Thanks to a new smartphone app, there may no longer be a need to comb the streets in search of a prostitute.
The red light districts in Germany just received a technology makeover with the launch of Peppr, a new service billed as “the first mobile web app for booking erotic entertainment.” A client can use the app to locate nearby sex workers from the comfort of their own home simply by selecting the man or woman of choice from a list of profiles.
The cost to book the service on the platform is about 10 euros, which is split between the Peppr and the prostitute or agency. Peppr does not charge the prostitutes or the agencies a fee for the service.
“It’s a platform for sex workers and independent agencies to manage their bookings,” Pia Poppenreiter, one of Peppr’s co-founders and the creative brain behind the app, told VICE News.
She said that the site is empowering because it allows prostitutes to better assert control of their business.
With no background in the prostitution industry, which was legalized by the German government in 2002, Poppenreiter came up with the idea for Peppr while wandering through Berlin’s red light district. She noticed prostitutes standing on the street in the cold and decided there should be an easier way for them to find clients.
Poppenreiter immediately thought of turning this idea into an app and after finding business partners and developing the platform, the team launched Peppr in April.
While she avoids engaging in the political debates about prostitution, she said one of the biggest problems is that sex workers are judged and stigmatized for their career choice. Poppenreiter said she hopes that with its sleek website Peppr will help improve public perception of the industry.
“This is about revolutionizing the image of the industry, which I found to be very shabby,” Poppenreiter said.
Poppenreiter said the site is just a mediator for the sex workers to connect with clients, noting that it is not responsible for what happens after the booking.
While the app has only been in service for a few weeks, critics are already pointing out the darker side of the service. Andrea Matolcsi, the program officer for sexual violence and human trafficking at Equality Now, argues that an app like Peppr is still inherently exploiting an oppressive institution.
“Anything that facilitates the industry is not a positive thing,” Matolcsi told VICE News. “It’s no different than being a pimp.”
Legalizing and professionalizing prostitution to reduce its stigma and create a safer environment for the workers is not a new idea.
When Germany legalized prostitution in 2002 under the Social Democrat/Green coalition, the goal was to make it a profession.
Anni Brandt-Elsweiler, a Social Democratic Party politician during the coalition, said at the time that the aim was "to improve the situation of prostitutes by giving more power back into their own hands, by strengthening their self-confidence and their legal position when dealing with clients and pimps."
Advocates argued that legalization would afford the workers more rights by giving them access to pensions and other benefits.
According to Matolcsi, however, these results have not materialized.
“Advocates say if we legalize it people will see people in prostitution as professionals, but that’s not what they’re seeing,” Matolcsi said. “Full on legalization efforts have completely failed.”
For example, out of the estimated 200,000 to 400,000 prostitutes throughout Germany’s 3,000 red-light districts, only 44 individuals have registered for national insurance plans.
Additionally, a study of 150 countries conducted by Axel Dreher, an international politics professor at the University of Heidelberg, concluded that human trafficking rates were higher in countries with legal prostitution.
The number of prosecuted human trafficking cases in Germany during 2011 dropped to 636, down by a third since 2001. According to the Council of Europe (COE), however, media reports indicate this drop could be due to fewer investigations, not necessarily a reduction in trafficking.
The COE also cited criticism of poor reporting mechanisms and law enforcement officials’ limited access to brothels as possible explanations for the disputed figures.
Regardless of the numbers, many politicians and policemen have grown disenchanted with legalization. Charlotte Britz, the mayor of Saarbrucken, supported the 2002 law, but as the industry has boomed she has had a change of heart.
“Prostitution has existed for many years in Germany, and we have brothels in the city center which are more or less accepted, but it's now simply become too much," Britz told the BBC in February.
Instead of having different laws in each country, Britz said that a European-wide agreement would be ideal in order to prevent sex tourism between countries.
The EU has not enacted any binding agreements, but in April the COE sided with the Swedish model of regulating prostitution, which criminalizes the purchase of sex. The Swedish model targets those soliciting prostitutes for sex as well as the brothel owners and pimps, while decriminalizing and creating support services for the prostitutes.
“The Assembly stated that criminalizing the purchase of sexual services, based on the Swedish model, appears as the most effective tool for combating trafficking in human beings,” the COE said in a statement.
France is currently working to implement a law that aligns with the Swedish model, and Germany may soon enact legislation to make it illegal to purchase sex from a victim of human trafficking.
Matolcsi said that laws that punish the client have been most effective because they shift the public stigma onto those buying sex and off of the prostitutes.
“We have to stop supporting the inherent right to buy someone else's body just because you have the money to purchase sex,” Matolcsi said.
While the legal status of prostitution may be in flux throughout Europe, Peppr will continue to push forward with promoting and developing its service.
The company has plans to roll out the app in countries where there are no legal constraints.
Photo via Flickr