Leave it to the Swiss to come up with a neat solution to street prostitution. In an effort to make the oldest profession safer for both sex workers and customers, authorities in Zurich have rolled out a series of drive-in “sex boxes”.
The 1.4 million-Euro initiative is part of an effort to bring some order to Switzerland’s growing sex trade, legal since 1942. Sex workers who work on the streets are required to obtain permits from the police, hold health insurance and pay taxes of $5 per night. They are free to work as long as they’re not coerced and remain independent contractors. Zurich also offers prostitutes free legal advice, language lessons, counselling and self-defence courses.
Sex workers are as protected and respected as the city could make them. But city official Michael Herzig and his colleagues at the welfare department felt that things weren’t quite panning out as they should: “We want to regulate prostitution because, until now, it was the law of the jungle.” he commented to the UK Telegraph. “It was the pimps who decided the prices, for instance. We are trying to reach a situation which is better for the prostitutes themselves, for their health and security and also for people who live in Zurich.”
So they proposed a unique, drive-thru solution.
The nine wooden sheds are located in a former industrial area of the city. They are open between 9.00pm and 5.00am and staffed by up to 40 workers. Each bare-bones garage is decorated with colourful fluorescent lights and has strict rule of engagement: for example – the sheds are for car customers only; men on foot or on motorbikes are not allowed.
The City has tried to think of everything: the space is fitted with showers, a small kitchen and a rest area for sex-workers. Each booth is equipped with an alarm button in case customers become violent. All feature posters advocating the use of condoms to prevent HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Two social workers are on hand until midnight, after which security guards trained to deal with prostitutes, pimps and other marginalized groups take over. Once a week, a female doctor specialized in sex workers’ issues is available for consultation.
Police officials and researchers estimate there are between 13,000 and 20,000 prostitutes in Switzerland who make an annual turnover of $3.8 billion. Most of Zurich’s sex workers are 18 to 40 years old, come from Hungary and stay in town for a few months before moving to another country or returning home. Lucrative pickings for any pimp.
And what do the sex workers think? “For these women, it’s quite a luxury to work like this,” says Ursula Kocher, head of Flora Dora, a publicly funded group of social workers that work with prostitutes in Zurich. All well and good – but the success of failure of this endeavour will “vary depending on how much the authorities invest in them, or whether they are managing [the booths],” Herzig said. “If the city doesn’t run them, the pimps will.”
Whether Swiss men take to the booths remains to be seen. Some have written to the local authorities saying they’re afraid they will be under too much control. However, Kocher says any such worries are unfounded because the sites will have no cameras or police present.
“It may take time”, she said: “but if the women are here, the men will come.”
(All images found in the public domain)