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What the “sex buyers” survey found. And what it didn’t.

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There’s been much in the Irish media this week about a new report on sex workers’ clients, based on research conducted in five European countries (Ireland, Finland, Bulgaria, Cyprus and Lithuania). Unfortunately, if unsurprisingly, the media coverage has ranged from bad to abysmal. For a prime example of the latter, see this piece in the Irish Examiner, which starts off with the claim that “Ireland’s sex trafficking trade is worth an estimated €250m a year, a new study shows” – despite the fact that no such claim is made anywhere in the report. The journalist appears to have mistaken a made-up stat cited by a speaker at the report’s launch for an actual research finding, which I suppose is an easy enough error to make when you just repeat things NGOs tell you without ever cracking open a report yourself.

As for most of the other coverage, in general its worst sin is making the report out to be somehow shocking or revealing or breaking new ground, when it actually tells us very little – at least where Irish clients are concerned. By the time I finished reading it, my reaction was such a big fat “meh” I actually wondered if I should write this piece at all, and risk drawing more attention to something deserving so little.

Having decided (with some reservations) to proceed, I’ll start at the beginning. The report is an effort by the Immigrant Council of Ireland, the NGO behind the Turn Off the Red Light campaign, in partnership with like-minded groups from the other countries mentioned above. There is no attempt to hide the report’s agenda; Chapter 1.1 openly identifies it as part of an overall project that aims to

Reduce demand for the purchase of sexual services

and while this clearly gives the authors an incentive to find data that presents clients in the worst possible light, I don’t think they’ve actually achieved this – at least not when it comes to the Irish clients (whose responses I will limit this post to). The main reason for this is that their sample is so small as to be virtually meaningless: only 58 Irish clients took part in the survey, which was conducted entirely by means of an online questionnaire. (They actually did attempt to do face-to-face interviews but, as this excerpt relates, failed in almost comical fashion.) You’d need a pretty small population size for 58 to be remotely adequate enough to tell us anything about clients as a class – and the authors can hardly claim simultaneously that the population size is small enough, and that it spends €250m a year. After all, if the respondents amounted to even 10% of the sex-buying population of Ireland, that would still require them to pay an average of €431,034 per year for sex – something clearly impossible at the income levels reported (nearly three-quarters earn less than €40,000 per annum, and only 13% earn above €60,000). Add this to the finding that nearly half of respondents had paid for sex either “just once” or only “a few times”, and clearly the Irish sex industry is either a hell of a lot less lucrative than TORL advocates make it out to be, or those profits are coming from far too many clients to make this sample size sufficient. They can’t have it both ways.

While there are some disclaimers about the inferences that safely can be drawn from the report, they are both too little and too late. The “Research methodology” section (Chapter 1.2) explains that non-probability sampling was used, but suggests the only weakness of this approach is that it cannot

determine the percentage of the respective populations who had purchased sex

Nowhere does it explain that non-probability sampling cannot, by its nature, ensure a representative sample, and in fact at several points the report uses language that seems to assume the respondents are representative of Irish clients as a whole. Near the end, in Appendix 3, it concedes the risk of self-selection bias – where the sample is skewed by certain shared characteristics of those who choose to participate it – but then suggests this concern is unwarranted on the basis of

similarities between those who participated in this research and those who engaged in previous similar studies

Which previous similar studies they mean is unclear; looking through the report’s bibliography, I can’t find any previous research on clients in Ireland. This is a strange omission, in a report that everywhere else carefully references all the research it refers to.

To be clear, the report isn’t devalued by the use of non-probability sampling. Sometimes there isn’t any other way to study a particular group, and the information you get may still be useful even if it can’t be extrapolated to the group as a whole. For example, five Irish respondents said “a bar” was the location where they found the last person they paid for sex with; this is notable for indicating the need to study the poorly-researched phenomenon of bar-based prostitution, even if it can’t tell us what percentage of the industry that sector comprises. But in a report aimed at a non-academic audience, it’s important to make these limitations clear, and I don’t think this report adequately does this. Public pronouncements by the NGOs behind this report have certainly not done this – like this article from the Immigrant Council, which repeatedly equates “clients who completed this survey” with “men who pay for sex”.

