The sex industry is notoriously uncertain and dangerous. Traffickers and violent pimps, abusive johns and police persecution are all factors that make prostitution unsafe.
No matter what you think of exchanging sex for money, it happens all the time around the world. Therefore, sex workers, trafficking survivors, human rights advocates, feminists, researchers, politicians and many others are all campaigning for safer prostitution – though with different approaches. Some argue that criminalizing the sex trade, as in Sweden, will halt demand and lessen human trafficking for prostitution. Others instead call for decriminalization, which has been introduced in New Zealand.
Behind these two positions lie very different ideas about what makes selling sex unsafe for the people involved. Most proponents of the Swedish prostitution law, also known as the Nordic Model, say that prostitution itself is unsafe.
One of them is Taina Bien-Aimé, executive director of the international Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. “Asking me what makes prostitution unsafe is like asking me what makes rape or domestic violence unsafe. We consider prostitution to be both a cause and a consequence of gender-based violence and discrimination.”
Prostitution is traumatizing
That definition is echoed in the Swedish law on the purchase of sex, introduced in 1999 as part of a bill which also deals with other acts of violence that predominantly occur against women, like domestic abuse and rape. Max Waltman from Stockholm University is an expert on the Swedish prostitution law. He explains that Swedish legislators view prostitution not as a moral offence, but rather as a form of male violence against women.
“According to international law, one requirement for prostitution to be regarded as human trafficking is that the person who is bought for sex has no acceptable alternative to prostitution; then they are regarded as being in a position of vulnerability. The majority of people in prostitution are in a position of vulnerability,” Waltman explains.
He refers to a survey of 850 people in prostitution which showed that almost 9 out of 10 wanted to escape, but were unable to. The same study showed that two-thirds of its subjects were suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms on the same level as Vietnam veterans seeking treatment in the United States.
Waltman stresses that people in prostitution have a much higher risk of PTSD than the general population, regardless of whether or not they have had other traumatic experiences such as being abused as a child, being raped, or being addicted to drugs. “So it is the situation of prostitution that causes this post-traumatic stress disorder,” he concludes.
Consent to sex – not rape
Luca Stevenson, from the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe, calls the definition of prostitution as automatically violent “a very, very dangerous view.
“We are consenting to sexual relations with a client for money, but we are not consenting to being raped. If you muddle the two issues, if you say that prostitution is a form of violence, then you are not letting sex workers express how they feel about their work.”
There is no denying that most sex workers are women, adds Niki Adams from the English Collective of Prostitutes, an organization of female sex workers from various areas of the sex industry. “There is a global pattern of women working harder for less money than men. Certainly that’s reflected in the sex industry, but it is just one facet of the sexism that exists in the whole of society. And calling it gendered is different than calling it gendered violence, because we don’t agree that it’s violence.
“For other feminists to label what we do as violence, behaving as if they know what’s good for us better than we do and interpreting our experience for us, is the most horrible anti-feminist sentiment out there, frankly.”
Sweden’s law works
Waltman says that the Swedish approach of penalizing the buyers and decriminalizing the people working in prostitution has reduced prostitution in the country. “And if something reduces prostitution, it reduces human trafficking as well. The majority of women – and men – in prostitution are there because they have no real or acceptable alternative; that makes it trafficking. So our argument is that reducing prostitution reduces trafficking,” he says.
A couple of hundred men are prosecuted (and usually fined) for purchasing sex every year in Sweden. Since 2011, Swedish people in prostitution have had the ability to claim civil damages directly from the offender. Waltman imagines that the same system would work just as well in most parts of the world.
Iceland and Norway adopted prostitution laws similar to Sweden’s in 2008 and 2009 respectively. Several other countries, including Canada, France, Ireland and the UK, have recently sought legal inspiration from the Nordic model as recommended in nonbinding resolutions from the EU Parliament and the Council of Europe.
Dangerous Nordic model
In a new report (in Swedish) about the prostitution laws, the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education, RFSU, says that there is only vague empirical evidence showing a reduction of people in prostitution, and that the law has increased the stigma associated with selling sex.
“I know supporters of the Swedish model say that they are not criminalizing the sex workers themselves, only criminalizing the clients. But we know that in reality it’s the sex workers who are suffering from it,” says Luca Stevenson. “What we need is to build trust between sex workers and the police, and the only way to do that is to decriminalize both clients and sex workers.”
Laura Lee, who works as an escort in the UK and Ireland, is highly concerned that the Nordic model perpetuates stigma. “It drives the trade further underground, and those in the most desperate need of help will refuse to go to the police and report crimes because if they do then they are essentially letting the police know where they work. The police can then target their property – and they do.
“There is no doubt in my mind that decriminalizing the industry is the way forward. To be clear, when we talk about decriminalization, we’re not talking about a massive all-singing-all-dancing Nevada-style ranch. We’re talking about middle-aged women in an apartment,” she says.
While Max Waltman insists that there is no evidence that the Swedish law has made prostitution more dangerous, Niki Adams maintains that there is no evidence that it has reduced violence either. “The only way that they can claim that [violence has been reduced] is by not listening to sex workers who say that stigma and discrimination have increased,” she says.
Decriminalization for safety
Opponents of the Swedish law often recommend that we look to New Zealand for inspiration instead. There, sex work has been decriminalized since 2003. Five years later, an evaluation showed positive results, Niki Adams notes.
“Crucially, there was no increase in prostitution. Sex workers were more able to come forward and report violence, and the police were focused on dealing with those violent attacks rather than on prosecuting the sex workers. It also turned out that drug use was being dealt with as a health problem rather than a criminal justice problem, which led to big improvements.”
Adams believes that the New Zealand model could work in most countries. “It gets to the root of the problem, which is that criminalization endangers sex workers. Why are sex workers being criminalized when what we’re involved in is consensual sex for money?” she asks.
Many other countries, such as Germany for example, also allow sex work. But Germany – with its mega brothels – has received quite a lot of criticism. Luca Stevenson does not see that as a failure of legalized prostitution. “We support the efforts of the local organizations to better their system,” he explains.
Dealing with demand
The Nordic model views the men who pay for sex as the main culprits for the unsafe conditions in prostitution.
“Men who purchase women are men who do not perceive women as equals… and if you don’t see this woman that you purchased for sex as an equal, you’re not going to see the women in your office who either work for you or for whom you work as equals either,” Taina Bien-Aimé explains.
That view is shared by Vednita Carter, executive director of Breaking Free, an organization in Minnesota, USA that helps about 500 women out of prostitution each year. Carter is a trafficking survivor herself, but in her opinion, prostitution affects all women – even those who have no personal experience with it. “The message it sends is that every woman can be bought and sold. If I can be bought, why can’t you?
“The government needs to deal with the demand. It needs to deal with people who purchase women and girls. That’s where the money is. We all know it’s a global multibillion dollar industry, so who is paying to have sex with all these women and children? We have to deal with them. Once we deal with them, things will change,” she believes.
In Sweden, the general attitude towards purchasing sex has indeed changed with the law, says Max Waltman. He explains that the government spent a large sum of money on informing the public why this law was necessary and what was wrong with prostitution, and in a few years the percentage of people who supported the law rocketed from 40 to about 80 percent.
Though the demand for prostitution will not be eliminated anytime soon, Waltman says that it’s not impossible either: “Surely, if we make it possible for women to escape prostitution, if we present them with alternatives… if it is not too expensive to study or to get job training, if unemployment doesn’t impoverish people too much, maybe prostitution could actually be eliminated.
“I think we need to keep that hope alive; it may not be impossible, but it will certainly be very difficult.”