Analysis Law and Policy

Advocates Fight for Sex Workers’ Contracts in Switzerland

Maddy French

Even though prostitution is legal in Switzerland, sex workers cannot rely on the courts to uphold their legitimate employment complaints.

Compared with colleagues in some of their neighboring countries, sex workers in Switzerland appear to have it quite good. Prostitution there has been legal since 1942, and the country is known today for its a fairly liberal and pragmatic approach to the industry. News of the “drive in” sex boxes installed on the streets of the country’s largest city, Zurich, to offer privacy for street prostitutes and their clients went around the world and was heralded by many (although criticized by some) as an example of a sex-friendly policy. The requirement for sex workers to pay taxes and social security contributions is another example of the integration of the industry into regular Swiss public and bureaucratic life.

But even in countries with a liberal attitude toward selling sex, issues steeped in morality tend to find a way to creep in. In Switzerland, it comes in the shape of a legislative hangover from the ’60s that blocks the legal rights of prostitutes in the courts and leaves them vulnerable to exploitation. In Switzerland, an oral agreement is legally recognized as a binding contract, just as it would be if it had been written down. Every time a sex worker agrees with a client on the price, time, and any other terms of their exchange, a contract is made.

One of the ways a contract—made by anyone—can be declared null and void is if a court decides it is immoral. This is what the Swiss Federal Court, the country’s highest court, did around 30 years ago with prostitution. So today, even though prostitution is legal, sex workers cannot rely on the courts to uphold their legitimate employment complaints.

“The advantage to having contracts would be that sex workers could go to the justice system when they say that they haven’t been paid or the price is not normal or anything like that,” explained Michel Félix de Vidas, spokesperson for Aspasie, a Swiss association representing sex workers in the country. De Vidas warns that without the confidence that they will be backed up, sex workers are left vulnerable to exploitation, even though they are working legally. “It should be based on human rights rather than morality. Here sex workers have to pay health care, they have to pay [taxes], so they should have rights,” he says. Those advocating for a change in the law in favor of the legal rights of sex workers point out that the judgment was made at a different time in a society that was not the same as the Switzerland of today.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

“There has been an evolution in society,” said Andreas Caroni, a lawyer and politician for the liberal FDP party in Switzerland. “This judgment was a 1960s and 1970s position towards prostitution. Switzerland was quite conservative with some of its policies around sex and sexuality until 1990. It was even punishable to advertise condoms, for example. Now, in 2014, I think quite a few people would agree that these contracts are fine, or at least normal.”

Caroni says that he asked his party’s member on the Swiss Federal Council if this was also his view on the world. “He replied that he no longer sees such contracts as immoral,” said Caroni. He added that there are federal court judges who would see it this way too if a case was brought before them.

A report by the country’s Federal Department of Justice and Migration published last month has also added pressure for strengthening the legal rights of prostitutes, pushing the issue further up the political agenda. The report, which included contributions from experts from a broad range of groups working in or around the industry, concluded that there are several key priorities for sex workers in the country, including the need for better protection from exploitation. “There have been some problems for prostitutes, such as abusive situations, violence, exploitation, working conditions—this isn’t helping the women,” said Ursina Jud Huwiler, who coordinated the report for the department.

Reiterating their position against adopting the Swedish model of criminalizing the purchase of sex, the experts in the report agreed that to improve working conditions, there must be an abolition of moral legal standards and improved protection. “This is one of the main recommendations made for changes in the law: more protection for sex workers,” said Jud Huwiler. She added that there is now a sense that things are beginning to change regarding the issue of contracts between sex workers and clients.

Recent challenges to the law also suggest that the country is on the verge of improving these legal rights—it’s just a matter of exactly how to do it. In Zurich a few months ago, a court contradicted the federal court judgment when it ruled that a contract between a prostitute and a “John” was not immoral and therefore valid. But this judgment does not automatically apply to the country’s other courts. Now the Canton of Bern, one of the 26 regions in Switzerland, has called on the Committee of Legal Affairs of the National Council to create a legal basis for saying contracts between sex workers and “Johns” are valid.

Caroni, who sits on the committee, said committee members are thinking about how support for sex workers’ rights could be put on the books. “So we don’t just have to rely on the courts, we are thinking about how we should write it into law. To keep up the pressure, we asked the federal administration for guidance on how this could be written in if it was needed, and we are still waiting to hear the options. But if a federal court decides that the contract is moral then we won’t need to do anything; it is just a back up plan,” he said.

