Should Buying Sex Be Illegal?
Jasmine’s case was extreme, but prostitutes in Sweden also face more routine forms of oppression. When the Rose Alliance surveyed Swedish sex workers about their chief worries—offering choices including violence from clients and sexually transmitted infections—the most common answer was prejudice from authorities. One constant danger, says Jakobsson, is eviction—a result of the broad application of the country’s anti-pimping law, which makes landlords fearful of any arrangement that can be construed as profiting from prostitution. Of the alliance’s nine board members, three have been thrown out of their apartments.
Beyond the dangers created by the law, Jakobsson sees the assumption that sex workers are all victims as fundamentally degrading. Now 45, she retired from prostitution two years ago, after working for twenty-six years in seven countries. To her, sex work is simply another form of work and should be subject to the same labor laws that govern other industries. That means, among other things, treating sex trafficking as a problem of bonded labor rather than an inevitable outgrowth of prostitution.
“The framework we use when we talk about trafficking for sexual exploitation doesn’t have to be different from the framework we use for other sorts of exploitation,” she says. “Our gut feelings might tell us it’s different, it’s terrible—but for me as a former sex worker, actually, I’d rather be trafficked for sexual purposes than to pick berries in the north of Sweden. But that’s me—most people would disagree and say the other way around. What I’m saying is that there are good legal frameworks. Why don’t we use them?
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This is ultimately where every discussion of prostitution law seems to end up: torn over the question of whether sex work can ever be just a job. The overwhelming consensus in Sweden is that it cannot, whatever people like Jakobsson may say. “You have to lift your eyes from this individual perspective,” says Johanna Dahlin, organizational secretary of the Swedish Women’s Lobby, an umbrella group of Swedish women’s organizations. “How can a few persons’ right or freedom to sell sex stand above the vast majority of women that are trafficked and exploited in prostitution?”
Her colleague, program manager Stéphanie Thögersen, adds that it’s also about the principles underlying Swedish society. “Do we want a society where it’s OK to buy another person?” she asks.
Talking to Swedish feminists, I heard variations on these points again and again. “We don’t base our legislation on individuals’ experiences; we base it on the society we want,” says Olga Persson, secretary general of the Swedish Association of Women’s Shelters and Young Women’s Empowerment Centres. Persson, a fierce supporter of the law, has also lobbied in Europe for Honeyball’s resolution. She finds arguments about freedom and agency in regard to prostitution almost unintelligible, particularly given her work with the battered women in her group’s shelters, some of whom have been involved in selling sex. “If Pye thinks it’s harmful to herself and her friends, we have a lot of voices which are saying the opposite,” she says. “Sometimes you have to talk to survivors, instead of the ones who are in the industry right now.”
By “survivors,” Persson means people who have escaped forced prostitution. It’s not easy, however, to find such people in Sweden. When I ask Persson if she knows of anyone I should talk to, she replies, “We don’t really have that tradition in Sweden—these individual voices. We come together and speak as a group.” In other words, experts like Persson will speak for those worth listening to.
Naturally, Jakobsson and her colleagues at the Rose Alliance find this attitude maddening. Yet Swedish collectivism has also created one of the most gender-equal societies the world has ever known, and Swedish feminists generally see the prohibition on buying sex as a crucial element of that. Indeed, they often speak about it with a sort of missionary zeal, and they are eager to spread the good word to other countries. “The most important thing is that it’s based on an understanding that all women in prostitution are vulnerable, and that the state is obliged to protect them,” Persson says. Whether all women want that protection is almost beside the point.
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