitution and brothels in particular are one of the last « retreats » today, where we find « spaces reserved exclusively for men » (ibid., p. 203), where « in an all-male environment the serious games of [male] competition can take place » (ibid.), necessary to « construct and perfect » (ibid.) the male habitus. So notably the exclusion of « respectable », « decent » women from spaces of prostitution can be seen as a key factor in the (re)production of a gender relationship that, while it may have changed, has by no means been removed and remains shaped by substantial gendered power imbalances. Not only in today’s social debate on prostitution, « respectable » women still tend to be « assigned to the private sphere » (ibid., p. 205), where they « can hardly influence the games » (ibid.). Into spaces of prostitution (respectable) women mostly don’t even gain insight.

Haut de page


Barlovic I., Ullrich D., 2006, « Dr. Sommer Studie – Liebe, Körper, Sexualität », Bravo, Heinrich Bauer Smaragd KG, München.

Beste H., 2000, Morphologie der Macht. Urbane “Sicherheit” und die Profitorientierung sozialer Kontrolle, Opladen.

Bourdieu P., 1997, « Die männliche Herrschaft », in Dölling I., Krais B. (ed.), Ein alltägliches Spiel. Geschlechterkonstruktion in der sozialen Praxis, Frankfurt/M., pp. 153-217.

Brückner M., Oppenheimer C., 2006, Lebenssituation Prostitution. Sicherheit, Gesundheit und soziale Hilfen, Ulrike Helmer Verlag, Königstein.

Emma, 2003, Dossier : Prostitution legalisieren oder abschaffen ?, in Emma 3/2003, pp. 37-55.

German Bundestag, 2001, Begründung des Gesetzes zur Regelung der Rechtsverhältnisse der Prostituierten, Drucksache 14/5958, pp. 4-6.

Herl M., 1994, « Herls Ortstermine. Salon der Lüste », in Journal Frankfurt, n°24, pp. 27-31.

Honegger C., 1996, Die Ordnung der Geschlechter. Die Wissenschaften vom Menschen und das Weib 1750-1850, München.

Hubbard Ph., 1998, « Sexuality, Immorality and the City. Red-light districts and the marginalisation of female prostitutes » in Gender, Place and Culture, n°1, pp. 55-76.

__________, 2004, « Cleansing the Metropolis : Sex Work and the Politics of Zero Tolerance », in Urban Studies, vol. 41, n°9, August 2004, pp. 1687-1702.

Indoors Project, 2010, Indoor Sex Work. Analysis and good practice on indoor sex work in seven European cities, Marseille [].

Laskowski R. S., 1997, Die Ausübung der Prostitution. Ein verfassungsrechtlich geschützter Beruf im Sinne von Art.12 Abs.1 GG., Frankfurt/M., Berlin, Bern, New York, Paris.

Löw, M., Ruhne R., 2009, « Domesticating Prostitution. Study of an Interactional Web of Space and Gender », in Space and Culture, vol. 12, n°2, May 2009, pp. 232-249.

Maihofer A., 1994, « Geschlecht als Existenzweise. Einige kritische Anmerkungen zu aktuellen Versuchen zu einem neuen Verständnis von “Geschlecht” », in Institut für Sozialforschung (ed.), Geschlechterverhältnisse und Politik, Frankfurt/M., pp. 168-187.

Majer Ch. F., 2012, « Der Prostitutionsvertrag und die guten Sitten », in Jura, Studium und Examen, Ausg. 3, 2012, pp. 5-22.

Mattheys R., 2005, « Policing Prostitution. Ten Years on », in British Journal of Criminology, 2005/45, pp. 877-895.

Mitrovic E., 2002, « Frauenarbeitsplatz Prostitution. Arbeitsbedingungen in einem bedeutenden Wirtschaftsfaktor », in Forum Wissenschaft, 1/02, pp. 70-73.

Molloy C., 1992, Hurenalltag. Sperrgebiet – Stigma – Selbsthilfe. Materialien zur Sozialarbeit und Sozialpolitik, vol. 34, Fachhochschule Frankfurt am Main.

Moos L., 2005, Das erste Mal und immer wieder. Autobiographische Schilderung einer Prostituierten, Berlin.

Pates R., 2012, « Liberal Laws Juxtaposed with Rigid Control : an Analysis of the Logics of Governing Sex Work in Germany », published online [Sex Res Soc Policy; DOI 10.1007/s13178-012-0092-3].

Ruhne R., 2006, « Boulevard und Sperrbezirk – Urbane Ideale, Prostitution und der Kampf um den öffentlichen Raum der Stadt », in Sozialwissenschaften und Berufspraxis (ed. by Berufsverband Deutscher Soziologinnen und Soziologen e.V.), 29/2, pp. 192-207.

__________, 2011, Raum Macht Geschlecht. Zur Soziologie eines Wirkungsgefüges am Beispiel von (Un)Sicherheiten im öffentlichen Raum, Wiesbaden.

Schlör J., 1991, Nachts in der großen Stadt. Paris, Berlin, London 1840-1930, München, Zürich.

Schmitter R., 2004, Prostitution – Das älteste Gewerbe der Welt ? Fragen der Gegenwart an die Geschichte, Oldenburg (Ed. Bremer Frauenmuseum).

