Nota Bene: anyone who isn’t interested in a frank portrayal of the sex industry in Germany may want to stop reading now. This isn’t my usual territory, either, but sometimes you just have to say things.
September 26, 2015 Hamburg is a fascinating and beautiful city, known for its massive harbor and Speicherstadt and really good fish–and for its red light district, the Reeperbahn, affectionately referred to as die sündigste Meile der Welt (the most sinful mile in the world). I spent a couple hours there before my train left for Lübeck.
Why go at all? Because it’s a part of Hamburg, and a part of the world in general, and because you don’t get the chance to walk through a European red light district every day, and dang it if I wasn’t going to experience this, too. So I checked out of the hostel and took my camera and went.
Part of me, strangely enough, wanted or expected to like it, at least a little–wanted to be open-minded to the point of being able to view it as a celebration of sexuality, wanted to have some sort of profound relationship-deepening experience like the woman in this really superb article. But instead I just found it gross and dirty and unspeakably sad. Who gets any sort of satisfaction from 39 Euro sex? Almost laughable, that.
And as I discovered, it’s hard to have a profound relationship-deepening experience when you are walking around all by yourself on a Wednesday morning, surrounded by street sweepers and lorries delivering vodka. I don’t suppose there are very many things in the world more lonely and less romantic than being a solitary female in a red light district at 10am.
Certainly, the place was not without a certain aesthetic–the apotheosis of kitsch, neon, street art. There was a sort of strange charged energy in the air, even after-hours, that made even non-participatory observation into something problematic and moving. As an objet d’art, the whole place worked.
But for me, the troubling nature of it all outweighed the aesthetics.
Leaving aside all the questions associated with the sex industry in general, what disturbed me most were the signs in the windows of many bars and blocking the entrance to one entire street: Zutritt für Frauen verboten. Entrance for women forbidden. Not that I necessarily would have wanted to go into those places anyway. But what other spaces in the 21st century West explicitly forbid the presence of women? Sure, there are implicit bans–the glass ceiling, and all of that. But a sign telling me I can’t walk through a public street because of my gender? Really??
Strangely enough, the only other place I have ever personally encountered the explicit ban against the physical presence of women is in the church–in a traditional Jewish tabernacle in Würzburg, in a Southern Baptist service in my own home town. Not that I am making any sort of comparison between the church and Hamburg’s red light district. But it’s ironic how things work, sometimes.
All that to say: at the Reeperbahn, I didn’t go in the bars and I didn’t walk down the street. I took my pictures and I left. No victory for feminism there.
But in the end, though, isn’t the exclusion of women in such a space all-pervasive, even without the explicit signs? The entire street, and the entire concept behind the street, caters to and exists only as a function of the male gaze. The female gaze–her perspective, desires, reality–is nonexistent. The women on the tables and behind the windows aren’t women at all, but rather projections of male fantasy that happen to have taken on flesh and blood.
The real women are out there on the other side of all of those Frauen verboten signs. Here, they don’t exist. Which is strange, since “girls” are the main attraction.