The Other Swedish Model

Gender, sex and culture, by Laura Agustín
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Women are not children – remember? Flawed ideas about improving the sex-purchase law


Much of my work revolves around prostitution law, sex worker rights and the cultural study of commercial sex: see Border Thinking, where I blog several times a week. I wrote the following piece after some people in Sweden welcomed a parliamentarian’s suggestion that Sweden change to a regulatory regime that comes from the 19th century.

Women are not children – remember? Flawed ideas about improving the sex-purchase law

Does sexköpslagen, the law against buying sex, work or not? Everyone wants to know. Camilla Lindberg is right that talking about the possibility that the law does not work is taboo in Sweden. The government’s official evaluation of the law has been delayed, probably because it has not been easy to find evidence to demonstrate the reasons behind an absence. That is, you may look around and not see sex workers and their customers where you did before. But you cannot know whether they have stopped buying and selling sex or, if they have not stopped, where they have gone.

Evaluators will question police and social workers, and maybe get to speak to a few sex workers, but none of these can give an overview of sex markets that operate via private telephones and the Internet, in the privacy of homes and hotel rooms. And evaluators certainly cannot say how many people are doing what. Street prostitutes are estimated in some countries to constitute less than ten per cent of all sex workers, so, even if there are few left to see, 90% are unaccounted for. When businesses that sell sex are outlawed, they hide, so government accountants are unlikely to find them – and, after all, many are just individuals working alone.

But if we want to discuss the whole sex industry more openly, we should not focus on the concept of brothels, as Lindberg suggests – particularly not on the idea of health checks for workers. This 19th-century French idea could not be more patriarchal and thus the very opposite of jämställdhet, sexköpslagens guiding principle. Basic common sense tells us that, if disease-transmission is a concern, all parties exchanging fluids have to practice safer sex – not ‘be checked’. And although laws in the Netherlands, Germany, New Zealand, Nevada and parts of Australia allow and regulate brothels as one form of commercial sex, many people who sell sex in those countries prefer to work on their own, in small groups in flats or – yes – on the street. In France, organised sex workers vociferously oppose a proposed return to the old system of maisons closes with health controls that stigmatise prostitutes as (female) carriers of sexually-transmitted diseases.

Draconian legislation does not make sense because no single law can do justice to everyone who sells and buys sex, whether they are Swedish, other European citizens or migrants, and whether they are women, men or transgendered. The enormous variety of jobs and personal histories involved cannot ethically be reduced to ideological categories: neither free nor forced describes the complicated life histories of most people who sell sex. Neither exploiter nor violent describes those of all people who buy it.

After 15 years of studying the variety and multiplicity of the sex industry and the social conflicts surrounding it, I do understand the utopic vision behind sexköpslagen: a desire that commercial sex would simply go away, that men and women would have equal opportunities, power, money and everything else – and that everyone would have good sex. Whether such a utopia can be achieved through legislation I personally doubt; sexual markets have shown themselves to be extremely tenacious over history and efforts to prohibit particular sexual behaviours have not prospered.

Debates about legislative models focus on a simplified idea of prostitution and date from times when women were seen as subordinate, when men were allowed to control their destinies and when disease was conceived as someone’s fault. All such ideas are now passé. Women are understood to be autonomous actors, with responsibility for their actions. Sexköpslagen conceives of one group of women as inferior and needing protection. Lindbergs brothels conceive of them as needing to be specially controlled. But neither are adequate ways to think about the diversity of people involved – and when it comes to safety not everyone wants to be protected the same way.

Sexköpslagen was envisioned as a way to legislate jämställdhet – ’send a signal’ about what is right and wrong in sexual relationships. The problem is it requires all women to feel the same way about sex. Nowadays, arguments about sexual behaviour revolve around rights, the idea that people can choose for themselves what activities they want to engage in and with whom. As we come to understand the enormous diversity of sexual desire, so we need to accept that, for some, money has no special ability to ruin the experience. Everyone doesn’t feel the same way about sex: it’s an anthropologist’s truism but nonetheless true.

For those interested in women’s rights, the question is how to promote the autonomy of as many women as possible, not the achievement of laws that embody some correct ideological stance.

