Can Europe Make It?

Sex workers in democratic societies

While there are certainly gendered imbalances in the actual structures of current sex markets, these imbalances are created, reinforced and strengthened not by sex work itself but by laws criminalizing sex work and by treating sex workers as second-class citizens without rights.

Sonja Dolinsek
4 April 2014

In 2009 I stumbled upon a media report on ‘forced prostitution’ and was shocked that such a thing could exist in our societies. Since then, I have been working on the topic of ‘human trafficking’ from a human rights-based approach, and in particular, the criticism launched by sex workers’ organisations, as well as human rights groups, of a certain anti-trafficking framework.

Waiting for Customers. Tomas Castelazo/Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.

Waiting for Customers. Tomas Castelazo/Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.

Unfortunately, there is a growing international trend to define prostitution as a form of violence, in particular as ‘violence against women’ and hurtful to gender equality. Many people believe that prostitution is not compatible with notions of human dignity or human rights. As a consequence, many people conflate human trafficking for sexual exploitation with prostitution or, as I would rather call it, with ‘sex work’ (paid sexual or sexualized encounters among consenting adults of all genders). And due to this conflation, anti-trafficking laws tend to specifically target all forms of sex work, including those cases where all the parties involved are consenting adults, while other forms of trafficking, in particular labour exploitation, have received considerably less attention.

This conflation of sex work with the crime of human trafficking is harmful both to sex workers and to victims of human trafficking; both within and outside the sex sector, as both policies and financial resources are diverted to combating all forms of sex work rather than real forms of exploitation.

The idea that sex work is violence and that it violates human rights can be easily challenged precisely on human rights grounds. The conflation of sex work with trafficking is not without alternatives. While supporters of the ‘Swedish Model’ claim that the only possible human-rights based approach to prostitution consists in women exiting prostitution, sex workers have developed their own human rights approach to sex work.  

Very little common ground

Supporters of the ‘Swedish Model’ and sex workers do agree on some points. They agree that nobody should be forced into prostitution and that every sex worker should be able to change their job and exit prostitution whenever he or she wishes. They also agree that sex workers should not be criminalised. However, major conflicts arise when it comes to the overall moral and societal judgment of sex work: supporters of the ‘Swedish model’ call for the ‘abolition’ of prostitution, presenting their stance as the only possible, reasonable and humane stance on sex work.

On a closer look, sex workers with different opinions are seldom heard. The very people who should be protected, are not listened to. I personally believe that supporters of the ‘Swedish Model’ have a hard time accepting and respecting that sex workers can and do have different opinions on sex work and prostitution policies – different from them but also different amongst themselves. Most of them oppose the ‘Swedish Model’ but they remain unheard.

Based on my experience, the current perceived ‘success’ of the ‘Swedish Model,’ is mainly the result of a global silencing and exclusion of sex workers’ own voices and political claims. In my eyes, this exclusion is not compatible with the democratic principles of European states. Sex workers are excluded because of their political views on sex work – a discriminatory attitude that is often legitimized by claiming that ‘those’ sex workers are in fact pimps, traffickers or paid lobbyists. These accusations effectively serve to exclude sex workers from the political arena, violating the right to non-discrimination based on political opinions and the human rights of freedom of thought, opinion and expression.

The ‘Swedish Model’ and its weaknesses

Academic research has so far questioned the effectiveness of the ‘Swedish Model’ in reaching its goals of abolishing human trafficking, prostitution and encouraging gender equality. Even official statistics and reports only claim that there is really little knowledge about the extent of prostitution in Sweden and that “it is difficult to assess the exact extent of human trafficking for sexual purposes in Sweden.”

Other research has shown that while the law should have destigmatised sex workers, around 50% of the Swedish and Norwegian populations actually support the criminalisation of sex workers. This proves the point that sex workers suffer increased stigmatisation and marginalization in these countries, where they are sometimes portrayed as “traitors” to the feminist movement.

Furthermore, research on the implementation of the Swedish ban on the purchase of sex has shown that sex workers mostly are refused support by social services if they do not give up sex work, thus effectively limiting non-discrimination in the right to access the social system. The criminalisation of sex work clients in conjunction with the conditional provision of social services “isolates the women even more and prevents them from receiving help when necessary”, claims sociologist Jacqueline Comte.

Furthermore, sex workers from abroad, including the European Union, have been refused entry or have been deported, thus violating the Schengen Agreement on free movement. Sex workers in Sweden have also criticized the law and have pointed to its negative effects.

The “moral betterment” of sex workers and human rights violations

Some people think that it may be legitimate for the ‘moral betterment’ of a person to re-educate them through coercive means, whether this coercion is physical or financial in nature. The threat of losing the support of social services after all represents as much a coercive threat, as actual physical coercion.

But let us also not forget about the history of coercive measures used to re-educate and re-socialize sex workers. There is, of course, Nazi-Germany with its forced labour camps for ‘a-social’ people, which included not only prostitutes but also homosexuals.

It is not just in China where sex workers are still jailed and interned in forced labour camps in an effort to ‘re-educate’ them. There is also Ireland, with its Magdalene laundries, where so-called “fallen women”, some of whom may legitimately be called “sex workers”, were victims of forced labour.

