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The impact of the 'Swedish model' in France: chronicle of a disaster foretold

What happens when policymakers are guided by their biases, instead of the voices of the people they are trying to help?

Still image from Travel (2016, 63min) a participative ethnographic documentary by Nicola Mai. Used with permission from Nicola Mai.

Between March 2014 and March 2015, two of the authors (Mai and Giametta) conducted a survey with 500 migrant and non-migrant sex workers in France in order to understand their views on the proposed law aiming to criminalise their clients. The law was discussed by the French Parliament recurrently in 2014 and 2015, before its final approval in April 2016 (law n° 2016-444). This survey was part of the project Emborders: Problematising Sexual Humanitarianism through Experimental Filmmaking, based at the Laboratory of Mediterranean Sociology at Aix-Marseille University between January 2014 and December 2015. The project adopted a participative ethical approach, by including people working in the sex industry and organisations representing and supporting sex workers in various stages, including the formulation of the research questions, as well as the gathering and analysis of the interview material. We compared the effects of humanitarian interventions targeting migrant sex workers and sexual minority asylum seekers in the United Kingdom and France.

The main aim of Emborders was to understand the effects in France and the United Kingdom of ‘sexual humanitarianism’, a concept developed by Nicola Mai to analyse how migrant sex workers are impacted by policymaking and social interventions based on their presumed vulnerability to trafficking and exploitation. Crucially, the concept of sexual humanitarianism refers to the global hegemony of a neo-abolitionist discourse, which systematically conflates prostitution with trafficking, framing prostitution as “paradigmatic of a system of male power” and seeking its abolition by removing the demand for sexual services. This trend is best exemplified by the global resonance of the “Swedish model” – a policymaking framework aiming to reduce the demand for prostitution by decriminalising sex work and criminalising the purchase of sex – as an ideal instrument to fight trafficking.

The concept of sexual humanitarianism refers to the global hegemony of a neo-abolitionist discourse, which systematically conflates prostitution with trafficking.

One of the main problems with the dominant neo-abolitionist discourse and the resulting policy solutions is that they ignore the priorities and needs of migrant and non-migrant sex workers. They contribute to their heightened socio-economic vulnerability and exploitability, as well as risks of destitution and deportation. The aim of the survey we undertook in 2014–15 was to move beyond these mainstream understandings of sex work, and to instead centre the perspectives of people selling sex in France on the government’s proposed criminalisation of clients. Unsurprisingly, ninety-eight per cent of the surveyed sex workers, both migrants and non-migrants, were against it.

Many respondents, both migrants and non-migrants, reported having started to suffer the effects of law n° 2016-444 before it was even implemented, as a result of extensive media coverage of the issue well before 2016. As early as 2014, rates for sex work had already begun to decrease and many clients stopped calling for fear of being fined. The words of a 27-year-old French woman working as an escort in Paris further illustrate this: 

“The threat of criminalisation in the near future has already scared away some of my clients: the most respectful ones”. (Paris, 2014)

And the words of a 40-year-old Algerian transvestite selling sex on the streets of Marseille echo similar concerns:

“It already happened. Every time there they talk about the law on TV clients go down, and then they come up again, slowly. I now do for 20 what I would not have even considered doing for 40 just a year ago. I get on cars I would not have gotten into. There are no clients. So you have to get what you can.” (Marseille, 2015)

The anticipated negative effects of this law have been confirmed by new research undertaken between April 2016 and April 2018 jointly by Hélène Le Bail researcher at Sciences Po-CERI Paris and Calogero Giametta, postdoctoral researcher for the ERC-funded SEXHUM project (Sexual Humanitarianism: Migration, Sex Work and Trafficking). Directed by Nicola Mai, the SEXHUM project extends the original focus of the Emborders project by comparing the effect of sexual humanitarian policies and intervention in Australia, France, New Zealand and the United States. 

I now do for 20 what I would not have even considered doing for 40 just a year ago.

