Sexworkers Critique of Swedish Prostitution policy
Being the first piece I ever wrote in English, this article questions
the Swedish policy on sex work from a human rights perspective. It was only
published online on my website, but it achieved traction and was shared around
the world and thus often quoted by activists and academics who are worried
about the impacts of the sex purchase ban.
I cannot remember exactly when the article was originally posted, but it
must have been 2001 or 2002. An initial problem was that the article was never
published in an academic journal, or even in a traditional paper or magazine,
so its conclusions have been questioned by proponents of the sex purchase ban.
However, much of the empirical material in this article was based on my
Magister thesis, and, more importantly, its findings are now being confirmed in
recent research, such as Holmström 2015. Unfortunately the Holmström
study is only available in Swedish, as is the very important Rose Alliance study En annan horisont. But for an
earlier compilation in English, se Dodillet’s and my report Claimed Success and Documented Effects.
Petra Östergren 2015-02-02
Sexworkers Critique of Swedish Prostitution Policy
In this article I will not deal with the complex issue of
whether prostitution is socially or otherwise desirable. Rather this
article seeks to document some of the experiences and opinions of
female sexworkers in Sweden. I have been concerned by the fact that the
very women who are at the center of prostitution policy are so rarely
heard and so often feel discriminated against. If equal rights for
women is important, then the experience of sexworkers themselves must
surely be central to our discussion, regardless of what position one
takes on prostitution.
The law against procurement of sexual services (promotion or deriving
profit from prostitution) and a recent law prohibiting the purchase of
sexual services introduced in 1999 are the two main ways the Swedish
state sees itself as "combating" prostitution. Swedish politicians and
feminists are proud of the state's prostitution policy. They insist
that it has positive effects. Sexworkers are of a different view. Most
of the female Swedish sexworkers I have interviewed voice a strong
critique of their legal and social situation. They feel discriminated
against, endangered by the very laws that seek to protect them, and
they feel under severe emotional stress as a result of the laws.
material in this article stems from my interviews, informal talks and
correspondence with approximately 20 sexworkers since 1996, as well as
published and broadcasted interviews with sexworkers in Swedish media.
It is also based on interviews with people working with women selling
sex to support a drug habit (most whom also are homeless).
article also contains a summary of reports conducted by Swedish
authorities after the introduction of new legislation (the
criminalization of clients).
Selling sexual services is not work
is officially not considered work in Sweden. Rather, prostitution is
seen as a social ill and a form of men's violence against women. Women
who sell sex are considered victims who need protection by the state.
Male or transgendered sexworkers are rarely spoken of. In the task of
creating a better and more equal society, the Swedish state has
determined that prostitution has to be abolished. This is an opinion
rarely called into question.
The law against procurement
law against procurement renders it illegal to work indoors, work with
others, to profit from the sexual labour of others, and advertise. Some
women interviewed express satisfaction with the effect this law has had
on exploitative pimps, since there have been relatively few of them in
Sweden the last two decades. Other sexworkers find this law
discriminatory. They believe that they, like any other worker or
businessperson, should have the right to a reasonable work environment,
work collectively, advertise or open a business etc.
Due to the
law against procurement, sexworkers are forced to lie in order to rent
premises, or alternatively they have to pay exorbitant rent. Either
way, they constantly worry about being discovered. They also report
often having to move (when discovered) and being treated badly by
landlords and "rent pimps". Some women prefer to make contact with
their customers on the street. Other sexworkers find this too
Most of the women I have spoken to wish to be able
to work together with others. This is to ensure safety and to support
each other. They find it unfair that they cannot do this and feel
scared when they have to work alone.
This law also makes it
difficult for sexworkers to cohabit with a partner since it is illegal
to receive any of a sexworker's income. It is hard for a sexworker to
have a family at all since sexworkers are considered to be unfit
parents and therefore can lose custody of their children if it emerges
that they sell sex.
The law against purchasing sexual services
new law which prohibits the act of buying sexual services is severely
criticized by sexworkers. They find the law paradoxical, illogical and
discriminatory. It further obstructs their work and exposes them to
stress and danger.
The women I have spoken to say that the
reasoning behind the law does not makes sense to them. How can the
politicians claim that only the clients are being punished and that
they are being protected? The effect of the is law mostly negative for
the sexworker. Some point out that even if a few men might get fined,
the majority will continue buying sexual services as usual - and as
usual it is women and sexworkers who will be the most adversely
As a result of the new legislation, the sexworkers say
it is now harder for them to assess the clients. The clients are more
stressed and scared and negotiation outdoors must be done in a more
rapid manner. The likelihood of ending up with a dangerous client is
Due to the law, sexworkers feel hunted by the
police, social workers, media and sometimes even anti-prostitution
activists on the streets. They find this unacceptable. One sexworker
commented that no other vocational group would accept that the police
"patrolled their workplace".
