Note to researchers: Forget trips to view no sex trafficking in Sweden

Note to visitors to Sweden who want to see, examine, document, research or otherwise report on the effects of the law to criminalise buying sex: Cancel your trips, there is nothing to see.

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.

And reported like this:

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

7 thoughts on “Note to researchers: Forget trips to view no sex trafficking in Sweden

  1. Maggie McNeill

    Ah, junkets! Politicians, academics and others who travel at someone else’s expense never recognize just how transparent the excuses for their holidays are, now do they?

  2. laura agustin Post author

    Kato, thank you for your comments. I wouldn’t say, myself, that wanting to keep migrant sex workers out of sweden is the reason for the law but rather that how the law affects any and all sex workers was and remains irrelevant to the lawmakers and State feminists.

    The Irish situation is, I agree, grotesque.

  3. Honest John

    Hi Laura, Many thanks for the interesting blog. As someone who travels frequently between Sweden and Eastern Europe and is a regular purchaser of sex, I think your exposure of the hollowness of the Swedish model and it’s dubious “success” is spot on. However, I do question this part of your stance:
    “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.”
    I can understand why you might consider such introductions unethical if by doing so you exposed gthe relevant sex workers to official harrassment. But I would imagine the personal testimony of people whose lives are most affected by all this would not amount to little! OK, it would be drawing a long bow to draw statistical conclusions from meeting a few individuals, but personal observations from people right in the middle could produce far more revealing and acute observations than a bunch of talking heads in Stockholm! Aren’t you yourself guilty of marginalising sex workers by insisting that their personal testimony matters “little”?
    In any case, the respective visitors must not be trying very hard to find sex workers if they have to ask you. Googling “Stockholm escort” produces 1.8 million results and a slew of dedicated websites for sex services in that city. I imagine “Malmo escort” would be the same. I’m sure a simple call could yield the journalists etc. plenty of contacts, though they may have to pay for the hour..:))

    1. laura agustin Post author

      John, I think you have misunderstood. There are many entertaining vehicles in which sex workers express themselves and I have helped some of those happen. The issue here is outsiders wanting to know what’s ‘really happening’, and that cannot be accomplished via anecdotes, whether those come from State Feminists, dissatisfied sex workers, angry clients or clever bloggers. The issue is research, and how you know what you know. You come to Sweden and don’t see anything, and all the anecdotes in the world cannot ‘explain’ that.

  4. Honest John

    Laura, I don’t agree that talking to sex workers would lessen a journalist’s understanding of what is really happening. On the contrary, it could be a powerful antidote to the ivory tower chatter of “experts”. Experience gives a person a different authority for knowledge than sitting in a library. In other words, what right do you have to tell a prostitue on the job that her opinion is good for “entertainment” and she should leave the serious talk to the experts??? She may not even be dissatisfied with her life – which in a way is the picture that the neofeminists don’t want anyone to see… Journalists do rely on anecdotal insights, however much other types of researchers might disparage them. As an analogy, even a serious newspaper might report on a strike by quoting workers on the picket line as well as union bosses and labor law experts. Diverse voices make a better story.
    Besides, as I wrote before, finding whores in Stockholm is as easy as googlem so it would have to be a pretty lazy reporter not to find a source from that angle. By the way, I have never bought sex in Sweden – at those prices I can wait – but I’m sure that on a lonely evening in Stockholm it wouldn’t be hard to arrange.

    1. Laura Agustín

      there are hundreds and thousands of journalistic pieces and films and articles that do what you want. if you are interested in my work, which now goes back to the early 90s, you’ll see that this basic issue is not in question. i’m not the one you have to sell on such a point.

      i am interested in research, in questions of methodology and ethics, and i speak for myself in a field where the great majority want personal narratives and testimonies, whether from slaves or escorts. they abound. i am talking about something else.

  5. Kenyon Laing

    You rudely discouraged me a couple of years ago when I reached out for an interview. Everyone else I reached out to (government officials, NGO workers, sex workers and sex worker advocates), however, was very obliging and they have all influenced me, and the direction of my research, profoundly.


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