Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The city's innovative approach to keeping women safe may have actually had the opposite effect.
On the face of it, Zurich's plans to combat the darker side of legal prostitution seemed to make perfect sense. Prostitution has been permitted in Switzerland since 1942, but the country's largest city moved this summer to clamp down on street-walking and brothels.
Reasoning that street prostitution made sex workers vulnerable to pimps and violence and also spoiled neighborhoods for residents, Zurich’s police have hustled prostitutes off their usual beat near the city's railway station. Across the city, new rules also made brothels illegal in areas that were more than 50 percent residential, excepting brothels that could prove they'd been open more than 20 years.
This wasn't meant to be one of those clear outs where sex workers simply turn up in some other area. Instead of being pushed underground, prostitutes were provided with a suite of 30 drive-in wooden booths in a non-residential neighborhood, where surveillance could keep pimps out and the women safe. These "sex boxes," now running for two months, are carefully supervised. Sex workers buy $6 a night permits from a vending machine, and while there is no CCTV, there are alarms, security guards and showers to keep things as safe as possible.
Have they worked?
The city thinks so. According to the Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper, the street prostitution expunged from around the station has not disappeared only to spring up again on the streets of another neighborhood. Meanwhile around 14 sex workers are using the new more secure drive-in facility on a regular basis, just under half its possible capacity. The city government is giving itself a provisional pat on the back.
Organizations working with prostitutes, however, disagree. They say that the drive-in boxes attract new arrivals rather than migrants from the old red light district. Zurich's street veterans, meanwhile, have not given up their trade, they’ve just gone elsewhere, probably indoors. Rebecca Angelini, spokesperson at Switzerland’s Institute for Women’s Migration and Female Trafficking, told the Tagesanzeiger newspaper that:
There are indications that some of them have moved into hotels, single rooms or big clubs [i.e. the larger brothels in non-residential areas].
This makes them less visible, but it doesn’t necessarily make them safer. In fact, Switzerland’s Salvation Army has recommended that the city allow prostitutes back onto the old red light district's sidewalks. According to Cornelia Zürrer Ritter, director of the SA's rehabilitation program, women tried the new facility but then gave it up because they "earned less money there and found the working conditions inhumane."
Apparently, the area isn’t even free of pimps' influence. Zürrer Ritter says that, though they keep a low profile, they stay close to the cruising ground and assert their authority through on-site Capo women who manage and sometimes coerce women in their stead. According to Swiss Magazine 20 Minuten, these Capo women can still collect money and even pressure prostitutes into having unsafe sex. They keep their authority more easily among groups of women who are almost never from Switzerland and thus have contact almost exclusively with their working peers.
Perhaps the greatest accusation against the new prostitution rules is that they make sex workers even harder for support organizations to contact. As a director at church welfare group Zurich City Mission told the Tagesanzeiger in another article:
It’s got even harder for us to make contact with prostitutes. When they leave the [street] scene, the women don’t know how to find us anymore.
Zurich still deserves credit for trying, instead of clamping down thoughtlessly. They'd thought hard about ways to meet both prostitutes' and residents' needs without ignoring either group. That they may have failed is partly due to the already extreme marginalization of women who do sex work.
While Swiss rules mean that all legal prostitutes come from within the European Union, most are from Central European countries such as Hungary and Romania, where they have picked up little knowledge of German or of Swiss society. Subject to frequent violence and intimidation, few are on the streets from genuine choice, but getting them away is very tough when they're so isolated. Zurich’s stumbling first steps show how difficult it can be to unpick all the threads binding women to unsafe prostitution. They also suggest that tidying street workers away into monitored zones isn't necessarily the answer.
Top image: A TV camera man stands in front of illuminated so-called 'sex boxes' during a media preview at a sex drive-in, west of Zurich. The facility includes a social room, toilets and showers for the working women, who have to buy a 'worker ticket each evening. Panic alarms are also installed in the wooden sheds. (Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters)