“If you don’t take a job as a prostitute, we can stop your benefits.” As of today, this line has been doing the rounds for a full decade. It ricochets around my brain, gradually sounding more and more like a crazed parrot. The Telegraph certainly came up with a catchy headline, and never mind that it was fiction: ten years on, this article continues to be shared regularly by wave upon wave of scandalised readers. “You couldn’t make it up,” some of them splutter. Actually: yes, mate, you could.
The story, written by one Clare Chapman (best known, apparently, for this alone), claims that a 25-year-old unemployed waitress was told by a jobcentre that she had to take a job “providing ‘sexual services’ at a brothel in Berlin”. This actually harks back to an incident reported on a German website a year and a half previously, except the waitress was in fact encouraged to contact the brothel because they needed a bartender. And even the supremely clunky autotranslation manages to let us know that “the job offer was not mandatory”. So, the staff could have handled it better – letting the woman know in advance what kind of business it was, for example – but at the end of the day there really wasn’t much of a story here, until Chapman came along and tweaked it.
A great deal of those jumping on the scandalised bandwagon seem to be oblivious to the article’s timestamp, reacting as if all of this happened just last week. Its swift debunking by Snopes, as well as by numerous other commentators, hasn’t enjoyed anything near the same amount of exposure. So far, the article has seen a combined 25,000 shares on Facebook and Twitter, though neither service was in public use when the story first came out, so let’s not forget the additional mileage it got from forum discussions and blog posts. For prohibitionists, this urban myth is the gift that just keeps on giving.
Undine de Rivière is the press spokeswoman for BesD, Germany’s Professional Organisation for Erotic and Sexual Services, and notes the broader ramifications of this story. “Although in fact the jobcentre never forced a single person into sex work,” she says, “it’s still used by abolitionists to paint a picture of what’s allegedly going to happen once we fully decriminalise (and try to destigmatise) sex work.” And of course, this strategy is employed internationally to hold up the mythical German case as a cautionary tale. Somehow, nobody seems to have paused to consider that maybe, just maybe, if legislation is introduced to legalise or decriminalise sex work (the two approaches often being conflated, of course), it might also be possible to add a clause that safeguards jobseekers from being forced into it. In fact, as de Rivière notes, “We have sexual self-determination as a fundamental right in Germany, too. That, by itself, excludes sex work from the list of ‘reasonable’ jobs (i.e. jobs you have to take on or lose part of your benefits). That’d also remain the case if we’d ever gain equal social recognition.” Veronica Munk, representative of the TAMPEP International Foundation in Germany, adds that “a job centre cannot force or threaten anyone into sex work, because sex work, although recognised as an activity, is a special one because it requires or demands physical intimacy.”
While everybody got distracted by wringing their hands over a work of fiction – or proclaiming that if it hadn’t happened yet, it was just around the corner anyway – one issue that’s generally been neglected is the reverse scenario: how does a former sex worker navigate the benefits system? First, de Rivière explains what individuals can do while still working in the sex industry: “We don’t need to register as sex workers, [but] the government is planning to change that, which would be awful. So far, all we need to work legally is a tax number, which isn’t connected to any specific profession. Sex work is taxed as ‘other income’ at our annual tax declaration, which is a good thing for those wanting to keep their job secret. We’re able to access benefits like everybody else […] dependent on residence permit status, citizenship, duration of living in Germany, having paid into the system or not, etc.”
However, although at this stage the state is friendly towards sex workers, it’s a different story for those who leave the industry and need benefits. “Accessing welfare involves an outing because you have to give details about your situation,” says de Rivière. “I’m not sure if there is a way to prevent that and [I’d imagine] there are people avoiding the welfare system because of the outing involved. I know cases of ex-sex workers having been faced with doubt by the social welfare office – they were blatantly accused of secretly continuing to work, [although] I also know quite a few cases of just that actually happening.
“I’ve heard so many shitty stories of humiliating treatment at German social welfare offices, no matter the applicants’ job histories or backgrounds, and I know several colleagues who took up sex work to avoid just that and regain their dignity. I’m actually not sure if it can get any worse for a former sex worker. [It] probably depends on the personal issues the individual official has with sex work.”
Problems faced by actual sex workers, though, are possibly too mundane compared to the imagined horrors that can take centre stage in stories by and about non-sex workers. And plenty of people are willing to accept outrageous claims at face value, often content to have them confirm pre-existing prejudices. (Besides prohibitionists, the Telegraph myth has been promoted by an impressive collection of people busily factoring it in to their arguments against liberalism, welfare, godlessness, Europe, and Israel. David Icke jumped in, too. I am just saying.)
Clare Chapman’s brothel job hoax is ten years old today. After ten years of this nonsense, it’s time for hypothetical bullshit scenarios to take a backseat, while we focus on highlighting and dismantling laws that put sex workers at risk, as well as ending demand for sensationalist, inaccurate reporting.