Prostitution, Migration, and Urban Territory

June 6, 2011

Charlotte Malterre Barthes from OMNIBUS with Valentina Genini explore the relationship between prostitution, migration and urban territory using Zurich as a case study, a city with one of the highest ratio of number of prostitutes per capita of industrialized countries.


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Militär-/Langstrasse, Zürich: St.Pauli-Bar. © Flickr user Dom Dada.

The ambivalent attitude of the police towards prostitution, alternating tolerance and persecution, is a response to the ambivalence of society as a whole to the phenomenon of prostitution.
—Ashworth, White, Winchester, “The red-light district in the west European city: a neglected aspect of the urban landscape.”

Prostitution is generally and traditionally defined as an exchange of sexual services for money or material remuneration.1 However, according to Marxist theory, it is more than that, because of the notion of power over one person’s body by another. “Sex work”2 exerts individually a right of command over another’s person for a time: domination. Control over bodies might be the main goal of all societies and is, over women bodies, fundamental.3 Doubtfully, it is no overstatement to extend this projection to the urban space and the desire of control exerted by authorities over prostitution. Domination, particularly in terms of space, is conflict generating. When street-practiced or in reserved districts de facto visible, prostitution is often attached to general degradation of life quality and stigmatization of areas, as dirty, dangerous and depraved. The conflict between prostitution and the urban space relates to the sexualization of the city and the production of moral geographies, and to the consequent migrations.4

To opt for Zurich as case study allows recognizance of migrations in the city as a concrete paradigm while today, prostitution phenomenon is on the rise. Clients are estimated in the whole country between 200,000 and 280,000 per month, approximately 10 to 15% of the country male population between 20 and 65 years old.5 The lack of restrictions, combined with the country’s wealth, has pushed the number of prostitutes per capita in Zurich to one of the highest ratio of industrialized countries. Based on police figures,6 Zurich has about 11 prostitutes per 1,000 people, similar to the rate of Amsterdam, known for its sex trade. With the assumption that the more explicit and visible prostitution is, the more it sexualizes the space it occupies and the deepest the conflict it generates, a relation is to be established between mobility and visibility of prostitution.

Prostitution in urban territories: Sexualizing the city

Prostitution signals the presence of sex in the urban space. The city is sexualized and organizes human sexual relations in a Manichean way to perpetuate distinctions between “good” and “bad” sexual identities.7 Namely, socio-spatial practices encourage people to adopt heterosexual identities without them being conscious of it. Only confronted by “abnormal” different manifestations of sexuality (prostitution, homosexuality, hard core pornography, etc…) do they come to question their own sexual evidence. Hence prostitutes constitute a key sexual identity about the limits of “heterosexuality.” Prostitutes are symbolic of “sexifying” heterosexuality, thus being banned from clean realms of heterosexual citizenships.8

Prostitution occurs in a variety of settings. In street prostitution, the prostitute solicits customers while waiting at street corners or walking alongside a street, visible but possibly only at a certain time during the day. Prostitution also takes place in some massage parlors, identified as such. Where prostitution is more out in the open, solicitation is done at bars. Brothels or sex clubs are establishments specifically dedicated to prostitution, occasionally red-lighted at night. Prostitution can also take place at the prostitute’s apartment or in a rented room when solicitation of costumers is done from behind windows or through advertising. In escort or out-call prostitution, the customer calls an agency and the act takes place at the customer’s place of residence or more commonly at his hotel room, thus reducing direct visibility.

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Forms of prostitution. © OMNIBUS.

Hypothetically, because visible prostitution sexualizes its pertained space, a connection can be recognized between mobility and visibility of prostitution. A recognized, legalized business such as a brothel implies certain spatial inertia, due to reputation and tolerance. But visibility is here delimited by a building facade. On the other hand, with a much more explicit exposition, with visible prostitutes and clients, thus much more “sexualized,” street prostitution is constantly stigmatized and extremely mobile. Thus, the question of visibility is central to the spatial aspect, as it sexualizes the city and directly influences morality and therefore movements of prostitution (migrations), a paradigm that could be labeled as a conflict.

Spatial morality and migration: the creation of spatialized moral order by state and law

As the ordering of urban space plays a crucial role in producing and reproducing sexual identities that accord to notions of being “a good citizen” in western societies, law is a key element to spatial morality.

Law is one of the most powerful means used by society to control behavior.9 Jurisdiction seeks to regulate and control prostitution expressing a moral condemnation of it as well as supposedly offering some degree of “protection” to those engaged with it. Clearly, on the legal aspect, cities and governments (and to a certain extent, civil society) have an impact on where and how prostitution should be practiced,10 if legal or not, if tolerated or not, and how this relates to its migrations. Therefore, contemporary vice laws are crucial to geographies of prostitution. Moral control and spatial ordering generate a spatialized moral order.

