Interview with Pieke Biermann

Wednesday 22 February 2023

Nikos: What are your more important moments in your participation in Hydra and the sex workers’ rights movement, please?

Pieke: We will need an hour to discuss all these moments! In the beginning, when Hydra was founded, I was vehemently opposed to it and mocked it. When I wrote my book ‘Wir sind Frauen wie andere auch!’ and it was published in 1980, there was a sort of epilogue in which I made fun of Hydra. I was opposed to this project, as it was not a prostitutes’ project or a self-help project, and these women of Hydra would talk about prostitution without having any knowledge of it. After some time, I was practically the only person to speak publicly about prostitution in Germany and German-speaking countries, in talk shows and via my book and the media. The other prostitutes didn’t want to go public, were blackmailable, for example because they had children; I was simply the only one who could afford to do so. That lasted for a couple of years and was a brutal battle. At some point, I don’t recall exactly when, Hydra contacted me because they believed I could be of assistance to them thanks to the publicity and my ability to create propaganda. We joined forces in the mid 1980s. I mention this in the 2014 enlarged re-edition of my book ‘Wir sind Frauen…’. In 1986, I took part in the Second World Whores’ Congress in Brussels, the Hydras were there as well,  and they made me a member, they needed somebody to take care of finances and publicity, they gave me a formal function [laughs] But the most important thing was that there we heard about Hookers’ Balls which Margo St. James organised in California to collect money. I immediately thought we need to do something like that in West Berlin. The Hydras thought it would be a nice thing but they didn’t really dare. But I did – that’s my temperament, I am risky with these things, so I became the driving force. We had the first (Hurenball) Whores’ Ball here in 1988, it was great fun, it was meant as a fundraiser for that Hydra’s support project. So we had strict principles: nobody gets in for free, neither the press nor other media nor politicians, everybody has to pay 150 DM! And they all did pay. And second: none of the performers – actually stars like Gianna Nannini, Ingrid Caven, to name just a few – gets paid, they all have to volunteer. And they all did. So we had a very nice sum of money coming out of that. These were highlights of my time in Hydra.

Nikos: And in the 1990s did you collaborate with Hydra?

Pieke: No, [laughs], almost immediately after the Hurenball, I got out of Hydra with a very long letter of dissent and an explanation why I wouldn’t support this project any longer. Hydra’s policy was to never say who of them was actually working as a whore. In a way that’s logical, because you wouldn’t want to feed the voyeurism of media people. The problem was that there were practically no whores in leading roles, the Hydra project was run by non-prostitutes, who had the bureaucratic skills of getting money from the Senate. But now there was the Hurenball which had produced big media coverage, and myself and 1-2 other Hydras felt we needed to go on with this momentum. We need public relations, we should get more of it – if you want to achieve really important and basic goals for whores’ rights, you need to change the law. To change the law though, you need public opinion on your side, because public opinion can put pressure on lawmakers. That was my reasoning. Well, it turned out that the ruling Hydra non-whores absolutely disapproved. Eventually they tried to discredit me, saying I’d just long to be a tv and media star – absurd. My experiences with being the one public face of sexwork politics were not exactly seductive… So, big internal fighting, and not very nice ones. But this is what usually happens in movements, no matter what the initial progressive issue.  

I soon left; I was out in 1989. But during those few years I was in Hydra, we had good connections with the anti-AIDS movement. I co-organised some cooperative activities, too. We had a sort of safer sex public events, little actions on KuDamm or around KDW, where people do shopping. One was a little show where we dressed up like little angels, distributed condoms [laughs] and discussed with people. We were collaborating with the Deutsche Aidshilfe, less with Berliner Aids-Hilfe, two organisations that also did not harmonise very well.

Nikos: In the international conference in Brussels were there discussions about AIDS?

Pieke: Of course. And for me that. i.e. international relations, was very important from the beginning on. In the 1970s I had lived in Italy for an academic year. I was a student then. In Italy I got into contact with the International Campaign for Wages for Housework, an organisation active first in the United States and Britain. The campaign had an Italian section, a very strong one led by Mariarosa dalla Costa. I was studying in Padova where she lived and worked. Wages for Housework was the only feminist campaign that did not dismiss prostitutes and prostitution, but was inclusive and really very supportive. It also assertively included and supported lesbian women and black women, which was very interesting for me. Being part of this international campaign meant having emotional, mental, political and intellectual support here in Berlin. I was no longer cut off from social contacts, like people refusing to sit next to me just because I was a sexworker. I now had a precious stable political background. For the Hydras, internationality was never important. They were – if you will – on the typically German path of avoiding too much attention that might require personal responsibility. Of course, they were happy to go to Brussels and meet other projects, but they had no sense for the international. As a result, they were and stayed unaware of migrant sexworkers and their needs. Time for me to refuse to work with them any longer.

Nikos: May I ask you about your attitude about sex workers?

Pieke: Well, I still have my connections and relationships with some of them, individually. When migrant prostitution became an issue in West Germany and then throughout Germany, I was no longer a member of any organisation. For me, prostitution and sex in general and social class sit together. It’s the bad old sex, race, and class song: To fight sexism you have to do fight racism and classism, as well.

Nikos: On an everyday life basis do you remember any solidarity activities of yours towards migrant sex workers in the 1990s?

Pieke: In the 1990s I was already out. If you want, I was not very much into prostitution fights any longer. Of course, I remained friends with many of them, my best friends are prostitutes, black women and black men also, but this is all at an individual level. I changed scenes, I threw my energy into writing, including about AIDS and prostitution, essays, conference papers and stuff like that. And fiction, Berlin mysteries, plus I translated books. And, honestly, I was happy not to have to go to TV shows any longer. Being a TV face is a horror, you’re never sure about the tyres of your car when you talk about things that people don’t like to hear.  

Nikos: You told me that Hydra was not so open to migrant sex workers as you would have liked.

Pieke: Yes, and that was during the years I was a part of Hydra, when migrant prostitution wasn’t really a big issue in Germany. I remember writing a treatment for a research project. It had been my idea, but of course I didn’t do it alone. It was supposed to be a collective effort, including professionists, lawyers, political scientists, women like that. A broad and profound study on prostitution in Europe – who works here in sexwork, where do they come from, where do they stay etc. Financed by the European Union. I remember the countries I first focussed on were Bulgaria, Romania, and Ukraine. I felt that we needed to learn more, to have facts and data, we needed to protect these women, and they needed to be able to protect themselves. I think it started in the late 1980s, I had called it “Die Lage der anschaffenden Klassen” (The Condition of the Trick-Turning/Streetwalking Classes) – with a wink to Friedrich Engels’ “Condition of The Working Class in England”. Today you’d probably say “The Condition of the Sexworking Classes”, but the term sexwork didn’t exist in those days. Well, the study never really got started, and I don’t even remember why.

Nikos: In the first Hurenball in West Berlin, was there any reference to migrant sex workers?

Pieke: I don’t remember. It was mostly a ball, dancing, music, drinking, we had two tiny speeches to tell people what they had paid for, where the money would go, the fundraising, to say some words about prostitutes’ rights in general, they were no long speeches, as I remember, it is long ago [laughs].

Nikos: During the Hurenball, where there any performances about HIV/AIDS?

Pieke: Some Hydra members were transsexual, and they were also active in the anti-AIDS campaigns. There was no LGBTQIA+ in those days, we used to affectionately call them all Transis – trasvestites, drag queens, transsexuals … Nobody asked what they were, who they were, they were taken as what they wanted to be seen. Many of them were very active in the anti-AIDS movement, and a lot of them died of AIDS.

Nikos: I remember that Hydra had issues with other Feminist organisations due to the Transis who were members of Hydra.

Pieke: Yes, I heard that too, but I have no living memories.

Nikos: Were there debates in West Berlin about a Sperrzone [exclusion zone] in West Berlin already in the 1980s? If so, do you remember about those debates?

Pieke: Sperrzone in Tiergarten?

Nikos: Yes, the local Senate was discussing this.

Pieke: Yes, wait a minute – deviation. I started writing my first novel, a detective novel, in 1986. It came out in 1987. I invented a self-help group of prostitutes, not for prostitutes, called The Migraine: The core were three girls working on Tiergartenstrasse, then a key area for streetwalkers. The Senat planned to do a “cleansing” of Tiergartenstrasse, and the girls moaned: Well, you get a headache when you hear these things! It should be the other way round, those Senat people should get a headache. That’s why they called themselves The Migraine. Tiergartenstrasse was a famous area of classic street prostitution: the girls would stand there, cars would pass, they would enter and go to a parking space, do their job there and come back.

Nikos: Turning to another topic: Back in the 1980s, do you remember if you participated in any die-ins?

Pieke: No, never. I took part in the World AIDS Day of course; maybe we did the safer sex thing on a World AIDS Day, we also made posters, beautiful posters together with one woman from the Berliner Aids-Hilfe or the Deutsche Aidshilfe who took care of male prostitutes. She is Micaela Riepe.

Nikos: Do you remember participating in AIDS international conferences?

Pieke: No, I did not, as far as I remember. However, I participated in prostitutes’ conferences. I went to Italy a couple of times for their national congresses. I gave speeches there, I was in Treviso, what I said was also published in Italian and later German, and it was published also here in Die Tageszeitung. “The many talents of women” it was called. Another tongue-in-cheek thing: The word talent is Greek, it was originally a form of money.

Nikos: Do you remember connections with countries other than Italy?

Pieke: Britain. I was in London twice I think, but that was before Hydra. The English Collective of Prostitutes was part of the Wages for Housework Campaign.

Nikos: Did you have any contact with ACT UP branches?

Pieke: No.

Nikos: Would you like to add anything I haven’t asked?

Pieke: Just to add or explain: as far as I have known, compared to other countries, there is always a strange German attitude in political groups. A tendency to perceive your own group as ‘mein Vorgarten’ (my backyard that nobody please step into). I just care for my tiny little property, and I’m suspicious of everything else, outside of it. It seems to be a gene that lacks in my genome. Okay, modesty is a pleasant attitude, especially for Germans, I guess. But it has its limits when it comes to political responsibility, and I didn’t like these limits.

Nikos: Thank you very much for our discussion, Pieke!

Interviewer: Nikolaos Papadogiannis

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