‘Criminalising the Purchase of Sex: Lessons from Sweden’ – Dr Jay Levy Discusses His New Book

Jay Levy

Can you tell me about your new book Criminalising the Purchase of Sex: Lessons from Sweden?

My book deals with the outcomes of Sweden’s sex purchase law, a law that criminalises the purchase of sex and that has been hugely internationally influential. In the book, I present the results and analysis of fieldwork and research that I undertook in Sweden between 2008 and 2012.

My research was originally for the purposes of my PhD, and focussed on the outcomes of sex work and drug legislation in Sweden, concentrating on what the outcomes of Sweden’s sex work abolitionism and drug prohibitionism have been. The book focuses almost exclusively on the outcomes of Sweden’s sex work legislation, which I felt merited involved exploration, given that other states continue to advocate for the adoption of the ‘Swedish model’. Writing the book provided me with an opportunity to include more verbatim respondent quotations than I had been able to include in my other work to date, and to expand on many ideas and discussions that I hadn’t been able to include in other papers or my PhD.

In my book, I stress that Sweden’s international influence is not well-deserved, since the law has been demonstrably detrimental in terms of exacerbating the harms that can be associated with sex work, detrimentally impacting service provision and harm reduction, increasing stigma and social exclusion, and I also emphasise that the law has failed to reduce levels of sex work, which was the principal aim of the legislation. So, the law has failed to achieve its goal, and it’s been hugely damaging. This probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, given that criminalising legislation of this sort frequently exacerbates harms and social exclusion, pushing groups into clandestine space, but in spite of this, there are consistent attempts to export and import the Swedish model. I don’t only discuss this particular law, but also other laws that are used to directly target and destabilise the lives of sex workers in Sweden.

What led to your interest in studying the subject of sex work?

Much of my research has focussed on laws, policies, and discourses that socially exclude, stigmatise, and marginalise people, both contemporarily and historically. In my book, I note that “my interests and political perspective had, no doubt, come to shape my academic interests, with these circularly coming to inform my personal interests”. Many of the tools of silencing, controlling, and stigmatising groups are markedly similar, whether we are talking about issues of racism, LGBTQ people, sex workers, or people who use drugs, for example, which have all been research and advocacy foci of mine.

In terms of the focus on Sweden’s sex purchase law, I was particularly struck by the extent to which the law is internationally influential, but in a context where the law hadn’t been involvedly evaluated by the Swedish government and where much work produced on the topic seemed hugely biased, and didn’t include the voices of those to whom the legislation pertains, sex workers themselves, or other key stakeholders for that matter.

Can you share about the research involved and how you went about undertaking that?

I conducted pilot research in 2008, which involved a brief trip to Stockholm and a few interviews. This fed into my Master’s thesis at Cambridge. Following the pilot research, I moved back to Stockholm later in 2008 for several years. I also spent a bit of time in Malmö and Oslo to conduct fieldwork on the outcomes of the Swedish model in the south of Sweden, and the criminalisation of the purchase of sex in Norway, respectively. My research methodologies primarily included participant observation and involved, semi-structured qualitative interviewing. I kept a field diary of my observations and notes on my participant observation, informal conversations and interviews, and formal recorded interviews took place throughout my research too. Interviews were pretty involved, and many lasted for several hours and I interviewed some respondents on several occasions. Respondents included sex workers, service providers, social workers, police, and policy makers and politicians, and interviews transcribed at over 400,000 words, so coding/analysing the interviews was hugely time consuming! Given the book’s foci and the importance of methodology, and the fact that I identify methodological faults and failings of some other research, I felt that transparency of my methods was very important. I therefore included an involved Methodology chapter in the book, though this would often be omitted or heavily abridged in a book such as this.

Criminalising the Purchase of Sex: Lessons from Sweden by Jay LevyWhat was your process for writing the book, was every chapter planned in advance, and did you come across any difficulties in the writing process and if so, how did you overcome them?

My primary issue was probably in terms of how to structure the book. The book is structured around the interviews I conducted, and a significant proportion of the word count is verbatim respondent quotations. I really want to position respondents as active and not passive in my work, to allow the words of respondents to speak for themselves, and to respect respondents as experts on their own lives and experiences.

In order to make sure I didn’t miss any significant themes that had come up in interviews, I used what’s sometimes termed a ‘Grounded Theory’ method of categorising data: each interview was rearranged under core themes and headings, and new themes and headings emerged as I went through each interview. The creation of new themes/headings stopped when no new categories emerged from the interviews. This provided they key structure for the book, though there was a constant process of moving things around for the sake of flow of argument etc. Quotations are presented in such a way as to present numerous and contrasting respondent views and analyses on the topic in question.

