Swedish sex models!!!

So there is a bit of a back-and-forth happening between Greta Christina and newly-minted FTBorg Taslima Nasreen. Ms. Nasreen wrote a piece essentially equating all sex work with exploitative slavery. Greta, a long-time sex work advocate, disagrees with a great deal of Taslima’s piece. So do I, for the record. However, I found it more than a little interesting and opportune that this issue has come up. Some of you will remember my buddy T who guest-wrote a great piece following the news of the Ontario Supreme Court’s decision to decriminalize brothels. T and I were going back and forth on a longer piece about the strengths and weaknesses of Sweden’s model governing sex work. Since Ms. Nasreen specifically name-checks Sweden numerous times in her piece, I thought it would be the perfect time for T to publish this work.

Hir thoughts below the fold:

One of the first things to understand about sex work stats as they relate to the Swedish model is that its implementation happened to coincide with easy, cost-effective access to cell phones and the internet. These two things have forever changed the way people conduct all sorts of businesses, including sex work. Even if a sex worker meets a client on the street, giving them a phone number to call to arrange future dates diminishes the amount of time they then need to spend on the street soliciting future business. This skews the stats on how many sex workers work indoors vs. on the streets and the volume of clients that they see.

People go where the work is, and if we criminalized clients, housing and food expenses will still compel sex workers to interact with potential clients in dark, secluded and dangerous areas. As long as people have financial needs and wants that exceed that of what can be had through welfare, sex work will always exist, in every corner of the globe. There are many people who don’t want to have any kind of sex for money, but think it beats working long shifts for minimum wage when they have kids, health issues, addiction issues, or for whatever reason, find other forms of work to be a greater hardship than sex work.

Criminals, be they human traffickers, pimps or abusive clients, don’t care that they are breaking the law or violating the rights of others. The criminal element of sex work will always exist for the same reason that even though rape and murder are crimes, they continues to happen. Some people are sociopaths and/or criminals; most are not.

One of the problems with the Nordic Model is how arbitrary the lines become in defining what is and what is not sex work. If you define it as a cash transaction, what of those who accept payment in drugs (to use or sell), which then gets into the murky area of wining and dining dates, especially if there is discussion about what one will and won’t do sexually, which peopleshould be doing before having sex. And before you laugh, this has been a real problem with the Swedish laws. Then add ‘gifts’ and the availability of gift cards and prepaid credit cards. What of the client who pays the worker’s rent? This then becomes quite similar to a ‘sugar-daddy’ situation, which starts to bleed over to include women who date men who help them financially, painting them as sex workers (and some might argue they are, to an extent).

Additional problems come in the form of making owning a place of prostitution illegal. Roommates who work together for financial and safety purposes can then be prosecuted for pimping each other. Landlords may have to evict a sex worker tenant if they are made aware (usually by nosey neighbors… so sluts, keep that Aspirin between your knees!), lest they be convicted of running the sex workers business or living off of the avails. This then forces sex workers to work alone, and potentially forces them to move often, which diminishes their financial resources, forces them into increasingly dangerous areas of town, and cuts them off from established social ties (such as friendly neighbors) who might come to their aid.

Further, it is fine and well to come up with a plethora of nit-picky laws, but if the laws aren’t implementable, what purpose do they serve? One of the reasons why sex workers are consistently prosecuted at rates that far exceed those of clients is because they are identifiable. Dressing a certain way and carrying lube and condoms can be used as evidence against them; whereas unless client are caught on tape, they can claim to have been asking for directions or just thought it was their lucky night: ‘Oh no officer, I didn’t know I had to pay for it! I thought it was my Axe body spray.’ Countries where the Swedish model has been implemented have incredibly low rates of prosecution of clients; arrests may be made, but charges are infrequently brought to court because the evidence is poor. This amounts to no more than shaming people in the court of public opinion, which works for politicians, but not the hardened criminal element, because to reiterate, criminals and sociopaths don’t care.

There is also a fundamental problem with the way we view immigration and migration. The Naked Anthropologist has spent years studying migrant populations and makes a good case that those who are willing to leave their home countries for economically advantaged ones, are by nature risk takers, and are therefore more likely to voluntarily perform riskier jobs, such as sex work, driving taxis, construction, etc. By making sex work illegal and therefore automatic ground for deportation, we paint people into a corner where they may claim to be victims when they aren’t, thereby inflating the numbers and spreading thin already scant enforcement resources. Additionally, the age at which one is considered an adult varies by country and culture, a sixteen year old woman from Africa or Asia may have been married with children and her own house in her homeland, but would now be considered a child in Europe or North America.

