Zurich Opens Sex Boxes

Zurich, Switzerland

August 26, 2013

Celeste Pomputius and Alison Sekerak

A summary of the sex box, its position in Switzerland’s urban fabric, and some of the safety features intended to make street prostitution safer. 

As the oldest documented form of women’s employment, prostitution extends worldwide and is practiced in some form in every culture. For being such an established form of employment, however, the trade of selling sex is not typically a topic discussed openly in everyday conversation. It also has never found a sanctioned physical space of building typology for all aspects of the business. Issues of morality, exploitation, and health make prostitution a controversial topic in government and civic settings. In order to address some of the negative issues that both contribute to and propagate from prostitution, several European nations, including Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands made prostitution legal in 2002[1], thereby decriminalizing the practice. In the wake of legalizing prostitution and in effort to make the practice of prostitution safer, city officials in Zurich, Switzerland prepared and followed through on plans to open a controlled, public environment for sex workers to use called “sex boxes.”[2] Based upon German and Dutch precedents[3], but of Switzerland’s own “superbly restrained Swiss-modernist-minimalist”[4] design, the sex boxes opened on August 26, 2013. The creation of sex boxes produced and entirely new type of building in the realm of architecture.

People stand in a so-called 'sex box' during a tour on an open day at a sex drive-in, west of Zurich August 24, 2013. A year after voters backed the plan to ban street street walkers from the city centre in a bid to make prostitution safer for both sex workers and customers, a sex drive-in will be officially opened August 26. After passing a check-in gate drivers, who must be alone in their vehicles, follow a marked route, negotiate a rate with one of the 40 prostitutes stationed there and drive on to one of nine partially enclosed wooden booths to have sex. The facility includes a social room, toilets and showers for the working women, who have to buy a 'worker ticket' each evening. Panic alarms are also installed in the wooden sheds.
The media gathers in one of the stalls of the sex boxes on the opening day.

The sex boxes are a way for the government to “control” street prostitution because, as a legal activity, prostitution cannot be “prohibited”.[5] Decriminalizing the sex trade in Switzerland was intended to make the practice and its subsequent problems such as human trafficking, drug use, and vice more public, and thereby controllable by the authorities. If the authorities were able to control prostitution by methods such as required registration and regular health checks, prostitution would have a less harmful affect.[6] The sex box initiative creates a new quality of space that fulfills the authorities’ need for a regulated space. However, government officials continue to face difficulty with controlling human trafficking, as legalizing prostitution tends to increase the movement of human trafficking.[7] By providing support facilities with the sex boxes, the Swiss government encourages sex workers to register for their profession in order to receive the sex box benefits such as clean, indoor amenities, social workers promoting wellness, and security guards stationed on site in case of emergency. The official goal to reduce the number of cases of sexual abuse and violence related to the sale of sexual services was a cause worthy of public funding. As a profession sanctioned by the law, prostitution has found a physical enclosure unique to its practice.

A sign showing the way to the prostitutes stands is seen during an open day at a sex drive-in, west of Zurich August 24, 2013. A year after voters backed the plan to ban street street walkers from the city centre in a bid to make prostitution safer for both sex workers and customers, a sex drive-in will be officially opened August 26. After passing a check-in gate drivers, who must be alone in their vehicles, follow a marked route, negotiate a rate with one of the 40 prostitutes stationed there and drive on to one of nine partially enclosed wooden booths to have sex. The facility includes a social room, toilets and showers for the working women, who have to buy a 'worker ticket' each evening. Panic alarms are also installed in the wooden sheds.
Specialized signage directs the sex boxes’ clients.

As a publicly funded project intended to improve the working conditions of such a problem-wrought profession, the sex boxes only passed the vote for construction by a narrow margin of 52%.[8] With public interest in mind, they were intended to improve the nearby neighborhood of Sihlquai by clearing the excessive amounts of traffic caused on the main road by sex workers strolling for business.[9] While the project has cleared road congestion by acting as a centralized hub away from residential areas and from which sex workers may solicit their services, the location and funding of the project is still controversial.[10] The most effective and least intrusive location for a new type of structure such as the sex box is still unknown. Not all residents of the community have been able to come to a united decision concerning the location. The closely divided vote approving Zurich’s plans to build sex boxes is evidence of the ongoing struggle with Switzerland’s decision to make prostitution legal despite the qualities that make it a taboo topic. Not all residents of the area feel as comfortable as the government does with lightly treating a profession that has a propensity for sexual abuse and violence as a mere commercial trade of “sexual services”.[11]

A sex box occupied at night is lit by red and green lights
An occupied sex box is festively lit at night to keep the spaces from being dangerous with difficult visibility.