The book begins with an overview of the legal debate and establishment of the law, followed by an exploration of how sex work has come to be constructed and understood in Sweden and in broader feminist discourse. I then move on to the outcomes of the law – and the understandings that justify it – on levels of sex work in Sweden, on service provision and sex workers’ experiences of service provision, and on the lives and experiences of sex workers, including experiences of the Swedish police. All this is preceded by an introduction that discusses Sweden’s history of eugenics, social engineering, and containment and control of various groups, and hopefully contextualises the rest of the book.

Could you describe the target audience for the book?

There are a few target audiences. I hope that the book will be a useful tool for sex worker rights organisations, and for policy makers and politicians who are interested in the outcomes of the Swedish model. It will also be of interest to academics and students in various fields including law, women’s and gender studies, human geography, sociology, and criminology.

What are your plans for the future?

As I mentioned, my work has also focussed on the impacts of drug prohibitionism and the harms that prohibition does to people who use drugs. Some of this research is discussed briefly in my book, which I think helps to contextualise broader issues surrounding social control, stigmatisation, harm reduction, service provision, HIV/AIDS policy and law, and so forth. However, the majority of my research on drug law and policy wasn’t included in the book. I would very much like to publish my research on Sweden’s drug legislation, laws that criminalise the very use of drugs and allow for compulsory treatment of people with drug dependencies; I’m now planning to devote more time to this.

Where can people buy the book?

It’s available on Routledge’s website here, as well as Amazon internationally (UK link & US link), Waterstones, Abebooks, and so forth.

Where can you be found online?

I can be contacted at: j.levy.03@cantab.net.

  • Dr Jay Levy’s video interview on the Swedish sex purchase ban can be watched here.
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FREE on Kindle: ‘Life’ a short crime story

Life 368Max’s criminal career has been going downhill since it began when he was sixteen on an armed robbery job with his father.

Now in his mid-forties, he’s spent more time in jail than on criminal endeavours and he’s back inside again.

It wasn’t another getaway driver driving away prematurely that’s landed him in jail this time though. No, this time it wasn’t someone else’s mistake. This time it was his…well, the crack.

He can’t actually remember doing what they said he did last week or why he did it and for that he could go down for life.

FREE to download from Amazon UKAmazon US and from Amazon worldwide.  

Life can also be downloaded for FREE from Barnes & NobleApple and directly from Caffeine Nights Publishing.

“Extremely powerful, raw dialogue, characters you just know are real, scarily believable… She writes like a British modern-day Elmore Leonard; every word is packed with force and gritty with the harsh reality of a life you only suspected existed.” Rob Horne, Amazon UK customer review.

Soul Destruction: Unforgivable – temporarily reduced to £1.53/$2.51 on Kindle

Soul Destruction: Unforgivable

For a limited time Soul Destruction: Unforgivable is available to download on Kindle at the reduced price of £1.53 from Amazon UK and $2.51 from Amazon US.

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Enter the bleak existence of a call girl haunted by the atrocities of her childhood. In the spring of 1997, Shelley Hansard is a drug addict with a heroin habit and crack psychosis. Her desirability as a top London call girl is waning.

When her client dies in a suite at The Lanesborough Hotel, Shelley’s complex double-life is blasted deeper into chaos. In her psychotic state, the skills required to keep up her multiple personas are weakening. Amidst her few friends, and what remains of her broken family, she struggles to maintain her wall of lies.

During this tumultuous time, she is presented with an opportunity to take revenge on a client who raped her and her friends. But in her unbalanced state of mind, can she stop a serial rapist?

Chris Arnade’s ‘Faces of Addiction’ & the Case for Basic Income and the Decriminalisation of Drugs and Prostitution

Ruth Jacobs

Chris Arnade was a trader on Wall Street for 20 years until 2012 when he left to focus on photography. Having been involved in a project with Hunts Point Alliance for Children, he got to know some of the local residents in Hunts Point, South Bronx, the poorest neighbourhood in New York City, who were trapped in poverty, addiction and prostitution. With their permission he has been taking their pictures and sharing their stories. His ‘Faces of Addiction’ series documents the lives of these people who have become his friends.

Some people might prefer to look the other way and pretend other people aren’t living like this. But the harsh truth is they are and I hope instead the stories on this page inspire more people to support harm reduction and decriminalisation for drugs and prostitution, which Chris Arnade also believes is the best legislation for people who take drugs…

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Coming Back from Soul Destruction – Ruth Jacobs interviewed on Women Move the Soul

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Published on Women Move the Soul – 29 October 2013

We know them. We all know a woman who struggles with drugs and alcohol. Perhaps she’s a woman in your family, a friend or even a co-worker, but we know them. If you have not been a drug addict then you cannot know what they go through. You can’t imagine the pain they feel from moment to moment and the things that they are driven to do because of that addiction…. Ruth Jacobs has been there – in the very recesses of hell – and she came back to us… Read the full article on Women Move the Soul here.

In the Booth with Ruth – Kevin Jaffray, Drug Harm Reduction & Recovery Activist

Drug harm reduction and recovery activist, Kevin Jaffray, shares his experience of how harm reduction saved his life while he was in the depths of his addiction, about his work in the field now, and why he advocates for safe consumption rooms and the life saving medication, Naloxone, and much more.

