Roving the Red-Light

By Christian Soler

One foot off the subway, a friend on either side, I plunged with my very own brand of reckless abandon into the red light, the Reeperbahn. Plunge is the only way to describe it—the feel of a place washing over you, submerged, swallowing your senses all at once. The uniform tiles and benches of the Reeperbahn station platform added just enough irony to merit a chuckle as I burst into the open-air. If that underground subway had been the rabbit hole, this was a wonderland worthy of Carroll. Lights, buzzing and (appropriately enough) red, race along the edges of buildings and trace the curves of women, whose images move frame by frame across the German storefronts. This is Hamburg’s red-light district: sex shops, strip clubs, bars, bordellos, and the conveniently located Catholic Church included.

Nude silhouette painted onto a bus stop in the Reeperbahn district  (Courtesy Tumblr user Martin Abegglen)
Nude silhouette painted onto a bus stop in the Reeperbahn district
(Courtesy Tumblr user Martin Abegglen)

Yet, as an American, I had trouble fully grasping the keystone of red-light district lore, famous, or perhaps infamous, as the most recognized symbol of those streets: prostitution. Although legalized and regulated by German law, the sex-work industry spoke little to anything in my life experience. But there it was, a place that relished in being unlike any of my expectations. “ I took you there because I knew how different it was compared to America,” my friend Christin Bolling later reasoned. “It’s something you may never get the chance to see again.”

Subway sign at the  red light district (Reeperbahn) station (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Subway sign at the
red light district (Reeperbahn) station (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The shock of the Reeperbahn had not pounced on her in quite the same way. Twenty years old, she has lived her entire life outside the city of Oldenburg, where prostitution has been legal under German law for more than a decade. Germany has a long-standing legislative process offering rights to sex workers. Legislation has extended from the 1927 Law for Combating Venereal Diseases through 2002 legislation that attempted to legitimize the industry and protect sex workers by allowing them to contribute to and receive benefits from social welfare programs, as well as sue for payment in wage disputes.

But, bills and signatures do not translate precisely into effective action upon implementation. Organizations like the Professional Association of Erotic and Sexual Services have cropped up in recent years to address serious flaws that persist in the system. Even legalization has not prevented a disturbingly high number of women from being illegally sex-trafficked or entrapped. Few have taken advantage of the benefits offered by the 2002 law, choosing to remain outside the system so as to maintain a relatively unblemished reputation. The word “prostitute” tends to blacklist women, following them throughout their entire career when not handled carefully. Oftentimes, openness and discussion ends in a prominently displayed “Scarlet A”. If only 44 women are willing to sign up for benefits offered to sex workers, the system has clearly failed the other 400,000 estimated prostitutes working in Germany. Given these failures, what is the red-light district if not a sprawling attempt to create a place where legalized prostitution fits? Can such a place, plagued by the darker moral shadows of the industry, really offer us anything?

Street signs in Hamburg’s Reeperbahn district (Courtesy Tumblr user Martin Abegglen)
Street signs in Hamburg’s Reeperbahn district (Courtesy Tumblr user Martin Abegglen)

Being in the Reeperbahn is my answer to those questions. The experience of such a place provides a crash-course in public perception and goes beyond the detachment of a few second-hand statistics. Between the collections of porn that scorn the limits of imagination, and the nightclubs that pulse with manic energy, all I could do was laugh. It was the truest way to express what I felt—a sound that was not words, simply emotion. Colored by the sobering facts that illustrate how the industry fails the individuals within it, my laugh might seem a bit cruel, even to myself. But it is the one reminder I have of the positive impression left when those streets were behind me. I laughed not in spite of those who suffer, I laughed because there was more to that place than the flaws of its creation.

My friend phrased it perfectly: “When you walk around, you can tell the people are different.” For me, that vibrant, unapologetic difference meant liberation. To throw around the idea of freedom when compulsory prostitution still runs rampant is dangerous, but the liberation I felt ran through a different vein to the heart of the issue: the need for probing, fearless dialogue. Public opinion of consensual prostitution in Germany suffers from the same stigmas as in the U.S., but while German law has not overhauled a long history of deprecation, it has created a space where these issues can demand attention. The Reeperbahn is a social scene, home to bars and clubs that embrace sexuality as a whole, not simply as a transaction. Olivia Jones, a famous German drag queen, can often be seen giving tours of the street and unabashedly confronts the “taboo” of sexuality with good-natured openness. Strip clubs, porn, sex toys, and other things that tempt a wince of discomfort are king in the Reeperbahn. Even the prostitute, the figure spotlighted by judgment and hardship, cannot be swept under the rug by those who find it easier not to talk about it. The movement towards acceptance of sex work is slow in the U.S. and Germany alike, despite different legal status. Yet I can’t help but admire the Reeperbahn’s attempt to force these issues into discussion, to bring into the light the supposed “seedy underworld.” Well, into the red-light for now.

Christian Soler ’16 is an English major in Morse College. Contact him at