Widely presented as a more tolerant and pragmatic approach, the legalized model still criminalizes those sex workers who cannot or will not fulfill various bureaucratic responsibilities, and therefore retains some of the worst harms of criminalization.
It disproportionately excludes sex workers who are already marginalized, like people who use drugs or who are undocumented.
People in prostitution are afraid that such actions will come back to [haunt] them at later stages.” Sex workers—including people with EU residency—are aggressively deported, and their deportation orders include commentary like: “She has not maintained herself in an honest manner.” People who claim sex workers are “decriminalized” under the Swedish model tend to be those approaching the topic from a feminist perspective—yet it’s hard to imagine the same feminists would consider abortion “decriminalized” if people suspected of seeking abortions were subject to deportation and extra-judicial (yet perfectly legal) eviction.
In fact, Sweden’s policymakers are remarkably open about the extent to which the law is supposed to harm people who sell sex.
Instead of focusing on creating bureaucratic hoops for sex workers to jump through, decriminalization prioritizes sex workers’ safety and health —for example, making it possible for up to four people to work indoors in an informal collective without needing to do any paperwork, and, of course, without needing to fear arrest. Development Programme’s HIV, Health and Development Practice observed, in accidentally amusing phrasing, “I would like to be a sex worker in New Zealand.”The mythos of the Swedish model is that it is producing a better, more feminist society. For street-based sex workers, a potential client driving past will be nervous and keen to agree to terms speedily if his role is criminalized, and to keep his business the sex worker has far less time to make crucial assessments about whether he seems safe.
The New Zealand model has been extensively praised by the U. Research into anti-client laws around Vancouver street-based sex work found that, “without the opportunity to screen clients or safely negotiate the terms of sexual services …
When the Norwegian Police were pursuing “Operation Homeless,” they used surveillance to find targets for eviction—but they also evicted sex workers who came to their attention in other ways.
A group of sex working Nigerian women were evicted—and left homeless—after reporting that they had been the victims of rape, a situation that illuminates the comment by the Norwegian government that “the threshold for reporting a violent customer to the police also seems to be higher after the law.
Profiles are available for the United Kingdom, England and its regions, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales.
In one sense, those who argue for the criminalization of clients are right: sex work is a product of a deeply unequal society.
But as one sex worker organization notes (disclosure—I am a member of this organization): “If campaigners are concerned that poverty takes away people’s choices, we suggest that a real solution would be to tackle poverty, not to criminalise what is often the final option that people have for surviving poverty.” We need the New Zealand model, because we need safety now—and we need real alternatives to sex work.
The intention, we’re told, is to “reduce demand” for paid sex: shrinking, then ultimately abolishing, the sex trade.
It’s too bad that the reality of the law is not so simple, nor so uncomplicatedly progressive.