One of the problems with this “plan A” is that it might be a while before a federal court ever gets to hear a case that deals with this issue, as it would need to go through all the lower courts first.

Aspasie is one organization that’s calling for a top-down approach to legislative change—but the group also thinks the legal problems for sex workers extend further, to the issue of contracts with brothel owners as well as with “Johns.” At the moment, there is a section written into the country’s criminal code, called Article 195, that states sex work activity must not be supervised or controlled by someone else, and prostitutes must be free to “determine the time, place, volume or other aspects of their work.” This regulation was included with the intention of protecting people from exploitation and trafficking, but according to Aspasie’s Félix de Vidas, because Article 195 makes it difficult to bring complaints over a contract with a brothel owner to a judge, it should be revisited.

Ursina Jud Huwiler agrees that the law as it stands means it is not possible for prostitutes to work in such a way that they are dependent on others, with what the Swiss call a “classical working contract,” but pointed out that the group of experts recommended in their report that self-employment offers better protection for sex workers.

“This is a separate issue to the morality one—this is about self-determination,” she said. “The majority of the group agreed that it would be better if the prostitutes are self-employed. The majority of the group thought that working independently gives prostitutes better protection and that it doesn’t protect them from everything, but that it does protect them a little more.”

News Sexual Health

State with Nation’s Highest Chlamydia Rate Enacts New Restrictions on Sex Ed

Nicole Knight Shine

By requiring sexual education instructors to be certified teachers, the Alaska legislature is targeting Planned Parenthood, which is the largest nonprofit provider of such educational services in the state.

Alaska is imposing a new hurdle on comprehensive sexual health education with a law restricting schools to only hiring certificated school teachers to teach or supervise sex ed classes.

The broad and controversial education bill, HB 156, became law Thursday night without the signature of Gov. Bill Walker, a former Republican who switched his party affiliation to Independent in 2014. HB 156 requires school boards to vet and approve sex ed materials and instructors, making sex ed the “most scrutinized subject in the state,” according to reproductive health advocates.

Republicans hold large majorities in both chambers of Alaska’s legislature.

Championing the restrictions was state Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R-Wasilla), who called sexuality a “new concept” during a Senate Education Committee meeting in April. Dunleavy added the restrictions to HB 156 after the failure of an earlier measure that barred abortion providers—meaning Planned Parenthood—from teaching sex ed.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Dunleavy has long targeted Planned Parenthood, the state’s largest nonprofit provider of sexual health education, calling its instruction “indoctrination.”

Meanwhile, advocates argue that evidence-based health education is sorely needed in a state that reported 787.5 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 people in 2014—the nation’s highest rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Surveillance Survey for that year.

Alaska’s teen pregnancy rate is higher than the national average.

The governor in a statement described his decision as a “very close call.”

“Given that this bill will have a broad and wide-ranging effect on education statewide, I have decided to allow HB 156 to become law without my signature,” Walker said.

Teachers, parents, and advocates had urged Walker to veto HB 156. Alaska’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Amy Jo Meiners, took to Twitter following Walker’s announcement, writing, as reported by Juneau Empire, “This will cause such a burden on teachers [and] our partners in health education, including parents [and] health [professionals].”

An Anchorage parent and grandparent described her opposition to the bill in an op-ed, writing, “There is no doubt that HB 156 is designed to make it harder to access real sexual health education …. Although our state faces its largest budget crisis in history, certain members of the Legislature spent a lot of time worrying that teenagers are receiving information about their own bodies.”

Jessica Cler, Alaska public affairs manager with Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, called Walker’s decision a “crushing blow for comprehensive and medically accurate sexual health education” in a statement.

She added that Walker’s “lack of action today has put the education of thousands of teens in Alaska at risk. This is designed to do one thing: Block students from accessing the sex education they need on safe sex and healthy relationships.”

The law follows the 2016 Legislative Round-up released this week by advocacy group Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. The report found that 63 percent of bills this year sought to improve sex ed, but more than a quarter undermined student rights or the quality of instruction by various means, including “promoting misinformation and an anti-abortion agenda.”

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: ‘If You Don’t Vote … You Are Trifling’

Ally Boguhn

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party's convention.

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party’s convention.

