The changing fates of working girls

Germany greenlights its red-lighters, but Zambia says hookers mean trouble.

Published October 22, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Oct. 22, 1999

Though widely called the world's oldest profession, prostitution has always been subject to a particularly capricious fate. In some societies -- from Nevada to ancient Babylonia -- it has enjoyed official sanction; in others it persists despite government and religious condemnation. Even now, there is no end in sight for the debate surrounding the danger and value of trading sex for money. Just this week one government moved to embrace "working women," while 5,000 miles away citizens in another country attacked the skin commerce.

Germany's leftist coalition of Social Democrats and Greens is currently hustling for hookers' rights, claims an article in the Los Angeles Times this week. Families Minister Christine Bergmann wants health insurance and social security benefits extended to flesh-trading frauleins, and 68 percent of the population agrees. If passed, Germany's laws would parallel measures in the Netherlands, Europe's most tolerant nooky-bartering nation.

Is this about liberated sexuality or liberating cash flow? The weekly magazine Stern reports that 1.2 million German men pay for sex daily; this adds up to an engorged total of $7 billion annually! If brothels were legalized and taxed (a revenue-swelling proposal seductively offered by Bergmann), German "johns" would squirt millions of deutsche mark into the coffers of their cash-strapped government.

In Zambia, ladies of the night stroll a darker street, although they too are seen as having a deep impact on their economy. This week a news commentary in Times of Zambia (Lusaka) raged against the capital's hordes of sex workers who lift their skirts to flash their naked wares at cruising automobiles. Many prostitutes service their carnal customers in public view on the street. The fuming article climaxes in a drive-by pun: "Zambia must step on the gas to avert prostitution ... Its curse has devastating consequences on the nation."

The primary "curse" of Zambian street-walking isn't anything as benign as perceived immorality. Last month the British Medical Journal reported that 65 percent of the current Zambian medical patients are suffering with HIV or AIDS, which has reduced overall life expectancy in sub-Saharan Africa from 64 years to 47 years. The under-funded hospital system is on the verge of collapse, too poor to even purchase basic drugs.

German whores can profit their state, but in Zambia, they're part of a plague that is crippling the country -- both financially and socially. When it comes to a society's view of hookers, context is everything.

By Hank Hyena

Hank Hyena is a former columnist for SF Gate, and a frequent contributor to Salon.

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