No to the "Swedish model"

Submitted by AWL on 17 November, 2020 - 2:46 Author: Apsi Witana
Sex workers' protest

The Scottish Government has launched a consultation on sex work legislation, closing on 10 December.

It follows a battle spearheaded by MSP Ash Denham, the government’s community safety minister, to introduce the criminalisation of the purchase of sex work (the “Nordic model”, or “Swedish model”, also implemented in France and Ireland). Currently in the UK, the purchase and selling of sex is legal, though various associated activities such as street work and workers operating from the same premises are not. National Ugly Mugs (an organisation that provides support and representation for workers seeking justice from dangerous clients) criticised the conflation of trafficking and sex work in Scottish MPs’ report, and highlighted how the threat of deportation for migrants creates vulnerability which in turn fuels trafficking.

On first glance, the concept of criminalising clients may seem a logical choice. Its proponents argue that the “victim” (the sex worker, or as Denham evocatively labels them, “the prostituted woman”) is not penalised and the law targets the perpetrator (the man buying sex). In practice however, sex workers report being criminalised themselves by proxy as well as being subjected to more risk, poverty and violence.

The Norwegian government published some data on Sweden in 2004, after the model was introduced. Workers told of their reliable and trusted clients disappearing due to fear of arrest. Instead they were faced with clients who were fearful of providing screening information, a tool often used by workers to keep them safe. As a result they would be forced to accept riskier clients.

Economic pressure and a reduced client pool also increased a client’s bargaining power — it meant they were now able to haggle for cheaper prices and demand unsafe practices or acts which a worker may have felt the need to accept out of desperation.

Due to the risk for both buyer and seller to be in direct contact with one another, the market opened for third parties and pimps, making it more difficult for police to investigate trafficking cases. Harassment and surveillance by police was also made far easier as police now had the authority to monitor sex workers and their homes under the guise of arresting clients. Landlords were legally allowed to evict sex workers, rendering them homeless.

One particularly damning quote from the head of Sweden’s anti-trafficking unit reveals its intended deterrent effects: “Of course the law has negative consequences for women in prostitution but that’s also some of the effect we want to achieve with the law”.

The desire for a utopia in which the sex industry is eradicated cannot be achieved by a short-sighted legal model which results in the industry being pushed underground and sex workers suffering collateral damage. Similar punitive approaches have backfired in the “war on drugs” and in the huge human cost of criminalising abortion. It is simply not possible to criminalise some things away, especially while continuing what creates and drives these industries — economic hardship and poverty.

Instead, sex workers worldwide demand full decriminalisation, in which all laws surrounding sex work are lifted, leaving workers to retain full labour rights, including the ability to take their employers to court for workplace discrimination, or to seek legal recourse for dangerous clients without the fear of criminal implications for themselves. This position is shared by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and UNAIDS. This model is in place in New Zealand, and crucially was devised with the continual input of sex workers.

There is certainly a discussion to be had on the inherent exploitative nature of sex work and whether it should or will exist in a socialist future, though this cannot be had without analysing all forms of exploitative labour under capitalism.

Sex workers desperately need their voices heard in a climate where many would rather speak on their behalf, and their calls for decriminalisation should not be mischaracterised as “pro” the industry. Instead there needs to be an honest dialogue that sets aside moralism and instead focuses on human rights, protection from violence (including state violence) and the eradication of poverty.

"As we were saying” (2008)

• The comment and debate below is reposted here.


Submitted by Amy (not verified) on Tue, 24/11/2020 - 21:29

"Economic pressure and a reduced client pool also increased a client’s bargaining power — it meant they were now able to haggle for cheaper prices and demand unsafe practices or acts which a worker may have felt the need to accept out of desperation."

Many prostitutes have to deal with this anyway. It sounds like what the Swedish model does is make the minority of high-class prostitutes who have CHOSEN their line of work have to deal with what the vast majority of prostitutes who are already desperate have always had to deal with. Boo hoo. The countless women who are victimized by being coerced or steered this line of work because of misfortune shouldn't have to pay for the tiny minority's choice of preferred profession.

Not to mention, there will always be a call for cheap, unprotected sex, just the way the client likes it. This is the case with ANY commodity. Customers want to pay less and get more. There will always be prostitutes stuck at the bottom of this hierarchy, who's bodies end up being the "low quality" product. Legalizing the entirety of sex work socially destigmatizes men using other human's bodies in this way, and will increase the demand for all prostitution, while legitimizing prostitution as a profession for (mostly) girls to enter. This will also create a greater reason to coerce girls into this line of work . Both the demand and the supply will go up, and pricing will become a competitive market for who can do the most, cheapest.

The Swedish model could definitely be tweaked, for example, to not push eviction onto prostitutes and to better guard against police harassment, but that doesn't mean throwing out the whole caboodle is the right answer.

And this is a crappy analogy: "Similar punitive approaches have backfired in the “war on drugs” and in the huge human cost of criminalising abortion."

"The War on Drugs" HEAVILY penalized, with extensive jail time, the VICTIMS of drug use - those with addictions. Doing drugs was illegal, having drugs on you was illegal, and selling drugs was illegal. Comparing johns to drug purchasers is inaccurate. Drug users/addicts are often victims of society - chemically dependent, emotionally troubled, stuck in the lower castes of society and unable to dig themselves out of the situation they're in.

Are we really going to label Johns (especially those paying for high-priced prostitutes (as we're hoping all prostitutes will be paid well) as "victims of society?" PROSTITUTES on the other hand, often ARE victims. They also frequently use and are addicted to drugs. If you want to compare drug purchasers/users to prostitutes, sure, but then The War on Drugs analogy makes no sense, since The Swedish Model decriminalizes the victim of society - the prostitute.

The abortion analogy is inaccurate for similar reasons. Women having abortions in secret were often the victims of their circumstance. Again - Johns aren't victims.

New Zealand's model hasn't lowered levels of prostitution. The Swedish model has. And there are controversies as to whether NZ's less than great results are even accurate. Things could be worse than reported. Underage prostitution is technically legal, and therefore able to be taken advantage of. There's unforeseen complications, such as in Manukau.

There's no perfect solution, but full legalization isn't anywhere close to it.

Submitted by Apsi (not verified) on Sat, 28/11/2020 - 12:30

In reply to by Amy (not verified)

Amy I think you've misinterpreted a lot here. What I've written does not pertain to protecting clients in any way - their treatment is inconsequential in the fight for sex workers' rights, and calls for decriminalisation (note - decriminalisation, not legalisation) should not be focused on them. I agree with you, clients are not victims nor should they ever be treated as such. Our concerns lie with the knock-on effects of criminalising them, namely violence towards sex workers at the hands of dangerous clients and police.

Your point about 'high-class prostitutes' is sadly the complete opposite of the reality of this law in practice - the few sex workers who support the Nordic model are the 'high-class' workers you speak of who are able to charge far more by creating a niche in an underground market; it is the most marginalised workers who suffer the most under any form of criminalisation. Those who are coerced or pressured into sex work because of financial struggles are criminalised by proxy, fined and charged for brothel-keeping when simply working together for safety and migrant workers face deportation when their working flats are raided.

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