From the outside, the Paradise, in the German city of Stuttgart, looks like a Travelodge on the Slough ring road. Inside, it’s a sprawling faux-Moorish palace, in which 150 scantily clad women prowl among the saunas and spa baths, touting their bodies for €50, or £39, per half hour. What’s more, it’s all legal.
When Channel 4 got permission to film inside the brothel, they set out to produce an even-handed exploration of what Britain could learn from Germany’s relaxed approach to prostitution. But in December, shortly after the film crew had packed up and left, 900 police officers descended upon the Paradise, and three others in the same chain. Michael Beretin, the Paradise’s “head of marketing”, was among those arrested on suspicion of human trafficking, forced prostitution and fraud. At the time of going to press he was still being held in a remand prison.
A BBC Newsnight report on the Paradise
All of which, you might think, would make it pretty tough to present the case for the Paradise as a paradigm for a more enlightened approach to the sex trade. Documentary director Ed Watts gamely tries to set out the arguments in favour of such a liberal approach, but says that, “It wasn’t an attempt to make a piece that argues one way or the other, but the material speaks for itself. I think what the experience really brought home to me was that however you cut it, the business is always extremely dark and has a profound effect on those involved with it.”
Germany legalised prostitution in 2002, aiming to bring the industry out of the shadows – an argument advanced by many in Britain, where selling sex is legal, but keeping a brothel, soliciting and pimping are banned. Germany has become the sex capital of Europe, and the number of prostitutes has doubled to 400,000, with some estimates suggesting 90 per cent are coerced into the trade.
The unremitting grimness of the industry seeps through the brothel’s velour façade in almost every scene. Josie (main image), who’s 23 and has spent four years in the sex trade, reckons she has slept with 15,000 men. The key item in her make-up bag is a tube of Xylocaine, a local anaesthetic gel that numbs the inevitable physical pain that results from sleeping with up to 20 men a day.
The Paradise brothel interior
The mental anguish is not so easily dulled. “It’s very exhausting,” says Felicia, another prostitute. “I don’t think sex is fun. I don’t like having sex with lots of men. I don’t have the nerves to do it any more.” There is little sympathy from Beretin. “These people are a totally f*****-up, dysfunctional bunch,” he tells the camera. “Very few have any soul left.”
It is in this callous disregard for the women that the show plunges into the pits of darkness. One punter, Wolfgang, says he stopped calculating his encounters at the club after he passed 500. Asked how the experience affects the women, he is stumped. “I never thought about it.”
The women pay £20 a night for their own brothel accommodation – a room they share with up to six others. That, combined with the fee they pay to work there, and a daily government tax, means they are £100 down before the day begins. Only after sleeping with three men do they begin to turn a profit.
The Home Office says it has “no current plans to reconsider the legislation on prostitution”. The German “model” featured in this film suggests it won’t be reviewing its decision any time soon.
The Mega Brothel is on Channel 4 tonight (Thursday 29th January) at 9.00pm