Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Sex work, stigma, and the challenge of harm reduction in Denmark

Harm reduction does not exist in a vacuum.

Polina Bachlakova
13 January 2020, 12.02pm
Artwork by Carys Boughton. All rights reserved.

To many people, harm reduction seems like something they can get behind. It taps into something fundamental within us. If we can make life safer or more dignified for people by reducing the harms they face due to their life circumstances, why wouldn’t we? Unfortunately the realities of providing harm reduction aren’t that simple, especially when it comes to improving the health and safety of street-based sex workers. This is because harm reduction does not exist in a vacuum. It is constantly embroiled in and defined by sociopolitical contexts, laws, and policies. To what extent that trifecta refuses to recognise sex work as work and stigmatises people who sell sex directly impacts how effectively harm can be reduced.

The Red Van, formerly known as Sexelancen, is an NGO seeking to reduce harm in Copenhagen. It began three years ago when we converted an old ambulance into a mobile safe space for street-based sex workers. The premise was relatively straightforward: by giving street-based sex workers the option to work in an indoor space equipped with healthcare items like condoms and lube, we could help decrease their risk of harm on the job. Easy access to condoms reduces the risk of infection or unwanted pregnancy, while a safe location neutralises the power imbalance inherent in following a customer into their car (or somewhere else).

We got rid of the ambulance earlier this year and replaced it with something considerably more low-key – a red van, hence the name – but the work we do is the same. Every Saturday night a group of volunteers opens up the van in Vesterbro, the street sex work area in Copenhagen, so that sex workers can bring their customers there. They also hand out warm drinks and condoms around the neighbourhood and tell sex workers we’re open and where we’re parked.

Media coverage of our work, both locally and abroad, has been positive ever since the Red Van rolled into Copenhagen. Other organisations working with sex workers in Copenhagen have had less to say. This isn’t so surprising if you look at Denmark’s legal framework around sex work. Even though buying and selling sex were decriminalised in 1999, sex work wasn’t recognised as a profession. This has helped maintain the stigma around sex work in Danish society, even within organisations working with sex workers: sex workers are tolerated, perhaps, but they are considered beneath other wage-earning citizens in society.

Furthermore, sex work became subject to something called the procurement law, which means that it’s illegal to profit off of sex work as a third party. Politicians use this law to virtue signal that they’re trying to stamp out pimping or sex trafficking, but in practice it has served to hem in the actions of both sex workers and those providing harm reduction services. For example, some sex workers have struggled to rent apartments because landlords fear they could be charged with profiting off of sex work as a third party, while others have been turned down by financial and legal advisors for similar reasons.

This murky mix of legal grey areas and a history of social stigma directly affects which kinds of organisations get funding to work with sex workers in Copenhagen. The reality is that the majority of sex worker-oriented organisations in our city take a fundamentally anti-sex work, anti-trafficking stance because that is what the government approves of and financially supports. The Red Van refuses to endorse those narratives as they run contrary to our mission of harm reduction. To us, this doesn’t seem that radical, but the isolation we felt from others in our community for many years proved otherwise.

Two steps forward, one step back

Community and government attitudes toward The Red Van shifted early last year after a parliamentary focus group was appointed to look into reforming sex workers’ rights. Even without making any changes, this announcement sent a clear signal to Denmark: sex work should lose its stigma, and sex workers are people worthy of employment protections, health services and other basic human rights. We noticed more of our funding applications being accepted and we were invited to participate in Folkemødet, Denmark’s annual festival where politicians meet the public. Most of all, we noticed that other organisations working with sex workers now wanted to help us, even when their politics differed from our own.

We can now rely on neighbours like Reden International’s Night Cafe – a space for sex workers to take a break and have a snack throughout the night – to spread the word about where we’re parked every time we take out the van. For context, Reden’s mission is to help women in prostitution (their use of word) “create a better life for themselves” – a position that’s opposite to ours. Now, every Saturday night when we knock on their door, the people who work there welcome us with warmth. They completely accept that the harm reduction we provide for street-based sex workers is a good thing, even if politically we operate on different ends of the sex work debate spectrum.

Our volunteers have witnessed passers-by physically kicking or yelling racist slurs at sex workers.

Having other organisations in the neighbourhood let sex workers know where we’re parked every weekend is vital to our operations because the procurement law prohibits us from advertising our location. Due to its confusingly broad definition – profiting off of sex work as a third party – we’re afraid to print posters, post our location on Facebook, or do anything that might accidentally break the law. Our only option is to physically walk around Vesterbro and tell sex workers where we are every time we go out on a shift. Catching their attention is not always easy, and even when we do they might not trust us enough to speak with us. Sex workers who are new to the area often keep their distance, and even if they are willing to talk they may not know the streets well enough to find us later on. This is why it’s crucial for us to have the support of organisations like Reden International. Their café’s popularity allows Reden International’s staff to clearly communicate where we are to many more sex workers than our small team of volunteers can reach on foot throughout the night.

