Switzerland’s biggest city, Zurich, has opened a special facility in an attempt to move prostitution away from downtown pavements, taking its cue from a system that has been successfully tested in Germany.
Zurich’s Sihlquai along the Limmat River lies just a few steps away from some of the city’s trendiest streets, not far from the main railway station. Over the past few years, though, it has become notorious for the sex workers plying their trade there at night.
For local inhabitants, the presence of the often scantily-clad ladies of the night has become intolerable, either because of the noise and rubbish the prostitutes generate, or the traffic caused by their car-borne clients.
The sex trade in the area has also been the result in some cases of human trafficking, forced prostitution and other serious forms of abuse.
All these factors were enough for the local authorities to seek a solution to end both the violence and the disturbances associated with the prostitutes. It is about to open a zone reserved for the sex workers and their customers on the city’s western outskirts, a project approved by over half the city’s citizens in a vote last year.
The so-called “sex drive-in”, only open to clients with cars, is a first in Switzerland. There are nine garages or shelters, and between 40 to 60 prostitutes could work there every day.
Zurich looked to Germany for inspiration, taking the city of Cologne as its example. Facing similar problems – disturbances, violence and fed-up locals – the Germans opened a special site in 2001, 14 kilometres from downtown in an industrial zone on the Geestemünder Strasse.
It was a German first, but it was inspired by the Dutch, notably the city of Utrecht. Other German towns such as Essen followed suit. But it hasn’t been a raging success everywhere: Dortmund, Amsterdam and Rotterdam tried and failed in their attempts.
The Zurich strategy
In Switzerland, prostitution is legal and is taxed liked any other business. But some cantons and cities have their own specific regulations. In Zurich, the opening of the sex boxes is part of a wider strategy to eliminate illegal prostitution.
The number of streets where the sex trade is allowed has been severely restricted.
Since July 2012, the local authorities can fine clients soliciting paid sex where it is banned.
Since the beginning of the year, an authorisation is required to ply the sex trade on the street or in the new sex drive-in. Sex workers must be 18 years old and have health insurance. A daily “ticket” can be purchased from a distributor for CHF5. In exchange, prostitutes get access to healthcare and a safer environment.
Massage parlours will need to be authorised as of next year.
A special 15-member commission including representatives of city and cantonal authorities, non-governmental organisations, massage parlour owners and neighbourhood associations will also be set up to advise the city.
Around 100 prostitutes are believed to work on the streets of Zurich, out of a total of 1,200 officially registered with the city.
755 cases of illegal prostitution were reported to the authorities in 2010, while that figure dropped to 540 last year.
“Keep everything under control is vitally important,” says Michael Herzig, head of the Zurich project. “If it isn’t clear who is responsible for what and there are insufficient checks, the pimps take over very quickly.”
Sabine Reichert of Cologne’s Catholic women’s social service warns, however, that not everything can be kept under control. “We have to explain to the women from all social classes coming to work here – most of them from the disadvantaged groups – that they are not totally protected by the boxes,” she adds.
Social workers also have to adapt their approach when dealing with the prostitutes. “Many of them drink or take drugs to withstand what they do for a living,” Reichert explains.
“Some of them suffer from psychoses, while others seem to have a normal life and pick up their children after school. Whereas some prostitutes prefer to have a room, others prefer the freedom offered by the Geestemünder Strasse, where they don’t have to pay rent or work in a massage parlour. It’s the same for the clients: some need a certain type of surrounding, others don’t.”
For Reichert, the collaboration between the different city services, from the police to social workers, is even more important than any form of control to ensure the success of the structure.
Zurich already has some experience with these collaborations after having closed down the city’s infamous open drug scenes.
Reichert says that it is also necessary to keep a certain perspective when deciding when to intervene.
“Should you intervene if a drug dealer gets in pretending to be a client? You can’t ban everything and there will always be drugs,” she told swissinfo.ch. “On the other hand, if a group of dealers moved in, it wouldn’t be acceptable and the police would have to intervene.”
Except for their different “opening” times – midday to 2am in Cologne, 7pm to 5am in Zurich – the Swiss site will operate much along the same lines as its German model. In both cases, clients drive past shelters where the women wait.
In Cologne, one could imagine being in a forest if it weren’t for the patched-up tarpaulins damaged by passers-by trying to ogle the action. The “sex boxes” are inside an old shed. The bathrooms are in a shabby state, admits Reichert, who says there have been too many thefts for the authorities to keep up repairs.
The German example
Cologne opened a zone reserved for the sex trade in 2001. According to the city authorities, street prostitution has disappeared from the downtown area, although a red-light zone still exists further in the south of the metropolitan area.
There have been no violent acts in the special zone. The police carry out regular checks to make sure pimps and drug dealers do not move in.
By guaranteeing their security, the authorities have convinced the prostitutes to take part in health prevention and support programmes.
The general health of many sex workers has improved and their income has increased.
However, some women prefer to remain anonymous rather than work in an enclosed area. Competition between prostitutes is considered by some to be a disadvantage.
Who can work on the Geestemünder Strasse site is one of the challenges the authorities face. So far, the city has chosen to give priority to locals and long-term immigrants.
Plenty of advantages
In Zurich, everything is brand new, even the shiny trash bins. The “garages” where the cars will park are lit up by coloured fluorescent tubes and plants have been placed in the area.
“If someone calls me a perfectionist because I want to make sure the prostitutes aren’t working in a sordid environment, I don’t mind being a perfectionist,” says Herzig.
At both sites, social workers are also present every day. In Zurich, Ursula Kocher and an aid and consultation service called Flora Dora have moved into refurbished containers.
The prostitutes can change clothes there, take a shower and ask for advice. A small kitchen is also available. Flora Dora organises self-defence courses, including for inside cars, while medical consultations will take place once a week.
Kocher reckons the Zurich project has a chance of succeeding. “Most sex workers will move here,” she says. “We have been discussing it with them for a long time. They don’t want any trouble with the law and working here will have plenty of advantages.”
Cologne convinced the prostitutes to make the move even though the distance between downtown and their new “workplace” was much further than in Zurich’s case.
Zurich hopes to have covered all the bases. A special group has been set up to deal with complaints from local inhabitants; the zone’s usage will be identified by signs marked with a red umbrella, a pictogram already widely used in eastern Europe.
The population will also be able to inspect the site on August 24. “We don’t want to hide anything,” says Martin Waser, the city councilor in charge of social affairs. ”People have the right to know what it will look like.”
Only clients driving cars will be allowed to use the sex boxes in Zurich.
“Drivers are our main target group, because we want the Sihlquai to be freed from prostitution,” says Herzig. “Clients without cars can go to massage parlours and specialized bars.”
The main issue is whether clients will make use of the new site. In Cologne, they followed the workers.