This article was first published on The Huffington Post – 27 February 2014
An extended version of this article can be read on Women News Network
Some 560 NGOs and civil society organisations along with 86 academics and researchers urged the European Parliament to reject the report promoting the criminalisation of the purchase of sex that was put forward by London MEP Mary Honeyball in a plenary session this week in Strasbourg. But although the European Parliament has voted in favour of the report, putting pressure on EU member states to re-evaluate their prostitution laws, they do not need to make the same mistake.
Not surprisingly, the experiment has failed. In the thirteen years since the law was enacted, the Swedish government has been unable to prove that the law has reduced the number of sex buyers or sellers or stopped trafficking. All it has to show for its efforts are a (contested) public support for the law and more danger for street-based sex workers. Despite this failure, the government has chosen to ignore the evidence and proclaim the law to be a success; it also continues to advocate that other countries should adopt a similar law. (“The Swedish Law to Criminalize Clients: A Failed Experiment in Social Engineering”, Ann Jordan, Program on Human Trafficking and Forced Labor, Center for Human Rights & Humanitarian Law)
In sound bites, the Swedish Government has been spinning their sex purchase ban, known as the “Swedish model” or sometimes the “Nordic model” though it is not adopted by all Nordic countries, as a success. However, research does not show it has reduced sex trafficking or sex work. In addition, their own police report demonstrates it has pushed prostitution indoors with nearly three times as many Thai massage parlours in Stockholm and the vicinity:
In 2009, the National Bureau of Investigation estimated that there were about 90 Thai massage parlours in Stockholm and vicinity, most of which were judged to be offering sexual services for sale. At the turn of 2011/2012, the number of Thai massage parlours in the Stockholm area was estimated to be about 250 and throughout the country about 450. (The Swedish National Police Board, Situation Report 13 “Trafficking in human beings for sexual and other purposes” for the year 2011)
Mary Honeyball, Labour’s Spokesperson on the European Parliament’s Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee, who wrote the report recommending the Swedish sex purchase ban, said she wanted a model that reduced prostitution. She claims demand has halved in Sweden. However, this is untrue:
The law has been enforced almost entirely against clients of street-based sex workers but the government does not have any evidence of a decrease in sex buyers since the law went into effect. They do not know how many men were soliciting on the street before or after the law. They do not know if men moved from the streets to indoors and on line, or out of the country. They have not collected such data and so cannot prove any success in achieving the primary goal of the law. (“The Swedish Law to Criminalize Clients: A Failed Experiment in Social Engineering”, Ann Jordan, Program on Human Trafficking and Forced Labor, Center for Human Rights & Humanitarian Law)
On Sunday 23 February, I met Mary Honeyball at the BBC1 debate on The Big Questions about whether it should be illegal to pay for sex. Clearly, by the inaccuracies she was stating, she is misinformed – and misinforming others – about the actual outcomes of the Swedish model.
There is very little evidence to suggest that any criminal laws related to sex work stop demand for sex or reduce the number of sex workers. Rather, all of them create an environment of fear and marginalisation for sex workers, who often have to work in remote and unsafe locations to avoid arrest of themselves or their clients. These laws can undermine sex workers’ ability to work together to identify potentially violent clients and their capacity to demand condom use of clients. (UNAIDS Guidance Note on HIV and Sex Work)
As someone who had a traumatic experience of prostitution, mine is a standard narrative held up as an example of why the Swedish model is needed. But actually my traumatic experience in the sex trade, suffering being raped more than once and beaten once, every time while working alone, and ending up an intravenous heroin and crack addict, is a prime example of why decriminalisation is needed.
There is no drug harm reduction practised in Sweden because it is deemed to enable drug use. So as a former intravenous addict, I would probably have died from a blood-borne virus or perhaps lost a limb. Equally, there is no harm reduction for sex workers because access to free condoms is erroneously believed to encourage people to sell sex. So I would be at an increased risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases if I was unable to afford my own condoms. These issues primarily affect women working on-street who are most often in poverty and many suffering with addiction. The sex purchase ban has put these women in more danger:
The approach of criminalising the client has been shown to backfire on sex workers. In Sweden, sex workers who were unable to work indoors were left on the street with the most dangerous clients and little choice but to accept them. Where sex work is criminalised, sex workers are very vulnerable to abuse and extortion by police, in detention facilities and elsewhere. (UNAIDS Guidance Note on HIV and Sex Work)
The Swedish model has meant for sex workers who are mothers, they are at risk of losing custody of their children as by selling sex they are deemed unfit parents. This happened to Petite Jasmine and custody of her children was given to the father, a man known to be violent, who had threatened and stalked her. She was given no protection by the Swedish authorities. Then, in 2013, he murdered her.
The Swedish model is social cleansing, something Sweden has history of undertaking. It must not be done in this country or in any country.
Without the criminalisation of the purchase of sex the UK, and other countries, should work to establish comprehensive services to meet the needs of women, men, trans men and women, and nonbinary people seeking to leave the sex trade. There are 80,000 people in prostitution in the UK, most of whom are in poverty and 70% are single mothers. Huge investment from the government is needed and these complex services are going to take a long time to build. Additionally, these services will not work if they are forced.
For many women selling sex, they do not have other options, so we need to reform our benefits system and end poverty so no woman has to sell sex in order to pay her rent so her family are not made homeless, to ensure her children eat, or to heat her home. Criminalising her clients is not going to help her. It will only put her in greater danger.
The priority for police must be building trusting relationships with people in prostitution as it is in Merseyside, but this is impossible when clients are criminalised under the Swedish model. Merseyside has astonishingly high conviction rates for violent offenders targeting sex workers, which makes all of society safer. Their hate crime model, working closely with sex work projects that offer harm reduction services, has great results on assisting women leave the sex trade and ‘exiting’ is not the focus.
Women being able to work together in well-lit areas on-street and a small number of women being able to work from premises together should be decriminalised as research shows whether on-street or off-street, women are more at risk of rape and other violence when they are on their own and isolated. The two women who were recently murdered in London were working alone: Mariana Popa who was working on-street, and in an area where a police crackdown on street prostitution was being enforced, and Maria Duque-Tunjano who was working alone in a flat. Under decriminalisation they might still be alive because they would have been able to work with other women for safety.
Decriminalisation also means sex trafficking victims do not need to fear arrest and being charged. Jes Richardson, a sex trafficking survivor, was not able to turn to police for this reason, and it was a sex worker who helped her escape. She is another woman formerly in the sex trade who is advocating for decriminalisation. The Swedish model, according to the Swedish Police report, cannot demonstrate it has reduced sex trafficking:
According to the Swedish National Police Board it is difficult to estimate how many people may have fallen victim to human trafficking in Sweden during 2011. The number of victims discovered in Sweden depends largely on the resources which the police put into detecting this crime and on the skills that exists within the police organisation. The level of these initiatives varies between police authorities and differs from one year to another. Neither is it possible to identify (nor indeed to locate) all of the victims, mostly girls and women, who are mentioned in tapped telephone calls or observed during police surveillance. (The Swedish National Police Board, Situation Report 13 “Trafficking in human beings for sexual and other purposes” for the year 2011)
Sex workers are often well placed to identify and assist sex trafficking victims and essential in ensuring this and developing it further are good relationships between the police and sex workers.
I stand with 560 NGOs and civil society organisations and 86 academics and researchers who also object to the Swedish model and urge EU member states not to criminalise the purchase of sex when reassessing their prostitution laws.
Dr Jay Levy, who conducted research in Sweden over several years on the outcomes of the criminalisation of the purchase of sex, met with me in London at the end of 2013 to discuss his findings.