I admire those who seek to inform others about the real dangers of the sexual exploitation (or any other form of exploitation) of others, as they do a valuable service to all of humanity. However, what they often miss is this: most people want to do the right thing, and many (possibly most), if given the opportunity to do so without risk, will. Instead of making clients and those in peripheral occupations (security, agencies, etc) the ‘enemy,’ they should be educated and enlisted to help solve the problem. Much the same way that prohibition failed, while drunk driving campaigns have succeeded, we need to educate people, create social pressure to do the right thing,  provide a workable (and realistic) legal framework, and then prosecute the actual offenders.

One of the best things we could do to really curtail the exploitation of others is to start a public awareness campaign and create anonymous phone lines for clients, security staff, landlords and neighbors to call, so that they can report suspicious situations without being obligated to be legally involved. You could even call it Traffic-Stoppers. Police, social workers and support staff could then assess the situation, undercover as clients if necessary, and intervene as needed. Much is made of the male sex drive and how it diminishes capacity, but post-orgasm, if the client happens to notice that the sex worker looks to be abused or unwilling, the client might want to help, but have no means to do so. By painting all clients as rapists and participants in trafficking and exploiting others, you shame them into silence when their help is desperately needed.

I would love to see customs staff at airports and borders trained to spot those at risk, and to discreetly take them aside for a private interview. I would love to see multi-lingual signs in high volume areas warning people of the reality of exploitation and letting them know that the law is on their side and who they can contact if they need help. I would love to see those signs in clubs and bars where clients are picked up. And I would love to see real resources put towards mental health, addiction, education, employment and immigration/migration services.

There are three additional points I would like to comment on:

First, there seems to be a conflation between First World Problems and Second/Third World problems in the discussion between GC and TN. As long as those at risk (particularly women, children, queer and trans people) have fewer rights and employment options, rates of very real, very tragic victimization will be far greater in those areas; and that is an outrage, and we should fight it. But in fighting it, we should first understand the underlying causes, which may include the reality that certain cultures are deeply patriarchal and more abusive towards women, while at the same time providing few means of support financially or socially for the marginalized.

Second, I’m glad someone posted the NZ laws pertaining to the right to refuse clients for any reason (including race), and that the clients only have the right to services that have been paid for. If the offer if rescinded, the fee should be repaid partially or in full depending on the amount of service already provided. That is exactly how it should be. Do not forget that being naked and alone with a stranger is an entirely different thing than serving someone coffee in a crowded Starbucks.

Third, there are important differences to understand about what it means to decriminalize something, versus to legalize something. If you decriminalize something, anyone can do it; if you legalize something, restrictions may be put on who/how/when/what is involved. The trouble with legalization, is that you can get into the situation that Canada is in where sex work is legal, but there are rules that curtail it that can impinge on the rights of the worker. Or you could end up with a system like Nevada where it’s legal for certain people (generally women of age employed in legal brothels), and under certain conditions (health standards, etc). If someone fails to meet these standards, they are then legally in the wrong (though it’s usually a misdemeanor). If you make it a requirement that only those who have licenses can engage in sex work, and make the acquisition of a license dependent upon such things as testing negative for STIs or drug, the absence of mental health issues, or citizenship, then you force those at risk underground again and cut them off from valuable services.

So in short: Decriminalize sex work across the board; keep rape, human trafficking and exploitation illegal. Fund and advertise public awareness campaigns and anonymous, exploitation report lines. Provide social and health services where needed. Realize that bad people will do bad things, and good people will do the best they can; try not to confuse the two.

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  1. Stewie says

    Cannot fault a word of that. It’s always refreshing to see knowledge and common sense practised together.
    I’ll add that it broadly follows the logic of a Libertarian world, which can only be good.

  2. left0ver1under says

    “One of the reasons why sex workers are consistently prosecuted at rates that far exceed those of clients is because they are identifiable.”

    I disagree. That may be a small part of it, but the overwhelming reason the focus of arrest is on the prostitutes is gender. Most of the sellers are women, and most of the customers are men, as are most of those with legal power in society.

  3. Dendritic Trees says

    Overall this is a brilliant assessment.

    The single point I disagree with is that mandatory STI testing as a condition for legal sex work will be detrimental. Prostitutes are known to be a major vector of STIs, which, currently, makes buying and selling sex something of a public health threat.

    Ideally I think that anyone who’s job involves having sex should be screened for STIs on a regular basis and that one of the major benefits of legalized prostitution in a centralized indoor location is that sex workers could demand a recent STI check from their clients.

    As much as I realise this is hard on sex workers who do have STIs, especially the incurable ones, knowingly allowing someone with a sexually transmitted disease to do sex work, which more or less maximizes the chances they have to spread the disease makes about as much sense as letting someone with untreated tuberculosis onto a crowded airplane (mind you, I don’t think there are actually any laws against that right now), its just asking for trouble.

    I suppose the intermediate area between allowing anyone to do sex work and banning those with STIs would be mandating that they actually let clients know beforehand (which really, anyone having sex while infected with an STI should do anyway) but that seems like hairsplitting given the rather small number of clients who would probably voluntarily have sex with someone who has admitted to be HIV positive when other, legal options are available.

  4. RW Ahrens says

    I hate to pick his, but this makes no sense: Paragraph 8 below the fold:

    “However, what they fail to miss is this:”

    Shouldn’t this be “What they often miss is this:”???

    By failing to miss something, you actually notice it, and I am sure you didn’t mean that.

    Otherwise, well thought out piece.

  5. T says

    On the subject of STI transmission and mandatory testing.

    This seems like a perfectly reasonable expectation on the surface, except that to legislate across the board is impossible to enforce and therefore pointless bureaucracy and state control (not that I am a libertarian).

    First, it targets those most in need of assistance. If someone makes a habit of seeing survival workers on the street, then they cannot possibly have the expectation that the person they are interacting will have perfect health, nor are they likely to care much for their own, but there is simply no way to enforce mandatory testing and preventing people from having sex.

    Second, it makes the assumption that sex workers are the ones with diseases which continues to stigmatize them as the filth of society, when it is just as likely to pick up an STI from any sex partner. STIs such as HSVI & II, and HPV can be impossible to detect unless symptoms are present, and in many cases, they lie dormant. They are so ubiquitous in the adult population and do so little damage to the health of the infected, that they do not even merit a phone call from public health services to other partners should someone prove to be infected. Sex workers are much more likely to use condoms for all forms of sex, and are therefore less likely to transmit STIs such as HIV, Syphilis, Chlamydia and Gonorrhea than those you might meet in the general population. They are also far more likely to get regular health check up and to therefore be treated.

    The problem with setting such a standard is that it requires people to get a government issued license, which, even where it’s legal, many won’t do for fear of having their employment record tainted. It’s entirely possible to have a liberal government one minute and an anti-sex wing-nut in office next term, so what constitutes a ‘crime’ can change quite suddenly (see prohibition).

    Ultimately it’s unimplementable because sex work takes too many forms to monitor, from street level, to professional websites online, to personal ads, to bar/club pick-ups, to interactions between known acquaintances, etc etc. You would have to make any sex work outside of legalized brothel illegal, which gets us right back to where we started, creating unworkable situations that disproportionally disadvantage those most in need of safer work environments. Moreover, licensing fees make pimps of the government, and they can be cost prohibitive for many.

    Now, it would be entirely possible to create a system where people could voluntarily submit to health inspections and then be certified in a way that could be verifiable. One example would be to create a health service tracking system that kept identification records and results but kept the information confidential, and doesn’t appear on employment and criminal records, and then issued photo-IDs with an identification number and a dated certification. This type of monitoring system is basically what is already in effect with our local STI/Public Health screening centers (and here I make the assumption that most of North America and Europe have similar systems). You can be tested anonymously and give false information, but if you want a print out to show other people, you are required to give photo-ID and but the print out then has your name and contact information. With an anonymous certification photo-ID card, it would then be possible for those concerned to only seek out those who are so certified.

    Ultimately, you cannot control what people do with their bodies, it’s brute fact. You can make it illegal and they’ll do it anyway. The financial burden of enforcing is far greater than it is to provide education and health services to those in need.

  6. T says

    That *might* be true in terms of arrests, I was speaking strictly about what constitutes evidence in a court of law. It could also be the case that clients are arrested less frequently because it’s harder to prove and therefore is a waste of time and money, which is why there are shaming tactics such as John schools and publishing names and license plates, which don’t seem to target sex workers in the same way.

  7. T says

    You are correct. It’s the result of cutting and pasting, changing wording around and writing late at night when the eyes are tired. It’s a bit like ‘crintelligent design proponentists,’ I just hope my arguments are better.

  8. RW Ahrens says

    Been there, done that. I’ve pulled some good ones in my day, too. Some of my texts are probably up on that site where kids post their parents’ embarrassing texts…

    Multiple pairs of eyes work better, I’ve found.

  9. Alasdair says

    I don’t entirely agree with its argument, but this article gets points for recognising that the arguments over the legal status of prostitution are something of a red herring. The real questions that should be asked are, what can be done to protect prostitutes and improve their lives? What can be done to prevent trafficking, rape and the spread of STIs? What can be done to help those who want to get out of the trade to do so, and stop others from getting into it in the first place?

