The sex trade in Switzerland: prostitution has been documented since the Middle Ages in Switzerland, but did you know that it is legal, taxable and used by an estimated 350,000 men every year? Swiss News looks at life on the game, past and present.
The Swiss Aids Federation estimates that 14,000 women work as prostitutes in Switzerland, and about 550,000 male clients use their services at least once a year. However, given the near impossibility of calculating real figures, experts contend that the actual numbers are much higher.
Prostitution is definitely not the oldest profession in Switzerland--it only received its legal stamp of approval in 1942.
What this broadly means is that today sex can be bought and sold freely, without fear of criminal penalties, in the Helvetic nation. However, it is subject to restrictions at the cantonal level, which--typically for Switzerland--will differ from area to area.
The cantons decide how and where prostitutes can ply their trade. In the city of Bern, for example, street prostitution is only permitted in certain zones. It is prohibited in residential areas or near churches, schools and hospitals.
Sex work contributes a sizeable chunk to the Swiss economy, according to the Swiss Aids Federation--total annual revenue is thought to be in the region of SFr 5.5 billion.
The majority of cantons do not require sex workers to register as such; however the reality is that some do end up on the books indirectly. This happens because they are classified as self-employed and have to fill in a tax declaration.
"These prostitutes are treated the same way as any other self-employed people by the authorities. They pay into the obligatory pension scheme, have health insurance and of course pay taxes," explains Martha Wigger, a social worker at the Xenia advisory service in Bern.
Like other self-employed people, they are not entitled to unemployment benefits.
Wigger has been working for over a decade helping sex workers in times of need.
She says it is difficult to ascertain exactly how many prostitutes are active in Bern. She estimates the number is close to 1,200, with numbers exploding around the year 2000. Prior to that, there were around 700 people on the game.
As to why there was a marked increase post-2000, Wigger suggests that the high unemployment rate was partly to blame. Between 2001 and the end of 2003, this rose sharply from under two per cent to around four per cent.
"I am sure that many women were affected by this and that some turned to prostitution during this period," Wigger says.
She adds that immigrant women were also among them, as they bore the brunt of the overall lack of jobs, arguably more than Swiss women.
Now that the economy is doing better, the number of newcomers to the profession has tailed off, although some regions report a slight increase. One example is the city of Zurich.
Zurich city police recently said the number of registered prostitutes rose by about 11 per cent in 2006 compared to the previous year. This meant that 4,461 sex workers were officially present.
The police added that the bulk of the increase was due to women from the new European Union states entering the profession, in particularly from Hungary.
The majority of prostitutes in Zurich, according to the police, are from South America and Eastern Europe.
Pinning down where prostitutes work is tricky. Many seem to be active in so-called 'salons', particularly in the cities.
"A 'salon' in Bern could mean one-to-three room apartments, which the women share to service clients," explains Wigger.
Street prostitution, on the other hand, is not popular among the women.
"The scene here is small and populated mostly by prostitutes who are drug addicts and immigrant women," she says.
Then there is car prostitution, where prostitutes service customers in their automobiles.
"This scene is dominated by older Swiss women. What do I mean by 'old'? Well, the youngest is 52, the eldest, 75," says Wigger.
One of the occupational hazards of prostitution is being exposed to higher health risks. Surprisingly, this does not include HIV infection for female sex-workers, according to the Swiss Aids Federation.
"In general, the risk of a female prostitute being infected by HIV is not higher than in the average population," states Thomas Lyssy, spokesman for the umbrella organisation.
Admittedly, the risk of catching another sexually transmitted disease is considerable.
And for the male of the species who work as prostitutes, the picture is less rosy:
"Every sixth male prostitute is thought to be HIV-positive," Lyssy says.
In Switzerland, the law states that for someone to become a prostitute, a number of conditions must be fulfilled.
They must be above the age of consent, which is 16, and possess a valid residence and work permit.
The law protects the prostitute's right to service whomever he or she chooses and keep the money earned. Forcing someone into prostitution is a crime, as is sexual exploitation.
And where is the root of Switzerland's liberal attitude to be found? Some experts say the best place to look is in the Swiss Constitution.
