BERLIN -- The prostitute in knee-high boots makes a few things clear right away to her 14 customers standing around in the cold: The whole thing will last about two hours. It's OK to take pictures. And don't expect any sex. Now, that will be 15 deutsche marks per person, please.
The prostitute, Laura Meritt, is peddling information tonight, not flesh, in what must be one of Europe's most unorthodox guided tours. Part bordello history and part lobbying pitch, the tour is as good an illustration as you'll find of Germany's official ambivalence toward the world's oldest profession.
Prostitution is neither barred by law nor sanctioned by the iron network of bureaucracy (although cities with fewer than 50,000 people may ban it if they choose).
Search for legitimacy
This leaves prostitutes owing taxes on their incomes even though they're ineligible for some of the government's most generous benefits. All they want, the prostitutes say, is a little legitimacy.
They also wouldn't mind a little national health care insurance.
"Most people consider our job a necessary job, and we want it considered a legitimate profession." Ms. Meritt tells her audience. "To get health insurance now we have to come up with fake professions. But if you are found out you're charged with fraud."
So, prostitute advocacy organizations have sprung up in Berlin and Frankfurt to fight for the cause.
FTC Some prostitutes try to make the case for legitimacy in the way they do business. As Elke Winkelmann, a spokeswoman for the Berlin organization, Hydra, explains, "Some charge sales taxes."
Ms. Meritt and another prostitute, Maxi Leftova, do their part by running weekly "Hurtours" (literally, "Whore Tours"), and by tending a storefront archive of prostitution history, literature and photographs.
"We offer this tour not from the misery perspective that the media usually portrays, which says that prostitution is for lost and rotten girls," Ms. Meritt says. "We collect material from the other perspective, about the positive aspects of this job. We say there aren't too many differences between the so-called ordinary women and whores. Every woman in her life has done it for one or another pleasure."
Income is pleasure
Their pleasure just happens to be the income, she says.
She then reads to her tour group -- six women and eight men, including one older fellow who keeps sidling up to her while walking from stop to stop -- from a short story about a prostitute. In one passage an ugly man discouraged by insults from his wife falls for the prostitute, only to find that she loved him for his payments.
The tour snakes through the dark streets of Mitte, Berlin's old midsection, and one of its traditional hubs of prostitution. Mitte's liveliest boulevard for the profession is Oranienburgerstrasse, where on winter weekends prostitutes stand out from the crowds of club-goers in garish get-ups of ski-tights, fur collars, high boots, wigs and heavy makeup.
Prostitution has thrived on this street since the 1800s, Ms. Meritt says, back when a customer's fee depended on how far down a candle burned during the exercise.
Life was a cabaret
In the 1920s and early 1930s, a lively cabaret life swirled through the area. Ms. Meritt reads from an old account of one of the era's busier bordellos, describing how three customers were attended in only 12 minutes by one woman. "Those were good times," she says with a sigh.
When the shadow of the Nazis and World War II fell on the district, prostitutes were pressed into national service as an unofficial adjunct of the German army.
Then came the post-World War II division of Germany. Mitte was swallowed up by East Berlin, and the Communist government tried to act as if prostitution didn't exist.
But it thrived, particularly at lunch hour on Oranienburger Street, Ms. Meritt says. Prostitutes offered curb service to men cruising by in tiny East German cars called Trabants.
"They were the Trabi streetwalkers," Ms. Meritt says.
Prostitutes who got caught were sent to a resocializing center, where they were taught how to cook and sew. Germany still has similar programs that try to steer prostitutes toward more conventional careers in the service industry, but they tend to scoff at the salaries.
"These places are always looking at jobs like sales clerks and other cheap labor," Ms. Meritt says. "We think prostitutes are more qualified for jobs such as actresses -- we already do a lot of acting -- sex therapists, sex education teachers, or consultants to movies and the theater on how prostitutes should be played."
They seem to be qualified as tour guides as well. Ms. Meritt sets a brisk pace, waving to policemen along the route. And they wave back. She leads the way with one of those official-looking batons you see tour leaders holding aloft amid the crowds at the Louvre and the Colosseum. Hers is a striped, battery-powered model that lights up whenever she needs to stop traffic, to the amusement of the tour group.
Prostitution advocacy didn't get rolling in Europe until 1975, when French prostitutes staged a sit-in at a church in Lyon to protest bribes demanded by policemen. That spawned the International Committee of Prostitutes Rights.
The group held world conventions in the 1980s in Amsterdam, Netherlands, and Brussels, Belgium, and in 1991 European prostitutes met in Frankfurt to discuss their status. In May, German prostitutes rallied in the town of Kassel to demand health insurance.
At times there have been glimmers of hope for legitimacy. Every now and then a politician of the liberal but mainstream Social Democratic Party says something on their behalf or sponsors legislation they favor.
Not long after the Berlin Wall came down, the district mayor for Mitte, Benno Hasse, proposed establishing communal brothels to ensure better security and healthier working conditions.
"It didn't work from a legal standpoint," Ms. Meritt says, but it earned the district mayor the nickname "Porno Benno" among prostitutes.
For now the prostitutes must still look out for themselves. They note license tags and phone numbers of their co-workers' customers whenever possible. They also pass along information on troublesome customers, sometimes spray-painting their names in the street.
But as is the case for any business person with a free-market philosophy, what they really want is to be rid of the regulators. "It is a field," says Ms. Meritt, "where the bureaucracy can do whatever it wants."