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Five things that reveal Switzerland's unique attitude to prostitution

Helena Bachmann
Helena Bachmann - [email protected]
Five things that reveal Switzerland's unique attitude to prostitution
The Swiss have a pragmatic view towards sex work. Photo: Eric Nopanen on Unsplash

Given Swiss organisational skills and knack for efficiency, it is not surprising that the world’s oldest profession is micro-managed as well.


Prostitution has been legal in Switzerland since 1942, though, like everything else in this country, it is heavily regulated.

However, the rules are intended to protect sex workers and allow them to work freely — that is, to rule out any attempts by third parties at foul play (read more about this below).

Today, there are more than 20,000 prostitutes of all genders registered in Switzerland.

Interestingly, the trend in this ‘profession’ mirrors the one observed in the country’s labour market in general: because of the high earning potential, Switzerland is a mecca for foreign sex workers, mostly from South America, Eastern Europe, and EU nations.

All of them are considered to be self-employed contractors and can choose venues where to ply their trade, such as brothels, clubs, or streets.

According to Aspasie, the Geneva-based advocacy group for prostitutes, “any person from abroad who wishes to legally practise sex work must obtain work permit L, B, or G" — in other words, just like any other foreigner.

These are five examples showing that Switzerland’s pragmatic attitude toward prostitution makes a lot of street sense.

No stigma attached to sex work

In Switzerland, sex work is considered to be a legitimate service job like any other, and there is absolutely no shame or disgrace attached to it.

In fact, when a small Zurich NGO launched a campaign in 2018 to ban prostitution, it sparked an outcry against this move from other Swiss organisations, which upheld the rights of sex workers.

As the Zurich daily newspaper, NZZ, stated at the time, if sex work were to be banned, "there is no existing evidence that prostitution wouldn’t just disappear underground and women would be forced into an illegal existence."


Sex work is regulated - and prostitutes pay taxes

A tolerant attitude is pervasive in Switzerland.

That is why the pragmatic Swiss prefer to bring prostitution out into the open, so it can be regulated and controlled to prevent exploitation, human trafficking, sexually transmitted diseases, links with criminal networks, and other problems that are rife in nations where sex commerce is forbidden.

In fact, like all the other independent contractors in Switzerland, sex workers must pay taxes on their income, and contribute to their Social Security funds.

The only rule they have to follow, unlike their counterparts in other sectors, is that they must register with public health authorities and undergo regular health checks.


Prostitutes have their own union

Like members of many other professions, prostitutes in Geneva have had, since 2012, their own trade union.

It not only represents the interests of its 800 members, but also liaises with city authorities and police (yes, you heard it right) to improve work conditions and the earning potential of the city’s sex workers.

… and their own government-sponsored digs

In the past, Zurich streets were getting crowded with sex workers, so the residents turned to Switzerland’s unique system of direct democracy to solve this problem.

In 2012, the majority of city voters approved a municipal plan to set aside 2 million francs of taxpayers’ money to build several drive-in structures in a safe and discreet environment, away from the residential neighbourhoods. Another $800,000 was earmarked for annual operation costs, which include security and on-site social services. 

As the city noted on its website at the time, the premises were intended to “improve the working conditions of sex workers – their health, physical and mental integrity".

Switzerland values that sex workers meet a need

In 2018, a dispute erupted in a small town of Arbon in canton Thurgau.

It concerned the local brothel, located in the town’s historic center.

As the local newspaper reported, several residents who live in the brothel’s vicinity wrote a letter to the city officials, complaining about the sights and sounds emanating from the facility, and asking authorities to shut it down.

“Almost every day, the women stand naked by the windows,” the neighbours wrote, adding that “the ladies wait for their customers and start loud music as soon as they arrive".

But municipal officials responded that the brothel will be allowed to operate because of the valuable service it provides. “This establishment has a right to exist, as it fulfils the social need of the population,” authorities wrote in a letter to the complainants.

They added that the disturbances have a "neighbourly character” and are accidental rather than intentional.

Leave it to the Swiss to be thoroughly pragmatic.


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