How can you see ‘less’ sex trafficking’, ‘less’ sex work? How does one interpret emptiness? What does the absence of people on this bus mean? Does no one ride buses anymore? Is this one out of service? Is it on display in a museum? Has the route been cancelled? Who knows the answer?
I receive messages continually from people planning trips to Sweden: journalists, filmmakers, researchers, students, fellowship-applicants. They have all had the same idea to visit a country where a law prohibiting the purchase of sex is claimed to have reduced its sale and reduced sex trafficking. If these visitors write to me, I suppose they have read what I (and others) have written on the failure of the government evaluation to prove anything about the law and the difficulty that any such evaluation faces. Yet people assume they will somehow be able to observe the effects of the law. The whole idea of effects is questionable, but in the case of prohibitionist laws even more so. The most obvious first effect of prohibition is to discourage people from being seen doing whatever has been prohibited. Some people might really stop (or might never start) doing whatever has been made illegal, and some people might find different ways to do it that will be harder to discover. A typical visit is proposed like this Irish one:
Mr Shatter said representatives from the Department of Justice and the Garda travelled to the Swedish capital, Stockholm, recently to observe the impact of legislation introduced there in 1999 to criminalise the purchase of sexual services.
Presentations in Sweden included discussions with the Swedish Department of Justice and evaluators of the Swedish legislation (Supreme Court Judge Anna Skarhed, Mrs Gunilla Berglund from the Ministry of Justice, the National Rapporteur on Trafficking Ms Kasja Wahlberg, and the Co-ordinator of Stockholm Prostitution Unit Mr Patrick Cederlof). There were also presentations from ROKS (a Swedish NGO which provides refuge for battered women), Jenny Westerstrand (Researcher on Prostitution regimes) and Ulrika Rosvall Levin, (The Swedish Institute). [some typos corrected by me]
I don’t understand myself why they spend money and time interviewing government spokespeople, politicians, the heads of government-funded projects and moral entrepreneurs all of whom only re-state what they have said before but not proven: that the law has reduced prostitution and sex trafficking. Those statements are widely available on the Internet, including in television clips and videos. All of the above interviewees receive government money to do their jobs and all are known to fiercely favour the criminalisation of buying sex and wish for the disappearance of all forms of selling it. They give meaning to the term stakeholder.
Many visitors also interview police officials, who are only permitted to confirm government policy and mostly just point to a drop in the number of sex workers in the street (since they have no idea how to measure all other forms of commercial sex). The police also engage in speculation that shows they are doing their jobs well, since there is so little sex trafficking to see. This absence is also tricky to interpret, since there was never any baseline evidence on trafficking before the law so they have nothing to compare to now when they do (or do not) find any.
But, you say, some of the visitors want to talk to you or ask you to introduce them to real live sex workers who could balance what they hear from the government. About talking to me, ok I will sound different, but I can’t demonstrate that government claims are wrong – the same problem of researching an absence holds. (Another snag is that visitors begin by assuming that anyone they want to talk to lives in the capital, when Sweden’s a big country [for Europe] and all relevant and interesting folks do not live in Stockholm.) About my introducing visitors to sex workers: I consider it unethical. If I did introduce anyone, though, what would the personal testimony of one or two individuals mean? Little.
Nonetheless, I don’t believe I have deterred anyone determined to come see what the prohibition looks like. All I can do is ask folks to consider what they think they will be able to see. Take this view of a single person sitting in a bar – how many reasons can you think of to explain why he is alone?
–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist