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The Swedish model hurts sex workers

The Toast has a piece up by sex workers' rights advocate, Nine, about how the Swedish model of attempting to abolish sex work entirely by criminalizing clients, but not explicitly sex workers themselves, actually puts sex workers at more risk of violence and death.

The article starts by looking at Jasmine, an unrepentant sex worker and sex workers' rights advocate, who was murdered in mid-July by her former partner. Jasmine had tried to get help repeatedly, but her pleas were ignored by social services, because she was "committing ‘self-harm’, ‘romanticising’ the sex industry, and unable to identify her own best interests." Even though the authorities knew the man who killed her had a history of violence, they deemed him a better parent than a sex worker, and awarded him custody of the children immediately upon finding out that she was a sex worker.


But while clients are theoretically the only ones criminalized, the reality is much different. There are a variety of implicit punishments for sex workers, from not being able to access services like healthcare or further education, to bans on rental apartments being used for sex work, to being forced to testify in court and be considered neither victim nor accused, to police officers following sex workers, filming them, and subjecting them to intrusive searches. As Pye Jakobsson put it, "They want to save us, but they punish us until we are willing to be saved."

Nine points out how, even if it was effectively only clients who were criminalized, that still makes conditions worse for sex workers:

All of the above obstacles operate in tandem with the criminalisation of clients, which brings still more perils to sex workers. With some clients deterred by the legislation, the remaining ones are in a better position to haggle for cheaper prices, with the result that sex workers may actually have to do business with more clients in order to make ends meet. (To those commentators who view all sex work as compensated rape, this should surely be cause for concern.) Afraid of attracting police attention, it’s the clients who set the terms of where business will take place, leading sex workers to operate from more isolated and dangerous locations. And when there are fewer clients to choose from, the most desperate sex workers will be targeted by those seeking services which would ordinarily be turned down. Such conditions are ideal for predators, and with peer support networks disrupted by excessive police surveillance, sex workers are less able to organize with one another, missing out on opportunities to share crucial safety information.

She alludes to the great irony of abolitionist feminism, as she is reminded of when Gunilla Ekberg, a leading advocate for the Swedish model, told a female reporter, "Don’t ever expect any help at a women’s shelter […] That’s what happens when you betray us." While attempts to abolish sex work are theoretically about ending violence against women, the reality is that they make it harder to end violence against women, and overwhelmingly seem to come from a deep hatred of sex workers ("whorephobia".) And the Swedish model directly contradicts the motto "nothing about us without us", for actual sex workers' voices are either totally absent, or selected to include only the handful of sex workers who do support the Swedish model. As the Philippines Sex Workers Collective puts it:

It is time to tell the world that only sex workers could speak for sex workers. It is going to be an uphill battle against the well-oiled and well experienced machinery of the abolitionists (the feminists, the church and the government). But it is our lives, the sex workers, not theirs that they are legislating.


Nine reminds everyone that, "This goes beyond arguments about choice and empowerment, about consenting adults and privacy and who gets to be an expert on their own experiences. It’s about harm reduction, an approach which takes into account the full spectrum of sex workers, from the most empowered to the most vulnerable, and prioritises their safety and their access to appropriate support. The Swedish model fails sex workers on multiple counts, and its supporters’ reluctance to face up to this is not good enough."

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