Taxing times for Bonn’s street hookers

Selling sex is an odd profession, full of fiercely independent mavericks who are happy with a very flexible life outside the mainstream, while equally happy to moan about marginalisation. And there’s a fair bit of moaning going on in Bonn at the moment, after the local government installed “pay and display” tax machines for people who sell sex on the streets.

The move has put the spotlight on something I’ve always been mildly irritated by: the voices that lobby for decriminalisation of sex work, while objecting to legalisation. For those that don’t spend their days splitting hairs over such issues, here’s the difference, as I understand it. Decriminalisation allows me to sell sex without fear of arrest or penalty, while still whining about being marginalised and having special needs. Legalisation means I can sell sex in the same way that I can sell software or plumbing services, which means doing a whole lot of paperwork, paying a whole lot of taxes, and being subject to whatever boring occupational health and safety regulations are appropriate to my trade. In other words, there’s nothing special about me at all.

Prostitution has been legal in Germany for nearly a decade. Rules, regulations and taxes are the downside of that. On the upside, some people can get sex on social security, to support their mental health. But even in Germany, there’s a gray market. People working in brothels are better at doing their paperwork than people who freelance on the streets, it seems. In a pre-emptive attempt to collect tax from cash-in-hand street workers, the Bonn government is collecting a flat €6 a night from each of them. Stick your debit card in the machine, get your ticket for the night and you’re off.

According to Der Speigel, the city government is hoping to earn €200,000 a year from this venture. That’s an average of around 90 permits a night — one paid-up street worker per 1,160 men aged 15-64 (I’m blithely assuming that most of the buyers are male, regardless of the gender of the seller). Predictably, a sex worker rights group is complaining that the flat-rate tax is unfair. Others pay income tax on a sliding scale depending on what they have earned — why should hookers have to pay up in advance, even if they don’t get any clients in a given night?

Well yes. At recessionarry prices of maybe €30 a trick, a €6 tax is a lot if you average one trick or fewer per working night. But with Germany’s base tax rate at 14%, if you average at least a trick and a half per worknight, you’re ahead of the game compared with sellers of software or plumbing.

Of course no-one likes to pay taxes. It’s just the price of not being marginalised.

Thanks to Jonathan Beard.

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This post was published on 31/08/11 in The sex trade.

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  1. Comment by Matt, 31/08/11, 12:37:

    “Decriminalisation allows me to sell sex without fear of arrest or penalty, while still whining about being marginalised and having special needs… Legalisation means… there’s nothing special about me at all.”
    Do you really believe that all the disadvantages of doing sex work are removed by legalisation? Sure, it might help in the long run to reduce stigma against sex workers. But I think it’s misleading to imply that the law is the only determinant of whether and how sex workers are discriminated against.

    Also, do you have a link to the sex worker rights group that is complaining it is unfair? Not sure it’s fair of you to imply that no sex workers want to pay tax…

  2. Comment by Nico, 31/08/11, 05:42:

    Not sure I agree with your description of decriminalisation vs legalisation. Here’s a Canadian take on it from Stella, a sex worker rights group based in Montreal:

    In Canada at least, not only can anyone pay taxes regardless of whether their occupation is illegal, decriminalised or legal, they are in fact obliged to pay those taxes by law. Sections 210-213 of the Criminal Code effectively (if not directly) make sex work an illegal occupation in Canada. Yet there is still a category you can circle on your tax forms to declare income from sex industries. Canada is only too happy to collect taxes from the same workers it marginalises via laws described by an all-parties sub-Committee of the Canadian Parliament in 2006 as offering little protection to either sex workers or communities. The sub-Committee argued that Sections 210-213 may, in fact, increase harm to both. (http://bit.ly/qwPXw7)

    “Selling sex is an odd profession, full of fiercely independent mavericks who are happy with a very flexible life outside the mainstream, while equally happy to moan about marginalisation.”

    Though the above is a catchy intro, it conflates all sex workers into one homogenous group, failing to differentiate between well-off, part-time escorts who just dabble, like myself, and who can be fairly assured they’ll have few, if any, encounters with law enforcement, with, say, a street-based, Aboriginal tranny selling sex just to get by, who is far more likely to be on the receiving end of well-documented police violence (http://bit.ly/nAT4hA). Certainly sex work attracts some people who prefer life outside the mainstream — mavericks as you call them. Due to its criminalised status, sex work is also some of the only work that people already outside the mainstream can get (the disabled, the ill, the gender-non-conforming, migrants with no right to work above the table…). There’s a lot of diversity between those two poles as well.

    All that aside, I’d like to know what the Bonn machines cost. I suspect an awful lot of taxes will need to be collected before they pay for themselves. As you say, “the city government is hoping to earn €200,000 a year from this venture”. That’s peanuts so I doubt very much that increasing tax revenues is the primary motive.

