The city council of Vienna is considering installing "mini-hotels" or "drive-in brothels" in outer boroughs of the city to improve working conditions for street prostitutes. Councilwoman Sandra Frauenberger told the newspaper Die Presse that she is planning to discuss the measure at the next meeting with police and NGOs.
The facilities were first installed in Zürich a year ago as an experimental measure by the municipality to make street prostitution safer and easier for sex workers. Customers enter so-called "sex boxes" by car and remain parked in the wooden, carport-like structures for the duration of the service. There are alarm buttons for safety, washrooms, and showers.
Street prostitution in Vienna is generally legal, but limited to certain streets outside of residential areas. But with more and more restrictions enacted in recent years, there are now only two locations left to legally work on the street: the Brunner street in Liesing (west) and the Autokaderstraße in Florisdorf (north), both desolate industrial areas on the outer fringes of the city without access to bathrooms or hotels, where women are standing on the side of the street waiting for customers to drive by.
When Vienna reformed its prostitution law in November 2011, the councilwoman in charge, Frauenberger, stressed that it was meant to improve the situation for both residents in the areas — who had complained about harassment and disturbance — and the sex workers. NGOs and sex worker organizations, however, claim sex workers have mostly suffered from the measures.
Helga Amesberger, who recently conducted a study of prostitution in Vienna for the Institute of Conflict Study, said that the new laws might have been intended to turn things for the better but they actually accomplished the opposite.
"When sex work is pushed to the outskirts, where there are no love hotels, no possibilities to warm up or seek safety if needed, the potential for violence increases," Amesberger said. "If I have to get into a customers car and ride somewhere with him, I am at his will."
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Christian Knappik, who runs www.sexworker.at, a forum for people in the trade, went even further. He claimed the new laws have done nothing for sex workers at all, and are only intended to eliminate visible prostitution on the streets as a concession to complaints by the public.
"For the past 50 years prostitution has been going on in downtown Vienna without many problems," Knappik said. Areas like the Prater, a huge park in a downtown neighborhood, have been classic red light districts with love hotels nearby renting out rooms by the hour to street prostitutes who were legally working there.
Now prostitutes looking to work in Vienna have to go through a list of lengthy appointments and regulations. In order to obtain a work permit, they must register with police, go though a health screening, and then wait for three weeks to receive their permit, the so-called "Deckel" ("coaster"). The process proves too slow and complicated for many people.
"Women who arrive in Austria looking to prostitute themselves usually haven't won the lottery, they need money," Knappik said. Instead, they start working immediately, pushed into illegality by the new regulations and the long wait, he explained.
Once the women have obtained their registration, they are required to attend mandatory weekly "health tests," with a single facility servicing the 3,390 sex workers currently registered in Vienna. In their most recent report on Austria, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women pointed out that these mandatory tests "may not respect (sex workers') human rights to privacy and bodily integrity." The organization also said the rules don't comply with the International Guidelines on HIV/AIDS and Human Rights.
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The increasingly strict restrictions on areas where sex work is still legal have also forced prostitutes into illegal working conditions, experts claim. In September 2013, the red light district around the Prater was shut down after the new University for Economics opened there. The street prostitutes who used to work in the area after 10pm and frequented the many love hotels nearby with their clients were pushed to the desolate fringe streets in Florisdorf and Liesing where they are now seen standing — far away from cafes, hotels, and even toilets.
A sex worker caught without a permit or looking for customers outside of these designated areas faces a fine of up to €1,000. Sometimes just a glance or a nod at a passing car is enough for police patrols to fine a woman, Knappik said. After multiple violations, a sex worker without an Austrian passport can be deported.
According to Amesberger's study and other estimates, around 90 percent of all sex workers in Austria are migrants, most of them from Eastern Europe. According to the most recent report by the Vienna police department, last year 38 percent of the registered prostitutes in Vienna came from Romania, 26 percent from Hungary, and 10 percent from Bulgaria. Sex work is reportedly one of the few legal ways for asylum seekers to earn income.
