by Coleen Singer. In this summer of discontent for adult entertainment in the US, U.K., Iceland and other traditionally safe harbors for freedom of sexual expression and employment, leave it to the Swiss to step outside the box, and in this case, build actual “boxes” that customers can drive into for a little quality time with a sex worker. Switzerland has always been known for its mountain climbing, chocolate and expensive watches, but it’s a little known fact to the rest of the world that prostitution has been legal there since 1942 in Zurich.
I suspect that this grand tradition goes back to keeping the Nazis permissive towards their neutral status, and maybe to make it a destination spot for Ernest Hemingway after WWII, but I for one very much appreciate the effort by the Swiss over the past 70-od years in normalizing sex in their otherwise tidy and orderly society. (Don’t be lulled into thinking that the Swiss are push-overs though! Most of the population has a basement or attic full of firearms, and those pretty Alps quietly house a massive network of tunnels filled with enough fire-power to blow an invading arming into the sea! They also have most of the infrastructure of the entire country wired to self-destruct if that’s ever that last resort to being taken over. Look it up. I’m not kidding!)
USA TODAY reports, “In this new city infrastructure project, fashionably teak-colored open wooden garages, popularly called “sex boxes” by the Swiss media, will be open for business for drive-in customers. The several dozen sex workers who are expected to make it their new hub will stand along a short road in a small, circular park for clients to choose from and negotiate with. The park was built in a former industrial area nestled between a rail yard and the fence along a major highway. The publicly funded facilities — open all night and located away from the city center — include bathrooms, lockers, small cafe tables and a laundry and shower. Men won’t have to worry about video surveillance cameras, but the sex workers — who will need a permit and pay a small tax — will be provided with a panic button and on-site social workers trained to look after them.”
It all sounds a bit like a combination of The Great American Truck Stop and Chuck E. Cheese, and the Swiss officials in charge say that this is an effort to make prostitution “less of a public nuisance” and safer for sex workers plying their trade.
As far as Daniel Hartmann, a Zurich lawyer, is concerned, it’s a win-win situation: “Safety for the prostitutes. At least it’s a certain kind of a shelter for them. They can do their business, and I respect them,” he said. “They do a great job, and they have better working conditions here. … They’re not exposed to the bosses, to the pimps, in here.”
Recently, Hartmann was one of several hundred residents, including many women and a small throng of journalists, who flocked to the only “open house” that Zurich will offer to give the public a better idea of how its taxpayer money has been used. Most of the visitors said they came out of curiosity and haven’t really come to terms with the idea, but hope it will at least improve safety. Others were amazed and a bit amused that a whole group of strangers would spend a rainy afternoon openly discussing professional sex.
Now, me and mine living in rural New England, our total experience of an “open house” has something to do with Century 21 Real Estate (with balloons), and yes, our Town Fathers do trot out the population a few times a year to take a peek at the new drainage ditch on County Road 31 to see the benefits for our town’s taxpayers. So, with that provincial worldview, I dug a little deeper as to what the well-dressed citizens of Zurich might think about their own open house dog and pony show.
The result: Voters in Zurich approved spending up to 2.4 million Swiss francs ($2.6 million) on the project last year as a way of relocating the sex traffic away from a busy downtown area where it had become a public nuisance and safety concern due to lack of sanitation, aggressive men, and associated drugs and violence. The city, which only allows prostitution in certain areas, also plans to spend 700,000 francs ($760,000) a year to keep the sex boxes running. $2.6 Million? Hey! I have to admit that is a pretty cool way that the tax-payers in Switzerland are pitching in to make sex workers safer! However, I suspect altruism is not the sole driving force for spending this amount of money.
Let’s dig a little deeper as to motivation: Jean-Marc Hensch, a business executive who heads a neighborhood association in another part of Zurich, said he hopes the sex boxes succeed because otherwise the prostitutes might return to his area. He also cited the disgusting lack of sanitation in other city areas where prostitutes and their clients defecate and urinate in the streets and gardens, or have sex in the open because they have nowhere else to go. “It’s an experiment,” he said. “It was absolutely urgent to find a solution.”
Ah. Now I get it! It’s not altruism, but rather N.I.M.B.Y. (Not in MY backyard) politics driving a lot of this? But, even if that is the driving force for taxpayer funding, I’m actually fine with that as it provides a safe, sane and clean environment for sex workers who might otherwise be at risk by walking the streets with little or no protection. What do these facilities look like? The drive-in garages, or sheds, have no doors to shut and come equipped with an emergency call button on the passenger side of the structure that sets off a flashing light and a loud alarm inside an adjacent office building where the city will post social workers specially trained to provide a measure of security.
The Zurich police say they will beef up patrols around the perimeter to protect the sex workers when they leave and enter. Modeled after the drive-in brothels used in several cities in Germany and the Netherlands, which have had mixed success improving safety, the sex boxes will be open daily from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. The city painted the outdoor bathrooms in soft pink and blue, strung colorful light bulbs among the trees and posted creative signs encouraging the use of condoms to spruce the place up a little and make it seem more pleasant. I do like the Pink and Blue paint motif and use of creative signage encouraging safer sex!
“We built the place to be secure for the sex workers. It also had to be discreet for the sex workers and the clientele,” said Michael Herzig of Zurich’s social welfare department. “But we thought if we build the place, we can also make it look good.” Zurich requires that street sex workers register with city and health authorities, and it offers health checks and requires that sex workers be at least 18 years old, in keeping with a Council of Europe convention on protecting children from exploitation and abuse. In Switzerland, anyone who works in the sex trade must be at least 16, the legal age of sexual maturity. The income is taxed and subject to social insurance like any other economic activity.
Did I read that right? “… anyone who works in the sex trade must be at least 16″. SIXTEEN? Oh dear. Bangkok with snowy mountains, wired to explode if the 4th Reich invades? I think I’m more than happy to stay right here in New England and deal with our anti-porn crazies for a while more, paying taxes for improved pumpkin patch drainage in New England.
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