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BERLIN, Germany — Flashbulbs light up for a gay porn star hawking DVDs as Julius Dreyer blithely threads his way through booths touting everything from dildos and depilatory cream to accounting services (“Sex and Tax?”).
Taking part in the world's largest trade show for “erotic lifestyles” is old hat for this young entrepreneur, who’s been in the adult industry practically as long as he's been an adult. But his latest venture may be the most controversial here.
As Germany continues to debate the legalization of prostitution a decade ago, Dreyer is promising to make it safer and reduce exploitation. In 2009 he and his two brothers founded Kaufmich.com, a social networking site for sex workers.
They say it will improve the profession by creating a free market for independent prostitutes.
“Our vision is to see sex work an equal and fully accepted part of society,” Dreyer says. “We believe that all kinds of problems arise from sex workers being isolated and judged [by others].”
Slim with tidy, close-cropped hair, Dreyer founded Germany's most popular hookup site, Poppen.de, before he turned 21.
But the success of his newest site isn’t assured. With free sex apps such as Grindr and Tinder gaining acceptance and brick-and-mortar “swingers' clubs” practically mainstream here, Kaufmich.com — which translates as “BuyMe.com” — may face an uphill battle.
Although pimping and other related activities remain against the law, prostitution has been legal in Germany since 2002.
This spring, the increasing visibility of large commercial brothels and a perceived if unproven uptick in street prostitution prompted a parliamentary call for a debate on tougher regulations.
The expressed aim of proposed new rules for the industry is to protect sex workers. They include a ban on unlimited “flat-rate sex” offers, mandatory registration for prostitutes and tougher licensing regulations for brothels, which proponents say could improve working conditions and help fight human trafficking.
However, sex workers and their advocates say measures such as the introduction of ID cards for prostitutes would be counterproductive. Critics say they could enable customers to blackmail single mothers frightened of losing their children, for example.
“Until such time that our children can say, 'My mother is a sex worker,' without anybody in kindergarten class batting an eye, many of us believe the best protection lies in anonymity,” the Trade Association of Erotic and Sexual Services said in a statement about the proposed regulations.
"When you post an ad on Craigslist, you don't really know who the guy is you're going to meet ... That's a little scary"
With 250,000 active members logging in every week, nearly a million page views and more than 100,000 messages sent between users each day, Kaufmich.com offers an alternative to tougher regulations, Dreyer says.
“We can’t say how many actual dates result from this, but I have to assume it's in the thousands,” he says.
The company earns its revenue from membership fees and online advertisements, not facilitating transactions.
The prostitution portal ranks among Germany's top 200 websites and the top 10 of adult sites.
Like an X-rated Facebook-meets-eBay, it offers sex workers direct access to thousands of customers, which makes operating independently from brothel owners or an illegal pimping service more financially viable, says a sex worker called Undine de Riviere.
“I know other providers who get the majority of their business from [Kaufmich],” she said in an email.
Other features promise to make potentially dangerous interactions safer.
Sex workers and customers can identify themselves as “safe-sex only” users, which has reduced an industry-wide problem of condomless oral sex, according to online feedback.
More than half of Kaufmich's users have opted for the safe sex badge.
An eBay-style ratings system also rewards cleanliness and better customer service.
Prostitutes can rate their customers, helping create virtual identities with histories that promise to reduce the risk of meeting strangers for sex while retaining the anonymity that's essential to the business.
Sex workers can even blacklist customers.
“We want to bring a level of safety and transparency into this whole thing,” Dreyer says. “When you post an ad on Craigslist, you don't really know who the guy is you're going to meet. That's a little scary.”
Although it's essentially a marketing tool, the website also complements the work of Germany's nascent sex worker unions by hosting an online venue for prostitutes to discuss concerns such as taxation that may not receive mainstream media attention, Dreyer says.
The fact that the site makes its users money makes it especially attractive, said de Riviere, who is also a spokeswoman for Germany's recently formed Trade Association of Erotic and Sexual Services.
“You reach a lot of sex workers that way who aren't politically interested much or wouldn't attend actual physical meetups,” she said.
In a country where Amazon and Uber are embroiled in union disputes, that could well make an online marketplace for sex Germany's most labor-friendly website.
This story originally appeared at GlobalPost.
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