By Dana Levy
In September 2019, the Swedish organization Fuckförbundet (which roughly translates as ‘F*ck Union’) published a report on the impact of the 1999 Swedish Sex Purchase Act. The general position of the paper can be understood from its title, ‘Twenty years of failing sex workers.’
While I share with the authors of the report direct experience in the sex trade, my attitude towards the Swedish law is completely different. I have supported it for years, and have made a modest contribution to its adoption in my own country, Israel.
There were three reasons why I took a close look at the report. Firstly, I believe that the Swedish law is of such international importance, that every piece of research on it should be properly evaluated. Secondly, next year Israel is set to implement very similar legislation, and it’s essential to know what obstacles might interfere with its success. Thirdly, there are things you can only understand if you have first hand experience of prostitution. Having been there myself, I believe I can provide valuable insight for activists and policy makers.
I found five main messages in the report:
- ‘Sex workers’ suffer from structural violence and police persecution.
- Stigma is a source of serious harm to ‘sex workers.’
- It is this stigma and structural violence that undermine the wellbeing of ‘sex workers’ (rather than the violence inherent to prostitution itself).
- The Sex Purchase Act is solely responsible for these negative consequences.
- ‘Sex worker-led’ organisations should be included in designing policies that impact ‘sex workers,’ including revising the Sex Purchase Act.
I will address each of these claims separately.
1. ‘Sex workers’ suffer from structural violence and police persecution
The report discusses many different patterns of structural violence. Although I don’t have inside information about Swedish institutions, I do believe that there is always room for improvement in how all state institutions treat prostituted persons. However, at least some of the statements in the report appear to be at least partially unreliable, as I set out below.
The report addresses the persecution and deportation of undocumented migrants to their countries of origin. Fuckförbundet and the researcher Niina Vuolajärvi, who reviewed the report, use the term “dual regulation” (p. 5) – by which they mean that prostituted individuals are persecuted under both the Sex Purchase Act and the Aliens Act. But the report doesn’t provide any evidence of undocumented migrants being persecuted specifically for their engagement in prostitution.
A Google search indicates that Sweden has restrictive immigration policies in general and even skilled immigrants are often denied work permits. In fact the US State Department’s 2018 Trafficking in Persons Report indicates that sex trafficking victims (along with other trafficking victims) in Sweden are entitled to unique protections that are unavailable to other undocumented migrants.
Another inaccurate statement in the report is that prostitution might be “a ground for deportation and denial of entry even if the person would be in the country legally or would otherwise have the right to travel to and seek employment in the country.” The main rule for migrating to Sweden for work is that you must apply for and be granted a work permit before you enter the country. No one is allowed to “travel to and seek employment in the country.”
The report frequently mentions the abuse of ‘sex workers’ by police. I am not familiar with the Swedish police and so I cannot evaluate their sensitivity when dealing with women in general and marginalized populations in particular. But as a woman and a survivor, I have a great deal of mistrust in any institution, public or private, particularly those that exercise power over vulnerable people. Police violence and mistreatment of victims of sexual abuse is a global issue. I support ongoing training for police officers aimed at improving their treatment of women, including victims of sexual violence, and marginalized populations, such as women involved in prostitution. However, several of the specific claims simply do not add up.
The report repeatedly condemns the use of condoms as evidence of prostitution activity (p. 32). Fuckförbundet insists that this practice encourages unprotected sex. This makes sense, but when you look at the sources attached to the report, a different picture emerges. None of the sources mention the detention of individuals because they were carrying condoms. Condoms are mentioned only when a large amount were found in business premises, such as a massage parlour. Even then, there was not a single documented case of condoms being used as the only evidence of running a brothel. They are always only one among several other types of evidence.
In some of the articles, the masseurs (mostly Asian women) admitted that they were forced to provide ‘sexual services’ by the business owners. They were unwilling and complied only due to financial pressure. The business owners, who chose to run a brothel instead of a massage parlour, denied those women their right to provide for their children through the legitimate and valued profession of massage therapy.
