Entering the Sex Industry in Geneva

This is part one of a two-part series examining the sex industry in Geneva, specifically sex workers’ rights and obligations as well as the work of ASPASIE (Association Genevoise pour la défense des travailleurs.es du sexe), which represents them. In an interview with Sarah Haddjeri, a Junior Research Fellow at the NATO Association of Canada, Isabelle Boillat, co-coordinator of ASPASIE, was able to provide insight into sex workers’ experiences.

Prostitution in Geneva

Prostitution in Switzerland was legalized in 1942 when the Swiss Criminal Code was adopted. Article 195 prohibits sexual exploitation and soliciting prostitution. Article 199 states that people must respect the cantonal rules on the authorized areas and times at which prostitution is legal, and refrain from disturbing the peace. In a report on prostitution and trafficking of human beings for exploitation purposes, prostitution is defined as the act of occasionally or regularly giving sexual favors in exchange for payment. In Switzerland, foreign sex workers must obtain both a residence and work permit, pay taxes, and contribute to social security. The minimal age to engage in prostitution is 18 years old. Cantonal authorities are responsible for violence prevention, providing sex workers’ health and defining their judicial status.According to the Grand Council of Geneva sex workers must be registered at the police office.They also have to follow specific rules depending on their place of work, whether it be in public areas, in salons or via escort agencies.

Informing sex workers on their rights and obligations: the role of ASPASIE

ASPASIE was created in 1982 by sex workers during the global HIV crisis. Its objective was to fight for sex workers’ rights. Today, the organization’s mission is to promote sex workers’ health, prevent social exclusion andsupport sex workers’ judicial, criminal, civil,and administrative interests. As the organization considers prostitution a social reality, it does not judge sex workers’ choices, nor does it impose a specific point of view. It aims to be a place where peopleshare thoughts and experiences and tries to improve sex workers’ conditions. “The funding has grown and the association benefits from 1.3 million CHF per year. ASPASIE is one of the first European associations created for sex workers,” said Isabelle Boillat.

In 2017, a report by the police and judiciary commission highlighted some changes in Geneva’s prostitution law. A two-hour information session to improve sex workers’ awareness on prostitution is now required. Also, heads of salons and escort agencies must declare their business to the police and the cantonal doctor. Their building must also be located in an area zoned for commercial activity.

According to Boillat, “Switzerland monitored what has been implemented in other countries and concluded that a system which penalized the client was not a viable one. Authorities reiterated the need to protect sex workers. The 2017 law in Geneva implemented mandatory two-hour training for sex workers during which ASPASIE staff members explain elements of the law, sex workers’ obligations and rights, explain the legality of prostitution,and also explicitly state that neither clients nor tariffs can be imposed on sex workers. Also, the staff members discuss the importance of asking for fair prices. For instance,a blowjob is 100 francs. We talk about the importance of not dumping prices as everyone’s self-respect and self-esteemare at stake. […] It remains difficult to organize collective activities with sex workers. ASPASIE offers free French classes, information sharing on daily life and on work. It also helps them write letters for those who would like to find a different line of work. […] [A] nurse is there to answer sex workers’ health-related questions. This is an occasion to build trust and relationships with them, and sex workers may also talk about other issues that they face.”

Prostitution. Choice orno choice?

Due to the high mobility of sex workers, the use of websites, competitionfrom migrant sex workers, the institutionalized control of sex workers performing in salons, andthe inflated Geneva housing market, sex workers’ occupational and living conditions have beendeteriorating.

“Entering prostitution may or may not be a choice. There are some conditions which cause people to decide to work in the sex industry. For instance, some women experience a difficult break up and as a result are left alone with children to take care of. Often, they do not hold degrees and prostitution is a way to earn a living or to buy a house,” said Boillat. She gave the example of a female sex worker who said that “she was very happy to have had the possibility to work because this enabled her to live well. Other people engage in prostitution because they have specific goals such as studying, travelling, or running a business. They work for two to three years and then stop. Some women fiercely defend their choice of occupation. An escort told me that she likes her job as it requires a lot of competencies such as administrative skills,being able to act and to handle an agenda. However, some do not succeed in overcoming their traumatic experiences with clients or have a bad relationship with family members or partners.”

Complaints have been issued and some people are trying to prevent sex workers from being too close to schools. Others denounce their behaviour as too noisy and disrespectful within the neighbourhood. “Some salons are based in areas where families live. Most of the time when clients go to salons, they are discrete and are rarely noticed. ASPASIE visits neighborhoods and tries to talk to residents who have complained. They also visit salons and escort agencies to check if prostitutes’ rights are being respected,” said Boillat.

She pointed out that “there are a lot of prejudices surrounding prostitution, some curiosity, as well as a few taboos, especially for women who have kids and who want to leave the profession. Prostitution raises a lot of questions and creates stereotypes regarding clients.”

Some of the taboos regarding sex workers are that they are responsible for negative behaviours in their communities since prostitution is often portrayed as deviant, dirty and dangerous. In television series, prostitutes are often portrayed with drug traffickers and are sometimes thought to pervert “good men.” Prostitution is portrayed as “abnormal sex” since it involves neither feelings nor procreation. Also, sex workers are often associated with diseases such as AIDS. Sex workers are also portrayed as victims of human trafficking who are under the control of a pimp. However, if many women have been forced into prostitution, still other sex workers consider themselves to be independent and free.

The psychological impacts of the sex industry on women will be further examined in the follow-up to this article, highlighting the role of two nonprofits,SOS Femmes and Boulevard, in helping sex workers in their daily lives and supporting them after they leave prostitution.

Featured Image: By jean louis mazieres La bonne maison. The Good House. 1926. Gent. Musée des Beaux-Arts via Flickr.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.

About Sarah Haddjeri

Sarah is a graduate student in Political Science and Public and International Affairs with the Institute of Political Studies (Strasbourg) and York University (Toronto). This year she enrolled in an interdisciplinary program in Aix-Marseille university. She will be an intern at UN Women, in Geneva, from April to September 2019.