Regulation of “sex work” often relies on the strategic containment of prostitution in sites where it can be subjected to regimes of surveillance by state and law as by social society. Legal codes, norms and understanding vary from locale to locale.11 It seems that some forms of prostitution are more tolerated than others; prostitutes working the streets are seen as less acceptable than off-street prostitutes who conduct their affairs in the private realm, presumably on the basis that the presence of prostitutes in the urban space might indicate the state’s tacit approval of “sex work.” Namely, law regulates activities that offend public order and decency and expose the citizen to what’s allegedly offensive and injurious.12 One must concede that jurisdiction concentrates on the “good” citizen and doesn’t necessarily consider populations involved in prostitution, a classic double-standard position.

Another regulation of “sex work” consists of banning prostitution from city centers and can be related to authority’s desire to “clean” the urban core. Typically, the phenomenon of “out casting” and peripheralization addresses questions of “mapping out” specific sites of the body and the city. This means to send away a certain form of prostitution composed of lower classes (fragile/visible/troublesome) and keeping the high-range prostitution “needed” as sex outlets for business centers.

Current vice laws are difficult to summarize, as they embrace contradictory notions of sexual rights of individuals, gendered space, morality, economy, etc… However, moral control and spatial ordering, as well as mobility and human factors, make spatial order a key element to migrations and locations of prostitution in urban space while underlining the pernicious conflict between “visible” sex-trade and the city.

Prostitution, migration, urban territory: case study Zurich
Migrations of prostitution in Zurich: a brief historical overview

Zurich, as urban centre, has a history of prostitution.13 Spatially, in the nineteenth century, the business of prostitution was mainly concentrated in the Niederdorf, as 9 of the registered tolerated bordellos were located there. The Niederdorf was an area of leisure, packed with drinking houses, bars, informal business and cabarets, enjoying a regional and extra-regional reputation. Women who were to sell themselves moved to the Niederdorf, where the chances were better to find clients. Located a bit offside from the new commercial area Bahnhofstrasse, away from high traffic streets but close to the city centre and the Railway station, accessibility was high and lead to a considerable increase of frequentation. In the Köngengasse and the Weingasse, the density of bordellos was relatively high, two of the five houses of the Köngengasse were brothels or such, like the Hotel Krone.

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Prostitution in Zurich through time: Spatial distribution—Today. © OMNIBUS.

The Hottingen district was ostensibly quieter, where Eidenmattstrasse and Kreuzbühlstrasse ‘First-class’ establishments were. They profited directly from the neighborhood of the Variétés theaters “Corso” and “Pfauen,” just as the theaters could benefit from the bordellos as extension of their entertainment areas. The Culmannsttrasse brothel was situated a bit away from the city centre. Close to the ETH and University, it was visited by students and professors. The Aussersihl brothel was characterized otherwise. It was located in the Zollstrasse, a nearby street of the railway station, a low-rent area with a poorer population. Most of its clients were workers, soldiers and young recruits at duty in the close-by Kaserne.

In a word, prostitution businesses at the time were located around multifunctional leisure areas such as Niederdorf, close to obvious business poles like the Kaserne or theaters, near communication nodes such as the railway station.

At the end of the ninetweenth century, gold times were over. Brothel owners tended to give away the business quickly, pressured by authorities. Concurrence was harder, and brothels started using advertising methods, girls standing barely dressed at windows and doors of the houses and typical red-lights were installed. Since most establishments were in the vicinity of residential houses, grievance from inhabitants was considerable, a criticism that was to be addressed repeatedly through time. Complaints concerned the behavior of the girls, loud music, dancing and general activity buzz. Brothels became objects of popular resentment. Unexpected razzias and police investigations were increasing, which upset clients. Harsh controls and consequent busts and prison sentences deteriorated the commerce. Civil society grievance got considerable, as did pressure from morality groups. Finally, in 1897, many bordellos of the city were closed down by authorities and prostitution was officially forbidden. Almost immediately, illegal establishments came out. Drinking-halls, cabarets, bars and pubs soon took over and offered alcohol and sex at all price range. Between 1893 and 1900, one could find 300 various businesses with a parallel function as bordellos.

