No car, no sex.
That's the rule for an experiment Zurich is launching Monday to make prostitution less of a public nuisance and safer for women.
Switzerland has long been famous for its mountaineering, chocolate and precision watches, but a lesser known aspect is its legal prostitution since 1942, for which its largest city is one of the main centers in Europe.
Fashionably teak-colored open wooden garages, popularly called "sex boxes" by the Swiss media, will be open for business for drive-in customers. The several dozen sex workers who are expected to make it their new hub will stand along a short road in a small, circular park for clients to choose from and negotiate with. The park was built in a former industrial area nestled between a rail yard and the fence along a major highway.
The publicly funded facilities open all night and located away from the city center include bathrooms, lockers, small cafe tables and a laundry and shower. Men won't have to worry about video surveillance cameras, but the sex workers who will need a permit and pay a small tax will be provided with a panic button and on-site social workers trained to look after them.
As far as Daniel Hartmann, a Zurich lawyer, is concerned, it's a win-win situation.
"Safety for the prostitutes. At least it's a certain kind of a shelter for them. They can do their business, and I respect them," he said. "They do a great job, and they have better working conditions here. ... They're not exposed to the bosses, to the pimps, in here."
On Saturday, Hartmann was one of several hundred residents, including many women and a small throng of journalists, who flocked to the only "open house" that Zurich will offer to give the public a better idea of how its taxpayer money has been used.
Most of the visitors said they came out of curiosity and haven't really come to terms with the idea, but hope it will at least improve safety. Others were amazed and a bit amused that a whole group of strangers would spend a rainy afternoon openly discussing professional sex.
Brigitta Hanselmann, a retired special needs schoolteacher from Embrach, Switzerland, said: "I have to think about it for a long time, because it's so incredible that a city offers that to the men, and it's interesting that there are many, many women here who are looking at it." She called the sex boxes "an effort to control a thing that you can't really control."
Voters in Zurich approved spending up to 2.4 million Swiss francs ($2.6 million) on the project last year as a way of relocating the sex traffic away from a busy downtown area where it had become a public nuisance and safety concern due to lack of sanitation, aggressive men, and associated drugs and violence. The city, which only allows prostitution in certain areas, also plans to spend 700,000 francs ($760,000) a year to keep the sex boxes running.
Jean-Marc Hensch, a business executive who heads a neighborhood association in another part of Zurich, said he hopes the sex boxes succeed because otherwise the prostitutes might return to his area. He also cited the disgusting lack of sanitation in other city areas where prostitutes and their clients defecate and urinate in the streets and gardens, or have sex in the open because they have nowhere else to go.
"It's an experiment," he said. "It was absolutely urgent to find a solution."