    Granted, tax evasion is tax evasion, whether it’s the little guy or Barclay’s bank (http://bit.ly/h8vDkI). But sex workers don’t moan nearly as much as the bankers who might have their bonuses curtailed despite plunging the rest of us into recession (or worse!). Sex workers don’t moan nearly as much as businesses like Top Shop (http://bit.ly/gmkHcL) who threaten to move abroad at the straightforward suggestion that they should pay taxes at a level equal to the rest of us. Deregulation and shrinking tax rates of the banks and big business is the cornerstone of neoliberal Western governments. If the biggest tax evaders aren’t regulated by government and are free to withhold from the public coffers, why should the hooker down the road be any different?

  3. Comment by Pierre, 31/08/11, 09:50:

    Nico touched on this a bit already, so i’ll be brief, but it is important to note that this taxing of some sex-workers is happening at the same time as moves towards reducing taxes for some massive corporations, while shoving austerity measures down the throats of those who are not responsible for the financial crisis. they want to impose taxes? fine, start with the super rich who have been avoiding them for years and who have dragged us down into this economic crisis.

    and speaking of moaning, we get paid good money to moan 😉

  4. Comment by elizabeth, 31/08/11, 11:46:

    @Nico, Pierre, Matt. Very fair points, which sharpen a rather dull-edged post. And a lazy one, since, Matt, I did not check directly on the complaning group mentioned in the Speigel article thus:

    Sex worker association BUFAS rejected the concept, calling the flat fee unfair. “We are against such special rules, and favor the legal equality of every worker, including in matters of taxes,” said Beate Leopold, who works at a BUFAS associated advocacy organization in Nuremberg called Kassandra.

    My understanding of this is not that they are complaining about paying taxes, but rather that they are complaining about the regressive nature of a flat rate tax for those with the fewest clients/ lowest incomes per day.

  5. Comment by Cheryl Overs, 01/09/11, 09:40:

    The discussion about the binary concepts ‘legalisation’ and ‘decriminalisation’ is a red herring. Neither term is used consistently and they provide no meaningful conceptual framework.
    This is addressed in an article I wrote http://www.plri.org/resource/21-different-frameworks-sex-work-law-and-still-counting

    After twenty years of throwing these terms around its time to drop the idea that legalistion = bayd, decriminalisation = good which is at the same time confusing and over simplistic. What we need instead of vague buzzwords delinked from technical understanding of law is a thorough discussion about the entire legal framework around commercial sex in each country, usually beginning with the Constitution.

    If you are in any doubt about the imprecision of the word decriminalisation, check out its application in New Zealand where there are still many legal restrictions such as bans on street work, public health provisions that specifically address sex work and prohibitions on migrant sex work are in place.


    I agree flat taxing is a huge issue. When the law on sex work was reformed in Australia in the early 90s I was leader of the Prostitutes Collective there. This very tax issue was a deal breaker. We told govt that the entire reform would collapse if tax was unfair. We worked with the tax dept to come up with the solution. Now sex workers are taxed by the client, just like sheep shearers and fruit pickers who are seasonal workers paid and taxed by the sheep or the box of fruit. It worked.

    The key ingredients to that negotiation were political will, co-operative tax officials and sex worker advocates who understood law and administration. Us whores get really wise when we come armed with university degrees not just buzzwords.

    Cheryl Overs
    Dept Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine
    Monash University
    Melbourne Australia

  6. Comment by Alex, 02/10/11, 11:28:

    The machine is made by Siemens. Awesome.

  7. Comment by nada, 26/12/11, 03:54:

    I don’t think it’s paying tax that sex workers are oppsed to in legalization – lot of sex workers pay tax who are in decriminalized states in Australia , and others who refuse to involve themselves in legalized states.

    It’s a fact that policy makers will make irrational laws that will make work difficult, and not everyone wants the word”sex worker” on every business document connected to their identity- it’s still a very stigmatized job, it could mean difficulty in finding housing, losing friends and family, and even losing child custody.- Or refused visas. People are simply irrational about sexuality.

    Just in Victoria, legalization means not being able to advertise on your website specifics of your services, not being able to put your photo (just head shots-even though porn is of course readily available on the net) – and mandatory STI testing EVERY MONTH(not every 3month as recommended by most health practitioner for people with multiple partners) – even if your services does not include intercourse or even if you see 3 regular clients a month- it’s punitive.. Aside from the fact that people who really need basic protection such as ways to report crime or assualt – like street sex worker, it is still illegal.

    I really don’t think it’s a good idea to put power in policy makers hands to decide how, when, and where sexual services are to be conducted by consenting adults paid or not. This is what legalization means. It is the so-called “annoying” sex worker’s responsibility to step up and speak about the issues involved.

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