Paying the Prostitutes

Mores vs. morality in an Austrian court

Top Stories | Dardis McNamee | July / August 2012

Austrian journalist and satirist Karl Kraus had no patience for public hypocrisy – or private, for that matter: "What a world!" he complained, "in which the fulfilment of men’s deepest desires is held up to women as a reproof!"

So he would probably have been pleased if he had lived to see prostitution made legal in Austria in the 1970s – a reform of the Socialist government of Chancellor Bruno Kreisky that entitled sex workers to the benefits of the social welfare system, and particularly to national health care, and made it safe to call the police for help in cases of abuse. Whatever the morality of the profession, the theory was, it was surely better to have it out of the shadows.

Kraus would probably have been less pleased, however, by the new Prostitution Law that went into effect last January, which, under the guise of reform, greatly restricts the zones and terms under which sex workers are permitted to do business and succeeds in putting the women both at higher risk and easier to exploit, according to social workers operating in the field.

Thus, it was surprising for several reasons to read on 2 June – International Sex Workers Day, called, more bluntly, Hurentag, or "Whores’ Day", in German – that only now has precendent been established to enable prostitutes to sue for unpaid fees. Until this decision, handed down in the Austrian Supreme Court on 18 April, claims had generally been thrown out under a standard that considered the legal practice of prostitution an "offence to public mores" (Sittenwidrigkeit), with grounds as capricious as "physical urges", "drunkenness" and even simply "carelessness" judged adequate to render a contract between prostitute and punter invalid in court.

It’s important from time to time to remember the reality of this difficult and degrading profession, so often made light of, important to visit the shadows and see for yourself how these women of the night earn their living.

Like the streets, their eyes are ringed with shadows, both painted and real. This is not a life of pleasure the women face, night after night, as they work the streets in fish-net stockings and high-heeled boots along a certain stretch of the Messegelände in the Prater. The pleasure is for others. An automobile will crawl by, passing each whore on offer, until a window rolls down, and words pass between the woman and the man inside, whose face remains hidden in the darkness.

A deal is struck, and moments later, the woman will walk around to the other side, the lock will click open, and she will slide in. If all goes well, several hours later she will head for home with money in her handbag, some of which she will be able to keep – depending on the good will of the client and, of course, the fairness of her "john", about whom Karl Kraus surely had no illusions.

Now, there is a new standard.

"Not everything that is a potential danger to family-based institutions or perceived as immoral is therefore an offence to public mores," the Court decided. If an agreement is made in advance to provide a service in exchange for money, the money can also be claimed after the fact. There are surely habits we hate and customs we don’t condone. But that’s not enough, the Court said, to deny contractual parties the protection of law.

I hope Karl Kraus is looking down from fin-de-siècle heaven, and that he is smiling.

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