Some people argue that today anti-trafficking rehabilitation centres bear a certain resemblance to the Magdalene Laundries.

It is because of this past that our contemporary approaches to sex work need to clearly and explicitly distance themselves from sex work policies that may lead to human rights violations..

Sex work, sexual autonomy and labour

Sex workers in particular stress their human right to ‘free choice of employment and to just and favorable conditions of work.’ All forms of criminal law instruments targeting consensual paid sex among adults violate this human right, while at the same time jeopardizing sex workers’ security and working conditions. Harm reduction measures are limited given the political priority to end prostitution rather than support sex workers unwilling or unable to leave prostitution.

In a recent ruling, the Supreme Court in Canada has argued that prostitution laws targeting ‘sex work’ (not trafficking) have effectively jeopardised the right to security and safety of sex workers. Even though the ruling was not concerned with client criminalisation, any measure targeting consensual sexual activities will introduce elements of risk, coercion and danger, thus increasing rather than decreasing violence.

The conflation of sex work with violence also runs the risk of ignoring experiences of violence suffered by sex workers and victims of human trafficking. It is paramount to a human rights approach to sex work and human trafficking, to keep clear distinctions between actions that can objectively be described as violence and those which are not considered to be such by the actors involved.

As Alex Bryce from the UK Network of Sex Work Projects writes, “conflating sex work with violence, is grossly offensive to the sex workers who experience genuine violence and abuse, many of whom feel that they are unable to report to the police due the stigma attached to what they do.”

Especially in legal terms, it is essential that we keep consensual sexual acts among adults out of criminal law and regulate (rather than punish) them, if necessary, through civil or labour law. But if we invest energy, policies, and money in prosecuting adults engaging in consensual sex, because the law has artificially constructed them as criminals, the consequence will be a reduced engagement in the prosecution of real instances of human trafficking and violence.

The Merseyside Model

What criminal law should target is ‘violence against sex workers’, i.e. single acts of violence that sex workers experience, mostly because they are sex workers. The ‘Merseyside Model’ seems to be very promising in this regard. On Merseyside, violence against sex workers, including rape, is treated and punished as hate crime. Not every single client is treated as a criminal but only those who perpetrate violence.

Since its introduction, the rate of violence against sex workers has sharply decreased. This model successfully takes into account the fact that sex workers are not targeted as ‘women’ but that they are specifically targeted as ‘sex workers’. The ‘violence against women’ framework fails to acknowledge the layers of discrimination and stigma specific to sex work and thus runs the risk of reproducing them.

The Merseyside Model should be looked to for tackling violence against sex workers, while civil and labour law should regulate paid sexual interactions as work. The combination of these approaches could make sex work safe.

The genders of sex work

Contrary to the stereotypes presented by the media, politicians, and women’s groups, sex workers are not only female and offer a variety of sexual services that go well beyond heterosexual intercourse. Besides the increasing number of heterosexual and homosexual women paying for sex, from a human rights standpoint, it is necessary to devote more attention to LGBT sex workers, who often face multiple layers of discrimination, due to both sex work and their gender and sexual orientation.

Men and transgender persons selling sex are groups that are de facto invisible in the public debate, due to the unilateral focus on heterosexual female prostitution. But male sex work has a long history, which includes the history of homophobia and the criminalisation of homosexuality and homosexual behaviours. Today, in countries where both homosexuality and prostitution are criminalized, male homosexual sex workers face prosecution as well as social exclusion and stigma.

Transgender sex work is still an unknown concept for many people, which reflects the overall lack of knowledge about transgender persons, which often is the root cause for discrimination and exclusion.

“Trans people may face discrimination such as loss of job when employers discover their trans-status, being denied health services, loss of family contact through lack of understanding, harassment from neighbours, violence, threats and lack of appropriate services if homeless. Trans sex workers have the added taboo of being sex workers.”

In this sense, looking at prostitution from the perspective of ‘gender equality’ means to include, not to exclude, the lived experiences and needs of LGBT sex workers.

Sex workers' rights are human rights

Many feminists believe the very existence of prostitution is incompatible with gender equality and women’s rights. The idea of having sex with unknown men or women may arouse feelings of disgust or shame. But let us not fall prey of those feelings when thinking about what prostitution policy is best for sex workers.

While there are certainly gendered imbalances in the actual structures of current sex markets, these imbalances are created, reinforced and strengthened not by sex work itself but by laws criminalizing sex work and by treating sex workers as second-class citizens without rights. The gendered imbalance in sex markets is a direct outcome of the historic stigmatisation and exclusion of sex workers from society.

Unfortunately, the current debate on prostitution and its conflation with human trafficking reinforces precisely this imbalance, by calling for more crackdowns on sex workers rather than increasing access to justice and rights, health and social measures.

As a feminist, I call for more rights for sex workers – unconditionally. I respect their choice, certainly often a hard and difficult choice, to work in the sex sector. Gender equality will only be attained once women stop seeing sex workers as a threat to their career and their gender and begin to respect sex workers as human beings.

Only when women begin to respect sex workers and listen to them, will men follow suit and we can then move towards real gender equality. Listening to sex workers, respecting their views and inviting them to participate in our democratic policy-making processes, is only the first step towards the realisation of the rights of sex workers as human rights.

But it is definitely one step we cannot skip.

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