Sandwiched between a couple of bars a block away from a Burger King just south of the Reeperbahn is the entrance to one of the most notorious streets in Germany: Herbertstrasse. At head height, a gate—originally a wooden screen installed in 1933 by the Nazis—blocks the entrance to cars and the prying eyes of passersby. Behind the gate at the side of an entrance one-man wide is a red sign with huge white letters.
“Entry For Men Under 18 and Women Prohibited.”
Technically a public street and open to everyone, the sign is more a warning than a command. Women bold enough to wander down the street are often harassed by one of the hundreds of girls who work here, getting drinks thrown in their faces or even bottles, according to locals.
Beyond the barricade groups of men loiter along the narrow street. Some huddle together in sedate conversation, others stumble along from window to window like moths, shooed along by huge Eastern European men presumably paid by sheer size. Behind them, dressed-down women in lingerie sit like bored-looking Barbie dolls on stools scrolling through their phones. Occasionally one will glance up as a man separates from his group, furtively approaching the red neon glow of the window.
The shop window swings inward as if to reveal a secret room, manned not by a cryptic sphinx, but by a girl who says, “Fifty euros for a blowjob and a quickie,” in a well-rehearsed drone.
In a matter of seconds they can differentiate the paying customer from people like me “doing research for an article,” and the modern, energy-efficient window swings shut with a whoosh, eyes turn back to phones, legs re-cross and the process repeats.
The Rise and Fall of the Reeperbahn
Herbertstrasse is just one part of the area surrounding the Reeperbahn in Hamburg’s St. Pauli neighborhood, Germany’s biggest red-light and entertainment district, and one of the largest in Europe.
Meaning “Ropewalk,” the Reeperbahn was once where rope was made for sailing ships in the 17th and 18th centuries. As Hamburg established itself as a major northern port, sailors frequented the area, leading to a boom in brothels and bars in the area.
For the better part of a century, the Reeperbahn, known in Hamburg as the Kiez, or “the most sinful mile,” was exactly that. Brothels and live sex clubs lined the streets and street prostitutes roamed Davidstrasse beneath the watchful gaze of the landmark Davidwache police station on the south side of the street.
However, since the late 1960s, there has been a long, slow decline in the Reeperbahn’s traditional sex trade for a number of reasons, one of which was a decrease in the area’s main clientele: sailors. Modern cargo ships and the standardization of containers led to a turnaround time of hours instead of days for ships to unload and reload their vessels. Now sailors rarely have the time to step off their boat, much less spend a night on the Reeperbahn.
The AIDs scare in the 1980s was also a major factor, forcing places like the six-story Eros Center, at the time one of Europe’s biggest brothels, to shut down in 1988. Waltraud Mehrer, the female proprietor of the Hotel Luxor, a family-run brothel that closed in 2008, blames loud music and call girls.
"The only things up and running in the sex trade are the table-dance clubs,” Mehrer told the Independent. “The discos on the street have ruined our business. Men seem to prefer a hotel room and a call girl to a brothel these days."
Now, walking along the Reeperbahn on any given weekend, one is just as apt to see groups of wasted teenagers flocking to 99-cent bars and crowds of twenty-somethings going to dance clubs along the Grosse Freiheit (Great Freedom), an area where the Beatles got their start in the ʼ60s. The atmosphere rings more like Las Vegas with huge neon signs and flashing lights, though sex is still an integral part of the street’s tapestry. Here and there sex shops sell toys to giggling bachelorette parties, theaters play pornos and numerous brothels like Geizclub, where one can purchase sex for 39 euros, are still in operation.
The Darker Side of Prostitution
Prostitution, while long tolerated in Germany within different legal frameworks, wasn’t fully legalized in Germany until 2002 in an effort to cut back on sex trafficking, tax the “freelance” prostitutes and integrate them into society. It hasn’t worked.
Many simply register as masseuses, dancers, escorts or funnel their money through pimps, making the number of actual prostitutes in Hamburg unclear (the official number is around 150). But, according to police, more than 2,400 prostitutes still work in Hamburg, with around 500 to 700 working in the St. Pauli and St. Georg nightlife districts. These numbers don’t necessarily reflect a decline in prostitution, rather that its modus operandi has changed. Germany remains the largest prostitution market in the EU, and the influx of economic migrants from two recent EU members, Bulgaria and Romania, has created a darker side to the Reeperbahn... that of sex-trafficking and forced prostitution.
Throughout the early and late 2000s, amidst rising youth violence and worsening conditions, several criminal gangs were arrested for pimping and sex trafficking, causing the government to institute a ban on weapons, including bats, knives and glass bottles in the area. It also helped some developers see the need to take the area upmarket.
Modern architecture like the dancing towers that cap the east end of the Reeperbahn has begun to crop up, and many of the older clubs and brothels have shut down. Some, however, see Hamburg’s turning away from its past as a grave mistake.
"The Reeperbahn is the most important street in the world alongside 5th Avenue," said Karl-Hienz Böttrich-Scholz, head of the St. Pauli Preservation Society and a former police officer. "International guests do not come to Hamburg for the seagulls, they come for the Herbertstrasse or to go to the Bums show.”
For now, the fear seems unfounded. The area’s nightlife is still thriving even as clubs and brothels come and go, and the human element remains unchanged: Sex sells. But whether that’s a good thing is a question best answered by the girls who are often forced to work there.