Switzerland is one of the few countries in the European Union where prostitution is legal; it has been since 1942. Sex workers must be EU citizens at least 18 years of age, and are required to pay taxes and make social security contributions. Seems orderly, but prior to the introduction of the sex-box compound, Zurich's taxpayers weren't happy with their city's prostitution landscape. The sex trade was burgeoning in highly visible areas in the city center, and local residents viewed public solicitation (and sometimes public sex) — as well as the drugs and violence that attended commercial sex — as a "nuisance."
Sex workers and sex-worker advocates, meanwhile, objected to the lack of access to sanitary working conditions — and worker's vulnerability to pimps, bosses, and abusive clients. Often, sex workers had no choice other than to enter the cars of clients, who drove them to undisclosed locations to perform sexual activity. The system, or lack thereof, was broken — which is why in 2013, voters in Zurich approved spending 2.4 million Swiss francs ($2.6 million) to replace it with a formal system designed to keep sex work both safe and off the streets.
That $2.6 million built the now year-old "sex boxes" in a custom compound just outside Zurich, which is open from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. and equipped with lockers, bathrooms, tables, and a shower and laundry. There are no cameras, but each "room" features a panic button that, when pressed, alerts onsite social workers that a sex worker needs assistance. The facility was designed to look nice, too: Outdoor bathrooms were painted pink and blue and strings of light bulbs hang between the trees. To use the facility, sex workers are asked to obtain a sex-work permit ($43 a year) and pay a small fee ($5.40 a night).
While the "sex boxes" attracted some ridicule when they opened, those involved with the project insist that it's no laughing matter, but rather a question of life and death for many women. Essentially, Zurich has taken a harm-reduction approach to addressing prostitution, meaning the goal was not to curb a behavior (sex work) that has negative consequences (STIs, human trafficking, violent crime), but rather to tackle the negative consequences themselves — by providing sex workers with a safe, clean, and dignified working environment. Globally, harm-reduction approaches have seen great success in minimizing the consequences of drug use through strategies such as needle exchange, safe houses, and methadone prescriptions (including in Zurich itself). But, when the sex boxes first opened, no one was sure whether a harm-reduction approach would work for prostitution.
Now, a year later, Swiss social workers are declaring the experiment a so-far success. Some 15 sex workers use the public facility each night — a significant number considering the 30 (on average) women who worked in Zurich's main red-light district before the inauguration of the facility. Zurich has also noted no increase in sex-trade activities in those areas of the city where they are tolerated. Though international public opinion on the "drive-in brothel" remains split, Zurich plans to continue running the facility, and Swiss taxpayers are on board.