The spread of the Swedish Model in Europe is deeply worrying

Sex work is one of the oldest, and most controversial, professions. Members of the industry perform important and valuable services, no matter what kind of sex work they engage in, and they’re stigmatised by society because of the kind of work they do — with the majority of people in the industry being women, the shaming of sex workers (and whorephobia) plays into larger cultural problems like slut shaming and attempts to control women’s bodies. In much of the world, sex work is illegal, on the grounds that it ‘protects’ women who offer sexual services, but in fact, it makes their work more dangerous, creating an uptick in the risks of trafficking, abuse, rape, and other crimes.

The problem is that when you drive something underground, that doesn’t terminate the demand for it. Lots of people from all walks of life want sexual services, from camgirls to dominatrixes. Making sex work illegal doesn’t change the fact that people are desirous of these services — it just makes it more difficult to get them, and it endangers the people who provide them, because they’re powerless when it comes to exerting autonomy and protecting their rights. When sex work is illegal, people can’t go to police to report it when they’re raped by a client. When sex work is illegal, people cannot report wage theft. When sex work is illegal, victims of trafficking cannot reach out for help because they fear prosecution and potential deportation. When sex work is illegal, people who are beaten, attacked, and abused have no recourse. They cannot emerge from the shadows.

Sex workers around the world are lobbying to change the laws that govern the industry, and in some places, their work is gaining traction. New Zealand in particular has an approach that both the government and many sex workers think is sound, protecting the interests and safety of sex workers, acknowledging that their labour is in fact work, and creating a climate that also reduces the risk of trafficking, rape, and other crimes. But the popular model in Europe is the Swedish model or Nordic model, first adopted in Sweden and later picked up in other countries.

Under this model, people who sell sexual services do not face charges, but their clients do. Petra Östergren notes that this model is framed in a way that dehumanises women and denies them autonomy: ‘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.’ It fundamentally grounds sex work as something bad, something to be ashamed of, something that governments should push to eradicate. And in fact, fans of the Swedish model tout that sex work ‘decreases’ in countries that adopt the legislation.

Such estimates, of course, are difficult to actually quantify because sex workers go deep underground, often working with clients who preserve their anonymity to avoid prosecution, which puts sex workers at even greater risk. If something is illegal, you obviously don’t want to be caught doing it, so you resort to very extreme tactics to avoid the scrutiny of the government. Sex workers, who need clients in order to survive, are forced to tolerate dangerous situations or ruin their livelihoods. The government claims it is protecting sex workers, but really, it makes their work much more dangerous, and creates a situation where trafficking and other crimes can actually increase. 

These estimates are also rooted in a fundamentally harmful attitude: The notion that sex is bad and paying for it is even worse. There are lots of reasons why people like to have sex, and numerous reasons why people like to pay for it as well. Sex workers living in an environment where they have autonomy love their jobs: It’s why they do them. There’s nothing inherently wrong with either sex work or contracting the services of a sex worker. There is something inherently wrong about stripping sex workers of their rights and autonomy, turning them into objects of the state and putting them in danger in the name of puritanism and prudery. For people trapped under the Nordic model, their careers and work are devalued, and they’re in danger.

The logical approach to regulation of sex work starts with accurately identifying it as work and noting that it will happen in any sociocultural landscape, period. And it follows with acknowledging the fundamental humanity of sex workers and their right to work free of coercion, abuse, and unsafe conditions. Decriminalisation — the removal of criminal charges and penalties for sex work and associated practices — empowers sex workers to make their own choices, access services, and, yes, in the case of people who are being trafficked, to get help. Legalisation carries its own problems, often creating very tight regulations (again in the name of ‘protecting’ sex workers) that can endanger people or dictate their working environment. ‘Under both schemes,’ writes Elizabeth Nolan Brown at Time, ‘forcing someone into prostitution (aka sex trafficking) and being involved in the sale or purchase of sex from a minor would obviously remain a crime.’

Which brings us back to France, the nation that adopted the Nordic model earlier this year under the banner of bombastic claims like ’85 percent of [sex workers] here are victims of trafficking.’ France, like other adopters of the model, stubbornly refuses to acknowledge that it creates situations where people are more vulnerable, and far more at risk of trafficking — if people have to be secretive about buying sex, the people providing it have to be equally secretive.

France and other nations adopting this model are ignoring the voices of sex workers as well as logic — and the advocacy of human rights groups like Amnesty International, which issued a document definitively supporting full decriminalisation last year. It’s deeply troubling to see so many countries adopting a harmful approach to sex work, especially considering the flood of refugees crossing into Europe, many of whom are vulnerable targets for trafficking, and prime targets to disappear without a trace into the maw of Europe’s underworld.

Image: Umbrella trees, Jennifer C., Flickr