These were located again in the Niederdorf and in the Aussersihl around Langstrasse. Those areas seemed predestined for prostitution business, both being densely packed with beer halls and small hotels. The back rooms of cigar shops and postcard stores functioned as cover for prostitution. In 1913, thirty-four cigar shops were registered, and often prostitutes owned the shop themselves. By December 1913, this undercover business was closed by official judgement. In general, the massive prostitute population in the streets and places, in cafés, restaurants, Music-halls, Variétés and theaters, from elegant ladies (demimondaines) at the “Corso,” winking young girls on Bürkliplatz and poorly-dressed street-prostitutes on Limmatquai, in the streets and bars of Niederdorf or installed in the Aussersihl, confirmed a spatially-extended and mobile activity of prostitution in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Prostitution activity declined and leapt into clandestinity as moral pressure of both war time and post-war were not favorable to legalization. However, typically, Langstrasse, Niederdorf and its extension Seefeld14 were stigmatized as prostitution areas throughout the 50s and 60s. As the 1973 oil crisis happened, the working immigrant population was sent home as the inland work market deteriorated. Consequently, a void in the housing area formerly rented by this population was produced, namely in the 4th District-Langstrasse. Prices of rents were decreasing and the milieu took over, as authorities’ control was low. At the end of the 80s, lax drug policy created the so-called tolerated ‘open scenes,’ draining drug-addicted prostitution activity around the railway-station, Letten and Limmatplatz. After having given up on hopes that a policy of tolerance would lead to self-regulation and containment, those areas were police-cleared in 1995.15 Activity of ealing and prostitution deported themselves to Langstrasse.

Switzerland legalized prostitution in 1992, and in 1998 the first legal brothel, called “Petite Fleur” (Small Flower) re-opened in Zurich. Street prostitution remains illegal. The city authorities issued in 1991 a “Strichplan”16 that identifies 14 street portions dedicated to streetwalkers where they are allowed to propose sexual services from 7 PM to 5 AM. Contravening is penalized by up to 500 CHF fines.17 Apparently, police forces are outnumbered and cannot guarantee the respect of this “Strichplan.”18 Langstrasse and Niederdorf, even though both were recognized as prostitution areas, do not appear on the map.

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Strichplan, 1991. © City of Zurich.

Beautification and migration tendencies

When the project “Langstrasse PLUS”19 was launched in 2001, it was in response to the organized outcry of local residents and merchants concerned about the growth of street sex trade in the Langstrasse area. With the declared goal to achieve a better life quality and a safer environment for its inhabitants, the instruments concerned legislation as well as real estate management, with a constant promotion through advertising campaigns. To cut down the sex-trade establishments, the city established the policy of buying pieces of real estate and restructured them with offices, trendy bars and standard flats. This has re-valued the area, chasing out some of sex-trade related businesses, although there are still some 250 brothels or such in the district.20 Street prostitution is not tolerated in most of the area. In practice, this program intensified the repression of outdoor sex markets, thus redirection some customers to the indoor sector, a move facilitated by online technologies. In fact, many of the women who had been working on the streets got cell phones and headed for sex-clubs.

This can partly explain the phenomena of the migration of prostitution toward the periphery of Zurich. Those sex-clubs are now established in the suburban areas of the city.21 Dispersed in the outskirt villages, housed in quiet residential neighborhoods, these types of services are strongly internet-based, and display on their website to potential clients the location of the club, how to reach it, types of proposed services and pictures of the prostitutes. Graphic codes used in those web pages are very colorful and catchy, attempting to draw attention.

Basically, the Internet advertises those clubs on a private platform that replaces the public platform with which they cannot physically advertise. In fact, spatially, those suburban brothels sport a quiet, common, innocent appearance of family houses and office buildings. They only become identifiable at night when their character is red-neon-proclaimed. This semi-anonymity might be partly due to the increase of communication and mobility that leads to separate places of contact and places of transaction, thus reducing the need of visible display. It might also be the wish to be mapped out from moral geography in order to avoid stigmatization and reaction of the local authorities. The hole in the cantonal regulations those clubs are exploiting might be filled as soon as civil society once again complains.


Through time, the migration of prostitution in Zurich has been drawn by different tendencies. Certainly, poles of business, such as theaters or caserns were at a time crucial, whereas communication nodes and axis became more and more attractive for prostitution business as mobility has been expanding. Nevertheless, the inertia of persistent entertainment areas is high, as one can see with the case of the Niederdorf, being identified with the sex trade for more than a hundred years.

However, two opposite tendencies could be observed in the phenomena of the migration of prostitution: on one hand, the increase of communication and of client mobility, together with beautification programs lead by the authorities, partially caused a peripheralization of prostitution, especially towards the northwestern areas of the city, the airport area and the Glattbrugg neighborhood, out of range of municipal jurisdiction. Certainly, officials are concerned that this migration from city to periphery may head even further towards remote locations being dangerously isolated for women involved in prostitution. But the fact that part of the sex-trade is out of cities and out of citizen’s view is without doubt satisfying for the Zurich municipality.

