Article | Sexköpslagen: Against the Swedish Model

Originally published in The ISIS, the longest-running student magazine in the world created by students at the University of Oxford.

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The Rose Alliance, a Swedish union of sex workers, posted the following message on 12 July 2013:

“Our board member, fierce activist and friend Petite Jasmine got brutally murdered yesterday. Several years ago she lost custody of her children as she was considered to be an unfit parent due to being a sex worker. The children were placed with their father regardless of him being abusive towards Jasmine. They told her she didn’t know what was good for her and that she was “romanticising” prostitution, they said she lacked insight and didn’t realise sex work was a form of self-harm. He threatened and stalked her on numerous occasions; she was never offered any protection. She fought the system through four trials and had finally started seeing her children again. Yesterday the father of her children killed her.”

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Twelve years earlier, Sweden introduced the Sex Purchase Act in 1999, a pioneering approach to sex work that placed criminal blame on the purchaser, not the provider of sex; on the client, not the prostitute. While prostitution was legalised, any form of coercion or commercial exploitation remained illegal.

The Swedish model was the culmination of radical feminist thought. Susanne Dodillet and Petra Östergren in their paper The Swedish Sex Purchase Act: Claimed Success and Documented Effects (2011), provide the following clarification: “The Sex Purchase Act was introduced by feminist policymakers who argued that prostitution is a form of male violence against women, […and] that there are no women who sell sex voluntarily. Furthermore, it was claimed that if one wants to achieve a gender-equal society, then prostitution must cease to exist […] because all women in society are harmed as long as men think they can ‘buy women’s bodies.’”

The model was intended for export. Norway and Iceland have both introduced the Swedish model in full. France has just passed a similar bill at its first vote. Mary Honeyball, MEP for London, is pressing for the same system in the UK.

Sweden has hailed the model a success. The Skarhed report (2011) by Anna Skarhed, the Chancellor of Justice, drew the following conclusions from her analysis: “1) For the period 1998-2008, levels of street prostitution in Sweden have fallen by half; 2) Surveys show that there is both increased public support for a ban and a declining number of men who admit to having purchased sex.”

At grassroots level, Simon Haggstrom, an officer in the prostitution unit of Stockholm police, told the Guardian that “the number of prostitutes has dramatically decreased since the law was introduced, from 2,500 across Sweden in 1998 to about 1,000 today.”

Global equality movements also celebrate the success of the Swedish model. Equality Now’s pamphlet What is the ‘Nordic’ Model is unequivocal in its support: “Sweden has become an undesirable destination for sex traffickers. In addition, the new law has influenced attitudes regarding the purchase of sex: from 1996 (before the law) until 2008, the number of male sex buyers decreased from 13.6% to 7.9% [of the population].”

Official governmental reports, the police force, and global equality movements are unequivocal: the Swedish model is a success.

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The picture painted above, however, is one that only coheres from a distance, under the coercion of a phenomenal propaganda machine. Upon examination, the paint cracks, and serious methodological and ideological problems present themselves.

The figures so keenly proffered by radical feminists, the police, and Equality Now, are drawn from reports that academics, sex work organisations, and policy groups have taken serious issue with. The figures cited above regarding the reduction in prostitution too rarely admit the limitations of focussing on street prostitution. They provide almost no information about the estimated 50% of sex workers working “indoors”, or the revolution in sex work self-advertising and client procurement engendered by mobile technology and the internet. Or, in fact, into what line of work these “saved” women have gone.

Furthermore, their exclusive focus on cis-female prostitutes ignore the existence of trans* and cis-male sex workers present in Sweden and across the world. Both groups are disproportionately affected by sexually transmitted infections, particularly HIV, and both groups face community-specific issues. Questions of gender disclosure and resulting violence plague the trans* community, just as invisibility and a dearth of social services and rehabilitation programmes for men fail the latter.

The Rose Alliance argues, from its members’ own experiences, that sex workers feel harassed by the police, alienated by the state, and impeded from access to social services under the Swedish Model. As Pye Jakobsson, co-founder of the Rose Alliance, told the Guardian, “You can’t talk about protecting sex workers as well as saying the law is good, because it’s driving prostitution and trafficking underground, which reduces social services’ access to victims.”