Despite the arguably good intentions, the problems caused by Vienna's prostitution law amendment of 2011 seem to outnumber the positive effects. According to experts, being pushed to the fringes has made the situation less safe for women. Where sex workers used to be able to work more or less independently downtown — picking their clients, denying the ones they didn't like, taking them to a love hotel around the corner, and keeping all of the profit — they now more than ever need the protection of pimps, Knappik said.
Amesberger's report came to a similar conclusion. The fact that the women are forced to work illegally further weakens their position: If they go to the police to press charges against violent johns, they're stuck reporting themselves at the same time.
Critics also point to an "infrastructural gap" in the current setup. Women in the legal zones outside of residential areas are allowed to make contact with customers. They are, however, not allowed to perform their services there — sex in cars or on the side of the street is still illegal, resulting in high fines for both prostitute and customer alike. The closest hotels are miles away, meaning they cannot legally serve customers where they are allowed to be picked up, and they cannot legally pick up customers in places near hotels.
"Women now have to ride with their clients 10 miles to the closest hotel, do what they do for 30 to 40 bucks, and then take a cab back," Knappik said. It's an absurd situation that doesn't exactly make business easier for sex workers.
With these conditions, it's hardly surprising that there are barely any sex workers left working on the streets of Florisdorf and Liesing at all. With more and more restrictions on time and space passed each month, options are running out and work is dangerous and financially unattractive. According to Vienna police, out of what used to be an estimated 200 to 300 prostitutes working the streets, there are now only around 30 left on any given night.
Even that low number is apparently enough to cause outrage and protests. The local party "Wir für Florisdorf" ("Us for Florisdorf") managed to collect more than 7,000 signatures and rally for an additional time restrictions for sex workers in the neighborhood. Women can now only work I between 10pm and 10am. The goal, as district representative Hans Jörg Schimanek told Austrian newspaper Die Presse, is to get sex workers off the street entirely.
The drive-in boxes the city council is now considering as a measure to help prostitutes and close the logistical gap in Florisdorf have a slim chance of becoming reality. Wir für Florisdorf actually favors the boxes — just so long as they're not paid for by Austrian taxpayers. "Funding johns and prostitutes out of tax funds is not an option for us," the party announced on its website.
Advocacy organizations such as Sexworker.at are opposed to the drive-in idea as a whole. Knappik said that, compared to the working conditions sex workers had prior to the 2011 amendment, the wooden boxes are horrid.
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"We used to have so-called '10-euro hotels' in Vienna — small, self-organized establishments close to the street walker's patch where sex workers could take clients and 20 minutes cost €10," Knappik said. "The fee was paid by the customer, rooms had showers and bathrooms, and the situation was generally safe because other sex workers were present."
The solution in his eyes is not to install wooden carports in the outskirts, but to let sex workers return to those downtown locations where they have been working safely for decades. "We are against centralization and ghettoization," Knappik said. "Street prostitution was made impossible in 2011 and now we are offered a 10 percent improvement. We want to go back to the start. The women have to be able to stand in front of the love hotels downtown."
This, however, is not something the council is even considering. Councilwoman Frauenberger is realistic enough to recognize that sex work won't disappear by passing laws. She is not looking to ban prostitution or slap johns with fines. "Politics don't have the power to abolish sex work. We can only work on improvement," she told Die Presse.
Frauenhofer made it very clear that Vienna wants to keep prostitution out of residential areas, off the streets, or at least out of sight. "That was the whole reason we amended the law," she told Austrian paper Kurier. "The key part is the segregation of street prostitution and residential areas."
"It could all be so easy," Knappik said. "If you want to fight wrong, give rights. Sex workers who have to work in legal grey zones are easier to exploit."
Follow Chris Köver on Twitter: @ckoever
Photo via Wikimedia Commons