New regulations for sex workers are coming into force in Zurich this week, designed to provide some safety to women who work in the sex trade, and to bring a measure of peace to the city centre, the city authorities say.
Although prostitution is legal in Switzerland, critics say the law actually offers little protection to the women themselves.
For several years, some areas right in the heart of the town, most notably Sihlquai – a street running away from the main station – have been home to a very lively sex trade.
Local residents have long been unhappy with the situation, and social workers say the scene is highly dangerous for the women concerned.
“They get into cars with men they don’t know, and they don’t know where they will be taken,” explains Ursula Kocher, who runs an advice centre for sex workers. “They get driven out of the city, into a forest, away from anywhere.”
There have been a number of cases of violence, and of women being robbed.
A recent study carried out in Zurich showed that most of the prostitutes working on the streets are Roma (Gypsy) women from central and eastern Europe, and many of them have children to support. Now the city has come up with a solution it believes will protect them: soliciting on the streets will be forbidden, and instead prostitutes and their clients will be expected to use a custom-built compound on an industrial site in the Zurich suburbs.
The facility opens this week; inside the gates, which are manned by security guards, there is a “strip” which men can drive down, and select the woman of their choice.
There are trees, coloured lights, and benches to sit on, all designed to create an atmosphere which Michael Herzig of the Zurich social services says should not be too “sad”.
Just one man per car, no bikes or motorcycles, no filming, and of course no littering”
But since all business must take place inside the compound, there are drive-in “sex boxes”, and here the measures taken to protect the women are very apparent.
On the driver’s side, the boxes are very narrow, making it difficult for him to get out of the car. On the passenger side, there is plenty of space, an alarm button and an emergency exit.
There are also safe-sex reminders: “There is a big HIV prevention advertisement right in front of the car, so the driver has to look at a condom, to remind him he should wear one,” the city authorities say.
And there are very strict rules: “Just one man per car, no bikes or motorcycles, no filming, and of course no littering.”
Help at hand
Meanwhile, just a few steps from the boxes, there is a set of Portakabins where counsellors are on hand, together with a kitchen, toilets and a shower.
The new regulations also require prostitutes to purchase a daily sex workers license for a nominal fee, and have health insurance.
Most women won’t be doing this forever, and we do want them to be healthy [for the future],” Ms Kocher says.
Zurich’s regimented approach to practices which are illegal in many countries has a precedent.
Twenty years ago, the city had a notorious open drugs scene, in which dealers operated almost unhindered, and heroin addicts injected openly in the parks and streets.
To combat it, Zurich introduced needle exchanges, injection rooms and even heroin prescription, requiring addicts to report punctually to clinics if they wanted their daily fix.
The measures did have some success getting the drugs off the streets, but not everyone is convinced the approach can work with the sex trade.
“Zurich had a big success cleaning up the drugs scene,” says Regula Rother, who runs a drop-in centre for sex workers. “Now they try it with prostitution, I’m really not sure it will work.”
Zurich’s taxpayers approved the 2.5 million-franc ($2.7m; 2m euro; £1.8m) sex-box facility in a referendum, and Ms Rother believes their support had more to do with their annoyance at seeing prostitutes on their streets than it did with keeping women safe.
“Zurich is a destination for sex, but the people of Zurich don’t want to see it. The government had to do something.”
Nevertheless, she believes the new facility is a “good solution… if the women go there.”
And that is the big question. No-one is really sure whether women or clients will turn up once the sex boxes are open for business.
But Mr Herzig, sensitive to the charge that Zurich has created an expensive “theme park” for prostitutes, insists the intention is very serious.
“Of course, people laugh about it,” he says. “People have said the city has become the pimp, that we are creating a Disneyland for hookers.
“But we want to reduce violence and to improve living conditions for sex workers… For us, it not funny,
“I don’t think violence is funny. And the cause for prostitution usually is poverty, and I don’t think poverty is funny either. So what we are doing here is serious.”