Schulte R., 1984, Sperrbezirke. Tugendhaftigkeit und Prostitution in der bürgerlichen Welt, Frankfurt/M.


Haut de page


Renate Ruhne(University of Bern, Institute of geography).

Haut de page


1  Original German citations are translated by the author of this text.

2  In small towns such as Bad Kissingen with a population less than 50,000, approval of prostitution is a discretionary clause in Germany, that is today negotiated in an increasingly open minded manner.

3  Cf. (book review): http :// literatur/?em_cnt=203942

4  As a part of the international tourist information in Frankfurt the City Guide is edited in English.

5 Gesetz zur Regelung der Rechtsverhältnisse der Prostituierten also known as Prostitutionsgesetz (ProstG) resp. Prostitution Act. Cf. Bundesgesetzblatt, Part I, n°74, Bonn, December 12, 2001.

6  I focus here on the general public perception of the ProstG and prostitution in today’s Germany. In legal debates and comments by the police for example, correct interpretation of the ProstG remains disputed (e. g. Majer, 2012, pp. 5 sq.).

7  Cf.  http :// anwohnersteigtarticle 6568 30 . html.

8  Cf. http :// /niederrheinsued/Krefeld/ nachrichten/Krefeld /437429.

9  Cf. -  /article 6568 30.html.

10  Cf.

11  Cf.

12 Sperrgebietsverordnungen. Cf. Regulatory agency of the City of Frankfurt am Main, Information zur Sperrgebietsverordnung für Frankfurt am Main.

13 The Effective Structure of Space and Gender : The Example of Prostitution in Frankfurt am Main (German : Zum Wirkungsgefüge von Raum und Geschlecht am Beispiel Prostitution in Frankfurt am Main) ; a case study developed together with Martina Löw ; financed by the German Research Association (DFG) ; project period : 2005-2008.

14 This means « key informants » or in other words people with a structured, institutionalised insider experience : key informants in this way were representatives of the police, the health and public order authorities, the aliens authority, the Frankfurt municipality, as well as prostitute counselling institutions, a social scientist with research experience in the local field, and one of the facilitators of the Frankfurt « round table » on prostitution.

15  German : « Verordnung zum Schutze der Jugend und des öffentlichen Anstandes ».

16 The assumption of a prostitution-specific « need of close surveillance » (Hubbard, 2004, p. 1696) that in particular forces spatial control strategies « have come to play an increasingly central role in the policing of prostitution » (Mattheys, 2005, p. 884) in many other European countries too, as Hubbard and Mattheys state exemplarily for Britain and France.

17  A supraregional daily newspaper.

18 A similar development — an increase in « indoor prostitution » — has taken place not only in Germany as a whole. In many other European countries we can observe a general « shift […] from outdoor to indoor sex work » (Indoors Project, 2010, p. 7) today.

19  Paradoxical situations as a consequence of regulation or control strategies for prostitution are a widespread and in no way just German phenomenon (see e. g. Hubbard, 2004, p. 1692).

20 Although drug-related prostitution is picked up here, it was no main focus of the analysis since drug-related prostitution is a « specific problem… that differs considerably from “normal” prostitution » (Laskowski, 1997, p. 91). The « specific problem » of drug-related prostitution is here taken into account because of its visibility on the streets of the station district and — according to that — its high impact on the public perception of prostitution here.

21  According to the Prohibited Zone Ordinance there are also some larger areas in Frankfurt that are licensed for brothel prostitution. But they are so unattractively located that they are hardly used.

22 The fields of brothel prostitution and of drug-related street prostitution are very different. Studies on the subject classify drug-addicted prostitutes « primarily as drug addicts and only secondarily as prostitutes » (Laskowski, 1997, p. 81) and so they are more in touch with the drug scene than with the (professional) prostitution scene.

23 This is essential specifically for external visitors who are not familiar with the station district.

24  For a deeper comprehension of connections between urbanisation processes and prostitution, see Ruhne, 2006.

25  Bourgeois gender ideals were strongly propagated in education and child upbringing for example.

26  The bourgeois gender order has to be seen as an ideal construct, which is basically open without being arbitrary. Particularly in terms of a bodily and spatially materialised construct it remains extremely effective to the present day.

27  So women in this context had to be more or less passive and without any desire.

28  The prostitutes’ project Hydra in Berlin even estimated that as many as up to 1.5 million men use the services of prostitutes daily (cf. Mitrovic, 2002, p. 70).

29  As Rebecca Pates makes clear in her paper, the political background of the failure is that first the government of the Länder refuse (or fail) to pass implementation guidelines. Second, the old logics of interference prevail at an institutional level. And third, individual administrators focus on paternalistic or punitive logics rather than on guaranteeing human rights (Pates, 2012, p. 1).

30 In contrast to the « normal » bourgeois sexuality.

31  I. e. spaces where prostitution is not as visible as in the tolerance zones.

32 What actually means « accessible for all people ».

33 This applies to brothels in the station district as well as to brothels in Germany in general.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Renate Ruhne, « Space power(s) gender – socio- spatial control of prostitution and the bourgeois gender order », Les cahiers du CEDREF [En ligne], 21 | 2014, mis en ligne le 20 octobre 2015, Consulté le 27 février 2017. URL :

Haut de page

Droits d'auteur

Tous droits réservés

Haut de page