I can’t help wondering why the violation of these migrant workers’ rights doesn’t seem to bother Fuckförbundet staff.
Another example of manipulative juggling of the facts is mentioning a research study by the Sex Workers’ Rights Advocacy Network (SWAN), which showed that “41.7 percent of sex worker respondents reported having experienced physical violence by police in the year before the survey and 36.5 percent reported having experienced sexual violence from police in the same time span.” This was mentioned on page 20 as proof of police being harmful to women involved in prostitution, with the implication that it was relevant to Sweden.
Even if we choose to ignore all the methodological limitations of the SWAN study and its bias, it is impossible to ignore that it was conducted exclusively in ex-communist countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia that have a long history of structural violence by state institutions, as shown in the following chart (from the SWAN report).
Despite these and many other manipulations, I do support further training of police in all of the countries that have Nordic Model-style legislation (and of course in all other countries) to make sure that vulnerable women are respected and not harassed, and that they are protected and kept safe when they seek police assistance. Surprisingly, Fuckförbundet doesn’t include police training in its list of recommendations.
Lack of access to medical services and counselling
The report mentions the lack of medical services and counselling as one of the obstacles that face those engaged in prostitution. It does not blame the authorities for the general shortage of social services. Sweden, the welfare paradise, is known for its generosity in providing financial support and social services to those in need.
Fuckförbundet argues that there’s a lack of specialist services for women in prostitution, especially for migrant women, but also for local ones. Among the access barriers mentioned are that: “focus is on long term help with repeated visits, trauma therapy, and the end goal being the exit from sex work,” lack of health insurance, and therapists’ inadequate understanding of the needs of ‘sex workers’ (p. 33).
I don’t know how accurate the review of existing services is – or why world-renowned rehabilitation centres such as Talita are missing from the report. However, the more I’m exposed to the community of women both in and exited from prostitution, the more I’m aware of the endless need for support and therapy. So I support the call for making services for them more accessible and extensive. That said, I am not convinced that how Fuckförbundet address the problem is helpful. The report mentions therapists who insist on treating prostitution as a source or result of trauma and considers this a form of ‘stigma’ that keeps patients away.
I understand the complexity of this. Therapists in all recognized fields of therapy tend to perceive the practice of prostitution as traumatic, and rightly so. A letter signed by 12 leading health professionals in France states:
“Prostitution is not without consequences. When one undergoes unwanted sexual acts ten or twenty times a day, the unbearable reality causes a dissociation of the body and the spirit of the victim, the memorization of the event is done by abnormal brain circuits, information about time and space is not recorded and the person will later relive the same panic, the same anxiety at the slightest evocative sensation. Dangerous or addictive behaviours (drugs, alcohol, psychotropic drugs) will be sought to escape.”
Eli Sommer, one of the leading Israeli trauma specialists, mentions the following harms of paid sex:
“[F]ragmentation of the consciousness of memories, fragmentation of the consciousness of parts of the body – and sometimes of the whole body, depersonalization and other difficult problems in memory functions […], PTSD and personality changes that include: changes in self-perception (negative direction), changes in the perception of the perpetrator (sometimes in a positive direction), changes in relationships (characterized by difficulties in creating intimacy and trust in men), changes in world view (and its perception as a hostile and dangerous place), and, in particular, an enormous inner emptiness accompanied by mental pain.”
Renowned German clinical psychologist specialising in trauma, Dr. Ingeborg Kraus, refers to the push factors for entering the sex trade:
“The ‘voluntary’ decision to choose prostitution requires certain preconditions. All prostituted women who visited my practice had a history of insufficient protection in their childhood and – as a consequence – insufficient self-protection. At a very early age, these women learned to ‘shut themselves off’.”
I’m well aware of the fact that a significant portion of the prostituted population is unwilling to acknowledge these harms, and a therapist insisting on focusing on them may result in women exiting treatment.