    That’s not to say I don’t have any opinions on the legal questions, but really they’re much less important than those ones. I strongly suspect that changing the law (whether legalising, decriminalising or whatever), by itself, is unlikely to have any significant impact on the lives of prostitutes in reality.

  10. says

    Up until now I thought the Swedish system was supposed to work really well. I am much saddened to learn that that’s not the case, but I’m convinced. Thanks for posting this. Especially the interesting thoughts about clients helping.

  11. mouthyb says

    I get so frustrated when this subject comes up. Many of the pro-sex work arguments utterly ignore the difference in cases between sex workers with middle class resources, who can afford to refuse clients or who have the resources to screen their clients, and sex workers who do not have middle class resources, who take on considerably more risk.

    All too often, the conversation defaults to the experience of the middle class sex worker, and ignores the poor sex worker. Sex work: for the most part, you aren’t in it for kicks.

    I’m about half in agreement with this piece, except for that I generally object to the way sex work is framed in discussions like these. Sex work is uniquely exploitative, and we just don’t have the sort of society which allows for much dignity with sex work. I don’t think we can count on the customers to see past their own needs and care about the sex worker enough to report. I think that’s idealized; the way that sex work is approached in the US makes it about desire, and customers tend to assume that sex workers are just horny.

  12. says

    I liked this piece but I share your concerns. (Isn’t it funny how everything seems to gets framed in middle-class terms, as if the middle class gets to define all experiences?)

    That’s why I appreciated this in particular:

    Do not forget that being naked and alone with a stranger is an entirely different thing than serving someone coffee in a crowded Starbucks.

    Yes, many sex workers find sex work less degrading than food service, office work, blah de blah blah blah, but the inherent dangers are different, and, while they can be minimized by decriminalization, they are not strictly due to criminalization.

  13. Dianne says

    Yes, many sex workers find sex work less degrading than food service, office work, blah de blah blah blah, but the inherent dangers are different, and, while they can be minimized by decriminalization, they are not strictly due to criminalization.

    Unless the situation is so bad that there’s simply no way for sex work to exist and not be exploitive, then this is an argument for more regulation on the industry. Which requires legalization and intense monitoring and regulation. Acknowledge the inherent differences and dangers and make laws that specifically address them.

  14. says

    Over an hour ago I posted the following comments on Taslima’s blog article http://freethoughtblogs.com/taslima/2012/04/11/prostitution/

    It is still awaiting moderation, though other comments have been published since then. I’m not sure why, perhaps she hasn’t gotten around to review the link I provided yet, but in case she will not approve it I’ve copied it here, as it is relevant to this post as well.

    #14 April 12, 2012 at 2:09 am

    I spent several years working in and living next to the poorest neighbourhood in Canada. It is the neighbourhood where dozens of street sex workers were murdered by a serial killer because the police and the community didn’t give a damn about them. I volunteered as a citizen advocate along with other progressive citizens to try and protect those women, who were being pushed into a dangerous industrial area by NIMBY residents with the help of community police officers. My involvement in that issue led me to law school where I began to work on related issues, such as setting up North America’s first drug injection facility, Insite. So I have grass-roots, front line experience with this issue of prostitution.

    The status quo approach to prostitution is not working and will not save women (or men) from that practice, just as the so-called war on drugs does not protect anyone but causes more harm than good. The war on drugs is actually a war on people, especially minorities and the poor. Similarly, when there are crackdowns on prostitution, it is the poor street workers who get targeted. That’s what happened in Vancouver. The serial killer’s victims were all street workers, a disproportionate number of whom were indigenous women. For a hundred years or so, the Vancouver police have shuffled street prostitutes from one neighbhourhood to another. Residents protest and picket to push street prostitutes out. Meanwhile, massage parlours, escort agencies, etc., get licensed by the city.

    It is one thing to oppose prostitution as oppressive to women (and men), but what solutions are being offered to end it other than legislative and enforcement measures that are proven failures? Until an effective way is found to end the practice, harm reduction must be instituted, in the same way harm reduction is a crucial step to ending the disastrous war on drugs.

    Here’s a blog article I wrote about sexist attitudes in the RCMP and their failure, along with the Vancouver Police, to catch a serial killer because his victims were prostitutes and drug dealers:

    “Sexual harassment in the RCMP and the failure to catch a serial killer”


    #15 April 12, 2012 at 2:55 am

    I just want to correct the last sentence in my previous comment (still waiting moderation)

    I wrote, “…. because his victims were prostitutes and drug dealers:”

    I meant to say drug users, not drug dealers. Some of them may have been dealers, but that was not my point. Drug users are considered less credible, and in fact, the current Missing Women Inquiry has heard evidence that one of the reasons charges were dropped against the serial killer five years before he was finally arrested and convicted, was that the witness against him was a prostitute and drug user so she could not be trusted. After he was released, he went on to kill many more women before he was finally stopped.