Article 27 concerns economic freedom and states: "Economic freedom is guaranteed" and "it contains particularly the freedom to choose one's profession, and to enjoy free access to and free exercise of private economic activity".
Since 1973, prostitution has been recognised as falling under this article.
Compare this to the situation in Sweden, where prostitution is not legal and is defined as "as a form of male violence against women and children". In legislation that came into force in 1999, purchasing--or attempting to purchase--sexual services is a criminal offence, punishable by fines or up to six months in jail.
Women and children are considered to be the "weaker party" in this equation and are not subject to legal repercussions. The Swedish government claims that since prostitution was criminalised, the number of men buying sex has dropped, as has the number of prostitutes.
At the heart of the Swedish strategy is achieving gender equality not just at home but worldwide. And part of the solution lies in questioning whether men have the right to purchase sex.
"Gender equality will remain unattainable as long as men buy, sell and exploit women and children by prostituting them," the Swedish government states.
In the Middle Ages, this male right was not questioned at all and, if anything, it was widely accepted that an unmarried man had to douse his internal fires at the local brothel.
However, prostitutes were not seen as "honest women" and were required by the local authority to be distinguished as such when in public. In Bern and Zurich, it is known that sex workers had to wear a red cap. In Lausanne, they were supposed to wear a special white garment.
According to Klaus Oschema, a historian at Bern University, not much is known about prostitution in the medieval days of what is now Switzerland.
But there are some clues.
"Access to brothels was officially restricted to young, unmarried men and non-locals, such as tradesmen. Of course, clerics and married citizens would break the rules..." Oschema explains.
Inside the establishment, the atmosphere was something similar to a pub, with people playing cards and drinking when not availing themselves of the sexual favours on offer. As to the women, Oschema says that they were mostly suffering "material misfortune".
"These were women with no social or parental network and they could not simply enter a convent or become a domestic servant," he says.
Some may even have been trafficked and sold into the profession.
"In the German city of Nurnberg in the 1470s, only foreigners--and no local girls--were allowed to work in the brothels," according to Oschema.
The brothels thrived on what is now Swiss ground until the Reformation in the 16th century, when such establishments were seen as being incompatible with morality. They were shut down and the prostitutes chased away.
Fast-forward to Bern in 1798--Napoleon Bonaparte had just taken over the city. Thanks to the presence of numerous troops, prostitution increased and this resulted in outbreaks of various sexually transmitted diseases.
A series of measures were put in place to deal with the health issues, including controls over one "tolerated" salon and two official brothels.
But the locals objected and the brothels were closed in 1828, while the other establishment stayed open. Over the next few years, as prostitution continued to increase, more than 100 women were arrested and many were banished from the canton. The public clamour against sex workers grew steadily and prostitution was banned in Bern by 1900.
By that time, Lucerne, Obwalden, Fribourg, Vaud, Solothurn, Basel City, Schaffhausen, St Gallen, Graubunden, Ticino and Valais had also slapped bans on prostitution, according to a report by the Swiss Health Office.
Bern provided one of the harsher punishments for contravening the rules during this epoch: up to two months in jail, and up to six months on a fourth conviction.
In Canton Graubunden, offenders faced prison for up to two months or, a stay in a correction facility for up to two years.
In most cantons, foreign prostitutes could be expelled.
Those procuring, as well as making money from the sex trade, such as pimps, were punished mostly by fines but could also go to jail depending on the gravity of the case.
In the money?
Returning to the present day, gauging how lucrative it is to be on the game in Switzerland is difficult. It is assumed that prostitutes do not declare their full income on their tax declarations.
A volunteer with an advisory agency--who wished to remain anonymous--stressed that the lion's share of sex workers she knew were struggling to eke out an existence.
However, she did know of a minority raking in the bucks.
"For every 100 prostitutes turning tricks for a few francs, there's one, like this dominatrix in Thun, who lives in her own castle. She apparently declares SFr 12,000 gross a month on her tax return," she said.
Next up: Prostitutes speak up regarding their choices, their observations and the reality of the sex trade.