Another consequence is that the
sexworkers are now more apprehensive about seeking help from the police
when they have had problems with an abusive customer. They do not want
to be forced to report the client.
Since the number of
sexworkers on the streets has decreased and they are more scared,
previous informal networks amongst the sexworkers have weakened. The
result is that they are no longer able to warn each other about
dangerous clients or give each other the same support.
also report that another consequence of the law is lower prices on the
streets since there are less customers and more competition. This means
that women in more desperate need of money will engage in unsafe sex
and sexual activity they usually would not perform. This in turn leads
to poorer self-esteem and exposure to infection. Other women who have
turned to the Internet to advertise claim a positive effect insofar as
they have been able to raise their prices. But note that this only
benefits some sexworkers. The more vulnerable sexworkers seem to be the
ones most negatively affected by the law.
Women working on the
streets in some bigger cities claim that there is now a greater
percentage of "perverted" customers and that the "nice and kind"
customers have disappeared. A "perverted" customer is someone who
demands more violent forms of sex, sex with faeces and urine and who is
more prone to humiliate, degrade and violate the sexworker. He also
more often refuses to use condoms. Since there are fewer customers on
the streets many women who sell sex in order to finance a drug habit
can no longer refuse these customers, as they were previously able to.
These women say the "kind" customers have either turned to the Internet
to find sexual services or have been arrested by the police. On the
contrary, the "perverted" customers know what to do to not be arrested
and fined - they just have to deny it since there is rarely hard
often mentioned grievance is how sexworkers feel treated by the
authorities and by society at large. All sexworkers I have spoken to
mention the stigma attached to prostitution where the sexworker is seen
as weak, dirty, mentally ill, addicted to drugs and alcohol and viewed
as a victim. Along with the difficult legal situation, this makes the
sexworkers afraid that it will be brought to public attention that they
sell sex, so they do all they can to ensure their anonymity. This
includes for some women lying to friends, family and neighbours.
sexworkers say that they feel incapacitated by the state and not
respected. They maintain that their rights as citizens are violated.
Several of them state that they are an important part of society, that
they contribute to it, but that they are actively excluded from it.
They also think sexworkers are denied the benefits of the welfare state
- something that is granted all other Swedish citizens.
sexworkers say that they feel used by politicians, feminists and the
media. They think that sexworkers are only listened to and being paid
attention to if they say the correct things, i.e. that they find
prostitution appalling, that they are victims, that they have stopped
selling sex and will never go back, and that they are grateful to the
current prostitution policy and to the policy makers.
feel overlooked in decision-making processes regarding juridical
changes etc., something they find undemocratic. They question whether
any other social group would have been so consistently excluded from
any relevant policy making process
The sexworkers report having
had very little or no help from the social authorities and in any case,
they would rather be left alone by them. Some believe women wishing to
leave sexwork can in some instances get adequate help from the social
Most of the sexworkers I have interviewed reject
the idea that there is something intrinsically wrong with their
profession, or that they should be subjected to therapy or retrained in
order to work as something else. They also consider this to be a
treatment that would not be foisted upon other professional groups.
Sexworkers say that contrary to the official belief, they are not the
victims of their customers, but victims of the state. This is not only
because they are not listened to, or that the state puts them into
dangerous situations and forces some of them to become affiliated with
the criminal world, but also because the overall situation makes it
impossible for them to be open about their work, speak out against
injustice and to organize themselves.
the women I have spoken to report feelings of emotional stress due to
the legal situation and how they are treated socially. They have to
hide, lie and keep double identities. They fear harassment and
ostracism for themselves, their children and their partners.
emotional stress also stems from a vulnerable and unclear financial
situation. Since most women do not pay taxes they are scared of what
will happen to them once they retire. Their pensions will be low and
barely adequate to live on. When they fall ill, they still have to work
or rely on what savings they may have, instead of relying on a right to
workers compensation. The legal situation regarding taxation is unclear
and varies from city to city. Some tax authorities will leave
sexworkers alone, others will seek them out and tax them according to
an arbitrary estimate. This worries sexworkers. Some of them have been
subjected to this procedure with disastrous financial consequences.
