By Martina Hedrenius
Martina Hedrenius, a left-wing Swedish activist, is sick of seeing the Swedish approach to prostitution being misrepresented in the English-speaking left-wing media. He wrote this article as a response to a Novara Media piece and pitched it unsuccessfully to Novara Media. Their loss; our gain.
Hardly a day goes by without yet another article being published somewhere in Europe claiming that the Swedish model of regulating prostitution (i.e. the Nordic Model) is a failure. These claims are particularly prominent on British left-wing media platforms and forums and are presented as unassailable facts.
Take, for example, the article “Sex Work Is Not a Bullshit Job” (Novara Media, 31 August 2021) by the activist Marin Scarlett, which honours the memory of anthropologist David Graeber by legitimising the system of prostitution. As a long-time supporter of Novara Media’s solid journalism, this article got me wondering if the red banner really is being held steadily. And it made me want to speak out about the failure of the British and European left on the issue of prostitution.
As a socialist, it feels weird to have to defend the state. Not much remains from the days of the so-called Swedish social democratic paradise. We used to be one of the most equal nations in the world, with a large and expansive public sector, an independent foreign policy, massive solidarity and low unemployment.
Now, what remains of the welfare state is an anorexic shadow of its former self. The Swedish Trade Union Confederation (LO) reports that today top company directors “earn” on average 61 times typical worker wages. In 1980, this number was 8. Class society is now on par with how it was in the 30s.
Yet our law on prostitution implemented in 1999 really is something worth defending. Driven forward predominantly by the Social Democratic Women’s Union, the law stipulates that it is illegal to buy sex from another person, but legal to sell it. This is seen as natural justice among the Swedish left and there is strong consensus on it across the political spectrum.
In comparison, when we criminalised violence against children (in which we were also a pioneering country), the proposition was considerably unpopular among the public. Nevertheless, shortly after it was implemented, opinion changed.
Today there are only a few neo-liberal youth organisations that want to decriminalise those who purchase prostitution – or what I prefer to call abusers of prostitutes. Those organisations are seen as extremists – they also want to decriminalise sickening things like bestiality and necrophilia. What I find shocking is that these attitudes are also prevalent among leftists elsewhere in Europe.
Scarlett writes in her article that the pandemic has challenged our view regarding work as a whole, and suggests that it has made it obvious who is doing the essential jobs, and has exposed the poor working conditions in those sectors. She then brings up the issue of prostitution. Those involved in prostitution, she argues, should be recognised as ordinary workers and get recognition for their work.
To honour the memory of David Graeber, Scarlett uses his terms and insists that prostitution is not a so-called bullshit job. I am familiar with Graeber’s work, and I am surprised by this interpretation. For me, Graeber elucidated that much of our economy is meaningless, and how this affects people and their sense of self-realisation. Perhaps we would do better if we actually shared the jobs that need to be done, and put public interest on the agenda instead of private profit – which would simultaneously do the planet a favour by reducing our overconsumption.
Scarlett implies that prostitution is something essential for society and she rejects what she calls the “end demand mantra”. Except that the main problem really is men (“clients” as Scarlett refers to them) thinking they have a right to women’s bodies.
Scarlett’s language camouflages what prostitution is really about. The idea of the happy and fulfilled hooker is undoubtedly a myth. Studies overwhelmingly show that the vast majority of those subject to this oppression are involved as a result of vulnerability, and suffer from economic and mental health issues as a consequence.
Not only is prostitution a manifestation of capitalism’s exploitative nature, but it is also characterised by old misogynistic and racist beliefs. According to the Swedish police, about 75% of the women and girls involved in prostitution in Sweden are from poorer countries like Nigeria and Romania.
Prostitution is not simply about sex, it is about power and violence. Men do not buy sex, they buy sexual abuse. Consent is something that cannot be purchased, as the Swedish organisation #InteDinHora (literally meaning Not your hooker) has rightly pointed out.
To dismiss reducing the demand for prostitution by claiming it’s an ineffective mantra is a dogmatic position that quickly falls apart when the facts are on the table.
European countries, such as the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland, that have made it legal to buy sex have increased the vulnerability of girls and women who are victims of prostitution. It is estimated that one in four of the male population in Germany has bought sex at least once. In comparison, a large study about sexual and reproductive health published in 2019 by the Swedish Public Health Authority (Folkhälsomyndigheten) indicates that we are talking about less than half of that number among Swedish men and 80% of those “purchases” by Swedish men took place abroad.
Simon Häggström, a police officer and author, has been active in the work against human trafficking for over 13 years and is a strong advocate for the Swedish model. He emphasises that the legislation has an important normalising effect. In other words: it decreases social acceptance of the concept that men are able to pay to shag vulnerable girls and women rather than learning how to pleasure themselves. Häggström makes the crucial point that this behaviour makes these men sponsors of human trafficking.
Because of our law that prioritises reducing demand, the sex industry and its profiteers nowadays regard Sweden as a bad market.
There have been claims that our legislation results in prostitution going underground. There is no doubt we still have challenges, including the rise of so-called sugar dating, which Häggström expresses great concern about, as well as society’s growing inequality which puts people in vulnerable positions. But are these challenges unique to countries such as Sweden that have implemented this approach?
The claims about it going underground are nonsensical, considering street prostitution is nearly abolished (it was halved within the first 10 years of the law’s implementation). Instead, prostitution moved indoors, with the introductions taking place on digital platforms, which the police are just as skilled at using as sex buyers.
The challenges we face are solid arguments for developing the model rather than dismantling it and opening up the brothels again. We need to expand the protection and support for women in prostitution, improve the police’s work against the pimps and sex buyers, and make the legal process more effective. Last but not least, we must combine it with class struggle politics to tackle the vulnerability directly.
Häggström argued recently that Sweden is exposed to a campaign from lobbyists in countries with a more laissez faire approach to prostitution. These lobbyists absolutely do not want the reality to be understood. They create misinformation and false rumours that often go unchallenged due to lack of knowledge. A common false rumour, for example, is that the Swedish police forcibly remove the children of women involved in prostitution.
These lobbyists – commercial charlatans and their sub-troops – do not support women’s rights to their bodies. They support men’s rights to women’s bodies. These lobbyists portray themselves as feminists, but they support women like the rope supports the hanging man.
“Failed implementation aside, the notion that criminalising something ever stops it from happening is demonstrably false”, Scarlett writes in her article. By that logic we might as well as decriminalise murder.
I was never interested in learning English. As a child, I did not see much point in it, and it still annoys me when we non-English speakers have to use it for no other reason than because it sounds cooler than our mother tongue. In 2015, however, when Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party, I was pleased I could use my second language to take part in the revitalisation of leftist ideas that he brought about.
I am devastated to observe what the British left is now going through, and it gets even more frustrating to observe its mistakes, such as drawing these types of conclusions regarding women’s rights. It seems to me that some in our movement are lobbying in the sex industry’s interests, when they should agitate for more socialist and feminist policies.
I find it bizarre that Novara Media (and other prominent “left-wing” platforms) haven’t let me or anyone else respond to Marin Scarlett and others making similar arguments. At first, I thought this was because there is something wrong with my wording or translation. But now I’ve come to see that it says more about the British left: You tolerate Marin Scarlett’s arguments about prostitution not being a bullshit-job since “demand persists without it needing to be manufactured into existence” but you won’t allow someone to call this bullshit out.
The left should never (by definition) accept the indignity of capitalism and legitimise its oppressive structures. It’s time to recommit to truly human values.