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Debating the right to sell sex

Switzerland is one of the most liberal countries when it comes to prostitution. Yet those who offer sexual services for payment do not have ordinary workers’ rights and the profession is still considered immoral.

To imagine a society without prostitution is utopian. Those who are willing to offer their own bodies in exchange for money must be allowed to do so without being stigmatised or punished. This is the view put forward by Terre des Femmes Switzerland, an organisation that campaigns for the rights of women.

Claudine Esseiva, general-secretary of the women’s section of the centre-right Radical Party, sees things the same way. “Banning prostitution means relegating it to the shadows, beyond all control,” she told

In Switzerland, prostitution has been legal since 1942. When carried out voluntarily, it is considered a form of independent economic activity and the proceeds are subject to tax. But those who do this need to have their papers in order, hold work or residence permits, and declare their occupation to the cantonal authorities.

Island of tolerance

Switzerland is often held up as an example for Europe, notes the Aspasie group, created 30 years ago by a group of prostitutes in Geneva.

“There are still few countries that have implemented the directives of the UN programme against AIDS/HIV concerning the legalisation of prostitution, ” said Marianne Schweizer, coordinator of Aspasie, adding that policies regarding state control of prostitution in Switzerland were rather pragmatic.

“For about ten years we’ve been developing prevention initiatives with customers leading to a respectful and protective environment.”

The aim of Aspasie is that the “Swiss farsightedness” that has legalised prostitution should not be “contaminated by bad ideas” from neighbouring countries. The idea of forbidding prostitution and punishing customers, as is done by Sweden, is gaining ground in Europe.

Most of the pressure groups active in Brussels espouse the prohibitionist approach, as University of Vienna political scientist Birgit Sauer was quoted as saying a few months ago in the Austrian daily Der Standard.

And yet “legality provides the basis for better protection of prostitutes. We know where they are and so we can talk to them”, according to Esseiva, who supported the creation of a red-light district on the outskirts of Zurich.

Simplifying the procedures

While supportive of prostitution being legal in Switzerland, the groups active on the ground are opposed to excessive regulation of the sector.

“Too many administrative requirements force the prostitutes into illegality and reinforce their marginalisation,” Schweizer told

“Specific laws on prostitution adopted by some cantons are presented as a kind of protection. In reality they complicate the independent exercise of prostitution and increase the risk of dependence,” she said.

In canton Bern, Esseiva noted, prostitutes wanting to work independently have to present a business plan in which they are supposed to specify the kind of service provided and the marketing strategy.

“This is absurd,” she said. “The more complicated the procedures get, the more we are forcing these people, who often do not understand the language, into the hands of pimps.”

A job like any other?

To bureaucracy is added the fact that Switzerland’s supreme court continues to consider contracts entered into by persons engaged in prostitution “contrary to morals” and therefore unenforceable under law, said Andrea Caroni, another Radical parliamentarian.

As a result, these people cannot claim the agreed remuneration in the courts, and disputes over rental of rooms or other such agreements rarely end up in court.

“Our judicial arrangements deny protection to one of society’s most vulnerable groups,” he noted in a question addressed to the government.

For Schweizer, there is a need for safer working conditions, action to improve the judicial framework and structures for assistance and consultation.

“People who work in prostitution should be treated like other workers. They should be free to choose whether to work independently or for an employer.”

Should prostitution be considered an occupation like any other? Absolutely not, insist the Zurich women’s group Frauenzentrale, who are among the few groups opposed to legalisation.

“This is not a ‘normal’ job. Today voluntary prostitution is not the rule but the exception,” the group’s president Andrea Gisler told the Swiss weekly Das Magazin. She advocates “considering a ban on prostitution, as is happening in other countries”.

Dire situation

An investigation carried out this spring in Zurich (see sidebar) and a recent series of raids by the Bern police which dismantled a large human trafficking network for the purposes of prostitution, suggest a rather dire situation.

In their 2011 report, the federal police stated that “the rather liberal legal framework as regards prostitution” and the high prices for sexual services here make of Switzerland “an attractive market, not only for foreign prostitutes, but for human traffickers”.

This viewpoint is rejected by Marianne Schweizer at Aspasie. “Periodically cases do come to light. But they are exceptions, and the networks are quickly dismantled.”

Some women, she admitted, were victims of abuse, often perpetrated by Swiss citizens – “but these situations must not be confused with trafficking, which remains a marginal aspect of prostitution in Switzerland”.

Estimates of prostitution in Switzerland, incomplete and out-of-date as they are, put the number of people involved at 13,000-20,000. The European association Tampep has proposed a figure of 25,000. The annual turnover is thought to be SFr3.5 billion ($3.75 billion).

For several years, police forces have been noticing an increase in the number of prostitutes. In canton Geneva, the numbers increased from 800 in 2004 to over 4,100 in 2012. One of the reasons for this is the agreement on free movement of people between Switzerland and the European Union, which was extended to Romania and Bulgaria beginning in 2009.

In Switzerland, paid sexual services are mainly offered in massage parlours, then there is streetwalking, prostitution in bars and cabarets, and finally escort services, according to an investigation a few years ago by the Institute of Sociology at the University of Geneva.

Switzerland is one of the few countries in the world to have established 16 as the minimum legal age for engaging in prostitution.

In 2010, the government ratified the Convention of the Council of Europe on the protection of children against exploitation and sexual abuse. This requires raising the legal limit to 18. This summer, the government laid before parliament a bill to revise the Criminal Code accordingly, which the two chambers have not yet considered.

The government is also proposing to abolish the cabaret dancers’ permit (permit L), which allows women from countries outside Europe to work in Switzerland as strippers. According to the government, this statute does not provide sufficient protection because numbers of these women are being forced into prostitution illegally.

The city of Zurich carried out an investigation that focused on prostitutes working in the Sihlquai district in the months of May and June 2012.

Most of the 120 young women interviewed were Hungarian Roma. Prostitution is seen as a means to support families and better living conditions in their home villages.

More than half had started streetwalking before the age of 20. Some work up to 70 hours a week and on average have six customers in a night (with peaks of 30 men).

They have to pay a pimp or send the money they earn to the family at home. For a bed in a shared room they may have to pay up to SFr2,700 a month.

Added to the hard conditions of work are physical and verbal abuse, robberies and rapes.

(Translated from Italian by Terence MacNamee)

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