Here’s an interview about my latest documentary film ”Like a Pascha” I think turned out really good, made in english by Anna Holz for Emma, a german feminist magazine. You can read it in german here. I think it covers a lot of issues regarding feminism, men and sex I wanted to communicate with the film but not really succeeded with…
As you can imagine, the bare fact that a man, and moreover, a Swedish man, makes a critical documentary about a German brothel is interesting for us as a German feminist medium in many ways, raising questions about our country´s approach to prostitution, about male gender roles, the Swedish system, which functions as a role model for European feminists in general etc….
I am very interested in what got you to Pascha, which individual reasons you had, to go there, how you, as a male subject, could or can cope with your co-males in places like these…so, if you want to, feel free to add more personal stories, opinions or experiences. I, however, didn’t want to ask you anything too personal and therefore have put those kinds of questions in brackets. I hope that´s ok with you.
That´s enough introduction for now, here are my questions:
Not only accessing, but also filming the people and business at Pascha, Europe’s biggest brothel, is a difficult and tricky thing to do. You obviously managed to win their trust. Do you think a female director could have approached them in the same open way, without difficulties? Could you have made this documentary if you were a woman?
No, never. To start with, women are not allowed at Pascha unless they are either selling sex or doing other work there. And men, well, men can do as they want, but all women at the brothel of course saw me a as a potential customer. Often they would be pissed off at me when they realized I didn’t want to spend any money. But, as a man I could move and interact freely with both women working at Pascha and men going there to buy sex. A woman would not have been able to walk around the brothel freely. Also, I tried to use myself as a confused man at the brothel, I didn’t go there as a stone cold journalist looking for truth. I was looking for something deeper, harder to get to, where I needed to be honest about myself.
In an interview with Jason Whyte you said, when you first got to pasha you were “in chock”. There is a scene in the documentary where you have trouble going back into the rooms, watching what is going on in there. How did you cope with it, did you develop a strategy eventually, to bear being there? Or did it never stop being a struggle for you?
It was quite a chock to come there the first time, to realize the magnitude of the place. You have to understand that prostitution is illegal in Sweden, a very rare phenomena to actually witness if you are not a cop or something. So here I come, a Swedish feminist man, to this eleven-story building, walking hallways of hundreds of women, it was overwhelming.
But after spending some time at the brothel (I was there to and from for more than three years, always staying at the brothel), the things that first was chocking more and more became normal. This place is a like a world on it’s own, a total universe in many ways separated from the rest of the world. It’s because of what happens there – it’s not normal at all outside of the house, so there is a special bond between the people in this world who share this experience, sometimes even between the buyers and the women selling.
And of course the atmosphere in the house because of the odd mix of women from all over the world doing this extremely demanding intense work really got to me and the other in the film team. I think it resembles what happens in prisons and other isolated places where people organize around a very special cultural and ethic value system. Hanging out in the staff casino at night listening to the women’s stories was surreal.
So in a way it was not so hard being at Pascha, except for the gang bang situations, the hard part was leaving the place, realizing that what you’ve experienced and been in. I have one memory of going in a taxi to the airport in Cologne after spending some days at the brothel without going leaving the house one single time, and I was convinced all of the women at the airport were prostitutes. And calling home to my partner from the brothel was always something I tried to avoid; the perspective was just too much.
But regarding the gang bang parties, this was the only time I was allowed to film actual sex. And the men coming to these “parties” where often nervous and on their toes, while the women try so hard to get them to relax, the whole situation is super strange for me as a bystander. Also, having a camera in these moments make people act weird, some try to hide, others want to perform. And me, I try to act normal, but afterwards I can see I’m not normal…
(It seemed to me as if you were looking for something at Pascha, something that maybe wasn’t even to be found. The documentation left me wondering why you were trying so hard to find the deeper reason, the better motivation to buy sex – I got the impression that the men´s simple shallowness and brutality was hard for you to bear, being a man yourself – so that you simply HAD to know there was more to it.)
I will try to answer this below!
