The hooker with the bedpan of gold

A new program in Germany turns prostitutes into nurses.


Page Rockwell
March 16, 2006 8:00PM (UTC)

Sex workers may be surprised to learn that their unique people skills set them up nicely for jobs in another growth industry: geriatric care. German newsmagazine Der Spiegel reports that a state-sponsored pilot program in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia is retraining prostitutes to work as elder-care nurses.

In a strategy Der Spiegel describes as "off the street and into the old-folks home," former prostitutes will get two years' training in nursing and elder-care basics and then help fill the nation's 6,400 nursing-industry job vacancies. "Prostitution can offer true qualifications," dominatrix-turned-nurse Gisela Zohren explains, because sex workers are used to performing tasks others consider undesirable. Program organizer Rita Kühn concurs, saying that "prostitutes have 'good people skills,' aren't easily disgusted and have 'zero fear of contact,'" Spiegel reports.

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Spiegel then takes the comparison a little too far, noting that Zohren "found the wishes of many of her former customers weren't so different from her nursing home work with bedpans and washcloths. She often used to play the role of nanny -- albeit with a whip." Yeah, I've often remarked that playing nanny-with-a-whip is much like washing out a bedpan. Certainly both professions have the potential to be uncomfortably intimate and icky, but the power dynamic, pay grade, risks involved, ability to set your own schedule and the fact that one client population needs your services for medical reasons while the other wants them for pleasure are presumably pretty different. Still, Zohren sounds like she's on to something when she says, "I learned to listen and to convey a feeling of safety. Isn't that exactly what's missing so much in care for the elderly?"

And trading a potentially dangerous job in an insecure profession for more regular employment surely offers some advantages. Zohren says at least half of the women she knows through a local prostitute help center want to get out of the industry. That's probably in part because the field doesn't offer much in the way of benefits or career longevity, but it's also apparently because Germany's total number of prostitutes has risen dramatically, and the competition is driving prices down. Now, Spiegel reports, "a john can get pretty much anything he wants" for 30 euros (about $36).

The nursing program is garnering praise -- a spokesperson for the country's Federal Labor Agency called the scheme "very coherent" -- but organizers still face one significant challenge: How to persuade elder-care facilities to prize prostitutes' skills without advertising that they used to be prostitutes. Der Spiegel notes that program coordinators are "hoping for absolute discretion from nursing managers to avoid elderly men demanding erotic services from their new nurses." Well, here's hoping.


Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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