Swiss City to Unveil Taxpayer-Funded “Sex Boxes” for Prostitutes

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Signs to the so-called "sex boxes" in Zurich, on Aug. 15, 2013.

Summertime and the livin’ is easy – especially in the Altstetten area of Zurich where, starting Aug. 26, the city’s prostitutes will have brand new, government-sponsored digs to ply their trade.

Switzerland has a unique system of direct democracy, and issues big and small are frequently decided at the ballot box. Last year, 52% of Zurich voters approved the proposal of municipal authorities to earmark $2 million of taxpayer money towards building nine drive-in structures to provide a safe and discreet environment for sex workers. And on August 26, the “sex boxes,” as these premises are called, will be put into service, welcoming dozens of prostitutes and their clients.

While most of Zurich’s political parties have backed the plan, not everyone in the city is happy about these facilities – like Switzerland’s rightwing party, SVP, which has argued that prostitution is a private matter and no public funds should be spent on sex workers.

But for the city council and residents alike, the Altstetten facility provides a much-needed alternative for prostitutes working in the riverfront Sihlquai neighborhood, where residents have long complained about the noise, traffic jams, and other disturbances caused by clients cruising — and carousing — in the streets. And though the sex boxes come with a $700,000 per-year price tag for operational costs, the city council argued – and voters agreed – that “this money is spent for harm reduction – protecting both sex workers and the public,” Michael Herzig, the social worker responsible for the Altstetten project tells TIME.

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In fact, before earmarking funds for the new premises, Zurich officials visited similar projects in German towns of Cologne, Essen and Dortmund, and decided to take a different approach. “Over there, only the boxes are provided; no counselors or security personnel are present,” Herzig says. “We wanted to have control over the facility and offer better work conditions, so social workers and security guards will be available on the site, ” he adds.

Tucked away from the city center and residential areas, the new sex boxes – each one large enough for one vehicle to be parked inside — will be organized and regulated with traditionally Swiss precision. The site will be open daily from 7:00pm to 5:00am, and drivers will follow arrows painted on the road, where up to 40 prostitutes will be stationed each night. After they negotiate the price, the client and sex worker will drive to a box, attributed on a first-come, first-serve basis. Security cameras will not be installed, municipal authorities said, so as not to discourage clients from patronizing sex workers. But each box will be equipped with an alarm button that will summon on-site guards in case of trouble.

Although rudimentary, each stall will be decorated with color lights and posters promoting safe sex; bathrooms, as well as a counseling center for prostitutes will be set up in the same area. Only one driver per car will be permitted to enter the facility; clients who come on foot or on motorbikes will be directed to another authorized prostitution hub located downtown.

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If it sounds like the Swiss are remarkably open and pragmatic about the sex business, that’s because they have some of the most liberal prostitution laws in the world. While prostitution is legal in most of Europe, some nations have cracked down on their sex industry — Amsterdam’s authorities have fettered hundreds of notorious “window booths” in the city’s red-light district. And prostitution laws are ambiguous in countries like Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, where soliciting sexual services is allowed but selling them is not.

The Swiss believe, however, that legalizing the practice prevents sexual exploitation, human trafficking, and links with criminal networks. In fact, the world’s oldest profession is regarded like any other service sector job. Prostitutes are required to register with local authorities, pay taxes, have medical insurance, and undergo regular health checkups.

Some 14,000 “official” sex workers – not including those working illegally — are currently active in Switzerland. According to Don Juan, a health information service for sex industry, one in five Swiss men between 20 and 65 visit a prostitute at least once in their lives – the second highest rate in Europe after Spain, which may be one of the reasons the country recently saw an influx of sex workers from economically depressed areas of the European Union as well as from countries with restrictive sex trade legislation.

Switzerland’s largest city is no exception. According to police figures, Zurich has about 11 prostitutes per 1,000 people — one of the highest ratios among industrialized countries. Social worker Herzig says that while most sex workers ply their trade in about 200 licensed brothels, approximately 300 – mostly from Eastern Europe – work in the streets, including in the Sihlquai district, which is being replaced by the drive-in boxes.

Those most concerned – prostitutes and their clients – have not yet tested the new premises, but to Herzig and other Zurich officials, sex out of the city, as it were, makes a lot of street sense.

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