The sex box typology was designed with specific goals concerning the improved well-being of the sex workers. The controlled environment and safety features were implemented in hopes of reducing the violence and abuse attributed to prostitution. The drive-thru style boxes are located in a gated park to provide “discretion for sex workers and the clients of the sex workers”.[12]  The sex box compound is governed by a set of rules set forth for the safety of the sex worker. The clientele’s movement from the entrance gate to the sex box is tightly regimented, and the boxes themselves are “closed and observable.”[13] The construction of the box stall itself does not allow the driver to exit the automobile, and provides an alarm system for the sex worker to call on aid from the onsite staff is necessary.[14] Overall, the controlled environment of the sex box compound aims to provide a “sphere [that] enables the prostitutes to take responsibility” and no longer be the potential victims of abuse and violence.[15] It is hoped that sex workers provided with the sex boxes’ safe work environment and support system are less likely to fall victim to the lurking dangers of the sex trade.

Zurich is overwhelmed by ads for sexual services that have been sanctioned by the government.
Zurich is overwhelmed by ads for sexual services that have been sanctioned by the government.

The social controversy surrounding the sex box’s existence provides and interesting example of how private and public conditions in architecture may be viewed differently according to perception. Legalizing prostitution made an illicit public act a legitimate public event. As such, government now brought prostitution fully into the public eye by sanctioning a public place for its conduct. At the same time, the government still conceded that this would remain a private act. As a place of business, the sex box may be simultaneously viewed as part of the public sphere and also as a private sphere. In the private sphere it is dedicated to maintaining the privacy of sex workers and their clients within the neighboring community, and at the same time shielding the community from a commercial act of which many still disapprove. In this way, the sex boxes exist in a difficult category having both public and private qualities, which can be read differently depending upon circumstance.

Historically, establishments where sex was sold had also existed in a hazy realm which was both public and private. Brothels, for example, served as social meeting places for men as well as a place to buy the company of a woman. Their existence was commonly acknowledged, but not openly discussed. The taboo nature of such businesses even today raises the interesting question of what effect these semi-public spheres of entertainment and business had on the urban fabric. Do these establishments hold the same degree of social stigma even in places where selling sex is legal? Despite their social stigma and innately private nature, how will brothels and other places of prostitution change their surrounding environment?



[1] Nadja Baeva, “Cologne Leads the Way in Safe Prostitution,” Deutsche Welle, July 7, 2005, accessed September 14, 2013, http://dw.de/p/6t31.

[2] Helena Bachmann, “Swiss City to Unveil Tax-payer Funded ‘Sex Boxes’ for Prostitutes,” Time Magazine, August 23, 2013, accessed September 8, 2013, http://world.time.com/2013/08/23/swiss-city-to-unveil-taxpayer-funded-sex-boxes-for-prostitutes/.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Richard Williams, “Could Zurich’s Sex Boxes have a Role beyond Prostitution?” bdonline.co.uk, September 2, 2013, accessed September 8, 2013, http://www.bdonline.co.uk/comment/could-zurichs-sex-boxes-have-a-role-beyond-prostitution?/5059768.article).

[5] Agence France-Presse, “Zurich divided as sex drive-in opens its doors,” YouTube video, 1:34, August 25, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QzuFVU4umRI.

[6] Bachmann, “Swiss City to Unveil Tax-payer Funded “Sex Boxes” for Prostitutes”

[7] Seo-Young Cho, Axel Dreher, and Eric Neumayer, “Does Legalized Prostitution Increase Human Trafficking?” World Development 41 (2013): 68, accessed September 8, Science Direct, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0305750X12001453.

[8] Bachmann, “Swiss City to Unveil Tax-payer Funded ‘Sex Boxes’ for Prostitutes”

[9] Williams, “Could Zurich’s Sex Boxes have a Role beyond Prostitution?”

[10] Bachmann, “Swiss City to Unveil Tax-payer Funded ‘Sex Boxes’ for Prostitutes”

[11] Johanna Niemi, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Buying Sex,” Violence Against Women 16 (2010): 160, accessed September 8, Sage Journals, http://vaw.sagepub.com/content/16/2/159.full.pdf+html.

[12] Agence France-Presse.

[13] Euro News, Zurich opens ‘drive-in sex boxes.’” YouTube video, 1:23, August 18, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_cnyBsNtXzE.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Jaime Sepulveda Amor, Jaime Sepulveda, Harvey V. Fineberg, and M. Mann, AIDS: Prevention through Education (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 226.

REVISED RESEARCH RESOURCES

Journalism

Bachmann, Helena. “Swiss City to Unveil Tax-payer Funded “Sex Boxes” for Prostitutes.” Time Magazine, August 23, 2013. Accessed September 8, 2013. http://world.time.com/2013/08/23/swiss-city-to-unveil-taxpayer-funded-sex-boxes-for-prostitutes/.

This news article explains some of the legal procedures in Switzerland such as the interesting fact that nearly everything is decided by popular vote. Relying on this popular vote, the sex box was only approved by a close vote of 52% approval which reveals that the boxes’ construction was of dispute. The article also reveals that the boxes are funded by $2 million of tax money. The SVP (a right winged party) saying that taxpayer money shouldn’t go to prostitution because it is a private matter brings into question the sex boxes’ paralleling between the public and private sectors. Also interestingly, prostitution’s legality requires that prostitutes must register with the authorities, pay a tax, and have health checkups

Baeva, Nadja. “Cologne Leads the Way in Safe Prostitution.” Deutsche Welle, July 7, 2005.  http://dw.de/p/6t31.

