Rebecca WyssEditor society / magazine
Peter Widmer’s search begins where many women lose themselves. And hopes die. On Zurich’s Langstrasse. In the red light district. In front of the Sonne restaurant, where at night men pat the buttocks of prostitutes over beer and Schnipo to the rhythm of luscious live music. Now, during the day, a flame flickers on the ground: a grave candle. Inconspicuous, but Widmer’s gaze wanders down immediately, not seeing it for the first time, says: “Maybe a prostitute committed suicide.” And moves on. Draws its circles in the «Kreis Cheib». That’s his job.
Peter Widmer (54), massive silver ring with a lion’s head, button-sized rhinestone stud earrings, Versace-style satin shirt, looks like the men who lure women into the sex trade. But he does the opposite. Widmer helps them get out. As a street worker. He and his wife founded the non-profit NGO Heartwings 15 years ago, based on Langstrasse. Thanks to her, around ten women find their way out of prostitution every year. A tiring job. tedious. But, says Widmer, that’s important to him and his six employees: “We don’t give up any women.”
Peter Widmer, founder of Heartwings.
Now, in the alley, he wants to find the one who stood before him days before, cheeks wet with tears, trembling, feverish. A Nigerian. He turns into a passage, on the right a sex cinema, on the left a woman in skin-tight jeans and a muscle man disappear behind a door. Around the corner, two cross-legged trans women in boots almost waist-deep nod to him, sipping tea, waiting for clients.
Getting out means failing again and again
He stops in front of a tearoom in a side street. The woman behind the counter is Romanian, in her early twenties, and has recently moved to Switzerland. Widmer looks at the large biscuits in the display case and buys a handful of amaretti. Puts them in the bag with the toiletries he wants to give the Nigerian woman. That helps to gain trust on the street, he says. And turns to the Romanian in English: “Take care of yourself.” His concern: the owner could suddenly terminate her contract and offer her a job in the red-light district as a replacement. He says: “Everything already experienced.”
And then he leaves, lets it be. Widmer says: “We don’t push anyone to do anything.” A woman must want to of her own accord. That’s a start. But no guarantee. “Many fail again and again.” Because they are traumatized and in urgent need of help.
Prostitutes on Langstrasse in Zurich.
We accompanied Peter Widmer for two days. Wanted to know what it takes for a woman to leave prostitution behind – if she wants to. So much in advance: a lot. Getting off is difficult. Also because what Widmer and his team are doing is new territory in Switzerland.
The Heartwings organization mediates debts with offices and authorities, organizes accommodation, distributes second-hand clothes, teaches German, and – in this respect, it is a pioneer: it runs a work integration program, a cleaning company for former prostitutes. Six women are currently cleaning for private individuals at market wages. Heartwings teaches them, accompanies them. The goal: They should gain a foothold again, also in their home countries. Five women went on to find jobs last year, according to Heartwings.
There is no textbook for exit assistance. Heartwings developed one themselves. Had to. Slightly more than a handful of NGOs support prostitutes to exit. They are mostly small, Christian in character, almost all dependent on donations. The state stays out, leaves them alone. Why – Switzerland’s relationship to sex work sheds light on this. More specifically: our liberal legislation.
Prostitution is legal, as is pimping – as long as the pimp does not put pressure on a woman who wants to leave. Sex work is considered to be work like any other job that requires a work permit, AHV, taxes. It is not necessary to get out – that is the attitude. It’s different abroad, where prostitution is usually much more strictly regulated. In Sweden, for example, the “Nordic model” applies: clients and pimps are punished, prostitutes are not. The thought behind it: Sex work is violence against women. That is why the state finances and promotes a network of exit aids. The goal: to catch the women.
Carla actually wanted to be an actress
Carla (50), a South American woman, has been in free fall for as long as she has been making money with sex in Switzerland: more than two decades. Today she is an alumni. A dropout. Thanks Heartwings. We meet her in front of the Langstrassen house, where she used to rent a brothel for 800 francs a week. She says: “Most women want to stop buying.” But: “You don’t have the strength.”
Made the exit after more than two decades: Carla.
Carla didn’t have one for a long time either. Because of her Swiss ex-boyfriend from the milieu, who promised her everything – and took everything, her money, her dignity and almost her life. Because of him, she now hides her hair under a headscarf and hurriedly pulls the piece of cloth over her face when an acquaintance from earlier said “Hoi” in passing. Carla is scared, but she keeps going. I don’t want to be silent anymore. Wants to talk, “talking makes me free,” she says. And she wants to be a voice for all the women who don’t have any else. And she says: “No woman is born to be a prostitute.”
Carla once had other dreams. So slipped into business. An acquaintance back home promised her and a friend a dream job in Spain: as an actress. A deception. In Spain, the traffickers put the women in an apartment building with prostitutes, from where they drove them to the sex clubs in minibuses every evening. There they had to feel a debit: ten suitors. Otherwise they were threatened with death, she says. Carla comes from a small village, didn’t even know what vaginal cream was at the time, says: “During the first two weeks I was in survival mode.” Her friend was even worse. At night Carla wrapped her arms around her in bed, held her tight. For fear that she will get up and jump out the window. With the help of an acquaintance, the women were able to flee after four months – to Switzerland.
