This story from last year illustrates how policies intended to repress prostitution result in prostitution moving and changing shape – not disappearing. Repression stops the particular and usually visible, which may be all that was desired but is rarely what campaigners say they want. Here, punters drive from northern Italy into southern Switzerland, where brothels are legal.
See a recent story about Goa, for example, where an entire red-light district was torn down, with the result that Goans now see commercial sex everywhere. Entrepreneurs in the sex industry adapt easily to changing conditions. See recent stories on Sonagachi in India and on Malaysia and Korea. I published an academic article on the irrationality of legal prostitution regimes last year.
Then there is the ever-present story showing that even when European sex businesses are legal, many or most workers are migrants. A report on prostitution in Ticino (in Italian) explains why undocumented migrants may not bother to register and become legal (when they are eligible),
Here’s the Swiss news story.
15 September 2008, swissinfo, based on an article by Nicole della Pietra
Tough new measures introduced in Italy have sent many customers across the border to brothels in Switzerland. Prostitution is currently booming in Ticino, Switzerland’s Italian speaking canton. But many of the girls involved are illegal. The authorities say they are keeping a close eye on the situation. Half a dozen brothels line the road that links the north and south of the canton at Monte Ceneri. The establishments are doing brisk business, to which the stream of visitors attests. “There are more brothels here than houses,” remarks a young army recruit who has been posted to the Ceneri barracks.
Apart from a few Swiss soldiers and the odd local, most of the clients here and at other Ticino brothels are Italian – as can be seen by the huge number of cars with Italian number plates. Some places in the Lugano and Chiasso region, further south, have an even greater density of brothels. The small village of Melano (population 1,000) alone has four. Cross-border sex commuters are attracted by the closeness to the A2 motorway through the canton, the standards of comfort, security and hygiene and the competitive prices.
The Italian media have long been talking about the “Ticino phenomenon”. The prestigious La Stampa newspaper went so far as to describe the canton in an August article as “a brothel paradise” and “Mecca of luxury”, while highlighting establishments’ “discreet charm”.
Clients may enjoy a certain freedom in Ticino but the same cannot be said for Italy. Brothels have been illegal there for 50 years, which has led to a rise in street prostitution. The government, anxious to change the situation, issued a clampdown decree at the beginning of this year. In Lombardy, which borders Ticino, the authorities have decided to issue a €500 (SFr796) fine to kerb crawlers. And in Milan police have stepped up patrols of red light districts. Video surveillance and the internet are also being employed.
Swiss police believe that the Lombardy situation could have consequences for Ticino. “We don’t have any precise data yet but border regions are certainly going to have an influx of visitors from Italy,” said Alex Serfilippi, an inspector with a special unit which fights the proliferation of prostitution in the canton.
In the week in which swissinfo visited Ticino, two new establishments announced that they were opening for business – adding to the 37 places already in operation in the canton. The sex business adapts quickly to the needs of its clients and to offer and demand, say experts. “We only need to be absorbed by a big enquiry for a few days to see an immediate upsurge in the number of girls in the area,” explained Serfilippi. “We keep applying pressure every day as it’s the only way of stopping the phenomenon from growing even further,” he added.
The prostitution boom is a godsend for some of the area’s hotel and restaurant owners who have seen better days. Some have converted their businesses into brothels, complete with champagne bar and rooms for hire.
On average between five and 20 girls work in these types of establishments. Most come from eastern Europe, with a third coming from Latin America. “We have recently seen a massive increase in the number of Romanians,” added Serfilippi. The police officer estimates that there is a maximum of 600 prostitutes in the canton, of whom between 60 per cent and 80 per cent are illegal. Added to this are the dozens of saunas and massage parlours which each employ one or two young women. Since 2002 a total of 490 people have signed up to the cantonal prostitution register.
“It’s unfortunately extremely difficult, if not impossible, to provide precise figures for this very fluid milieu,” said Serfilippo. The crime expert and journalist Michel Venturelli believes that south of the Alps the number of prostitutes could be as high as 1,200. . .