Drive Thru Brothels

  • Drive-thru brothels: why cities are building 'sexual infrastructure'

    From covered stalls for prostitution in Germany to community centres for sex workers in New Zealand, some cities now include sex work in their urban policy

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    Rockefeller FoundationAbout this content

    Nate Berg

    Mon 2 Sep 2019 06.00 BSTLast modified on Mon 2 Sep 2019 06.01 BST

    The covered stalls of Cologne’s ‘sex drive-through’.
     The covered stalls of Cologne’s ‘sex drive-through’. Photograph: Henning Kaiser/AFP/Getty Images

    Nicole Schulze was 24 years old and €40,000 (£36,6616) in debt when she decided to become a prostitute. It was 2004 and she was living in Cologne. Two years earlier prostitution had been legalised across Germany, and the city of Cologne quickly distinguished itself: it made sex work a major part of its urban policy.

    For workers like Schulze, this created a unique set of conditions. The city reasoned that if sex work was going to happen, it should be in a safe and clean space. It was decided that sex work would be allowed only in certain parts of the city – and in order to encourage both sex workers and their customers to abide by this rule, in one of the permitted areas the city built a facility specifically for sex.

    Located on the edge of town, the result is a kind of sex drive-through. Customers drive down a one-way street, into a roughly two-acre open air-space where sex workers can offer their services. Once hired, the sex worker accompanies the customer into a semi-private parking stall. For safety, each stall allows sex workers to easily flee if necessary – the stall is designed so that the driver’s door can’t be opened, but the passenger one can – and there’s an emergency button to call for help. Social workers are present on site and offer a space to rest, stay warm and access services.

    Amsterdam’s first female mayor, Femke Halsema, has announced a plan to rethink the way the city accommodates sex work.
     Amsterdam’s first female mayor, Femke Halsema, has announced a plan to rethink the way the city accommodates sex work. Photograph: Action Press/Rex/Shutterstock

    Schulze says she believes the facility works well. “I think every city should have a secure space for sex workers to work, to rest,” she says. “Every city should have that because there’s prostitution in every city.”


    The attitude that if sex work is inevitable it should be safe has spread across the city. “Even for the districts where women stand on the street, there’s a toilet, a shower, places to go if you need help,” says Schulze, now an advocate at a professional association for sex workers in Germany.

    The idea is slowly spreading. In Berlin, officials are considering a proposal to install Cologne-style facilities for sex workers and their customers in what is now the city’s main red-light district, south of Tiergarten park.

    One of the stalls in Cologne’s drive-in brothel. For safety, inside the stall it is only possible to open the passenger door of a car. There is also a panic button and a lockable safe room.
     One of the stalls in Cologne’s drive-in brothel. For safety, inside the stall it is only possible to open the passenger door of a car. There is also a panic button and a lockable safe room. Photograph: Henning Kaiser/AFP/Getty Images

    It’s a matter of necessity, says Stephan von Dassel, mayor of Mitte district. For years he has struggled to balance the rights of street-based sex workers with the desires of the surrounding community. Residents frequently complain about people having sex in parks, about used condoms littered on sidewalks, and about sex workers defecating in bushes. “People of the neighbourhood come to me and say ‘How can you accept this? You have to do something,’” he says.

    One proposed solution, to be debated in parliament in the autumn, is to build stalls where sex workers and their customers can meet. But Von Dassel worries that these will only lead to more activity in public spaces. He wants the city to consider broader issues surrounding sex work, such as human trafficking, drug abuse and violence.

    “Is it just an add-on to the city’s sexual infrastructure?” he asks of the stalls. “Or – and this is what I want – is it a chance to discuss everything anew and to help the neighbourhood to solve a lot of problems?”

    In Amsterdam, home to perhaps the world’s most famous red-light district, the city’s first female mayor, Femke Halsema, has announced a plan to rethink the way sex work is accommodated. She has suggested four new scenarios: closed curtains on the 330 permitted window displays; a reduced number of displays; segregating sex work on the city’s edge; or opening more window displays.

    Sex workers operating from caravans in Eifelwall, Cologne.
     Sex workers operating from caravans in Eifelwall, Cologne. Photograph: imageBROKER/Alamy

    Amsterdam has another problem: in addition to overcrowding, crime and public nuisance, window-based sex workers are increasingly subjected to leering crowds with smartphone cameras. “It’s become a tourist event,” says Sebastiaan Meijer, Halsema’s spokesperson.

    The city recently held two public meetings to hear local concerns. Large crowds of sex workers attended, and there were big cheers for the mayor’s fourth scenario, to add more window displays. “They even had signs up saying ‘Option 4,’” Meijer says.

    The scenarios will be debated by the city council with public input from residents, sex workers and business owners, and a council vote on the preferred option later this year. “Maybe it’s a fifth one we haven’t come up with yet,” Meijer says.

    Protest against the closure of window brothels in Amsterdam in 2015. Closure of more windows is one proposal the city’s new mayor is considering.
     A protest against the closure of window brothels in Amsterdam in 2015. Photograph: Robin van Lonkhuijsen/EPA

    Some sex workers remain skeptical that these new efforts to improve public infrastructure is properly considering their needs.

    “Now the justification is about sex workers not being respected around tourists,” says Luca Stevenson of the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe, which represents about 100 sex worker groups in 30 countries. “Before that it was about trafficking. Often the ends of these proposals are to limit the space sex workers take in the city. I think there’s a lot of hypocrisy behind this.”

    He says that even in cities and countries where prostitution is legal, proposals often have the effect of criminalising sex work. “We think that the needs of sex workers should be considered a priority by cities and governments rather than focusing on the potential nuisance,” he says.


    Some see a model in New Zealand, where prostitution was decriminalised in 2003. Catherine Healy is the national coordinator of the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective, a support group she and fellow sex workers founded in the late 1980s. She says that organisations representing sex workers are almost always at the negotiating table when new policies are under consideration. “It would be quite rare for us to not be the first or nearly the first port of call if something in relation to sex work came up,” she says.

    One of the sign displayed in many of the booths in Amsterdam’s red light district.
     A sign displayed in many of the booths in Amsterdam’s red light district. Photograph: Horacio Villalobos/Corbis via Getty Images

    That has helped make it easier for her group to open sex worker community centres near areas with frequent street prostitution. The collective now operates five centres that offer access to showers, food, information, sexual health services and places to rest – “stuff that wasn’t there when I was a girl, that’s for sure,” Healy says.

    “It’s most important that sex worker-led organisations are sourced in this regard,” she says. “Usually that is the most effective way to deliver services to sex workers because they’re informed on a very intimate level about what it is that sex workers need.”

    The system isn’t perfect, Healy says, but New Zealand has gradually become a place where the needs of sex workers and the spaces they use have become topics of open dialogue. “It’s a relief for us that we have that kind of communication and an effective way of working together,” she says.

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