I’ve had the opportunity to discuss this with many survivors, who shared with me stories of leaving therapists who insisted on discussing the ‘damage of prostitution.’ On the other hand, they did not particularly appreciate therapists who adopted the positive narrative of prostitution as ‘normal work’ or ‘empowering experience.’
When you are in prostitution, denial has a protective role. Therapists should be cautious when trying to eradicate it. The ideal therapists, according to exited women I have talked to, were those who did not claim recognition of harm, but also did not help clients to feed their denial. Gradually, they provided women with the tools that enabled them to see the damage themselves and create the resources needed to get out of prostitution.
The Fuckförbundet report also has an example of gynaecological treatment that was not tailored to the needs of ‘sex workers.’ The example was a woman with “some kind of bacterial infection that made her genitals hurt.” The woman could not get an appointment with a gynaecologist for three weeks. This was considered unacceptable because she needed “to be able to work in three days, not three weeks” (p. 34).
While three weeks’ delay in getting an appointment is definitely too long, I’m appalled at the idea of a woman with painful genitalia having to use it commercially in just three days – which is an insufficient period to recover from such an infection. Just like with the Thai woman who was forced to prostitute herself in a massage parlour, merely assisting people to stay in prostitution doesn’t address their real problems.
2. Stigma is a source of serious harm to ‘sex workers’
The Fuckförbundet report mentions the stigmatization of women involved in prostitution several times. However, they are not complaining that the women are perceived as vicious, criminal, immoral, or exploitative – merely that they are treated as victims.
I understand this from my own personal experience. When you’re at the bottom, denial helps you to stay sane until you’re strong enough to get out of there and start comprehending what’s happened to you. When you are in a state of denial, it can be daunting to hear claims that prostitution is paid rape, that you undergo ongoing violence and that prostitution causes you incremental trauma. I’ve been in that situation, and now I’m grateful to everyone who stayed with me during my period of denial and dribbled the truth out, avoiding shocking me too brutally.
That said, I am uncomfortable with the claim that the idea that being involved in prostitution makes you a victim is a source of acute damage. And my discomfort gets even stronger when it’s suggested that punters are pushing too hard to ensure consent:
“Well, there are the clients who are so scared that I as a sex worker can’t consent for real, so to make sure my consent is real they require a lower price as proof that I think they are special enough to consent for real.” (p. 8)
I don’t know when punters being too cautious became the main problem with the sex trade. Survivors’ evidence of punter violence is easily found online – you can read some here. For examples of the attitudes of sex buyers, see this German page and this British one.
If Swedish punters became too cautious, we could count this as one of the most significant achievements of the Nordic Model, second only to reducing the demand for paid sex.
Another example of stigma that Fuckförbundet mentions is of feminist women and researchers mentioning the non-consensual nature of paid sex:
“For abolitionist feminist activists, globally and in Sweden, sex work is considered to be a form of sexual violence. They unequivocally state that it is impossible to give consent within sex work.” (p. 18)
As previously mentioned, I understand the insult caused by being treated as a victim when you insist you’re not one. That said, we must separate ‘consent’ defined individually from a definition of consent that can be generalized. I’ve explained this before.
Consent relies on three conditions: the freedom to choose a sexual partner, the freedom to select the nature of relations, and the freedom to choose the timing. If any of these conditions are compromised, sexual relations should be considered forced – for example, when someone forces their regular partner or spouse to have sex at a time or in a way they do not want.
In the context of prostitution, none of those three conditions can be met entirely. Women in prostitution do not choose their clients (except in anecdotal blog stories); they do not choose the timing; and, in most cases, they have hardly any freedom to determine the nature of the acts performed. If a woman insists that her paid sex was consensual, the right thing is to respect this as an individual perception that cannot be generalized. We are already doing the same for women who like having sex while being drunk or high – not denying their agency, yet insisting that generally, you cannot consent to sex while being unconscious.
