Nevermind sexual freedom – here’s the puritan Swedish model

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Many of us believe that Sweden is a pretty free society where consenting adults are entitled to exercise their sexual freedom in any way they choose. But when it comes to the purchase of sexual services, Sweden is surprisingly moralistic.

In 2008, University of Chicago Director and former Stockholm University professor Don Kulick commented: “From being admired and envied by many as beacons of sexual enlightenment in the 1960s and ’70s, the Scandinavian countries today have some of the most repressive sex laws in the Western world. Sweden is the most draconian. The message conveyed by recent laws is clear: your sexuality is the property of the state, and the state will claim its right to regulate and punish that sexuality, wherever you may be. So whatever, indeed, happened to sex in Scandinavia?”

Several pundits and politicians consider the so called “Swedish model” to be the perfect solution to combat sexual slave trade and trafficking. The Swedish sex work model makes it illegal to buy sexual services, but not to sell them. Advocates of the model claim that attacking the demand to buy sex and in general reducing the sex industry is a perfect method of fighting sex trafficking and slavery.

Since it was introduced in 1999, the law has also been adopted by Norway, Iceland and France (though Norway is now considering abolishing it). British Labour MEP Mary Honeyball wants the EU to adopt the policy. And US feminist’s are praising  it. But both facts and figures speak against the promises of Mrs Honeyball’s cherished Swedish model. There is absolutely no credible research to support the idea that the model really reduces selling, buying or trafficking.

A Swedish National Police Board (“Trafficking in human beings for sexual and other purposes” for the year 2011) report shows that the policy, instead of improving the situation, has driven sex work underground and made sex workers even more vulnerable. The Sex Purchase Act has also lead to an expansion of indoor sex work. Thai massage parlours offering sexual services in the Stockholm area, the report claims, have increased from 90 in 2009, to 250 by 2011/2012.

560 NGOs and civil society organisations, as well as 86 academics and researchers have written to Mary Honeyball to voice their objections against  her plans. They urge other EU member states not to criminalize the purchase of sex.

Current laws surely do need to be reassessed to improve safety for sex workers. In most western countries sex workers are forced to work alone. This is a regulation which dramatically increases the risk of them being subjected to rape, robbery and violence.

Whether you like it or not, criminalizing the buying and selling of sex is an attempt to legislate morality and exercise control over private sexual behavior. One can also argue that the conflation of sex work and trafficking is a conscious attempt to prevent people from voluntarily migrating to do sex work.

Sex workers are human beings and selling sex is their (own private) business. Sex workers must be entitled to the same labor rights as other workers and the same human rights as other people. It is vulnerability, not sex work, which creates victims.

So what are the alternatives to the Swedish model? Well, what about decriminalization?

A majority of all sex workers work indoors. Decriminalization would enable these women and men to work from premises in teams of two or more which would be safer for them. The same is true for male sex workers. Decriminalizing the sale of sex would also empower sex workers to use the justice system to seek redress for abuses and discrimination. Removing the threat of criminal penalties would enable sex workers to work with police. It would also encourage more open access to health, legal and social services.

In her book ”Porr, horor och feminister” (Pornography, whores and feminists) and in her master thesis ”Synden ideologiserad, Modern svensk prostitutionspolicy som identitets- och trygghetsskapare” (Sin ideologized, Modern Swedish prostitution policy as foundation for identity and safety, 2003), the Swedish social anthropologist Petra Östergren argues that the Swedish position on prostitution has more to do with christian moral beliefs about sin than with gender equality. The contemporary Swedish welfare state and its institutions largely were founded by people from the free churches, the labor movement and the temperance movement. Not seldom with conservative moral values about sexuality.

Sex work challenges current social and cultural norms in the same way that anal and oral sex, homosexuality, illegitimacy and even masturbation once did. We changed the way we thought about those issues. Now it’s about time that we changed the way we think about sex work too. Many western countries have legalized same-sex marriage. Sweden is one of them. Now it is time to show sex sellers, and buyers, the same respect and treat them as grown-up individuals with their own free will.

And with the right to their own body. It is interesting to note that feminists, who often attack men and male norms for oppressing women, are not able to notice how they themselves are destroying and controlling the lives of all women who don’t fit in the feminist template. Sex workers are even met with hate from radical feminists when they dare to speak out freely on social- or mass media. This is only about feminist hate against sex workers and has nothing to do with gender equality.

But this is not only an issue of moral values. It is also a matter of something more materialistic – the right to have a home without being evicted. A landlord can be convicted of pimping if a sex worker is selling sex in her or his apartment.

So, this is what the nation that gave us the Swedish sin now is trying to export to the world?

Organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty are demanding that Sweden changes its sex purchase laws. A new World Health Organization report reiterates its position in favor of decriminalization and explicit legal protection of sex workers’ rights as the best way to protect their sexual health. Yet, the reaction from Swedish lawmakers is non-existent. Feminists and other pundits have only reacted with indignation on these demands.

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Martin Ekdahl is a Swedish author and historian living in Rostock, Germany. He was formerly a member of the Swedish Pirate Party and is now working on spreading knowledge about libertarianism to Europeans. He is currently involved in a project, translating Petra Östergren's book ''Porr, horor och feminister'' to English.