Sweden’s government has often led the way in progressive social justice legislation, but not with anti-prostitution laws. On the surface these policies may seem progressive. After all, they break through the double-standard in which sex workers (who are largely women) are more likely to be arrested than clients (who are largely men). The legislation criminalizes the clients, but not the sex workers. So what’s wrong with this legislation?
If gender double-standards were the only problem with anti-prostitution laws, then there would be nothing wrong. However, there’s a lot more wrong with anti-prostitution laws and it’s important to look beyond the surface.
Sweden’s anti-prostitution policies have received praise from various anti-sex work feminists, politicians, and others. Yet, various Swedish sex workers have expressed very different feelings about this legislation. Rather than just jumping on the bandwagon in support of the Swedish model, Petra Ostergren spoke with Swedish sex workers about this and listened to their concerns. Despite the fact that this legislation was “supposed” to protect them, Swedish sex workers reported the opposite. They reported that their work became more dangerous after this legislation passed and that they have less agency and control over their working conditions. For example, they reported a higher percentage of clients demanding unsafe sex acts and less agency to turn down such clients. Sex workers also reported that criminalizing the clients hindered their ability to screen them, thus further jeopardizing the sex workers’ safety. Here’s a link to Ostergren’s report: http://petraostergren.com/pages.aspx?r_id=40716
Additionally and relatedly, this legislation is very pateralistic, so it’s interesting that some people who identify as feminists would support it. It totally infantalizes women in prostitution, treating us like we’re all incapable of making decisions for what we do with our own bodies. This is very disappointing, especially from a country’s that’s often so progressive. I would expect better from the Swedish government.
This is exemplifies how paternalistic legislation under the guise of protecting women further endangers us. (I’m not Swedish, but use the term “us” because I’m a woman and a sex worker). I realize that not all sex workers are women, but I use the term “women” because the language in the legislation targets women in prostitution as victims, without recognizing the multiple realities that exist in prostitution and how legislation such as this increases the likelihood of victimization. Though I don’t like to impose the victim label onto sex workers, various Swedish sex workers seem to feel that the legislation victimizes them more than sex work does.
The anti-criminalization of consensual sex acts whether for free or for payment is the way to go. The abuses and violence that sometimes occur inside and outside of prostitution would still be illegal. To criminalize somebody just for paying for sex makes as little sense as criminalizing somebody just for having sex for free. Though this may seem overly simplistic, it is this simple when we look at anti-prostitution laws. Just like I find it problematic to overly simplify complex concepts, I also find it problematic to make concepts more complicated than they need to be. Though there are a lot of complexities in prostitution, legally speaking, the only thing that differentiates prostitution from non prostitution is the exchange of payment for sex.
Here’s additional info. about the Swedish model:
So, if you think the Swedish model is progressive, think again…