A story of condoms, cultures and sustainability
One of the intricacies of intercultural communication is that puns can hardly ever be translated, but I will try. When a young and slightly immature student comes across urban studies in Germany, there are often giggles when the topic of the lecture is Verkehr, or (even funnier in the mind of twenty-somethings) Öffentlicher Nahverkehr. Why is this funny, one might wonder? In German, Verkehr (pronounced “fair care”) means transportation and mobility, as well as intercourse; giving Öffentlicher Nahverkehr (public short-distance transportation) a whole new spin.
Now you might be wondering why I chose puns on transportation and sexuality as an introduction to a post in a sustainability blog. Both are integral parts of (urban) societies, usually the first is more public while the latter is more private. Yet, often the two spheres meet. This happens when sexuality becomes public, be it through the offering of contraception at vending machines or through open prostitution. And this is a sustainability issue right there. In Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the UN proclaimed among others the goals of good health and well-being (goal 3), gender equality (goal 5) and decent work and economic growth (goal 8) which in turn are linked to the availability of contraception and to prostitution (working conditions!).
Let me describe how I encountered condom vending machines and prostitution in Lüneburg, a small city in Germany. Tatjana, Ariel and I walked through the city and looked for sustainability problems, and the instances of public sexuality sparked our interest. Ariel wrote an excellent piece (“Let’s talk about sex! ”) where she analyzed how the issue is handled differently across the Atlantic, so feel free to read hers after you are done here. Or do it now. The internet is a free place, I cannot make you stay. But here it will be interesting. And in the end, there will be cookies. I will tell you now about how we found two condom vending machines, a small red-light district in the small city of Lüneburg.
Get some groceries, get some bread, get some condoms
The first condom automat (see photo 1) is located at the southeastern border in the city of Lüneburg. It is set in a commercial area with two residential neighborhoods nearby. One could say it is a well-developed suburban area for the middle-class. And right at the central roundabout of the commercial area is a condom automat. It obviously is in good condition and offers a variety of products for the price of three Euros each.
Photo 1: A condom automat at Bülows Kamp, Lüneburg. Picture taken by Ariel.
It’s not as if contraception, and other products to enhance one’s sexual health are hard to come by in Germany. At that same location, consumers could just cross the street and acquire some in the supermarket. This is certainly cheaper and might appear somewhat less dubious, but it has two clear disadvantages: it has limited accessibility determined by the opening hours (in Germany, stores actually close at night and on Sundays), and it requires human interaction which can be perceived as a barrier for people who do not want their sexual life on public display.
Walking past the automat was intriguing, sparking curiosity as to who would use the machine in which scenario. I felt as though I should feel weird in some way, but weirdly, I did not. I grew up with those kinds of automats always in some proximity to me and thus this one did not appear out of place. It is clean, functioning and just a part of urban life, it’s as simple as that. And as people, very generally speaking, will have some intercourse in their life, it is for the sake of health and well-being better to wrap it, rather than to regret it.
In conclusion, this condom automat seems like the perfect example of how to make contraception accessible and available in a non-hysterical, natural and mature manner. Everyone who does not want to or is unable to purchase condoms in a store can just walk up to the automat and do it.
So, there should be more of those, right? Let’s reconsider after the next section.
Go to school, go to church, demolish some public property, and maybe get a condom?
Continuing to the second automat found, a different picture unfolds. Although the photograph shows residential buildings in the background (photo 2), non-residential buildings mostly dominate the area. There are two vocational schools right next to the automat a church is in the immediate vicinity. The automat offers less products than the other, is more expensive at four Euros each and in obvious poor condition. It has been vandalized by “regular” graffiti as well as by a swastika and the xenophobic exclamation Ausländer raus (“Foreigners out”).
Photo 2: A condom automat near the train station in Lüneburg. Picture taken by Ariel.