Here is yet another example of ‘stigmatization’ from the report.
“The bodies and body parts of sex workers are described obsessively as commodities, such as drawing parallels between buying sexual services and a ‘kilo of pork’, while exploitation and violence that sex workers have faced is often described with almost pornographic details in newspapers, and even by leading politicians.” (p. 20)
While I fully understand the harmful nature of treating women’s bodies as commodities on sale, I disagree with Fuckförbundet. It is not the feminists but rather the punters who are responsible for this perspective.
The most common encounter in every brothel or ‘escort service’ is of punters asking for the ‘youngest girl’ or ‘the new girl.’ Sometimes they also want particular ethnic or body characteristics but they never mention ‘expertise’ or ‘professional knowledge.’
The opposite is true: the more ‘experienced’ you are, the less money you get. This is reminiscent of car rental, not a service environment.
3. It is this stigma and structural violence that undermine the wellbeing of ‘sex workers’ (rather than the violence inherent to prostitution itself)
The claim that it is stigma and structural violence rather than the violence inherent to prostitution that undermines the wellbeing of those involved in prostitution is often voiced by activists who want to turn the sex trade into a legitimate service industry. In reality, prostitution has many layers of violence: social stigma, structural violence, violence by pimps and johns, and finally, the inherent violence of prostitution as a practice.
Prostitution is violent even when it takes place in a five-star hotel, with a polite punter and the Goldberg Variations playing in the background. Focusing on social stigma is partly a sort of escape – the same denial that I mentioned before – and sometimes part of a well-planned strategy of normalizing the sex trade.
It is very easy to examine the argument that stigma itself is the main source of suffering and poor mental health of prostituted individuals (p. 36). Alongside women who are engaged in prostitution, the sex trade has a far more stigmatized subgroup – the pimps.
Pimps are generally seen as vicious, monsters, violent, the garbage can of human society. Yet I’ve never heard of a pimp who’s been so affected by this stigma, that he’s developed PTSD.
The overreaction to stigmatization of women involved in prostitution is strong because they are an extremely vulnerable population for other reasons.
4. The Sex Purchase Act is solely responsible for those negative consequences.
The impact of the Sex Purchase Act on the well-being of those involved in prostitution is arguable. They are a diverse population with different needs. Those who want to stay in the sex trade might disagree with those who want to exit.
The purpose of the law is not to “improve the quality of life in prostitution.” The feminist foundation of the law, which I wholeheartedly support, is that it is not possible to create a “good quality of life in prostitution” at the general level.
It’s pertinent that the Swedish problems – such as stigma –that Fuckförbundet highlights in its report also exist under other legal frameworks – suggesting that the Sex Purchase Act has not created these problems.
If you look at any country that has adopted a legalized or decriminalized legal framework (such as Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Switzerland), you’ll find that none of them has many prostituted women who are out of the closet. In fact it is extremely rare in all these countries to find women who are publicly open about their current or past involvement in prostitution – and the few who are open about it are clearly extremely brave and exceptional.
Recently, HuffPost published a story by Antonia Murphy, a female pimp from New Zealand, who insisted that in her country, prostitution has become “a profession like any other profession.” But in the same article, she says:
“When I tried to rent space for my agency, every landlord turned me down. They’d never heard of a ‘feminist escort agency,’ and they assumed I would drag in a mess of gang activity, drugs and crime.”
She was able to solve her problem by secretly running a brothel from her own motel, without disclosing this to the motel’s guests. She mentioned her “employees,” all of them hiding under fake names, and clarified:
“In New Zealand, under decriminalization, no one needs to know you are a sex worker.”
In another article, the same pimp complained that she struggles to find staff because the job search sites refused to host her advertisements.
If 16 years of “decriminalization” didn’t eliminate the shame, stigma, and marginalization of prostitution, then maybe the Nordic Model is not the root cause of it.
