GENEVA - Lisa, who runs Venusia, a legal and regulated house of prostitution in Geneva, has just about had enough. "France is trying to get rid of its prostitutes by sending them abroad. So they come here," she says. "We’re sick and tired of this situation."
M. A., an employee of the Gclub, an erotic massage parlor, said the Swiss city is attracting a harmful "new kind of prostitution," where young women try to make a living in big hotels at night without having to pay taxes. "Geneva is becoming the brothel of Europe," she said.
Though most agree that the prostitution market in Geneva is booming, the local police vice unit is not concerned, saying that the increase will eventually level off. "In the 1980s, Geneva prostitutes were already complaining about competition from German prostitutes," says Michel Félix, a member of Aspasie, an association that has been protecting the rights of prostitutes for 30 years. "Then other nationalities started arriving – it works in cycles."
Fewer than 1,000 prostitutes were registered in Geneva in 2004, compared to 4,100 in 2011, with 900 new applications for 2011 alone. The number of French prostitutes is rising dramatically, believed to be linked to crackdowns by law enforcement in France, where the practice remains strictly prohibited. Bertrand Jacquet, leader of the Geneva police vice unit, says French now represent 28% of sex workers in Geneva, and have been the biggest group since 2005. Since 2010, their numbers have increased by 75% according to the Swiss census.
But Jacquet notes that there has also been a 150% rise in the number of Hungarian prostitutes over the same period.
"We need money right now," says T., a beautiful 23-year-old mother who commutes from Lyon to Switzerland every day. "This is not a career. What we want is to make as much money as possible so we don’t have to wait 20 years before we can afford to buy a business or an apartment."
Across the border in France, a country that dreams of a society without prostitution, authorities are pragmatic. France, they say, is not going to break down and cry because its sex workers are moving abroad – they have every right to.
The dark side
Lisa angrily accuses the media of hyping up the Swiss Eldorado’s huge salaries, thus attracting throngs of girls lured by easy money. Girls can indeed bring in 15,000 to 20,000 Swiss francs (12,000 to 17,000 euros) a month. But rates are actually comparable to those in the other European capitals. As the Gclub puts it: "Customers will usually pay 150 to 300 Swiss francs (120 to 250 euros) in high-class places, but 25 to 40 euros to turn a trick in the street -- that’s really slashing prices."
This leads workers like Lisa to remind people of the dark side of this practice: "There’s quick money to be made, sure, but never easy money. It's a very hard job."
"It’s still an immoral activity," says M. A., "You have to stay strong in your mind. There’s a kind of addiction to money. Everything changes, your needs, your habits, you can’t go back."
Félix Michel adds: "Many workers are disappointed and have to leave because of the costs; renting prices in Geneva are exorbitant, close to unreasonable sometimes."
Credit, debts, families that need supporting: the girls say they chose to work in Switzerland for the money, but also for safety reasons. "Working in France is way too dangerous," says T. from Lyon. "We’re scared to death," adds S. from Annemasse in the southeast of France.
The vice unit in Geneva, praised by all parties concerned, explains: "Women here are not prey. The regulations are very tight and well thought out with good measures in place. And it’s working. We’ve got excellent control over the scene, and there’s no human trafficking or mafia networks. Pure and simple, abolition [as is advocated in France] is simply impossible to achieve."
Michel Félix says that a prostitute who has a legal status and is a full citizen has no reason to turn to these networks to find work. But in Annemasse, the police vice unit is less optimistic: "France will never take its inspiration from Switzerland because morality still has a significant influence on the law. And it looks like the French are heading towards an even more conservative approach. Even the Netherlands is backpedalling, and soon it’ll be Geneva’s turn to return to stricter measures."
Julie Huissoud, from the Appart 74 association that helps prostitutes, says: "In France, it is assumed that the prostitute is a victim. Here, women can talk about their sufferings. When you end up performing fellatio for 5 or 10 euros, it’s called prostitution for survival, no less."
In Geneva, in the small common room of the erotic club, the floor is covered with a jumble of stilettoes, underwear, magazines and empty plates. People wait. A bell rings. Agitated whispers. Girls hastily put on their bras and quickly go on stage. The fleeting silhouettes of indistinct clients make their way upstairs, following the click of high heels. Other girls return, sit down, put on some nail polish, have a quick bite to eat.
"They may drive us off the streets and out of everywhere else," says M., a married woman with two children from the Doubs department in eastern France. "But women will always find a way to do this job."
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