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Theater

German play undresses sex industry

Be honest: Most of us are curious what really goes on inside brothels, and inside the heads of the women who work there. A new play portrays prostitutes' real-life stories - and invites the audience to become clients.

The German government can only estimate how many sex workers there are in Germany, where prostitution is legal. Supposedly there are around 400,000, half of which are likely immigrants. The sex industry turns over around 15 billion euros a year ($19.5 billion).

But where do sex workers come from? What type of people are they? In collaboration with the German Theater in Göttingen, the theater collective Werkgruppe2 has produced a piece of theater, entitled "Red Light," that provides answers to these questions.

Sex and survival

In preparation for the production, the play's director Julia Rösler spoke with female sex workers across Germany. After interviews with just 10 prostitutes, Rösler found she had more than enough material. "I already had 500 pages of text, any more would have been research for multiple theater pieces," she told DW.

Theater director Julia Rösler

Director Julia Rösler interviewed sex workers across Germany

From the conversations with the women who all work in brothels or as freelancers, Rösler has produced a piece of dramatic theater which takes an in-depth look at the business of prostitution.

The characters who tell their stories are called Sveta, Barbara, Yvonne, Elena and Katharina - women whose biographies are a mélange of the experiences of real-life prostitutes. They tell their stories on stage, wearing skimpy outfits and surrounded by a grandiose theater set that is reminiscent of a display window in a red-light district.

Sveta is a 29-year-old Bulgarian who no longer has enough money to feed her two children. One day, as her son spreads oil and salt on a piece of bread, he asks her if he can eat it all or if he has to save some of it for the next day.

Sveta is just one of the countless women in Germany who feels forced into prostitution to survive. In brothels and camping parks across the country, prostitutes earn money to buy food and essentials. For Sveta, it's just a job like any other and she doesn't seem to have a problem waiting for her regular clients in the "Love-Mobile."

Just another job?

The dangers and tragedies associated with this line of work also come to light in the theater piece. That includes the stories of women who landed in prostitution and never managed to escape. They are forced to have sex with dozens of men on a daily basis, sold like commodities out of pure economic desperation.

A scene from the stage play Red Light at the German Theater in Göttingen

There are no taboos in "Red Light" and almost no distance between the audience and the stage

There are women who are just happy when they can crawl under a warm duvet at night, because their bodies are tired and they can no longer face human contact. Then there are those who work in so-called "flat-rate" brothels.

With laconic ease, "Red Light" explores the different ways women enter into prostitution in the first place. There's a dentist's assistant who "always liked bad boys" can't believe how quickly she is able to make money by offering sex.

Then there's the dominatrix who later realizes that there's money to be made by ordering men around. She wonders about how the role playing can be transferred to everyday life outside the bedroom.

The characters in Rösler's play talk about "customers" or "regulars" - "clients" even, just as a lawyer or banker would refer to those who pay. The biggest difference, however, is that their job isn't accepted by society as a lawyer's or banker's is.

"A sex therapist only talks to clients. Nobody questions that. But we do it with our bodies, and then suddenly it's different?" dominatrix Katharina asks rhetorically in the play.

No taboos

Sex workers are also booked to offer their services in care homes and homes for the elderly, explains another character, Gerda. Entirely unselfconsciously, she tells the story of one of her clients who is worried that he'll no longer see her after he moves into an old people's home.

A scene from the stage play Red Light at the German Theater in Göttingen

Angela Fornell (pictured) plays the role of a prostitute named Gerda

"Then I'll just visit you there," she says, smiling coquettishly. Their relationship gets to the core of the job: Prostitutes also help people to feel less lonely.

Julia Rösler's study comes across as authentic, partly because there are no taboos in the play. Members of the audience are continually encouraged to call the women sitting in the display windows on stage and there's almost no distance between the stage and audience.

That was intentional, the director said: "We could have interviewed pimps and brothel owners, but we concentrated on the sex workers so that exactly that relationship could be created, that the audience member becomes a client."

DW.DE