DNC Chair Marcia Fudge: “If You Don’t Vote, You Are Ungrateful, You Are Lazy, and You Are Trifling”

The chair of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), criticized those who choose to sit out the election while speaking on the final day of the convention.

“If you want a decent education for your children, you had better vote,” Fudge told the party’s women’s caucus, which had convened to discuss what is at stake for women and reproductive health and rights this election season.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

“If you want to make sure that hungry children are fed, you had better vote,” said Fudge. “If you want to be sure that all the women who survive solely on Social Security will not go into poverty immediately, you had better vote.”

“And if you don’t vote, let me tell you something, there is no excuse for you. If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” she said.

“So as I leave, I’m just going to say this to you. You tell them I said it, and I’m not hesitant about it. If you don’t vote, you are ungrateful, you are lazy, and you are trifling.”

The congresswoman’s website notes that she represents a state where some legislators have “attempted to suppress voting by certain populations” by pushing voting restrictions that “hit vulnerable communities the hardest.”

Ohio has recently made headlines for enacting changes that would make it harder to vote, including rolling back the state’s early voting period and purging its voter rolls of those who have not voted for six years.

Fudge, however, has worked to expand access to voting by co-sponsoring the federal Voting Rights Amendment Act, which would restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that were stripped by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder.

“Mothers of the Movement” Take the National Spotlight

In July 2015, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office released a statement that 28-year-old Sandra Bland had been found dead in her jail cell that morning due to “what appears to be self-asphyxiation.” Though police attempted to paint the death a suicide, Bland’s family has denied that she would have ended her own life given that she had just secured a new job and had not displayed any suicidal tendencies.

Bland’s death sparked national outcry from activists who demanded an investigation, and inspired the hashtag #SayHerName to draw attention to the deaths of Black women who died at the hands of police.

Tuesday night at the DNC, Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and a group of other Black women who have lost children to gun violence, in police custody, or at the hands of police—the “Mothers of the Movement”—told the country why the deaths of their children should matter to voters. They offered their support to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during a speech at the convention.

“One year ago yesterday, I lived the worst nightmare anyone could imagine. I watched as my daughter was lowered into the ground in a coffin,” said Geneva Reed-Veal.

“Six other women have died in custody that same month: Kindra Chapman, Alexis McGovern, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Raynette Turner, Ralkina Jones, and Joyce Curnell. So many of our children are gone, but they are not forgotten,” she continued. 

“You don’t stop being a mom when your child dies,” said Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis. “His life ended the day that he was shot and killed for playing loud music. But my job as his mother didn’t.” 

McBath said that though she had lost her son, she continued to work to protect his legacy. “We’re going to keep telling our children’s stories and we’re urging you to say their names,” she said. “And we’re also going to keep using our voices and our votes to support leaders, like Hillary Clinton, who will help us protect one another so that this club of heartbroken mothers stops growing.” 

Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, called herself “an unwilling participant in this movement,” noting that she “would not have signed up for this, [nor would] any other mother that’s standing here with me today.” 

“But I am here today for my son, Trayvon Martin, who is in heaven, and … his brother, Jahvaris Fulton, who is still here on Earth,” Fulton said. “I did not want this spotlight. But I will do everything I can to focus some of this light on the pain of a path out of the darkness.”

What Else We’re Reading

Renee Bracey Sherman explained in Glamour why Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s position on abortion scares her.

NARAL’s Ilyse Hogue told Cosmopolitan why she shared her abortion story on stage at the DNC.

Lilly Workneh, the Huffington Post’s Black Voices senior editor, explained how the DNC was “powered by a bevy of remarkable black women.”

Rebecca Traister wrote about how Clinton’s historic nomination puts the Democratic nominee “one step closer to making the impossible possible.”

Rewire attended a Democrats for Life of America event while in Philadelphia for the convention and fact-checked the group’s executive director.

A woman may have finally clinched the nomination for a major political party, but Judith Warner in Politico Magazine took on whether the “glass ceiling” has really been cracked for women in politics.

With Clinton’s nomination, “Dozens of other women across the country, in interviews at their offices or alongside their children, also said they felt on the cusp of a major, collective step forward,” reported Jodi Kantor for the New York Times.

According to, Philadelphia’s Maternity Care Coalition staffed “eight curtained breast-feeding stalls on site [at the DNC], complete with comfy chairs, side tables, and electrical outlets.” Republicans reportedly offered similar accommodations at their convention the week before.