Due to the location, it can be assumed that those who mostly frequent the automat are the students at the vocational schools. It appears like the automat is not used for its genuine purpose, but rather seen as an opportunity for some rebels to disobey the law. Given the general ubiquity of graffiti in the area though, maybe vandalism is not directed at the condom automat as a dispenser of contraception and any object in that place would be targeted in similar ways.
I was genuinely angry at this automat. Not for it being close to teenagers, giving them easy access to contraception. That’s great. But seeing what was made of the automat, presumably by the very target group it was intended for, showing a high degree of disrespect to fellow citizens and to public property. Sometimes my friends joke that I am an angry old man trapped in the body of a young person, and as they could reasonably call me the bicycle vigilante, complete with cape and cowl, they might be right. But this case of vandalism rather perpetuates my angriness.
One way to mitigate my anger could be to get rid of the machine entirely, as it seemingly is not highly valued in the neighborhood. This would require more extensive sexual education at school and maybe even a free condom dispenser inside. This way the quality would be more assured and students would still have access to contraception for their early adventures. This solution would, however, curb the general accessibility for the public. But maybe that is a thing that just needs to be accepted.
Mommy, why is there an almost naked woman sitting in a window?
The most public display of sexuality that can be found in Lüneburg is the small red-light district, with three brothels along one street (see photo 3). The pictured corner house with the pink pillars and windows is an obvious location for prostitution. In the brothels, the prostitutes sit in the windows on display in such a way as to allow clients to analyze the market and choose if and whom to go to. The location is very … peculiar. It is situated in a residential area, close to a student dorm where I used to live. It is also on the way to a natural and recreational area. And it is surrounded by children’s day-care centers.
Photo 3: The red-light district in Lüneburg. Picture taken by Leo.
This location directly leads to the scenario that young children, either on their way to and from the kindergarten or in company with the parents when accessing the park pass by the brothels and are thus confronted with prostitution. “Mommy, why is there an almost naked woman sitting in a window?” is a foreseeable question that requires answers from the parents. Another consideration is whether the parents, and in that regard also students and other residents, feel comfortable with clients roaming the neighborhood seeking intercourse.
Personally, I always felt uncomfortable passing the street when I went to read in the nearby park. I desperately concentrated on the thorns of the blackberry bushes on the left side of the road just to avoid looking at the women. Bear in mind that I am – supposedly – an old man, so how would young children feel? What would they understand and take home from the situation?
Considering this blog’s title Thoughts for Change, I have difficulties in reaching a conclusion. On the one hand, I think prostitution should be available in a legal manner under public oversight to ensure safe and fair working conditions for the prostitutes. Then again, the location close to kindergartens and a recreational area is difficult. I would argue for relocating the brothels to a location that is less frequented by children and families, without expelling it to the small towns outside of Lüneburg where similar establishments do exist. Ideally, there is an industrial or commercial area in the city where it could be moved to, to ensure that children are not exposed to it too early, but to also ensure public oversight. On the other hand, relocating might imply seclusion and following an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality lead to social segregation between those frequenting a red-light district and the rest of the town. But from what I have heard, there is not really a “rest of the town”, as people (mostly men) from all ages and classes seek those services. Thus, seclusion would imply the societal self-deception that prostitution is only an issue for “the others”.
So how is your öffentlicher Verkehr?
With this post, I wanted to show you how in a small German city, sexuality is visible and thus discussed in the public. There are instances like the condom vending machines that I would generally approve of in the sense of sustainability, as they promote health and well-being (SDG 3), and gender equality (SDG 5). However, they have to be maintained and the general rules of a society should generally be enforced. Prostitution has happened for millennia and will persist. Therefore, it is important to regulate and have it visible for the sake of labor conditions for the prostitutes (SDG 8). But is it sustainable to have children potentially influenced by prostitution at an early age?
As I am torn between approval and condemnation, I am interested to hear your opinions. Do you have experience with publicly available contraception and prostitution where you live? What solution would you suggest? Please comment below. And to avoid you calling me a liar: here, have some cookies.
CC0 licensed picture taken from pixabay.com.