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10 responses to “Women are not children – remember? Flawed ideas about improving the sex-purchase law”

  1. John says:

    I wish you and Susanne Dodillet would be advisors to the Swedish government in this issue. Maybe we would get a decent policy, and the discrimination of people who buy and sell sexual services would finally come to an end in this country.

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  2. Charlotte Bowyer form the Adam smith institute have a good idea.

    http://www.adamsmith.org/blog/misc/time-to-rethink-prostitution/

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  3. Taytelbaum says:

    I agree with the author. Not all humans feel the same about sex. To some it can be over excessive commercially and to others it’s excessiveness lies deeply rooted in artistic perception. In between these two extremes pornography and sex are too often experiences of the worst kind.

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  4. Kat Jones says:

    As long as it is the free decision of an adult to work in the trade, no government is supposed to criminalize their customers for a legal deal and thus destroy the basis of the trade. Prohibition has never succeeded, neither in the case of alcoholic drinks, pornography nor prostitution, as can be seen in the U.S., for example. Due to their bigot gender rage and fascist urge to correct anyone who disagrees, these Swedish women’s libbers have clearly overshot the mark.

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  5. sunflower says:

    The swedish approach to shifting the view, of prosecuting buyers (mostly men) instead of sellers (mostly women) is certainly an interesting one. However, as the business is as old as mankind, it won´t go away if we close our eyes, introduce laws or wish “it” would just go away by educating people. It will be there, as long as there is a market, aka a (sexual) need.
    What I am actually wondering is, if there are studies linked to the high numbers of rape in Sweden (which has been pointed out by the UN, or was it Amnesty…not long ago). It was also pointed out that rape investigations and respective prosecuting is too lax. One gets an idea that the latter is unfortunately very true, when following the news.
    If buying sex is making big headlines and being punished, shouldn´t there be much more drastic laws for the violent side of the topic?
    Of course there are so many more facets to the whole issue, but this one is just susprising me again and again.

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  6. dear sunflowe

    the rape statistics from sweden are the product of definitional problems, as i wrote when a europe-wide study came out last year which asked Is rape rampant in gender-equal Sweden? http://www.thelocal.se/19376/20090511/

    however, the presence of statistics in one area that go up when they go down in another can’t be responsibly made into a cause and effect relationship – even if it’s tempting. that’s a basic principle of research…

    another reason to resist the correlating of rape statistics with prostitution statistics is that it suggests that men who can’t get a sex worker go out and rape: of which there is no evidence at all. sex worker activists deplore the suggestion that their clients are rapists.

    best, laura

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  7. Insomnia says:

    The real problem is not the physical act, it is what causes men to want to purchase sex – need for control over the woman – it is mostly a psychological need. Having watched a documentary about a brothel where clients were interviewed, it seemed that many of those men are perverted like sexual predators are, or have some real difficulties with interaction with females. Women who worked there – on the other hand – were in it due to psychological dependancy on the men’s approval. They may have started in the business due to lack of money – but could not stop when they wanted to. It is sort of like a drug addiction it seems. Both clients and the women need some help.

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  8. Mohottige says:

    The argument “However, as the business is as old as mankind, it won´t go away if we close our eyes, introduce laws or wish “it” would just go away by educating people. It will be there, as long as there is a market, aka a (sexual) need.” does not hold. Also killing other people is old as mankind, doesn’ t mean that it should be free to kill. In a civilized society it is not allowed and perpetrators are punished.
    So why should it be impossible and incorrect to forbid and punish the business who sell and buy sex?

    Laura Agustín complains about lack of proof that law against buying sex is effective. Does the laws against steeling and killing prevent steeling and killing?
    If not (and it doesn’t) should we scrap the laws prohibing it?

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  9. Ylva says:

    Mohottige, stealing and murder are cases of clear perpetrators and victims. Laura Agustín is just bringing up the fact that when it comes to sex and sex work, that line between victim and perpetrator isn’t as clear as many would like to believe, as she states here:

    “The enormous variety of jobs and personal histories involved cannot ethically be reduced to ideological categories: neither free nor forced describes the complicated life histories of most people who sell sex. Neither exploiter nor violent describes those of all people who buy it.”

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  10. streja says:

    Well, the Swedish population supports this law with an overwhelming majority, so those who oppose should just live with it or show real proof and evidence to support their views.

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