A detailed report about the violence in the sex trade was recently published in Germany, where the sex trade is entirely legal. Even the highly biased Fuckförbundet report doesn’t present data showing comparable levels of violence in Sweden.
5. ‘Sex worker-led’ organizations should be included in designing policies that impact ‘sex workers,’ including revising the Sex Purchase Act
I have argued many times, both throughout this article and in the past that the sex trade has angles that can only be fully understood if you have been inside it. Sometimes I feel that even our biggest supporters fail to fully comprehend certain aspects of life in prostitution. However, when talking about “sex worker-led organizations”, it’s important to understand that these are not just “people who understand the sex trade.” “Sex worker-led organizations” do not represent the entire population in prostitution, but only those whose explicit purpose is to make the sex trade a legitimate industry.
Fuckförbundet members complained it was offensive to be referred to as a ‘lobby group for johns and pimps.’ I am not familiar with this NGO and have no idea who its members and donors are, but I can understand why it was framed as part of the ‘pimp lobby.’
The Fuckförbundet website states:
“We stand for the full decriminalization of sex work.
We believe that sex workers are in a better position to demand their human rights, including labor rights, if sex work is decriminalized. We want all laws and regulations related to selling, buying and organizing sex work removed. Instead, sex work should be governed by health and safety labor legislation. The current Swedish model for sex work legislation does not only criminalize our clients, it is also illegal for us to work together for safety, rent a workplace (for example an apartment or hotel room) and their third party help (for example security, driver, assistant).”
Fuckförbundet avoids mentioning pimps among the “third parties,” but NSWP, the umbrella organization to which it belongs, is more open about its goals:
“In reality, sex workers can be employees, employers, or independent workers and participate in a range of other work-related relationships with third parties.” [Emphasis added.]
This stand is clearly aimed at promoting the rights of pimps. But NSWP does not merely promote the interests of pimps – it actively includes them among its activists. The most notable example is Alexandra Gil, a former vice president of NSWP, currently jailed in Mexico for sex trafficking.
I fail to understand the idea of ‘trade union’ where the weakest and the most vulnerable members are mobilized to promote the interests of the strongest and the most violent ones.
NSWP has uploaded a letter of support for Gil, but doesn’t mention or offer support to her victims. I don’t think that such an NGO or its local branches can be valid representatives of women in prostitution.
That said, I fully support including prostituted women, both active and exited, in designing public policies, but a genuine motivation to help women in prostitution must be ensured, and this must include acknowledgment of the fact that most of them just want to exit.
Fuckförbundet claims that their study shows that the Swedish Sex Purchase Act has failed ‘sex workers’ and should therefore be radically revised. They base this overarching claim on five key findings that I have shown to misrepresent the reality.
They have not considered the wider implications of the Sex Purchase Act – for example on the status of all women in Sweden and the levels of male violence that they suffer, including the everyday kind, like street harassment, that rarely gets reported. They have not conducted any comparison with countries (like Germany and New Zealand) that have opened up the sex trade to the full ruthlessness of the capitalist markets. Fuckförbundet’s starting point is that prostitution is a neutral activity and a legitimate way of making a living.
The aim of the legislation was not to make the sex trade more prosperous and to give sex traffickers an easy ride so they could make vast profits. The aim of the legislation was always to reduce men’s demand for prostitution and to bring about a gradual reduction in the amount of prostitution that happens, while providing the women (and others) caught up in it with rehabilitation and viable alternatives. The report does implicitly acknowledge that there has been a reduction in demand for prostitution – and this is backed up by other researchers. This suggests that the legislation is in fact working as intended.
I understand that women and others involved in the sex trade are suffering and greater efforts are needed to increase the provision of high quality services for their dedicated use. And there is certainly room for improvement in terms of training for the police and other officials.
For all these reasons, Fuckförbundet’s conclusions should be taken with a pinch of salt and do not justify Sweden radically revising the Sex Purchase Act or the international community rethinking the general approach known as the Nordic Model.