‘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.

In the Booth with Ruth – Jemima, Sex Worker, Writer and Student

Jemima, a sex worker, discusses the advantages of the sex workers’ rights and anti-sex trafficking movements working together.

Ruth Jacobs

Jemima Red Parasols line El Tiradito at SWOP-Tucson’s 2013 International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers Event
Photo Credit: C. Elliott

Could you share how you became involved in the sex worker rights movement and why it’s so important to you?

It honestly was Twitter for me. I was a sex worker, but like most isolated by the nature of the work. Whilst I knew the law as it applied to me I was unaware there were people campaigning to change the laws, or that other countries had different systems, many of which were a lot worse than the UK. I started talking to and reading other sex workers writings, and attended a few events. Realising that I was not alone was such a huge moment for me.

The isolation of sex workers, and the way it feeds into our various oppressions, increases stigma, makes it less likely for crimes…

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The Sex Trade: Lies, the ‘Voice of the Voiceless’ and Other Silencing Tactics

Silence by Alberto Ortiz, Flickr

Photo credit: Alberto Ortiz, Flickr

This article was first published on The Huffington Post – 2 June 2014

Most people are voiceless because no one is letting them talk or listening to them when they do. There is a lot to be said for quitting being the voice of the voiceless and letting people speak for themselves. But not by those seeking to abolish the sex trade. Words are put into people’s mouths when they can be, and when they can’t, those people are silenced and dismissed.

Amnesty International UK has not accepted such tactics, instead listening to people in the sex industry and voting for decriminalising the consensual sale of sex between adults and rejecting the “end demand” Swedish model at their recent AGM. But in the European Parliament, these underhand tactics, which influenced voting earlier this year, have yet to be condemned.

These are 5 places where lies and silencing tactics need to stop:

1. Fundraising – dishonest activists and making children lie

At the end of May, Somaly Mam, a celebrity anti-sex trafficking activist and fundraiser, resigned from her foundation, following the uncovering of lies in her own story of being sex trafficked and the discovery that she forced children to lie about being sex trafficking victims to raise funds. From the 1990s, young girls including Long Pros and Meas Ratha were made by Mam to tell harrowing stories of being sex trafficked in television interviews. Worryingly, this incident of children being forced to lie to raise funds for an NGO is not an isolated case.

2. UK & European Parliaments – bias and libel

In March, the biased All-Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade – funded by anti-gay charity CARE – released their biased report attributing quotes to the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) that were in fact said by an NHS Outreach Project Worker and using some of the ECP’s, Professor Phil Hubbard’s and my quotes out of context. The report recommends the “end demand” Swedish model, which does not work to end demand, but does increase danger and stigma.

In February, before the European Parliament voted on MEP Mary Honeyball’s report recommending the Swedish model, Ms Honeyball sent an email to MEPs libelling the 560 NGOs opposing her report as being “comprised of pimps”. The NGOs included anti-human trafficking, women’s rights, HIV/AIDS and human rights organisations, as well as sex worker led organisations – the people she was silencing claiming to care for. A counter-report demonstrating the severe lack of evidence in Ms Honeyball’s report was also signed by 94 academics. The Swedish law does not work and is dangerous. Sex workers deserve a law that ensures their human rights as do sex trafficking victims, not a law that fails them. Mary Honeyball’s defamation of 560 NGOs should make the result of the vote void.

3. Campaigning – ignored and spoken for

The European Women’s Lobby, Equality Now and other groups seeking to “end demand” ignore the danger the Swedish model creates. They selectively choose people formerly in the sex trade who support their approach while dismissing the concerns voiced by sex workers and their call for decriminalisation, which is echoed by the World Health Organization, UN Women, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, and Human Rights Watch among other organisations.

Lori Adorable, a sex worker who I recently interviewed on sex workers’ rights and how negative experiences of the sex trade, like mine, are often used by those seeking to abolish prostitution to argue for the Swedish model, recommends “people explore the websites of the organizations who are members of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects.” Regularly, these people are spoken for “but these women are speaking for themselves, and they’re asking for decriminalisation.”

4. Television – being “unrepresentative” and spoken over

Women currently and formerly in prostitution are used in a tokenising way by anti-prostitution feminists and religious fundamentalists pushing for the Swedish law that will result in dire consequences on lives they cannot even imagine living. When we do not satisfy the requirements of their mouthpiece, we are discounted, shut up and shut down.

Laura Lee, whose experience of sex work is positive and very different to my own, is discounted and told she is not representative on BBC Newsnight.

On BBC1 The Big Questions, I am spoken over by a woman claiming to care for women like me, who have had a traumatic experience in prostitution. Though earlier in the programme, she says I make prostitution sound “warm and cuddly”. For those who know me, they will know how ludicrous this is.


5. Social media – the pimp lobby, dismissing and co-option

Current and former sex workers who disagree with the “end demand” agenda are told they are not representative, they are pimps, they are shills of the sex trade lobby, they are suffering from false-consciousness, and some have received threats of rape and death.

I am accused of being the “Pro-Prostitution-Lobby’s humane face” who “peddles” misinformation and fights “dirty”…by a former friend. And I am “probably very unhappy”, but then she would know through the hours we spent talking on the phone (which, due to being in different countries, cost me hundreds of pounds I do not have currently).

Pimp Lobby Accusations

Note: Sex workers’ rights activists are against sex trafficking, and some of us actively engage in anti-human trafficking activism in addition to sex workers’ rights activism. These are both human rights issues affecting people in the same industry. Caring about both groups of people is probably the most natural for people who really do care about those in the sex industry and not involved in activism with moral, religious or anti-prostitution feminist agendas to push a dangerous ideology.

I need a laugh not to cry after that.

“Before I spoke English and could use Twitter I was representative of some young Indian sex workers,” writes Molli Desi, a London based sex worker. “[N]ow I have broken through that technological and cultural glass ceiling I am no longer representative and I can be ignored.” She rightly states that this is “a disingenuous argument and disqualifies our attempts to participate. It also allows for the unheard voices of my still “representative” friends to be appropriated and spoken for by others.”

It is easier to use a woman in the sex trade when she is not present to speak for herself. A vulnerable woman who is homeless and suffering from addiction was used by an anti-prostitution feminist to argue for the Swedish model, which she opposes as does the photographer, Chris Arnade, who took her picture.

Women, men, trans men and women, and nonbinary people in the sex trade are not only and not always someone’s daughter, son, sister, brother, mother or father, but they are always people deserving of their right to be listened to and truly heard.