Italy's Sex Workers Take Refuge in Switzerland

No Tax Code
Despite thousands of Italians taking to the streets to protest high taxation, transgender Efe Bal, above, demands to be allowed to pay taxes. Guiseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty

Carly, 32, is an Italian cross-border commuter. In order to work freely five days a week she drives 6.9km from Como, northern Italy, through the Alps to Chiasso in Ticino, the Italian-speaking area of Switzerland. Carly is a sex worker. "Switzerland offers safer spaces to work," she says. "In Italy streets are dangerous, you do it in the car and you never know what may happen. Italians are lewd because prostitution in our country is still a taboo".

And in Ticino there are no pimps: "What I earn, once I've paid taxes, goes straight into my pockets." In Chiasso Carly's income is higher than what it was in Como – about 8,000 Swiss francs per month. "My husband knows what I do and supports me. He's a mason and earns just €500. We need the money, we've got a three-year-old daughter. We'd like to buy a house in Switzerland and settle here one day."

Carly works six hours a day – from noon to 6pm – and shares an apartment with another Italian commuter colleague. At the end of her shift, she drives back to her family in Como. When she's away for holidays she rents her room to other co-workers from Milan. "Things here are much simpler. First, differently from Italy, prostitution is regulated. All you need to do is register at the police office, tell them you'll be prostituting yourself and get an official work permit as a self-employed worker."

The great thing about Ticino, explains Carly, is this special police section, called Teseu, which is in charge of controlling the sex industry by cracking down on abuses and violences. "They have my mobile number and you can call them up anytime in case of danger or need. They know where I live." The police then forwards personal details to the taxman and regional health unit, handing over to the sex worker a list of doctors for free health checks. "Health controls are not compulsory but it's a good way to show your clients that you're not infected."

Carly has a registered VAT and regularly declares her income: "I prefer to pay taxes, even if they're high, in exchange for perfect services and social security. I'll have a pension one day when I decide to retire. Plus, all expenses related to my job are deductible: mobile calls, travel, health checks, beauty parlours and even plastic surgery."

Sex Booth
A man stands in front of an enclosed wooden booth used for the sex trade in Zurich. Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters

Getting the business running in Ticino is also pretty easy. "After I registered as sex worker I bought ads in newspapers and on sex-selling websites. Advertisement can be quite expensive but it's certainly worth it: your mobile number is there for clients to reach you." Yet finding an apartment may be tough: many owners either ask for enormous sums of money or demand "services" in exchange for a good rate. Carly settled with the latter option and currently pays 70 francs per day.

Ticino has always been considered a haven of the Swiss sex industry. Dozens of Italian sex workers, both women and men – regularly commute to Ticino especially on Saturday nights. Even university students who can't afford to continue with their studies are lured by the profits of the Swiss red light scene. And it's not just prostitutes. Sex seekers also commute to the Swiss border towns of Lugano, Cadenazzo and Bellinzona. Carly's clients are all Italian, she says, mainly businessmen from Milan and Varese.

There are estimated to be roughly 600 registered sex workers in Ticino out of a total population of 340,000 residents. Nightclubs, private apartments, brothels and massage centres are the landmarks of the red light industry. Street prostitution is banned. But things are changing. The local government is trying to push through a new law aimed at cracking down on unregulated prostitution by confining the oldest trade to just licensed brothels, apartments and authorised sex districts. Carly however is optimistic: "Even if the legal framework gets tougher, Switzerland will remain a paradise for Italian sex workers compared to Italy. It will always be more convenient to us. So no matter what happens, I'm staying here."

On the other side of the Alps it's a different story. In Italy prostitution is legal but not regulated. Brothels were shut down in 1958 and, since then, sex workers have walked the streets at the mercy of pimps, local mafia clans and human traffickers. Those who can afford it work at home or as escorts and disguised massage therapists. "The act of selling one's body is not considered as a crime but inducing or aiding prostitution is. The paradox is that clients and even taxi drivers are treated as pimps," explains Democrat Senator Maria Spilabotte, who has presented a bill aimed at regulating sex trade across the peninsula. "It's forbidden to stop in the middle of the street to pick up sex workers because this is seen as a danger to public order as it may cause car accidents. Owners who rent-out their apartment to prostitutes also commit a crime," she says.

Italian mayors are criminalising clients with fines ranging from €150 to €500. Dimitri Russo, mayor of Castel Volturno, a mafia stronghold near Naples, is in the spotlight for having sent two of his female councillors out on the street dressed like prostitutes to lure and fine potential clients. "I have nothing against sex workers nor their clients. I just find it disgraceful to see these people walk the street. It goes against public safety and city decorum," says Russo. "The institutions have abandoned us."

Sex Rules
In Zurich, where prostitution is legal, a sign explains the rules of a new sex drive-in. Drivers, who must be alone in their vehicles, negotiate a rate with one of the 40 prostitutes stationed and drive on to one of the nine partially enclosed wooden booths to have sex. Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters

No wonder many Italian sex workers have fled to prosperous Switzerland. But there are also others who would like to stay in Italy and pay taxes like ordinary citizens. Efe Ball, Italy's most popular transgender spokesperson, has waged war against the taxman. She recently staged a nude street protest against four tax notification letters with a total payment request of €700,000 despite the fact that she's not considered a worker. "The state checked my bank account and now I'm seen and treated like a tax dodger but I've always wanted to register for VAT as a professional. It's the first time in Italy's history that the taxman knocks at a sex worker's door." Efe would like to enjoy the huge sums of money she earned in 15 years of hard work but now, even if she wants to, she can't buy a car, nor a house: "Dogs in Italy have more rights than us. We're ghosts."

This is why Spilabotte would like to adopt the Swiss model. "Prostitution is just like any other job and we can't pretend it doesn't exist. Sex workers must be given rights, be free to pay taxes and contribute to their country's GDP through VAT registration, which would also boost state coffers," she says. According to a recent parliament survey there are over 70,000 prostitutes in Italy for nine million clients and a total turn-over of €5bn per year. Regulation would also help combat human trafficking. More than 60 criminal groups are currently exploiting streetwalkers, argues Spilabotte.

"Prostitution is added to Italy's GDP calculations only when it helps to avoid European sanctions, but it's not recognised as an economic activity," points out Pia Covre, founder of the Prostitutes Civil Rights Committee, the country's largest sex workers' lobby. There are other 10 pro-prostitution bills pending in parliament, including one for the re-opening of brothels. But Italy, home to the Vatican, isn't ready for the big leap forward.