Safety Before Ideology: Comments on the Swedish Model

The 'Swedish model' is hailed by politicians and feminists in the UK and beyond as the best approach to prostitution. But those in the sex industry claim it does more harm than good

Feature by Paul Mitchell | 19 Jun 2008

Dynamite, gender equality and flat pack furniture! For a country of just over nine million people, Sweden has punched well above its weight in exporting various ideas around the world. Now we have another one coming our way. Britain, among other countries (Norway and India included), is seriously considering adopting the Swedish approach to prostitution legislation. Introduced in 1999, the target is the customer instead of the sex worker, making it a crime to buy, but not to sell, sex. The premise is that this will reduce the numbers of on-street workers and discourage traffickers from moving vulnerable women around Europe. However, a great deal of controversy attaches itself to this approach - not least because sex workers claim that the effect of the legislation has been to make their jobs much more dangerous. Pye Jakobsson, a founding member of Sex Workers and Allies Network in Sweden (SANS), and Meena Seshu of SANGRAM, an NGO working with sex workers in India, both recently travelled to Britain as part of their campaign against the adoption of the 'Swedish Model'.

Speaking to The Skinny, Jakobsson first expresses her concerns that the law in Sweden is based on radical feminist interpretations of sexuality. "The law was never about helping, saving or getting women out of prostitution; it's about sending a message [that] Sweden won't tolerate prostitution because it is violence against women - not just sex workers, but all women." As India is on the brink of adopting this model wholesale, Seshu fears that the authorities there are employing similar logic in order to push it through. "The Women & Child Department is using the violence against women stance to get support. The thinking is that women do not have the ability to deal with their issues. The political leaders think that they not only have to protect women, but have to protect them from themselves." What does this mean for the current system? "In practice, in India, whilst it is not in law, if a sex worker gets raped, she was asking for it." One thing is for sure, and that is that there are no easy answers to this issue.

As far as Jakobsson is concerned, one of the primary problems with the model is how it was implemented in practice. "In advance of the legislation, they told us three things would be happening: the criminalising of clients, a centre for sex workers to use, and a team of social workers to help them. The only thing that happened was that the police were given more money to patrol the situation. There was no money allocated to anything else." The upshot of this has been a fundamental change in the working conditions of sex workers in Sweden, a perspective that Jakobsson, herself a sex worker, has witnessed firsthand. "Firstly, we've just been exporting the clients. They are going to Norway, Estonia, everywhere they can to avoid prosecution. Workers based in Sweden are now lowering their prices just to attract customers."

More ominously, Seshu considers the safety implications of criminalising those who would buy sexual services. "If you were to criminalise all purchasing of sex, you will find that the level of violence will go up. When you disperse and displace street prostitution [to] where women are more vulnerable and don't work together, the clients will be taking them to places that they know, not where the women are comfortable." Concurring, Jakobsson adds, "Things like having a little chat through the window are very important. This is not happening anymore, you get into the car and then you're driven away. Where you are criminalising men for buying sex, you are hoping to deter law-abiding citizens from partaking. The clients who are violent to sex workers are committing crimes of rape, assault and even murder. Do we really think that those men are going to be put off by the possibility of a fine? When women can work together it's easier to manage those sort of clients."

Both women tacitly accept that governments and many sections of society find prostitution "societally unacceptable" and that as a consequence, respect for those working in the industry may never be a policy priority. They do feel, however, that basic steps could be taken to ensure decent conditions for those involved in the industry. As Seshu says, "The social issues need to be addressed, rather than starting from a point whereby prostitution needs to be eradicated. This is about the right of the individual [to decide] how to live their lives." Jakobsson laments measures in Sweden such as those forcing sex workers who are drug addicts to leave their profession in order to receive treatment - or that condoms are not given out by prostitution centres because they're viewed as 'facilitating an unwanted activity'. "We are not that different and we provide services with dignity and respect. Until countries start realising that, it is difficult to know where to start. If you give sex workers rights and options, they may choose to leaveā€¦ or they may not."

Additional reporting by Nine.