In an interview with Dirk Sonniksen you said: “I would say that going to this place for me was challenging some of my worst nightmares of manhood (…) I wanted to go there and challenge my own sort of hopelessness, for this subject.” – What did you mean here, could you elaborate this?
I feel really hopeless when I think about men and what we do to women, each other and the world! Manhood is dark subject because we men are doing so much bad. And a brothel is such a flagship for, on one hand, the privileges and possibilities men have and on the other hand the exposed and so totally unfair situation the women are in. So I was thinking, if I find something good in these men, well, maybe then things are maybe not so hopeless.
I was trying to get answers to these questions: how come men can treat other people so bad? What’s driving them? Asking these questions was for me, a way not to buy into the myth about men, that we are uncontrollable, dangerous animals, bombs waiting to go off, but instead sensitive humans, products of culture and society.
I mean, men are born good, as all humans. We want to be loved and love. Then things happen. One of the things that stand out when I think about men’s problems is sex. It seem to be so utterly important for many men to get sex. And since most of us live in a patriarchy men are often really bad at not getting what we want.
I don’t believe men are so obsessed by sex is because men have a different sex lust than women. I don’t believe we are born with some special need for sex, nor do I believe we have a stronger urge to reproduce. I don’t deny the fact that our different physical characteristics give us different experiences during our lives. But for me, there seem to be a connection between men’s emotional abilities and sex. Because we often use sex as drug to give us a feeling of well-being when we maybe need to do some emotional work on a situation or relation in our lives. Sex is a reward when things are going well, a comfort when things are bad, excitement when life is boring, an escape when you can’t handle reality.
Many women at Pascha told me that their customers actually didn’t want to have sex, just talk, relax and sometimes even cry! This came as a surprise to me since the conversations in the hallways often were formal and technical, the women stating their program, what kind of services they do and don’t do…
So, this made me think, what if the whole sex thing is part of play, pretty much how young men are supposed to treat women, like sex toys… What if what happens in the room is actually that men are buying attention? They are buying energy and time, a woman’s time, when she is supposed to listen, smile, be tender and caring – besides her sexual skills that is. Sounds pretty much like some kind of love to me, don’t you think, very much alike the relations between men and women we normally see in perfectly normal relationships also here in Sweden.
Robert Jensen, American journalist, professor and recent co-founder of an antiporn blog created by men for men (http://www.antipornmen.org/) alleged in one of his articles”:
“Let’s stop trying to be men. Let’s struggle to be human beings.”
Is that a statement that you can relate to as well?
Yes, very much, this is a strategy where we men should treat much of what we see as manly as constructions we don’t really need. I can relate to that idea. But I do think we need to be realistic – I am a man, and I will be one for the rest of my life, and more men (as we see men) will come, so let’s try to create a manhood to be proud of. And if this in the end means that the whole idea of a man is unnecessary, I’m open for that.
(Apart from being male yourself, did you have other personal reasons, maybe based on your own experiences and biography, to be interested in the male gender role and the power dynamics between the genders?)
See my other answers.
How did the pasha-experience affect your opinion about the sex business?
I don’t like what’s going on at Pascha and in Germany in whole regarding the sex business. I don’t think any woman should need to give emotional or physical attention to a man for money, it’s just below our dignity. And I don’t think any man should pay to be close to someone, it’s not worthy us. I’m not against sex, sex is great, but I think we should all strive for equal sexual relations where everybody involved are there because they want to, and there is no asymmetrical power relations between the parties involved.
I can’t say this view on sex business changed after staying at Pascha. What became clearer to me was the fact that the people in this industry are not bad people – they are just part of a bad system. I think I knew it even before going to Pascha, but it was sometimes hard to realize that I actually liked some of the men I met there, I expected them to be less sympathetic. It was a good reminder things are seldom as easy as we would like them to be…
I got the impression that the manager of Pascha was offended when you asked him if he could imagine selling his body for money, or being forced to do so. Do men apply double standards when it comes to the sex business? – Why?
I think that without the double standards men wouldn’t be able to cope with how buying sex affects the prostitutes. It’s part of the male myth to just shut down our empathic ability and act – something most of us men are well trained at. So, for the boss of Pascha to think about how it would be for him to sell sex, it was too much, it was a moment where the double standards we hold up collapsed.