On the other hand, authorities still seem to favor centralized, defined and tolerated “sacrificed” red-light districts such as Langstrasse in order to be able to operate control, as well as to maintain a certain offer of sex-outlets in the city. Therefore, credits allocated to programs are voluntary limited or so it seems.22 Beautification strategies might as well function as demagogic tools to quieten down public opinion.23

Officials’ contradictory and ambivalent positions typically demonstrate the complexity of the topography of prostitution. Scarcity of geographically reliable information in addition to the factors’ intricacy makes it indeed difficult to issue ultimate conclusions on this changing matter. Nevertheless, one can stress that migrations of this activity in urban space are inter-dependant of laws and moral control, tolerance issues, accessibility factors and spatial ordering. As all of those elements are subject to vary, prostitution adjusts through migration, migrations that illustrate the conflicted relation between sex and the urban space.


This article was initiated in 2008 in the frame of the Seminar “Urban Mutations on the Edge” with Prof. Marc Angélil, and Deane Simpson at the ETH (Swiss Institute of Technology).

1 Pateman C., The Sexual Contract2. The term of “sex work” used by officials such as the World Health Organization acknowledge the idea that prostitution is a work like any other. Certainly, those being forced to prostitution by violent means can not be enclosed in this term. The International Organization for Migration estimates 500 000 women trafficked to the EU states (1995).
2 Considering this, the term of “sex work” will be bracketed in this text.
3 This work concentrates mainly on female prostitution, as prevalent phenomenon.
4 Ashworth, G.,White, P. & Winchester, H. “The red-light district in the west European city: a neglected aspect of the urban landscape,” Geoforum 19 (1988), 201–12.
5 Fondation Scelles. (07-06-2006). La prostitution en Europe, une activité en constante mutation.
6 Allen Matthew, “Police crack down on east European prostitutes,” (June 14, 2007).
7 Philip Hubbard, Sex and the city: Geographies of Prostitution in the Urban West, (Aldershot: Ashgate Publisher, 1999).
8 Nast, Heidi, Pile, Steve. Places Through the Body (London; Routledge, 1998).
9 Karras, R. M., Common women: prostitution and sexuality in medieval England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).
10 See in annex: Zürich strichplan.
11 Pue, W.W. “Wrestling with the law: (geographical) specificity vs. (legal) abstraction,” Urban Geography 11 (1990), 4: 566-585.
12 Wolfenden Report, Homosexual offences and prostitutes (London: HMSO, 1957).
13 Sarasin Philipp, Bochsler Regula, Kury Patrick, exhibition catalogue Wertes Fräulein, was kosten Sie? – Prostitution in Zürich 1875–1925 (2004), Baden, ed. Hier+Jetzt.
14 (11. December 2006). Urs Ledermann – der Vermieter des Seefelds. Neue Zürcher Zeitung.
15 Cowell Alan, “Zurich’s Open Drug Policy Goes Into Withdrawal,” The New York Times (March 12, 1995).
16 See document in next page.
17 Vorschriften über die Strassenprostitution. Stadtratsbeschluss vom 17. Juli 1991 (2204)1 mit Änderungen bis 14. Mai 2003 Gestützt auf § 74 des Gemeindegesetzes.
18 Interview with Rolf Vieli, in charge of the “Langstrasse PLUS” project at the Zurich City Police, 10-05-2008.
19 Stadt Zürich. (2001). Langstrasse PLUS. Available: Last accessed June 21, 2008.
20 Keller Monique, “Langstrasse à Zurich, ou la mutation du quartier chaud en quartier bobo,” La Tribune de Genève, (June 10, 2008).
21 Some are located in the wealthiest areas of the very center, like club Aphrodisia, near the Neue Börse.
22 Switzerland possesses a precise urbanism code, with each city defining what kind of business is allowed to open where. However, fighting against sex-establishments is a difficult task for authorities. Businesses open since longer than 10 or 15 years are nearly impossible to chase away. As for new ones, when a business solicits an opening permit, it is often not clearly stated what it will be (cabarets are typically not supposed to be sex-establishments)-Interview with Rolf Vieli, in charge of the “Langstrasse PLUS” project at the Zurich City Police, 10-05-2008.
23 Landolt Christoph, “Prostituierten-Rekord auf dem Silhquai,” Tages Anzeiger (April 21, 2011).