These are the dreams of the prostitutes who came to Heartwings for help.
love, blackmail and violence
Stories like these lie dormant in thousands of women. This is illustrated in the book “Piff, Paff, Puff” by Aline Wüst. The journalist spent two years in the sex milieus of Switzerland. Her research shows that up to 95 percent of prostitutes are migrants. Experts suspect forced prostitution for around half.
And that’s the point, that’s why it’s so difficult to get out: the women are stuck. Like butterflies in a spider web. Peter Widmer knows what that means, reaches out and you can hardly keep up with listening, his voice is soft, but his speaking rhythm is fast, urgent, just like what he says: “You can’t meet a woman overnight help out of prostitution.” That starts with the entry. The women come to one of the most expensive cities in the world with little money or even debts to pimps or traffickers. They often have no training, no apartment of their own, and cannot speak German. What they learned: Making money with sex. They think they’ll only do it for a few months and then have enough money to send it home and get out. Yes, says Widmer: “As soon as you start, they have you.” With rents and taxes, with blackmail and violence.
The perfidious thing about it: The compulsion is usually subtle. Is associated with psychological dependence to a loverboy. The ploy where men charm women, make them girlfriends, and make them buy for love out of love. Carla did that too.
She still remembers what she thought when she first saw her ex-boyfriend, a client, in Zurich: “What a beautiful man.” Tall, blue eyes, smooth skin – “like an angel,” she says. And that’s how he treated her. At first. What she didn’t know was that he was well connected in the milieu and rented brothel rooms at exorbitant prices. And soon began to devalue her, calling her “ugly” and a “shitty woman who nobody else wants but him,” says Carla. She believed him and did everything he asked: she prostituted herself for him. half your life.
Until she met the Widmer couple. Carla met Widmers on Langstrasse, remembers: “You were so nice to me, I didn’t know that.” The encounter was just the beginning. What followed: a long road with relapses.
On the way in a whorehouse
Widmer now has a lead on the Nigerian. We stand with him in a back building with brothels. Eating, sleeping, serving men – the women do all of this in the same room. It’s a coming and going. The atmosphere: like in a battery cage. Only now, in the afternoon, is it quiet, a muffled woman’s voice comes through the door from a room on the fourth floor. The street worker knocks and a woman with curly hair and leggings is standing in front of him, holding her mobile phone. She smiles, hugs Widmer. He found her.
The woman has been through a lot, came from Nigeria to Italy, says: “By boat from Libya, it was dangerous.” She doesn’t want to say more. Except: She feels better, I’m going back to Italy in the evening, but I’ll be back soon. Widmer gives her the bag of hygiene items and says: “It’s better to go back to your children in Nigeria and tell the women what you’ve experienced here.” She puts on a smile, has to go back to her boyfriend, who is waiting on the line.
Now another black woman with a bath towel tied around her waist is standing in a doorway, yawning, rubbing her arms, murmuring: “Cold.” She approaches Widmer and asks if he brought her something nice too. He puts a bundle of gift cards in her hands. She stares at each card for a few seconds as if searching for something, then selects the one with a dove fluttering toward the sun and smiles.
The women work at night and sleep during the day.
Peter Widmer is allowed into the clubs and brothels, even the clients don’t mind him. He is a constant in the milieu. Also because of his actions: zero confrontation. Lots of empathy. And: instinct. Similar to his role model on the street: Pastor Sieber. Widmer used to be a pastor in a free church. The Christian character was once the subject of a critical newspaper article. The accusation: the NGO would proselytize. Peter Widmer shakes his head at this, saying that he is interested in concrete help out of charity. But: “If we were to approach women in a pious way, we wouldn’t have a chance in the milieu.”
The canton supports Heartwings
One thing is certain: the canton of Zurich trusts Heartwings. Otherwise he would not have supported this and two other NGOs with CHF 50,000 each last year. Explicitly for exit aids. For the first time ever. It’s a supplement. And far below what Heartwings spends: just a place in the work integration program costs 60,000 francs per year. Added to this are the costs incurred to run the NGO including the office. It’s a struggle, says Widmer. “At the end of the year we always tremble because the money just barely comes up.”
A look at the second-hand section at Heartwings.
Money, thanks to which Carla could start a new life. After the encounter, the NGO organized an apartment for her, an external apprenticeship as a cleaning specialist and later a job. The sense of achievement increased, as did her self-confidence. But the ex-boyfriend didn’t let go and pulled her back into the milieu. For a few years. She says: “After that I was mentally exhausted.” For the last time. Heartwings helped her back up.
Today Carla lives in another canton. Out in the open. With cows and sheep behind the house. Earns her own money with a job that she enjoys. She says: “That makes me proud.” Also because she “finally finished with the man” and fulfilled an old dream, as she says. As a girl, she always wanted to be a mother of five children. Now she brings her experience to the side of prostitutes who come to Heartwings. Encourage them. She says: “Today I’m a kind of mother for all the women who want to get out.”