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The “Swedish Model” of Prostitution Is Sexist, Heterosexist, and Puts Sex Workers at Risk

By Melinda Chateauvert

There’s an article making the rounds on the internet that’s become quite popular among a certain sort of feminist. “Why Hasn’t Anyone Tried This Before?” by Marie De Santis, executive director of the Women’s Justice Center in Santa Rosa, California, claims that within a span of five years, Sweden has reduced street prostitution by 65% and that “sex-trafficking” of immigrant women has ceased.

Swedish feminists accomplished this “miraculous” abolition of “male violence … [and] the exploitation of women and children” by convincing legislators to look at prostitution from a “female” point of view (47.3% of the Riksdagen, the Swedish parliament, are women). The female POV holds that no woman wants to be a sex worker and that every woman working in the sex industry is coerced into it. By this logic, men are the criminals: they are sexually violent and should be punished for paying for sex; women are victims who need re-education and opportunities to hold safe and respectable jobs. According to De Santis, this is an idea “so firmly anchored in common sense” that it’s a wonder not every country has similar laws.

The “Swedish Model” is bad policy. Maybe it would be lovely if it supported opportunities for Anita Ekberg and other large, beautiful women to cavort in Rome’s Trevi Fountain. But the law has more similarities to failed “broken windows” policing: the idea that stopping petty crimes like panhandling, loitering, and littering prevents serious and violent crimes. There is no evidence that arresting people of color—the primary targets of police “stop and frisk” initiatives—are the result of recent drops in felonious crimes. Indeed, Sweden’s “end demand for prostitution” policy makes as much sense as jailing people for debt, as Britain did from the fourteenth century until 1842. But since the US does, in fact, imprison fathers who fail to pay child support, and petty violators for their unpaid traffic tickets (as the folks in Ferguson, Missouri complain), maybe that’s why arresting men who pay women for sex is “common sense.”

Sex Workers UniteArresting men for soliciting sex workers is sexist and heterosexist. It erroneously suggests that male sex workers cannot be victims of violence, that only women are in need of police protection, and it renders transgender people invisible. It is anti-sex, harking back to “white-ribbon” temperance and sexual abstinence campaigns that chastise men and women who believe safe, sane and consensual sex for pay is a right of privacy and civil liberty. These are problems that should give feminists and libertarians pause.

Thinking citizens should question the “common sense” of criminalizing clients. However well-meant, the policy is misinformed about the sex industry. For sex workers, criminalization creates dangerous situations and threatens their health and safety, as well the security of their families and friends. Pye Jakobsson of Sweden’s Rose Alliance and President of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) says that the “Swedish Plague” has given police more power to harass and threaten women who engage in—or are suspected of engaging in—sex work. Marginalized women, including drug users, immigrants, the homeless, runaway minors and transgender women of color have been targeted by police as victims in need of “rescue.”

A report issued by NSWP and the Sex Workers’ Outreach Project–New York City documented the increased vulnerability of sex workers to violence as the result of “end demand” schemes. When law enforcement profiles sex workers as victims of sex-trafficking, Jakobsson says they “are more reluctant to report crimes of violence to police.” She notes further their power to negotiate services is reduced because potential clients, fearful of arrest, “are nervous, [and] want to leave faster.”

End demand laws also criminalize “third parties” who do business with sex workers, including landlords, hotel managers, taxi and Uber drivers, even other sex workers who they work with for safety and companionship. Working alone “should not cost me my life” say Canadian sex workers who are fighting passage of a new end demand law there. Sex workers who seek services for drug use and HIV prevention or basic health care may find themselves under arrest for possessing condoms and clean syringes, which the police regard as “evidence” of prostitution rather than harm reduction and self-protection.

“Why hasn’t anyone tried this before?” Because the violence and stigma against people in the sex industry must be understood from sex workers’ points of view, not a “female POV,” whatever that is. People hustle in the street and commercial sex economy for many reasons: economic necessity, anti-immigrant laws, a lack of affordable housing and medical care, the absence of other remunerative work opportunities. These are better explanations than “male exploitation and violence.” Why hasn’t anyone tried listening to sex workers’ own ideas of how to make their work safer and their lives better? 


Melinda Chateauvert, photo credit Tracey PrimaveraMelinda Chateauvert is the author of Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to SlutWalk. As an activist, Chateauvert has been involved in many grassroots campaigns to change policies and attitudes about sex and sexuality, gender and antiviolence, and race and rights. As a university professor she has taught courses on social justice organizing, the civil rights movement, and gender and sexuality. She is a fellow at the Center for Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.