Sexworkers' Critique of Swedish Prostitution Policy

The article Sexworkers’ Critique of Swedish Prostitution Policy originally appeared on my website in 2003. Although it was never formally published in an academic journal, it has been cited and discussed by activists and academics interested in the impact of the Swedish sex purchase ban. 

Since prostitution is a controversial issue, with extensive moral, policy and political implications, it is not surprising that my article has been critiqued by proponents of the Sex Purchase Ban, and by activists and academics working to abolish prostitution. 

I consider their critique to be misinformed, distorted, and at times tendentious. 

The empirical material on which the following article was based was also used in my Master’s thesis (2003) and in a later book that appeared in Swedish Porn, Whores and Feminists (2006). In these two works and in the article below, I have never claimed to document the opinions of all sex workers in Sweden, only those whom I had interviewed.

Also, the opinions of sex workers about Swedish prostitution policy expressed in this article are hardly unique. They are in line with concerns raised by sex workers in the Swedish media, on blogs, in articles, in reports and in books from 1998 and onwards (for a compilation of sources, both published and unpublished up to 2011, see for instance Claimed Success and Documented Effects). 

Although proponents of the sex purchase ban have targeted me personally as some kind of tool of the sex industry, there are a number of additional reports that reveal similar critique of Swedish sex work policy from a sex workers perspective. These other reports include the Rose Alliance study En annan horisontPye Jakobsson and Jay Levys work and the Charlotte Holmström 2015 study. Unfortunately, much of this research is so far only available in Swedish. Swedish anti-prostitution activists and researchers promoting the ban on sex purchase are quite familiar with this work, even if they choose to ignore it.

The studies showing that sex workers themselves are opposed to the Sex Purchase Ban, or that the ban itself has not been effective, have been criticized as ‘biased’ by abolitionists and proponents of the ban. Their claim is based on a view that the violence, power inequalities, victimhood and abuse suffered by some sex workers is the dominant situation for all people selling sexual services. Hence, those sex workers who criticize a law ostensibly meant to protect them are considered to be a tiny minority, unrepresentative, or at best seen as suffering from some kind of false consciousness or trauma about their own victimhood.

Regrettably, this oppression paradigm approach to sex work (instead of a polymorphous paradigm), as well as the the dismissal of sex workers’ critique of Swedish prostitution policy, is an indication that sex work and sex workers are still heavily stigmatized. This stigmatization must be properly and adamantly addressed and challenged.

When it comes to studying, developing and evaluating policy, it is absolutely essential to begin with the needs of the target group as they express them. This applies to sex workers as well. Policies or laws on prostitution must take sex workers themselves at the center of that process.

This stance is not a mask for being "pro-prostitution". It is about ensuring the rights of sex workers. 

Petra Östergren May 2015

Download the article Sexworkers' Critique of Swedish Prostitution Policy.

Download an article where I respond to distorted critique of Porn, Whores and Feminism.