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The Sexelance: red lights on wheels

A converted ambulance, the Sexelance is a mobile sex clinic offering harm reduction to the street sex workers of Copenhagen.

The Sexelance. Malene Anthony Nielsen/Scanpix. Used with permission.

When you open the doors to the Sexelance, you step into a sterile looking room. There’s lube in containers attached to the walls and condoms in boxes. There’s a blue folding chair – usually used for blowjobs – mirrors, and a little red light on the back door that illuminates the interior when the doors are closed. Though thoroughly transformed, it’s obvious that this first ever Danish sex clinic on wheels was once an ambulance riding through the streets of Copenhagen to aid the sick.

Today, the Sexelance serves as an alternative to the harsh realities facing street sex workers. In the car, they can sell their services under safer, more hygienic, and more dignified conditions than those on the streets. It’s an easy sell for to sex workers, but their clients rarely find it as appealing. Many do not want to come with them into the car, and then the sex workers must choose: lose the customer or follow them out into the night.

The moral discussion over prostitution keeps many good ideas for protecting sex workers from getting off the ground.

The sterility of the experience is off-putting. It’s not as if the sex workers want it that way. They’d prefer for the Sexelance to be more cozy and ‘sexy’, but laws make that easier said than done. One of the reasons behind the clinical looking interior is that the Sexelance runs the risk of being accused by police, critics, and the judicial system of encouraging prostitution. That’s illegal in Denmark, even though prostitution itself is not. It’s a distinction rooted in the moral discussion over prostitution that keeps many good ideas for protecting sex workers from really getting off the ground.

“Don’t come knocking if the car is rocking” is a phrase often used by the volunteers of the car. But the motivation behind the car is no joke, and the last thing it is trying to do is to encourage prostitution. It’s instead trying make the sex already being sold safer by giving it a secure place to take place. During the many years I have researched migrants and sex workers in the streets of Vesterbro, Copenhagen – an area known for its red-light district – the hotels there have shut their doors to the sex workers and their clients. Places where sex workers used to take their clients have been shut down because they were accused of aiding prostitution.

For the sex workers who aren’t working in a licensed brothel, this means they have little choice but to do their job in the customer’s cars, in dark alleyways, and between dumpsters in back yards. It goes without saying that working alone at night with often inebriated customers is dangerous. In comparison, not a single violent incident has been reported to have taken place in the Sexelance.  

No research says that safety for sex workers creates more sex workers

The Sexelance delivers an immediate and hands-on solution to a real problem: the lack of safety for street sex workers who, for many different reasons, do not have other ways of making money to support themselves and their families.

The Sexelance is not a brothel. It is serious harm reduction on four wheels. Harm reduction means reducing the harms that marginalised people face, and many humanitarian organisations work with harm reduction in areas such as sex work, drug use, and migration.

Harm reduction as a tactic has come under increasing critique in recent times. Rather than viewed as a neutral and apolitical act, it has been recast as a way of abetting or encouraging something viewed by many as undesirable. In this case, the act of making sex work safe is re-cast as a method of encouraging prostitution. Similar dynamics are at work when the NGO Doctors Without Borders pulls people out of the water in the Mediterranean and then is accused of encouraging migration. The logic seems to be that the threat of grievous personal harm – being raped behind a dumpster or drowning in the blue waters of the Mediterranean – is the only force capable of keeping these practices in check. Provide a cushion and everybody will soon be doing it.

Is the possibility of a small potential rise morally worse than insisting that those already suffering continue to do so?

But people don’t sell sex for safety reasons and people don’t migrate across oceans to be rescued. No research shows that more safety for sex workers creates substantially more sex workers, just as no research shows that more lifeboats create substantially more migrants. The vast majority of people sell sex or migrate because of unemployment, war, and poverty. In relation to these factors, a bit more safety might save lives but it certainly won’t tip the balance.

There is a chance that effective harm reduction strategies result in marginally more people entering sex work. People who have worked with harm reduction for years do not reject this possibility. But even if it would be possible to measure a small rise in overall numbers, exclusively due to safety measures, we are still left with a moral philosophic question: is the possibility of a small potential rise morally worse than insisting that those already suffering continue to do so?

The Danish philosopher K. E. Løgstrup said that we each have an ethical obligation to help the person standing in front of us in the situation they are in, regardless of the political context. That is the core principle of harm reduction. It does not, in any way, suggest that we cannot also work on sustainable and long-term political solutions for marginalised groups of people.

The Sexelance has taken a stand. In the future, the interior in the car will be cozier and ‘sexier’ so more sex workers and their clients will want to frequent it. This change will put the service at risk, but as long as it remains in operation it will create more safety for more people. As Line Haferbier, chairman of the coalition behind the Sexelance, says:

“Our goal is that no sex worker have to work in unsafe conditions and risk assault when they are working. Sex workers are experts in their own life and it is upon requests from them that we are now changing the interior of The Sexelance.”  

A previous version of this article was published in Danish in Politiken.

About the authors

Dr. Sine Plambech is a Senior Researcher and Anthropologist at the Danish Institute for International Studies. She works on irregular migration, human trafficking, sex work, and documentary filmmaking in Thailand, Nigeria, Sicily and Denmark. She combines her academic work with being an activist, public commentator, and film director. Her acclaimed film HEARTBOUND on women’s migration recently had its international release. She has so far directed six award winning documentaries on the topics of international migration, sex work, and human trafficking. Follow her on Twitter @sineplambech.


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