Qualitative and quantitative issues are further complicated by clear political bias in many surveys. The Skarhed report, cited above, never sought to interrogate the Swedish Model beyond ultimately self-consolidating half-appraisal; it admits that “one starting point of our work has been that the purchase of sexual services is to remain criminalized.” Jonas Trolle, a police officer, proudly claims “it is impossible to run a brothel in Sweden.” And yet the number of massage parlours in Stockholm (the majority of which are considered to be selling sex) has trebled in recent years.

And in the English summary of the Kuosmanen report, often cited as a key source showing that public opinion amongst men has become less favourable to the idea of buying sex, the author’s immediate reservations over the validity of the conclusion (due to an abysmally low response rate) are absent, left untranslated, deceitfully omitted. May-Len Skilbrei and Charlotta Holmström note that while this report “indicate[s] great support for the law, the same material also shows a rather strong support for a criminalisation of sex sellers.” In fact, the majority of Swedes are still for this traditional abolitionist legislature.

sex work is work

Imperfect methodologies, ambiguous statistics, political bias and gulfs between rhetoric and actuality effectively nullify much of what is depicted as factual evidence of the Swedish Model’s success.

But beyond statistical ambiguity and incoherence, the nominally left-wing and “radical” feminist philosophy behind the law is equally problematic, as is the use of legislation to approach complex social issues.

Morgane Merteuil, general secretary of the Sex Worker’s Union (STRASS), notes an interesting phenomenon in the feminist Left’s approach to the sex work debate. She argues that with all other trades the Left “[tries] to speak WITH them not FOR them”, continuing, “you do not pretend to know better than them what is best for them: you support their demands.” Evidently, the thinking behind the Swedish model is the clear exception to this rule.

The Department for Social Work at the University of Gothenberg highlights a similar issue: “[assumed victimhood] is not consistent with the ambition of empowerment that contemporary social work perceives as an important platform for its work. To unilaterally proclaim someone as an exploited victim or needy belongs to the so called paternalistic tradition where the experts have power to define the clients.”

Merteuil goes further, arguing that sex work is no worse than any other profession in capitalist systems which inevitably rely on exploitation: “We choose to exploit ourselves, to only use our OWN body to work. Because it is our own body that we exploit, its exploitation is not necessarily worse, but more visible than in other industries where a whole decor is there to make us forget that, in the end, it is always our bodies that are exploited—or even, I would add, the bodies of multiple others.”

In fact, any criminalising legislation is problematic. Sex work is phenomenally heterogeneous: a blunt instrument such as criminalisation (of whichever party) will never be nuanced enough to satisfy the demands of those affected; it will never be complex enough to respond to such a complex phenomenon.

© LEE JIN-MAN / AP South Korean sex workers protest the closing of their brothels.
© LEE JIN-MAN / AP
South Korean sex workers protest the closing of their brothels.

While sex workers cannot be directly hounded by the legislative specifics of the Swedish model, they are still targeted by a range of other Swedish laws. If a sex worker in Sweden is foreign, the police can use the Aliens Act of 2005 to take them into custody and file for their deportation. If under 18, they can use the Care of the Young Persons Act of 1990 to discipline those in the trade, although under the “socially destructive behaviour” clause, those under 21, therefore, even those of a consenting age.

The sex worker is still harassed, still alienated. The money that has been pumped into social services—the best method of helping those who do not wish to work in the profession—is therefore being inefficiently spent. Their access to social services is still restricted because criminality, even if displaced, still makes them the enemy, the victim of the state, not simply the client.

Petite Jasmine’s mother will have the final word: “I know who held the knife, but [the state] might as well have put it in his hands.”

The Swedish model is ridden with questionable ideology, dubious aims, and unsound methods. The situation it creates for sex workers differs little from traditional abolitionism.

Complete legalisation presents its own problems, but only by according sex workers the autonomy they campaign for can these issues can be dealt with by those best placed to do so. They know their rights. They know where traffickers are active. They understand the abuses present in their profession. Maybe then oldest profession in the world will, at last, no longer necessarily mean physical danger for those involved.

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The article in its original format can be read here.

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