Switzerland: Zurich opens drive-in ‘sex boxes’

Switzerland has long been famed for its mountaineering, chocolate and precision watches, but it’s not so well known that prostitution has been legal there since 1942 – and Zurich is one of the main centres in Europe.

Local residents inspect the publicly-funded facilities at the former industrial area, which will be open all night. Picture: Reuters
Local residents inspect the publicly-funded facilities at the former industrial area, which will be open all night. Picture: Reuters

This week, open wooden garages, quickly dubbed “sex boxes”, will 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 railway depot and a major highway.

The publicly-funded facilities – open all night and located away from the city centre – include toilets, lockers, cafe tables and a laundry and shower. Men won’t have to worry about video surveillance cameras, but the sex workers – who will pay for a permit – will be provided with a panic button and on-site social workers.

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Daniel Hartmann, a Zurich lawyer, said it was a win-win situation. “Safety for the prostitutes. 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.”

This Saturday, Mr Hartmann was one of several hundred residents, including many women, who flocked to an “open house” Zurich has held.

Brigitta Hanselmann, a retired special needs teacher from Embrach, said: “It’s so incredible that a city offers that to the men, and it’s interesting that there are many women here who are looking at it.” She called the sex boxes “an effort to control a thing you can’t really control”.

The city’s voters last year approved spending up to 2.4 million Swiss francs (£1.67m) on the project, as a way of relocating sex traffic away from a central city area where it had become a public nuisance.

Jean-Marc Hensch, who heads a neighbourhood association in another part of Zurich, said he hoped the sex box plan succeeded, because otherwise the prostitutes might return to his area. He cited a lack of sanitation in other areas, where prostitutes and their clients defecated and urinated in the streets and gardens, or had sex in the open because they had nowhere else to go.

“It’s an experiment,” he said. “It was absolutely urgent to find a solution.”

The drive-in sheds have no doors and come equipped with a button on the passenger side that sets off a flashing light and a loud alarm inside an adjacent building, where the city will post social workers trained to provide security. Police say they will beef up patrols around the area to protect the sex workers as they leave and enter.

Modelled after drive-in brothels in Germany and the Netherlands, the sex boxes will be open daily from 7pm to 5am. The city strung colourful lights among the trees and posted creative signs to make it more pleasant. “We thought if we build the place, we can also make it look good,” said Michael Herzig of Zurich’s social welfare department.

“We can’t solve the whole problem of exploitation and human trafficking, but at least we want to reduce the harm.”