Women are not children – remember? Flawed ideas about improving Sweden’s sex-purchase law

I wrote the following piece after some welcomed a parliamentarian’s suggestion that Sweden change to a regulatory regime that looks more like the 19th century than any progressive proposal for better Gender Equality. It was published at The Other Swedish Model. Note: sexköpslagen is the name for the Swedish law, meaning sex-purchase law or law on buying sex. Also note that the evaluation of the law, originally expected at the end of April, has been delayed.

Women are not children – remember? Flawed ideas about improving the sex-purchase law

Photo of Arhus brothel by Claus Petersen
Photo of Arhus brothel by Claus Petersen

Laura Agustín, 17 June 2010, The Other Swedish Model

Does sexköpslagen, the law against buying sex, work or not? Everyone wants to know. Camilla Lindberg is right that talking about the possibility that the law does not work is taboo in Sweden. The government’s official evaluation of the law has been delayed, probably because it has not been easy to find evidence to demonstrate the reasons behind an absence. That is, you may look around and not see sex workers and their customers where you did before. But you cannot know whether they have stopped buying and selling sex or, if they have not stopped, where they have gone.

Evaluators will question police and social workers, and maybe get to speak to a few sex workers, but none of these can give an overview of sex markets that operate via private telephones and the Internet, in the privacy of homes and hotel rooms. And evaluators certainly cannot say how many people are doing what. Street prostitutes are estimated in some countries to constitute less than ten per cent of all sex workers, so, even if there are few left to see, 90% are unaccounted for. When businesses that sell sex are outlawed, they hide, so government accountants are unlikely to find them – and, after all, many are just individuals working alone.

But if we want to discuss the whole sex industry more openly, we should not focus on the concept of brothels, as Lindberg suggests – particularly not on the idea of health checks for workers. This 19th-century French idea could not be more patriarchal and thus the very opposite of jämställdhet, sexköpslagens guiding principle. Basic common sense tells us that, if disease-transmission is a concern, all parties exchanging fluids have to practice safer sex – not ‘be checked’. And although laws in the Netherlands, Germany, New Zealand, Nevada and parts of Australia allow and regulate brothels as one form of commercial sex, many people who sell sex in those countries prefer to work on their own, in small groups in flats or – yes – on the street. In France, organised sex workers vociferously oppose a proposed return to the old system of maisons closes with health controls that stigmatise prostitutes as (female) carriers of sexually-transmitted diseases.

Draconian legislation does not make sense because no single law can do justice to everyone who sells and buys sex, whether they are Swedish, other European citizens or migrants, and whether they are women, men or transgendered. The enormous variety of jobs and personal histories involved cannot ethically be reduced to ideological categories: neither free nor forced describes the complicated life histories of most people who sell sex. Neither exploiter nor violent describes those of all people who buy it.

After 15 years of studying the variety and multiplicity of the sex industry and the social conflicts surrounding it, I do understand the utopic vision behind sexköpslagen: a desire that commercial sex would simply go away, that men and women would have equal opportunities, power, money and everything else – and that everyone would have good sex. Whether such a utopia can be achieved through legislation I personally doubt; sexual markets have shown themselves to be extremely tenacious over history and efforts to prohibit particular sexual behaviours have not prospered.

Debates about legislative models focus on a simplified idea of prostitution and date from times when women were seen as subordinate, when men were allowed to control their destinies and when disease was conceived as someone’s fault. All such ideas are now passé. Women are understood to be autonomous actors, with responsibility for their actions. Sexköpslagen conceives of one group of women as inferior and needing protection. Lindbergs brothels conceive of them as needing to be specially controlled. But neither are adequate ways to think about the diversity of people involved – and when it comes to safety not everyone wants to be protected the same way.

Sexköpslagen was envisioned as a way to legislate jämställdhet – ’send a signal’ about what is right and wrong in sexual relationships. The problem is it requires all women to feel the same way about sex. Nowadays, arguments about sexual behaviour revolve around rights, the idea that people can choose for themselves what activities they want to engage in and with whom. As we come to understand the enormous diversity of sexual desire, so we need to accept that, for some, money has no special ability to ruin the experience. Everyone doesn’t feel the same way about sex: it’s an anthropologist’s truism but nonetheless true.

For those interested in women’s rights, the question is how to promote the autonomy of as many women as possible, not the achievement of laws that embody some correct ideological stance.

3 thoughts on “Women are not children – remember? Flawed ideas about improving Sweden’s sex-purchase law

  1. Pingback: Twitter Trackbacks for Swedish Model | Clients | Demand | Health Checks | Rights | Border Thinking on Migration, Trafficking and Commercial Sex [lauraagustin.com] on Topsy.com

  2. Dave

    Haha! I got here by following a link from another site without paying close attention. As I read this article I thought, “This is excellent!. What a piece of clear thinking on a topic where rationality has been completely displaced by moral crusading in the guise of human compassion.”

    Then I realized I had heard of you before and, in fact, have just started reading your book. You are a candle in a very dark room.


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