As for why we have to switch locations every weekend, it once again comes down to stigma: we can’t keep the van parked in the same place because people complain. Neighbourhood residents have, on multiple occasions, firmly let us know that they don’t want this kind of activity on their doorstep. We are now very careful to park on a different street every weekend – which, as you can imagine, makes it difficult for sex workers to rely on us, and discourages some of them from using the van in the first place.

In June 2019 Denmark elected a new government, one that takes a progressive stance on climate targets yet a more hard-line approach to immigration and migration. Sex work in Copenhagen is deeply intertwined with the immigration debate – many of the street-based sex workers in our city are migrants – and we could tell this wasn’t going to go well for us. Our suspicions were confirmed when, for the first time in years, we had our annual application for funding from the city rejected. In their letter to us, the City of Copenhagen wrote that they cannot support The Red Van’s operations because we “promote human trafficking and illegal migrant work”.

We were angry, of course, but also surprised. We had received this funding for years. Why reject it this time, and under such politically-loaded rationale? We got our answer in October 2019. Astrid Krag, the new minister of social and internal affairs, announced that she was scrapping the previous government’s initiative to reform sex worker rights and returning to the position that prostitution (again, their choice of word) is a social illness which must be eradicated.

Krag has since written that sex work results in elbow, knee and mucousal injuries. She has also received thousands of likes and supportive comments for a Facebook video in which she claims sex workers all have PTSD. Even more bizarrely, Camilla Fabricius, a politician with the governing party, said in an interview that many sex workers have hip, uterus and gut problems due to too much anal penetration. It’s easy to roll your eyes and laugh at this rhetoric – untrue, absurd and graceless as it is. But it’s important to note that the Danish government hasn’t officially spewed stigma like this in years. Such counterproductive opinions that harm sex workers are now quickly becoming the norm. It’s worrying, and we at The Red Van feel this uncertainty.

Harm reduction in uncertain times

The Red Van relies on volunteers and so we don’t need much to keep ourselves going. That’s what’s beautiful about harm reduction: even with a bare-bones budget you can make a difference in people’s everyday health and safety. And we’re lucky enough to attract more and more volunteers every month. So in terms of keeping our operations going, we’re not that worried. What might change, however, are the circumstances of the sex workers we see.

Countless research demonstrates that stigma greatly exacerbates the risk of harm for sex workers. It can prohibit sex workers from seeking advice or support and push them into riskier situations. Stigma shames good customers and keeps them away, so sex workers must see more ‘bad’ customers who are prone to violence or bad behaviour. After all, sex workers still need to earn a living. If the only way to do that is with unsafe customers in unsafe locations, so be it.

If this happens due to the Danish government’s regressive new position around sex work, our effectiveness as a harm reduction initiative may be compromised. Perhaps sex workers will begin to fear the police, and stop taking the condoms we hand out for fear of arrest. Perhaps they’ll have a hard time convincing customers to go into the van – a location that is more public compared to the inside of a car or a back alley. Perhaps sex workers will receive more judgmental treatment from other organisations in our community, and therefore stop trusting us by extension. And, last but not least: The Red Van’s ability to destigmatise sex workers by insisting that they are people worthy of dignity and respect may become limited. Many of our volunteers have witnessed passers-by physically kicking sex workers or yelling racist slurs at them. If this kind of behaviour, or the thinking behind it, escalates thanks to the government’s new position, who will listen when The Red Van says that’s not okay?

These are all ‘maybe’s’ and ‘what if’s’, but that’s precisely the point: as a harm reduction initiative, we cannot accurately gauge how these new, stigmatising policies will affect our work. We hope that the support we receive from other organisations in our community, even the anti-prostitution ones, won’t change. We hope that sex workers know and trust us enough to keep using the van despite the city’s more hostile and shaming environment. But we just don’t know.

As we said in the beginning: harm reduction does not exist in a vacuum. Our effectiveness in getting sex workers to want to access our services is directly tied to social attitudes and political legislation around sex work, whether we like it or not. So when our government and others decide to ‘eradicate prostitution’, we’d like them to think about the ripple effects that entails. It makes life more dangerous for sex workers, it limits the kinds of work organisations in our community can pursue, and it compromises harm reduction – a basic human right which everybody should be entitled to, no matter the legal landscape.

Have your own ideas about effectively speaking about and arguing for the decriminalisation of sex work? Write to us.

This series has been financially supported by Humanity United.

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