Ruth Jacobs

Kevin Jaffray

How did you become involved in supporting harm reduction for drug users?

Firstly I must be clear that the harm reduction ethos does not just relate to those living with drug addiction issues or substance users. It is also concerned with the issues that surround addiction more generally and a number of other related and non related issues, public health issues, social and economic issues, evidence based policies, fighting stigma, reducing risk of blood-borne viruses (BBVs), safe rights of sex workers etc. (this list is not exhaustive).

Harm reduction is self explanatory in its title and can relate to anything that is harmful to the individual or the community in general. Its core is firmly based in practical rather than idealistic beliefs. Harm reduction (harm minimisation) can also be used in relation to human behaviours and actions towards either themselves or other human beings.

Some of the issues addressed by the…

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Soul Destruction: Unforgivable – recent reviews & only 99p / $1.55 for a limited time

Soul Destruction Unforgivable High Res Border

“Unforgivable, Unputdownable. Great characters you will walk beside from page one. Great story you will not want to end.”

Sheila Quigley author of The Seahills series and The Holy Island trilogy.

5.0 out of 5 stars Draws you in and won’t let you go – Martin Crosbie

The writing is sharp and intelligent but it’s the storytelling that kept me reading. The author knows how to tell a story and knows how to tell it accurately. Soul Destruction deals with uncomfortable topics in a respectful and thought-provoking manner. The only criticism I had was that I wanted to know more. I had so much invested in these characters that I really didn’t want to leave them alone, and to me that’s the mark of a very good book. When I wasn’t reading it I looked forward to getting back to it, and when it was over I was very disappointed.

I’m very glad to hear there may be more coming with the same characters. Highly recommended.

5.0 out of 5 stars Not Belle de Jour – Miss Y. Maxwell “Ms M”

Ruth’s own experience and knowledge of the subject matters shows through, as does her respect and compassion for the characters. As I say, it’s no Belle de Jour. It shows another side of the sex work. Although these women are ‘high class,’ they are only one fix away from ending up on the streets. Although they are sex workers, that is not the focus and very little is shown of their work. It’s focus is on Shelley and her descent into addiction as she struggles to retain a grip on reality. These women have had bad knocks, but they are fighters, especially Shelley and Nicole. The world is one many will never see, but the author shows it and the humanity as well as they hurt and anger of the main characters .

5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, heart-breaking and hopeful – Trista Hendren

This is a fascinating read of a world that remains unfamiliar to many women. What I liked the most about this book was how the author wrote her characters with such love – they were likeable women in an industry that is despised by many – addictions and all. I came away with a better understanding of prostitution and a stronger resolve to work towards a better world for ALL women.

5.0 out of 5 stars Very insightful read  Kacie

This was a really fascinating insight into the life of an addict and a prostitute. It’s narrated like she might be one of your girlfriends, making the story very relate-able and therefore it hits home a little harder and challenges any previously held judgments or prejudices. A great read!

5.0 out of 5 stars A compelling novel about prostitution and addiction – G. Polley

If you’re looking for a pleasant sort of read, Ruth Jacobs “Unforgivable” is not it. Honest books about the world of prostitution, drugs and addiction show what the life is really about, and it is not in any way a pretty one. Her novel about Shelley and her friends is chilling, lonely, and radically disconnecting. As I know from my own experience of active alcohol addiction, and from the subsequent work that I did with addicts, her novel presents a very clear picture of the world addicts and prostitutes live in.

I found the novel very difficult to read as I followed the lives of Shelley and her friends as their world shrinks around them, for Shelley shrinking to the point that it fits her like shrink wrap. Heroin is a very jealous lover that she won’t break free of until she gets help. Does she? That part of the story is not clear; again, that’s the world we addicts live in until, accepting help, we walk away from it.

I recommend this fine novel without reservation for everyone to read. Keep a box or two of tissues handy, because you’ll need them. Thank you, Ruth Jacobs, for writing and publishing this.

5.0 out of 5 stars Unforgivable is Unforgettable – Michelle

Ruth Jacobs invites you into a world that is not known to most of us, from the first page you are quickly gripped as the main character, Shelley Hansard, finds herself in a hotel room with a motionless body next to her. This thriller is intense, dark, full of mystery and suspense and at times quite funny.

Although a work of fiction, the writer has done a fantastic job of giving a truthful insight into the very real world of prostitution and the life of a call girl.

Graphic in some parts where you get a real sense of the trials and tribulations faced by the main character. A very insightful piece of writing and a must read.

Soul Destruction: Unforgivable can be downloaded for 99p on Kindle from Amazon UK and $1.55 from Amazon US.

Also available in e-book from Caffeine Nights (£1.95), in paperback from Caffeine Nights (£6.99), Amazon UK (£8.99) and Amazon US ($13.47).

The first three chapters can be read and downloaded here.