Women in Security

Leaving the Sex Industry in Geneva

This is part two of a two-part series examining the sex industry in Geneva and the psychological and physical impacts of this industry on sex workers. This article specifically focuses on SOS Femmes, an association created in 1940, initially created with the support of the religious establishment, though now funded by the Swiss Government in Geneva. In an interview with Sarah Haddjeri, a Junior Research Fellow at the NATO Association of Canada, Martina Tarla, a social worker, was willing to share her experiences working with women looking to leave their occupation of prostitution.

A certificate of ‘moral conduct and character’

Following a 1951 law that required sex workers to obtain a certificate of ‘moral conduct and character’ (certificat de bonne vie et moeurs) upon leaving their profession, former sex workers were forced to undergo a three-year waiting period before being eligible for this document. Drug or alcohol abuse often meant an additional two-year wait, the certificate being at the discretion of the police. ASPASIE launched a petition in May 1982 urging the Grand Council of Geneva to provide sex workers with this certificate when they decided to leave the sex industry. In the petition, ASPASIE stated that successful reinsertion for women into the ‘conventional’ workforce meant being able to choose their new job, being independent, earning sufficient wages and having the same chances as any other individual. This document was required to work in many businesses, making leaving the sex industry even harder and the reinsertion process therefore more uncertain and complicated. It was only in December 1988 that the Grand Council of Geneva enacted a law enabling sex workers to obtain the certificate without delay.

Impacts of the sex industry on women

According to Doctor Jacquelyn Monroe, poverty is one of the main factors which causes women to enter prostitution. Some women see it as an occupation they voluntarily choose, since for those with little education it enables them to make decent money. Other women enter prostitution because they are unemployed, underemployed, and/or homeless. Due to structural inequalities between men and women such as unequal pay, low-wages paid to part-time workers, and a lack of public assistance, sex work is often the most realistic way to meet one’s basic needs or to build a better life for oneself.

When women enter prostitution, they often decide to change their names and identities in order to distance themselves from the persona they will embody at work. Kathleen Barry sees estrangement as a coping mechanism for women in prostitution who need to separate themselves from the character they play. Barry also argues that sex workers emotionally disengage by “dissociating from the commodity exchange in which their bodies and sexuality are involved.” As marketing sex may lead to sexual objectification, dehumanization, and self harm, some sex workers impose very strict rules, times, prices, and acceptable sexual practices in order to give them more control over their work.

In a 2019 article on sex workers’ psychological health (La santé psychique des travailleuses du sexe) published by the magazine “Diagonales”, journalist Chloe Veuthey states that the stigmatization of sex work may be detrimental to sex workers’ mental health. If society considers this job as immoral and unacceptable, sex workers will experience this in a denigrating way. Also, stigmatization prevents women from talking freely about a bad day at work or other everyday problems. Due to forced mobility and increased reliance on the internet, sex workers are becoming more isolated from their support systems. If some of them do experience the work in a very positive way, others suffer from stress, burn out, or depression and exhibit signs of PTSD. Due to insufficient health coverage, lack of time, or other responsibilities, it remains difficult for sex workers to seek therapy.

The role of SOS Femmes

According to Martina Tarla, “SOS Femmes helps sex workers find another job and provides them with supports so that they are less affected by discrimination and stigmatization. We can also help them extricate from harmful and dangerous living conditions quite common in the sex industry, where they may often be victims of physical, economic and psychological abuse. The association offers social and professional expertise to anyone wanting to leave prostitution.We provide advice on health insurance, career opportunities and administrative procedures. Their counselling can be adapted to those needing long-term support or simply to those seeking advice.”

Tarla continues, “If a woman decides to leave prostitution and for instance wants to become a care provider for old people, we first offer her a skills assessment and talk about possible training options. This is a long-term process and the goal is that women take the lead in regard to their future. If a woman does not have the required fund in order to complete her training, the association may turn to major foundations for funding. Also, we help women build their case, write resumes and cover letters and prepare important documents such as bank statements. Sex workers have a multitude of skills and knowledge and it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint them. [For instance, sex workers are sociable, professional, people oriented, can easily adapt to new situations and have the ability to negotiate with clients.] The aim is to highlight these skills and to translate them into another context. Talking freely about this occupation is a way to destigmatize it, making it seem like any other job.”

Reinsertion: Improving sex workers’ living conditions

Boulevard is a mobile association which visits different areas of Geneva and offers sex workers a place to talk and have a coffee three nights a week. They can meet with social workers or a registered nurse, share experiences and get information on sexually transmitted diseases.

These are the kinds of initiatives which both acknowledge and help sex workers in their daily lives. Although sex work is legal in Geneva, the unacceptability in many work environments of listing sex work on a resume underscores society’s reluctance to consider this a job like any other. Morefree career training should be made available to sex workers leaving prostitution, and the reinsertion process should be simplified. A program could be created which enables former sex workers to find a job they like within three months after quitting their former line of work.

Moreover, additional support groups should be created for sex workers to share their experiences in an anonymous way. Free therapy sessions should also be made available for sex workers on an as-needed basis.

Featured Image: By Alf IgelHamburg – Sankt Pauli” via Flickr

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.

Sarah Haddjeri
Sarah is a graduate student in Political Science and Public and International Affairs with the Institute of Political Studies (Strasbourg) and York University (Toronto). This year she enrolled in an interdisciplinary program in Aix-Marseille university. She will be an intern at UN Women, in Geneva, from April to September 2019.