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Sex for sale Swiss quarrel over prostitution ban

Eine Prostituierte streckt ihre High-Heels mit roten Bleistiftabsätzen aus einem Autofenster.

Should prostitution be banned or just regulated?

(Robert Schlesinger / Keystone / DPA)

A small Zurich non-governmental organisation has whipped up a storm with its demand for a ban on prostitution along the lines of the Swedish model. In Switzerland, sex work counts as a “real job”.

“Switzerland and Sweden are constantly confused with each other. Perhaps you Swiss don’t have a problem with this. But we do.” So say Swedish men and women in a campaign video by the Zurich Women’s Centre. In June, this small NGO launched its campaign for a ban on prostitution based on the Swedish model. In Sweden, the use of sex services is banned and customers can be charged. Switzerland, on the other hand, is among the most permissive countries in the world as far as the sex trade goes: Both the supply and the consumption of sexual services is legal, as are street-walking, sex saunas and brothels. In Switzerland prostitution is a career; prostitutes pay taxes and most are registered as self-employed.

“How can this be legal?” ask an actor in the video. “Well obviously everything that earns money is legal in Switzerland,” another explains. “You Swiss are still living in the Middle Ages.”

Kampagnenvideo Prostitutionsverbot

Kampagnenvideo für ein Prostitutionsverbot

Other NGOs started a counter-campaign called “Sex Work Is Work”, in which they take a stand against a ban and for the rights of sex workers. Even state-run gender-equality agencies and advisory offices have spoken out against the demands of the Zurich Women’s Centre. 

NGOs at loggerheads

The women’s rights organisation Terre des Femmes Switzerland took part in the counter-campaign. This led to a clash with the eponymous sister organisation in Germany. 

“We distance ourselves clearly and unambiguously from the statement by Terre des Femmes Switzerland which says ‘sex work is work,’” the German organisation wrote in a statement. TdF Germany, like the Zurich Women’s Centre, is calling for a ban on buying sex. “We want a society without prostitution, because prostitution is violence,” Inge Bell of TdF Germany said to swissinfo.ch. Prostitution is deeply degrading to women, she said.

Zwei männliche Prostituierte in einem Bordell.

It should also be illegal for female clients to pay for the services of male prostitutes, according to the Zurich NGO.

(Walter Bieri / Keystone)

The Swiss TdF sees it differently. In the “Sex Work Is Work” campaign, it takes the position that equality means the same rights for everyone, and that also means for sex workers. The latter should have the right to determine their own path and freedom to ply their trade. "The dignity of all humans must be preserved. That includes those whose work carries a social stigma,” the organisation says on its website. It adds that gender-specific violence and human smuggling is not the same as sex work.

This difference of opinion has led to the two organisations parting ways. "The organisations are in the process of separating," Bell confirmed to swissinfo.ch. There have been differences in the past because, for example, the Swiss organisation was not in favour of banning the burqa, or the headscarf for girls. "If women’s policy starts to bend to different cultures and – for example – allows strict conservative Muslim groups a voice, which might be what is happening in Switzerland now, then this will torpedo any real improvement in achieving equality," Bell says. The Swiss organisation will have to change its logo and name in future, she says. 

Lack of support

A majority of the Swiss media is also sceptical about the Zurich Women’s Centre’s proposal. A ban on prostitution would be expensive, the Tages-Anzeiger commented: If the sex trade is made illegal, then it would be necessary to help the women concerned to find new work, or to fund their retraining. “Anything else would be hypocritical and unfair.” 

The Neue Zürcher Zeitung conceded that “Prostitution is more degrading to women than it is respectful towards them; nor does it promote an equal relationship between the genders." But there are many arguments against a ban. “There is no existing evidence that prostitution wouldn’t just disappear underground and women would be forced into an even more illegal existence.” 

Successes in Swiss drugs policy have shown that legalising those affected helps more in prevention than repressing them, the NZZ commented. Only the newspaper Blick - a tabloid which monetises sex topics like no other and earns good money with ads for sex – spoke out in opposition to a ban on prostitution, saying commercial sex is paid abuse.

Ein Strichplatz

Zurich's 'drive-in' sex booths

(Steffen Schmidt/Keystone)

Switzerland's path

The Zurich Women’s Centre wasn’t surprised at the predominantly negative reactions to their campaign. “We expected it,” says Andrea Gisler, the centre president. "The sex trade and all its negative side-effects are glossed over in Switzerland." In other countries, on the other hand, women’s organisations and lobby groups share her anti-prostitution stance. The Council of Europe, the European Parliament and other countries have engaged in protracted, intense debate over prostitution. The Swiss government also addressed the subject in 2015, but reached the conclusion that the Swedish model didn’t prevent human trafficking.

In the last quarter of the 19th century, a Swiss “morality movement” developed that wanted to ban prostitution. But since as early as 1942, prostitution in Switzerland has been legal. At the end of the 20th century the legal situation in Switzerland was so liberal that a disproportionately high number of brothels were founded here compared with other countries. After the free movement of people agreement between Switzerland the EU was introduced, eastern European women streamed into Switzerland at the beginning of the 21st century.

In 2013, Zurich reacted to the poor conditions for street-walkers with "sex drive-ins": using tax-payers’ money, a prostitution park was established where customers could drive around in their cars and the prostitutes could render their services in boxes, shielded from view and with an alarm button in easy reach. As with its drugs policy, Switzerland would rather regulate than ban.

Historic wounds 

So how could a small women’s rights organisation create such a storm with a proposal that can find no consensus? Perhaps because the video sticks a finger in historic wounds and inferiority complexes. The campaign recalls a time when Switzerland sold its own citizens abroad as mercenaries and reminds us that the country only introduced women’s suffrage in 1971. "Let’s not wait another century until Switzerland has progressed as far as Sweden," the campaign video says.

Gisler of the centre has her own interpretation. The video attacks the self-image of the Swiss, she says. “The Swiss see themselves as open to the world and new ideas, and tolerant. But when it’s a matter of gender equality, Switzerland is not one of the most progressive countries." On the contrary, the traditional division of roles is still deeply embedded in Switzerland, Gisler says. “Foreigners who come to Switzerland are often amazed at how conservative people are here."

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