Switzerland needs to tighten up its prostitution laws to avoid becoming a teenage sex tourism destination, warns a Swiss parliamentarian.
Christian Democrat Luc Barthassat has lodged a parliamentary initiative calling for the age of consent among prostitutes to be raised from 16 to 18, in line with Europe.
In neighbouring Germany, Italy and France the legal age for prostitution is 18.
The issue recently hit the French headlines after three national team players — Franck Ribéry, Sidney Govou and Karim Benzema — were accused of soliciting sex from an under-age prostitute. In the Netherlands, home of the famous Amsterdam red light district, politicians have proposed to raise the minimum age to 21.
Switzerland remains a European exception and girls as young as 16 can in theory legally sell their services in parts of the country. The scale of teenage prostitution in Switzerland remains unclear, however.
“Switzerland risks becoming a major sex tourism destination,” Barthassat told swissinfo.ch.
The Geneva-based politician accuses the government of dragging its feet over ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse and permitting legal loopholes.
“Right now we can protect a minor who is being forced into prostitution, but we can’t stop a minor if they want to become a prostitute,” said Barthassat.
His federal-level initiative follows a number of similar efforts at the local level; prostitution and its laws fall under the responsibility of the 26 cantons.
On May 1 a new prostitution law, with an article banning prostitutes under 18, will enter into effect in canton Geneva, which has seen the number of prostitutes almost quadruple since 2004 to 2,700; on April 20 canton St Gallen’s parliament passed a similar vote.
“It’s absurd that young people under 18 are not allowed to watch pornographic films, but are allowed to take part in them,” said local St Gallen politician Jeannette Schlegel, who tabled the motion.
Cantons Basel City and Bern are said to be considering similar changes.
The number of prostitutes working in Switzerland varies considerably from 10,604 - a report by Sonntag newspaper based on official police figures - to over 25,000, according to the European association for health promotion among migrant sex workers, TAMPEP.
It is not clear how many young people are working as prostitutes, but experts say they are aware of a “hidden” phenomenon.
“We don’t have a presence of minors working as prostitutes in canton Vaud as the law doesn’t authorise them in massage parlours and there are regular checks,” said Vaud police spokesman Jean-Philippe Sauterel.
“It doesn’t mean there aren’t any outside official networks, but it’s not a major concern,”
The same official message can be heard in Geneva and Zurich.
“Talking about sexual tourism is a bit exaggerated,” said Zurich police spokesman, Marco Cortesi. “It’s not a big issue but it’s still serious.”
Despite the lack of official figures, Barthassat is convinced there is a problem.
“There was a programme on the French TV channel M6 showing young girls travelling from Paris to work as prostitutes in the big Geneva hotels at the weekends,” he said.
Sex industry professionals backed up his comments.
“Numerous clients ask for the youngest adolescents possible and 16-year-old girls telephone me to sell their charms,” Linda*, head of the Essential Escort Service in French-speaking Switzerland, told the Tribune de Genève newspaper.
“For me there is no question of getting involved. It’s almost paedophilia and these girls are not mature enough. But it proves that the market exists.”
Barthassat said police officials had unofficially told him about cases where “young girls – not from poor backgrounds – were doing that to get money or to buy an expensive handbag”.
“There are several cases of underage girls carrying out label sex – they work as prostitutes to be able to afford luxury goods,” Susanne Gresser from Maria Magdalena, an advisory service for sex workers in St Gallen, confirmed to the 20 Minutes newspaper.
Barthassat says his text has the backing of 40 other parliamentarians and they are determined to show young people “that we will not tolerate such practices”.
“If the problem is not resolved by the end of 2010, I will go a step further and collect signatures to launch a people’s initiative [to change the law],” he warned.
Simon Bradley, swissinfo.ch
Prostitution is legal in Switzerland but prostitutes have to register with city authorities and health authorities and get regular health checks.
Having sex with someone under 16 is currently punishable by up to five years in prison.
The legal age for prostitution in Germany France and Italy is 18.
In Switzerland pimping is illegal and uncommon: most prostitutes operate independently out of massage parlours or small studios via mobile phones. They cannot display their wares.
Human trafficking in persons can carry a prison sentence of up to 20 years and coercing a person into prostitution is punishable with up to ten years in prison.
Besides trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation, legislation is being amended to make trafficking to exploit labour and the removal of human organs punishable offences.
L permits were created in 1975 and allow women from countries that do not have a free labour accord with Switzerland to work as dancers in cabaret clubs for up to eight months.
A Swiss federal police report in 2007 estimated that the sex industry generates SFr3.2 billion ($2.6 billion) a year in Switzerland.
The number of prostitutes working in Zurich rose 20% between 2003 and 2005 with 14,000 registered sex workers in the country in 2005.
The report also estimated that between 1,500 and 3,000 victims of human trafficking were in the country in 2005.