  15. JohnM says

    Ding ding ding! Absolutely correct, Ms DC. And something that needs to be pointed out to the Ayn Rand Brigade early and often. It always amazes me that they can’t figure out that abuse of power is abuse of power regardless of the institution doing it.

  16. godless says

    Blog post:
    “As you can see, the form of trafficking in persons that involves force, fraud, coercion or anything involving a minor is officially defined as “SEVERE sex trafficking”. “Sex trafficking” as defined by the OFFICIAL definitions in the U.S. CODE does not involved any force, fraud or coercion AT ALL!

    This OFFICIAL definition for “sex trafficking” may seem like a small issue to some. Many may say “oh, but we know what it actually means.” I can not stress this enough to those of you out there wanting to be knowledgeable about this issue.

    This official conflation between forced and not forced IS the issue!

    This IS their victory! It’s one thing for such conflations to happen in the media and in propaganda but it is quite another for them to become law. This seems to validate the conflations and blanket statements prohibitionists like Nasreen make in many people’s eyes. Unfortunately, many Americans tend not to decide what is right by what is true but rather by what the law says. I explain how this official conflations came to be in the video below.”


  17. mynameischeese says

    People seem to take it for granted that legalisation will automatically lead to regulation, which is strange when there are places where the opposite has happened (like Amsterdam).

    I can see why legalisation would happen (because the male customers would benefit), but I can’t see why any society would be motivated to expend resources constantly monitoring a legal industry (because only the mostly-female prostitutes would benefit from that).

    If we legalise it, we can regulate it, just like alcohol, drugs, cigarettes. Except Europe still has cigarette smuglers, I really doubt if legalising alcohol on first nations reservations would magically cure their alcoholism (which probably has more to do with colonisation than with prohibition), and I also doubt that regulation has had much effect when it comes to proscription drugs as it’s still really easy to buy anything on the black market (or even to manipulate/bribe doctors).

  18. says

    I really don’t buy that argument. It seems like it mainly derives from the go-to accusation made by the so-called “abolitionist” movement that sex worker rights is based on an elite “happy hookers lobby” in cahoots with the evil sex industry to keep poor women in slavery. Of course, the reality is that sex worker rights is an global movement, and that some of the key battles have been playing out in the developing world. Because, as it turns out, the policies of often-imperialistic “abolitionist” NGOs hit sex workers there far harder than in the developed world.

    Case in point would be Cambodia, where heavy lobbying by US fundie NGO International Justice Mission, a great proponent of “raid and rescue” tactics, basically pressured the Cambodian government to “do something” without much regard for the human rights fallout of how it might be carried out. The result? A massive police crackdown on sex workers, mass imprisonments accompanied by widespread police violence, including rape.

    More here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Wcd8PvaeCY

  19. Arain says

    The bullshit about some people are bad some not is idiotic. They are, but you cannot tell which are bad and which not as easily as the author assumes, and that is used more for the othering of “criminals” than anything else.

    Stupid stupid stupid. Didn’t read the last couple paragraphs.

  20. says

    Why on EARTH would you announce that you didn’t read something? It’s like showing up to someone’s house and then boldly announcing that you have farted on all the pillows because you didn’t get the crusts cut off your sandwiches. Sure, you might FEEL vindicated, but you just look like an asshole.

  21. laolao says

    You claim that this piece is about “the strengths and weaknesses of Sweden’s model governing sex work”. But then I don’t see any statistics nor a single quote from anyone who has actually studied the law and its consequences. There is no reference to any study at all and you do not mention any strength whatsoever.

    You may very well have a thourough expertise in the matter, but from the article it is unclear whether you know anything more about the law than “buying illegal, selling not illegal”.

    You do raise several hypothetical problems (which is mildly interesting), but unless you actually try to engage proponents’s arguments and evaluate/interpret actual studies, I find it a tad…unsatisfying.

  22. says

    Your comment contained no references to any studies showing that blog posts require extensive citations, so while it is mildly interesting, I find it a tad… douchey.

  23. laolao says

    Well played, Sir!

    Still, do you have a leg to stand on in this case? Do you actually know anything about this law and the real-world consequences of it?

  24. says

    Reading,’s tough, I know, but you’ll see at the top that I didn’t write this post. You’d have to ask T that question. Which claim is it specifically that you find extraordinary?


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