Others have only heard about it and worry it will happen to them.
report an increase in their emotional stress subsequent to the
introduction of the new law. The sexworkers say that they now feel more
worried about being found out as well as more worried about future
income. Several report that they now have more anxiety, sleeping
problems, concentration problems as well as problems related to eating
disorders, alcohol and drugs.
The sexworkers I have interviewed
report greater feelings of powerlessness and resignation than before
the introduction of the new legislation. They feel as if there is "no
point" in trying to change the system (or its direct effects on their
lives) and that no one supports them or speaks for them.
What they want
express anger about Swedish politicians who, in their opinion, brag and
tell lies about the effect of the new law vis-à-vis other countries.
They wish that other countries might find out "the truth" about the
effects of the law. They also strongly discourage other countries from
adopting similar legislation.
Even if few of the sexworkers I
have spoken to claim to know the details of the new legislation
regarding prostitution in the Netherlands and Germany, they all speak
positively of it. They wish that prostitution in Sweden would be
legalized (or at least decriminalized), that there would be unions and
organizations for sexworkers, that the stigma around them would be
lifted and that they would be granted the same rights and obligations
as other women and citizens.
Women selling sex to support a drug
habit seem to be less likely to regard sexwork as a positive experience
or as a work. But they are just as critical of the Swedish legislation
and policy. They would like to have better access to a methadone or
subutex program, currently something only a fixed number of people have.
similar to those made by my respondents were voiced in the three
official reports made since the law against purchasing of sexual
services was introduced. One year after the law was passed, the
National Council for Crime Prevention (Brottsförebyggande rådet),
conducted a survey of the practice of the new law and what problems had
been encountered. The National Board of Health and Welfare
(Socialstyrelsen), also published a report one year after the law was
introduced. Their task was to document existing knowledge of the spread
of prostitution. The National Police Board (Rikspolisstyrelsen)
published a report based on information from the first two years of
practice of the new law. Their task was to evaluate the practice of the
law and make suggestions about new methods in police work against
All of these reports find that street prostitution
dropped immediately after the introduction of the law. They also
suggest that recruitment was lower, although the National Council for
Crime Prevention means that the exact number of prostitutes in for
example Stockholm was hard to estimate because street prostitution had
moved to other streets and took place in a larger area than before. All
of the authorities say that there is no evidence that prostitution was
lower overall. Instead hidden prostitution had probably increased.
of the reports address the problems emerging after the new law was
introduced. The National Police Board writes that the sexworkers that
are still in street prostitution have a tough time. This, they explain,
is because customers are fewer, prices are lower and competition harder
for the women. This leads to the sex workers selling sex without
protection of condoms for a higher rate, and it leads to them having to
accept more customers than before (since the prices are lower). The
respondents in the National Board of Health and Welfare's study (of
which none are sexworkers themselves) believe female sexworkers now
experience more difficulties and are more exposed then before. The
buyers are "worse" and more dangerous, and the women who cannot stop or
move their business are dependent on these more dangerous men, since
they cannot afford to turn them down as before. Even the buyers that
were interviewed believe that the law mostly affected the already
socially marginalised women. According to the National Police Board,
the healthcare system has worries about declining health among sex
workers and spreading sexually transmitted disease.
Police Board has also found the law an obstacle to prosecuting
profiteers who exploit the sexual labour of others. Earlier legal cases
against such men could sometimes be supported by the testimonies of
sex-buyers. But these men are no longer willing to assist, since they
themselves are now guilty of committing a crime. The Police Board
report also points out that sexworkers have fallen into a difficult,
constructed, in-between position with regard to the new law. The female
sex worker sells sex, but this is not a criminal act. However, because
purchasing sexual services is now a crime, the sexworker can be made to
appear as a witness in the trial process. She therefore has neither the
rights of the accused or the victim. The Police Board report also
discusses the fact that sexworkers are subject to an invasive searches
and questioning, so that evidence against the clients might be obtained
(Rikspolisstyrelsen) 2001. Rapport. "Lag (1998:408) om förbund mot köp
av sexuella tjänster. Metodutveckling avseende åtgärder mot
prostitution." Av Nord, Anders och Rosenberg, Tomas. Polismyndigheten i
Skåne. ALM 429-14044/99. 2001. POB -429-4616/99
SoS (Socialstyrelsen) 2000. "Kännedom om prostitution 1998-1999." SoS rapport 2000:5.
(Brottsförebyggande Rådet) 2000. Brå rapport 2000:4. "Förbud mot köp av
sexuella tjänster. Tillämpningen av lagen under första året."
Brottsförebyggande rådet. Stockholm.