Last week, the media exploded with the ever-clicky story of Swiss “sex boxes” — nine stalls erected in Zurich with taxpayer money to both provide sex workers with access to things like toilets, lockers and protection, and to move them out of residential areas. The U.K. press was mostly sensationalist about it, the U.S. found it impossible to refrain from tired cliches about “the oldest profession,” but in general no one seemed very interested in speaking with the sex workers themselves.
At first glance, an initiative that addresses some of the issues faced by street walkers seems like a great method of harm reduction. The city of Zurich is providing a space that is well-lit and where sex workers can congregate not just to work, but to take care of other needs — a gynecologist will come weekly to provide check-ups, and self-defense and German courses will be offered on site.
The space features a circular park where sex workers can negotiate with clients, nine adjoining stalls where they can get busy, and an adjacent building where social workers will be posted to tend to the needs of sex workers. The space also has bathrooms, lockers, laundry facilities, a shower, and small cafe-style tables for sex workers to safely congregate during breaks.
The stalls where the sex happens are built so there is little space on the driver’s side and plenty of space on the passenger side for a sex worker to jump out in the event of an emergency. The stalls are also equipped with a panic button on that side, which alerts the nearby social workers, and thus helps ensure the safety of sex workers. The city is also increasing patrols around the area to make sure that sex workers are safe while coming and going to work.
“We are trying to promote the independence and self-determination of the sex workers,” said Michael Herzig, who’s leading the project. “It’s not a unique concept. We went to Utrecht in the Netherlands and Cologne and Essen in Germany, where similar projects exist, to speak to organizers. In Utrecht it’s been successfully implemented since 1986.”
This sounds like a great idea — and there is precedent for it, despite the surprise expressed by various media outlets. As Herzig says, Germany and the Netherlands have been doing this for some time. In the Netherlands, a zone that is set aside for sex work is called tippelzone, and drive-ins such as the one recently opened in Zurich is an afwerkplek.
But it’s more than a question of whether some other place has done this before. Determining whether something is a reasonable option means knowing the population you’re trying to help. If the Altstetten project is too remote and difficult to get to, sex workers will not come. Likewise, if it’s too difficult to get there for clients. A lot of people don’t realize that while moving sex work out of sight seems like a good idea, doing so often takes sex workers out of the city and to remote areas where they may be even more vulnerable to violence. For this project to succeed, it must be accessible to sex workers with or without a car — not just safe on the grounds, but safe to get to and from there from nearby stations.
And access isn’t simply a question of transportation. Things like medical insurance, a permit to use the premises (USD $43 per year), and a nightly “house” fee (USD $5.40), all pose obstructions. How easy is it for sex workers who are not legally in the country to obtain medical insurance or a permit? If these things require sex workers to prove legal status, that’s going to be a big deterrent.
Time magazine reports some 14,000 active sex workers in Switzerland — but no figures were given for those working illegally. With the influx of sex workers from economically depressed areas of Europe and countries that criminalize sex work, it’s difficult to make an estimate. These are the people who are most vulnerable — if harm reduction is going to work, the attitudes surrounding these efforts need to focus on reaching the most vulnerable, not simply getting them out of sight.
Header photo by Daniel Wabyick.