Sex Work in Switzerland Subdues but STIs Remain on the Rise

By Re

Zürich’s low tax rates make it the wealthiest city in Europe, drawing international companies’ headquarters, research tanks and banking giants. It’s home to copious chocolatiers and saturated in smells of funky fondues. Oft-considered the city with the best overall quality of life, it’s ranked among the most livable places in the world. Lesser known, it boasts a booming sex industry and an alarming rate of sexually transmitted infections.

Roving unfamiliar routes out of Zürich Hauptbahnhof international train station, shopping cobblestone streets lined in luxury, devouring raclettes and seeking a warming respite from the enveloping white mountaintops with white wines, I had no real understanding of my proximity to the prostitution just past pastel homes perched on Limmat River.

Given how much business is brought to Zürich, many urbanites told Her Report of their city’s high demand for sex tourism. Prostitution has been legal since 1942 and, hence, some 1,200 sex workers are registered with the city—many of whom work the streets and primarily, up until 2013, in the Sihlquai neighborhood along the river. When pimps turned the area into a haven for organized crime and residents began to complain of condoms littering their yards and traffic, Zürich’s taxpayers approved of a referendum to build a $2.4-million compound as an alternative open-air sex market—quite literally, a drive-through red light district not unlike an express-order fast-food chain. Pull up, pull in, pull out.

Zürich’s “sex boxes,” as they’re known, are drive-in units for in-car services and stalls equipped with wooden plank beds, rubber mattresses, sex education posters, condom disposal bins and panic buttons. Social workers have commended the sex boxes’ safeguarding of the vulnerable women working in them because they cut pimps out of the business, halt human trafficking and the premises are patrolled during open hours. There are also bathrooms, showers, free laundry, a small kitchen and, perhaps moreover, a free health pavilion on-site called Flora Dora. There, women are provided complimentary contraceptives, testing for sexually transmitted diseases, sex education, HIV prevention programs, medical services, social counseling and access to a free off-site OB-GYN clinic.

While the number of prostitutes in Zürich’s sex boxes has exponentially grown since their onset and the overall system is deemed a success, sexually transmitted infections are nonetheless on the rise.

“Every woman can be tested at her doctor’s,” says Adrien Kay, spokesman for the Federal Office of Public Health Communications and Campaigns Division. “It’s their duty to maintain confidentiality… The fact that new tests have been introduced plays a role [in the increasing number of reported cases]. They are more precise, easier to use and cheaper. This logically leads to more infections being detected.”

But the concern regarding sexually transmitted infections extends beyond sex work.

A 2016 survey conducted as part of the Swiss government sponsored “LOVE LIFE STOP AIDS” campaign, which is designed to promote the use of condoms and reduce the spread of AIDS and venereal disease, found that, on average, men and women had seven and six sexual partners in their lifetimes, respectively. More specifically, nearly 20 percent had 20 or more partners, around 40 percent had 10 or more and 13 percent had just one. When the researchers inquired about condom use, about half of all participants had admitted to having had casual sex at least once without using one.

“This study only us shows a snapshot—the people who answered find themselves at different points in their sex lives,” Kay explains. “The group with a lot of sexual partners consists, in part, of people who see prostitutes.”

According to the same campaign, HIV cases in Switzerland were stable in 2015, at around 500. Other diseases, such as Syphilis, rose by seven percent, mainly among homosexual men. Chlamydia cases also rose by five percent between 2014 and 2015, mainly among women. Gonorrhea showed the steepest rise—between 2001 and 2015, the number of cases climbed more than fourfold to over 1,800.

The city of Zürich remains a progressive one, committed to encouraging “self-determined sexuality without remorse,” Kay says. Getting prostitution off the streets and sharing safer-sex rules via campaigns that promote the sexual health of the population are just two steps in ensuring that the city’s most livable reputation holds true.