This Cologne news article describes the logic behind Germany’s decriminalization of prostitution in 2002. It explains the city officials’ intention to cut down on crime surrounding prostitution by making it very public and utilizing government supervision. In theory, the model of the sex box creates a safer environment for women working as prostitutes and keeps street prostitution out of the city centers. Sadly, hardly 10% of sex workers use the facilities and support provided by authorities.

Williams, Richard. “Could Zurich’s ‘sex boxes’ have a role beyond prostitution?.” bdonline.co.uk, September 2, 2013. Accessed September 8, 2013. http://www.bdonline.co.uk/comment/could-zurichs-sex-boxes-have-a-role-beyond-prostitution?/5059768.article).

This article takes a more playful position on the sex box. Critical description of the box gives more insight than other, sterile descriptions. It raises the following question: does sanctioning a public space for sex, or other taboo topics, and allowing it to become a public matter, eliminate the problems they created in the first place?

Encyclopedia Entries

Wikipedia. “Sex Drive-in.” Last modified September 03, 2013. Accessed September 4, 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sex_drive-in.

This Wikipedia entry includes background information on the sex-drive-ins in Europe. As a relatively new concept, sex boxes are explained in the encyclopedia entry starting from where they were first created and used and the reasons behind them. There is also some detail as to how they operate.

Wikipedia. “Prostitution in Europe.” Last modified September 03, 2013. Accessed September 4, 2013. (“Sex Drive-in” September 03, 2013).

This Wikipedia entry includes basic, background information on prostitution in Europe and how it differs from the sex trade in the U.S. Contained facts such as the following:

  • All forms legal in Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Latvia, Turkey, and Hungary
  • Most of Europe allows some form of prostitution
  • No child prostitution or trafficking is legal anywhere
  • Most people living in Switzerland are from elsewhere
  • Legal to become a prostitute at age 16

Scholarly Articles

Cho, Seo-Young, Axel Dreher, and Eric Neumayer. “Does Legalized Prostitution Increase Human Trafficking?” World Development 41 (2013): 67-82, accessed September 8. Science Direct. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0305750X12001453.

This scholarly article is a scientific study of the effect of legalizing prostitution in terms of economics, vice, and human trafficking. There could potentially be insight on why the Swiss government thought it was a good idea to open drive-in style sex chalets for the purpose of prostitution. The researchers conclude that legalizing prostitution leads to an increase in human trafficking.

Niemi, Johanna. “What We Talk About When We Talk About Buying Sex.” Violence Against Women 16 (2010): 159-172, accessed September 8. Sage Journals. http://vaw.sagepub.com/content/16/2/159.full.pdf+html.

This scholarly article discusses the diction used when prostitution is brought into conversation. The author expresses disgust at today’s society’s tendency to belittle the criminality of buying sex from trafficked persons, the role of prostitution in the market, and the responsibility of customers and their demand for continuing demand for prostitutes. This article is a reminder that prostitution is often not a choice and qualifies as a form of sexual abuse.

Orthographic Documentation

No official orthographic documents could be found at the current time. The drive-in sex chalets are elementary enough that they could be understood and converted to orthographic documents via information gathered from photographs.

Video and Audio

Euro News. Zurich opens ‘drive-in sex boxes.’ YouTube. 1:23. August 18, 2013. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_cnyBsNtXzE.

This YouTube video contains several, brief interviews and basic information about the sex boxes such as explaining the initiative to regulate prostitution and details on safety features of drive-ins. One interview explains that sex boxes are located away from residential areas.

Agence France-Presse. Zurich divided as sex drive-in opens its doors. YouTube. 1:34. August 25, 2013. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QzuFVU4umRI.

This YouTube video contains insightful, basic information such as a descriptive explanation of the strategy of the drive-in units and its safety features such as a panic button and passenger-side-only exit. The video also expands on the goal of the government to control the business by giving it a physical site with wellness resources rather than to attempt the impossible by trying to shut the sex market down.

Books

Amor, Jaime Sepulveda, Jaime Sepulveda, Harvey V. Fineberg, M. Mann. AIDS: Prevention through Education. New York: Oxford University Press: 1992.

This book presents how public health and government officials have been working to decrease the prevalence of AIDS in Europe. Of special interest is information on initiatives to make prostitution less dangerous for the women. Between decriminalization, ad campaigns, and wellness support, women who work in the sex industry are being provided with more information on safe sex than ever. Dutch huiskamers (less permanent version of Zurich’s sex boxes), gedoogzone (areas of street where prostitution is allowed at certain hours), and afwerplek (comparable to Zurich’s sex boxes) are all specialized places for the purpose of prostitution with various levels of public exposure and government supervision. The Dutch sex box was a precedent for those built in Zurich, so it is important to know about their construction.

 

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