The punters in your movie didn’t seem to show empathy or reflection on what they were doing – from your experiences, would you agree that the German law, by legalizing prostitution, encourages men to feel entitled to buy sex?
Yes. I got the feeling that buying sex was not a big thing for the men coming to Pascha. Everybody knows what it is, where it is, knows the brand and what it means. It is all very normalized in Cologne, and I think this brings a lot of customers there.
Contrariwise: did the Swedish model of illegalizing the purchase of sex raise moral awareness and empathy for sex workers and improve their situation?
Yes, I think so. The law has gotten some criticize because it’s somewhat ideological – it sends a signal about what we think is right and wrong, but most people seem to appreciate this, because it makes it easy to talk about a complicated phenomena: parents can tell their kids that this is something bad, something we don’t do etc. In Sweden the sex workers are really marginalized and not very visible at all in media and society. There is a sex workers organization, but I get the feeling they are often used as an alibi by extreme liberals who want to tear down the laws on buying sex because it threatens individual rights.
Your documentary has been shown to the members of the Swedish government. How did they respond? What was the discussion afterwards like?
Sex is hard to talk about, like, how to start, from what perspective. The film give people a lot of ways in to this djungle of . A lot of people get stiff and say all the politically correct stuff. Some people are brave and see how this is a more complex issue, especially if we really want to reach the buyers – which also in Sweden are all kinds of men from all of society.
I have read recent articles, saying that more and more people in Sweden nowadays disagree with the Illegalization of buying sex, saying it didn´t improve the situation of prostitutes – is that your impression of the atmosphere in Sweden nowadays, too? (I suspect the German newspapers to be a little partisan on that matter.)
This is not true. There is a strong consensus in Sweden supporting the illegalization of buying sex, especially from authorities, NGOs, feminists and politicians. And as I said before, the few voices that say otherwise are often hijacked by extreme liberals. From what I can see, women’s organizations in Sweden in general don’t focus very much on sex workers. If this is because the problem is so small or because they prefer the subject to be small I can’t say.
What are your upcoming projects? Will you continue being involved with issues of gender? Or do you need a rest for now?
I work a lot with “Like a Pascha”, travelling around Sweden doing screenings and debates on manhood and sex. It’s fantastic, I love meeting the viewers, the film is a great start for discussions. Also, the film will be released in the US this winter, very exciting.
I’ve also started doing research and interviews for a new film, which in some ways have a lot in common with “Like a Pascha”; it’s about a non functioning physical appearance of a social phenomena we’ve all agreed is the only solution to a problem. And men play the main role.
Are you still in touch with Sonia? Do you know what happened to her?
Yes, I still have contact with her. She moved to Spain, started studying as a dentist nurse, but carried on selling sex as a way to finance her studies.
Did she and the others ever get to see the movie? Did you hear anything from “pasha” ever since?
Sonia saw the film before it was finalized, it was important to get her approval. As for the men, I wasn’t as nice… I have a dream organizing a screening at Pascha for the women and staff, but I don’t think I’m brave enough to make it happen.
Additional thoughts, that I would kindly ask you to comment:
What I liked very much about your documentary was the very forceful illustration of what Luhmann calls “Kontingenz”: the brothel tried to create an atmosphere of normality, pretending that there simply was no alternative to the existence of the sex business – or the alternative maybe being men, raping women in the streets.
But this coherency was broken.
We saw a man who was not at all convinced, and probably not accidentally a Swedish one. Thus the viewer experiences a world that is, what it is, but not necessarily. It could be different. Your being an outsider at this place was the link to a possibility of an “outside”. That is an almost utopian thought and I don’t know whether you had that idea in mind – ? – The ending, however, where Sonia sits on the roof of Pascha, urging a little bug to fly off, hints to a way of escape.
In my opinion, your documentary – I can´t possibly know whether this was intended – thus makes a strong argument in the whole gender debate: proposing that the cultural and social environment is crucial to why prostitution exists – and how it can possibly be diminished.