This study was initiated by a few NGOs supporting sex workers in France, which then commissioned the two researchers to cooperate with them in conducting a survey. The research produced qualitative interviews with 70 sex workers, five focus groups with sex workers, 24 interviews and focus groups with sex worker groups or other supporting organisations – mostly constituting of community health organisations – and a quantitative survey undertaken between January and February 2018 involving 583 sex workers. Its results confirmed the disastrous consequences anticipated by the 2014-2015 survey in France and by existing research on the impact of the criminalisation of clients in Sweden.

The main aims of the law were to decrease the number of sex workers and to protect them by abolishing the previous criminalisation of public soliciting, and shifting criminality to the clients instead. However, the law ended up achieving the opposite of its intended aims. The majority of those interviewed believe that the criminalisation of clients is more detrimental to their well-being and safety than the previous laws against soliciting. They feel that they have far less control over their working conditions because of the falling number of clients since the new law came into effect. 

And in many cases, sex workers feel pressured by the police to report clients and, if they are undocumented, also experience threats of deportation if they do not comply. Moreover, the study shows that at a local level the law has not always suspended municipal bylaws and regular identity checks, which has resulted in sex workers being pushed away from their usual work places and city centres into more dangerous, isolated and unknown places. 

The law has pushed sex workers to operate under riskier conditions with dangerous implications for their physical and mental health.

Besides its failure to produce a decrease in the number of sex workers in France, the law has had a detrimental effect on the safety, health and overall living conditions of sex workers. It has pushed sex workers to operate under riskier conditions with dangerous implications for their physical and mental health. The law has impoverished many sex workers, especially those who were already experiencing economic difficulties and particularly migrant women working in the street. The falling number of clients and increased competition among sex workers has caused rates for sex work to fall.

To avoid fines for clients, the negotiation process with clients has been pushed indoors, severely reducing sex workers’ ability to evaluate and select their clients. Sex workers have been increasingly obliged to accept clients whom they would have previously refused. Generally, the decreasing time available to negotiate with clients has made it harder for sex workers to impose their conditions. Many interviews highlighted a worrying decrease in condom use as well as increased difficulties continuing treatment for those who are HIV positive. Stress created by worsening working conditions is also at the root of various psychosomatic health issues, from alcohol and drug consumption, to depression and suicidal thoughts.

The results of the qualitative research also reveal that cases of violence, of all kinds, have increased and that impoverishment, increased health risks and increased exposure to violence form a vicious circle. All of these negative dynamics could have been avoided if politicians had listened to sex workers, trusted the results of the 2014-15 survey and relied on the existing scholarly literature on the impact of the ‘Swedish Model’. They prioritized their sexual humanitarian, neo-abolitionist agenda instead of taking seriously the concerns of the people they purported to help.

The executive summary for the 2018 ‘What do sex workers think about the French prostitution act?’ report is available here.

The full 2018 report (in French is available) here.

About the authors
Nicola Mai is a sociologist, ethnographer and filmmaker working as Professor of Sociology and Migration Studies at the University of Kingston London. His academic writing and films focus on the experiences and representations of migrants working in the globalised sex industry. He is the PI of the ERC-funded project 'Sexual Humanitarianism: Migration, Sex Work and Trafficking’, Kingston University, London (in partnership with Aix-Marseille University) 2016-2018.

Calogero Giametta is a sociologist with a research focus on gender, sexuality and the political economy of migration. His work specifically analyses anti-human trafficking interventions and the right of asylum. He is a research fellow within the ERC-funded project 'Sexual Humanitarianism: Migration, Sex Work and Trafficking’, Kingston University, London (in partnership with Aix-Marseille University).

Hélène Le Bail is a research fellow at CERI since 2015. She has a doctorate in political science from the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po) and a master degree in Chinese studies from INALCO (National Institute for Eastern Languages and Cultures). Her research focuses on people mobilities in North-East Asia, more precisely on Chinese residents in Japan (skilled migration and marriage migration), and on Japan migration policy.


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