Monthly Archives: April 2012

Anti-prostitution laws: the trouble with the Swedish Model

It's Friday the Thirteenth, so I'm blogging for decriminalisation of prostitution.  For the backstory to that apparent non sequitur plus my general views on the matter, read this post.

This time around, I thought I'd write about a commonly-discussed prostitution law that's usually known as the Swedish Model (as that was the country that thought it up) and sometimes as the Nordic Model (as other Nordic countries have since adopted it) and is often put forward as The Answer To The Problem Of Prostitution.  I picked this one because it's a prime example of a law that's supposed to be for the benefit of prostitutes, but in practice causes them major problems that could be avoided by decriminalisation.

The Swedish Model, simply put, is to make it technically legal to work as a prostitute, but illegal to visit a prostitute.  Well, not literally 'visit', of course – if your best friend happens to be a prostitute, you're still quite free to pop round to her house for coffee any time she happens to invite you.  'Visit' in the sense of 'be a client of a prostitute'.

Let's look at what this means.  Supposing I were to experience some cash flow problems and to decide, after some consideration of the options, that my best bet for making the necessary money was to charge for sexual services (1).  Accordingly I find an interested man, we agree on a price, we do the deed, and he pays me (and I presumably then go and pay my latest mortgage payment or gas bill or whatever I needed the money for).  If this were to take place in a country that's adopted the Swedish Model of prostitution law, then that man would now be a criminal.  For engaging in a mutually consensual and mutually acceptable act,he could find himself subject to a fine, a criminal record, and possibly a prison sentence.

It would make not a blind bit of difference how carefully I'd considered my decision beforehand, how certain I felt of it, how polite and pleasant he was while hiring my services, or how happy I was with the whole transaction after it had taken place.  It wouldn't matter that, according to the law in my country, I have been considered fully capable of making my own sexual decisions for the past twenty-five years.  It wouldn't matter that, had we chosen to do the identical things for free, the law of the land wouldn't have had the slightest interest in us.  In short, under the Swedish Model the question of whether I had consented to what had just gone on would not matter, because I would not be considered capable of giving consent to it. 

So what, exactly, is the idea behind criminalising consensual and harmless activity?

The Swedish Model seems to be based on the beliefs that

a) having sex for money is the one job so unpleasant it's impossible that nobody in their right mind would ever willingly choose it.  Therefore, all women in the job must either have been forced into it by violent pimps or traffickers, or they must not be in their right mind and therefore their opinions on the matter can be disregarded.

b) prostitution is inherently a Bad Thing anyway, and thus ought to be stopped, but doing this via a model that frames women as helpless victims with no say in the matter is more politically correct than doing it via a model that frames them as evil fallen women.

Now, the fundamental problem with this is of course that the first of those beliefs isn't true and the second is an extremely questionable opinion. And, while people are entitled to their questionable opinions, if they want to enshrine them into law to be imposed upon others then they ought to be held to a rather higher standard of evidence. 

Even in the one area where the reasoning behind the law does hold up as ethically solid – the desire to help those women who actually have been forced into prostitution – it's very debatable whether it's doing a blind bit of good.  Dodillet and Ostergren's paper The Swedish Sex Purchase Act: Claimed Success And Documented Effects, and Jordan's newly-published essay The Swedish Law to Criminalize Clients: A failed experiment in social engineering, both examine the effects of the law in practice, and both point out that there is simply no conclusive evidence as to whether the law has helped reduce forced trafficking in the sex trade in the countries where it's been implemented.  (One particular concern that neither paper mentioned on this subject, by the way, is that some women in this situation have actually managed to escape their plight thanks to the help of a client who found out what was going on.  A law that puts clients at risk of being arrested themselves if they approach the police with concerns therefore has the potential to backfire tragically as far as protection for trafficking victims is concerned.)

In addition, the above two papers raise a number of concerns about the impact that this law is having on prostitutes themselves.  I'd strongly recommend that anyone interested read one or both of the full papers (available online at the links I gave above) as there's no chance of me doing the full arguments justice.  However, probably the most worrying are the reported accounts of the effects that it's had on streetwalkers. 

Streetwalkers – prostitutes who pick up their clientele on the streets, rather than in brothels or via escort agencies or personally advertising – account for a minority of all prostitutes, but are the group that best fit the stereotype of prostitutes as vulnerable women living a desperate existence.  The huge spectrum of working conditions that a prostitute might experience, starting at the top end with high-class escort workers who spend much of their time in expensive hotels and command huge hourly fees, hits bottom here.  Much of the streetwalker trade takes place in their clients' cars, which is an extremely dangerous place to be if your client turns nasty.  Their rates are a lot lower.  They're much more likely to be arrested than off-street prostitutes.  Rates of drug addiction are much higher.  They're a lot more likely to be in desperate straits emotionally and/or financially.  So, if the Swedish Model actually was – as its supporters often claim – helpful to all those poor vulnerable prostitutes who need rescuing from the misery of their lives, this is exactly the subsection of the world's oldest profession that you'd expect to see benefiting from it.

According to reports, it is in fact causing them significant and severe problems.

The problem is, of course, that if someone is working in such an unsavoury job it's generally because she's very, very short of other options in her life.  Using the force of the law to drive away a large proportion of their customers doesn't change whatever life circumstances have led them to this point.  All it does is to limit their already limited options even further.  They still need to earn the money, but they have fewer clients to pick and choose from.  That means they may be more likely to feel their only option is to accept unpleasant clients or to agree to acts at which they normally would have drawn the line (potentially including sex without condoms).  On top of that, because of the need to avoid the police, they have to ply their trade on the less well populated, more dimly lit streets.  They have to rush through the initial negotiations for fear of being caught, and that means less chance to assess their potential clients and pick up any worrying or off-putting vibes from them.  All of which can put them in a lot more danger.

So, overall, the Swedish Model looks like pretty bad news for prostitutes.  It's bad news in practice because of the extra difficulties it causes for them and the significant extra danger it inflicts on the most vulnerable women in this job.  And it's bad news in principle, because it's fundamentally based on the idea that prostitutes are not considered capable of making their own decisions about something as important as what work they choose.  That last, of course, could be bad news for other women as well.  Speaking for myself, I really don't want a law on the books that boils down to 'If a woman makes sexual choices outside of what society sanctions as appropriate, she can thereby be considered incompetent to make her own decisions.'  That could be a very scary road to go down.

 

(1) I do wish to point out that this is a hypothetical example.  In the first place, I wouldn't break my marriage vows for love nor money; in the second place, I already have a way of making money from activities that involve seeing people in states of undress and doing a lot of the sort of things that make many people wince "Ick! I could never do that".  Of course, working as a doctor doesn't command nearly as high an hourly rate as Maggie used to earn in her career, but it's still the job I love and I'm sticking with it.  And I defend the right of a prostitute who wants to keep her job to do the same.

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