The report also examines the meaning of “demand” in the relevant international law instruments, which require member states to reduce the demand that fuels human trafficking. The purpose of this chapter is to argue that “demand” in this context should be interpreted as demand for paid sex rather than demand for paid sex from a trafficked person. Obviously I disagree with them on this point: the current interpretation is in line with the requirement to reduce demand in non-sex sectors, and this is how it should be. Nobody suggests we need to reduce demand for agricultural workers just because some of them meet the indicators of trafficking.

Beyond that, though, I think there is much to criticise in the way the “demand” argument is made. Exploring the understanding of that term in academic research, the report relies heavily on the work of Bridget Anderson and Julia O’Connell Davidson, which is absolutely essential reading. Unfortunately, it elides one of their central arguments: that sex work and trafficking are not purely demand-led, and that supply itself may create the demand. Here’s a direct quote from the Anderson and O’Connell Davidson article setting out this position, which is entirely contrary to the impression of it given by the report:

“There is certainly demand for cheap and vulnerable sex workers, but it is by no means clear that this kind of demand acts as a stimulus for trafficking. It could equally be that a supply of cheap workers stimulates demand.”

There are a number of other, similar sleights-of-hand in this study. It cites a 2013 report by a Council of Europe anti-trafficking body, GRETA, in a manner that would lead the reader to believe – wrongly – that GRETA endorsed the Oireachtas Justice Committee’s anti-sex work proposals. It mentions that the Finnish Ministry for Justice recommended criminalising payment for sex, but fails to mention that the Finnish Government rejected that recommendation (though in fairness, that was a very recent decision). And it acknowledges that the failure to recruit more Irish clients may have had something to do with the

ongoing, very public discussion on the future of prostitution legislation in Ireland

but conveniently omits the fact that there is an ongoing, very aggressive campaign to make the research subjects into criminals, which campaign is being led by the authors of the study themselves. It seems to me that the interests of full disclosure should have required some mention of this.

But the study’s biggest flaw is the way it deals with the question of potentially trafficked or exploited sex workers. The online survey, which is reproduced in full in an Appendix, asks the question:

16. Have you ever changed your mind and walked away because the person seemed:

and a list of options follows, including “scared”, “controlled”, “unwilling”, “unhappy” and “too young”. “Trafficked” is not one of the options, but we are told in the Appendix that the options were chosen because they are

physical manifestations of exploitation [and] indicators of trafficking

In other words, a client who admits to walking away from an appointment because the escort seemed “unhappy” is assumed to have walked away because he believed she was trafficked! Quite plainly, this is absurd.

But it gets worse, because in the main body of the report, the question itself is completely rephrased to reach the finding the authors want to reach. Instead of reporting Question 16 as it’s actually worded, it reports it as if a significantly different question had been asked:

Around one-quarter of Irish buyers said they had encountered sellers they believed were being exploited.

This leaves no room for doubt: a client who might have ticked the box for “unhappy” because he’d walked out of an appointment with an independent escort who was in a bad mood would now be recorded as having encountered a sex worker who he believed was exploited or trafficked. This is not a conclusion that follows logically from the research question. It is a gigantic leap that undermines whatever credibility this survey might otherwise have had.

Next, the survey asks:

17. Have you ever considered reporting your suspicions that someone was being trafficked or controlled?

The only options given are “No” or “Yes”. There is no “Not applicable”. This is a classic “Have you stopped beating your wife?” type of question: there is no way to answer without allowing an unpleasant conclusion to be drawn. Though it was possible to skip the question entirely, and about a third did, it’s not clear whether respondents were explicitly told they could do so; thus the possibility can’t be ignored that some who would have selected “n/a” picked the next best option instead.

If the survey was designed so that Question 17 only popped up once Question 16 was answered affirmatively, this wouldn’t be a problem. But there’s no indication that it was. The sequential numbering (rather than as, say, Q.16 and Q.16a) suggests that it wasn’t. The text of the report also suggests that it wasn’t, and that Q.17 was asked of all respondents:

Buyers were also asked whether they had ever reported suspicions that someone was being exploited or controlled.

This is where it becomes really important to distinguish the actual findings from the spin. In the Immigrant Council article linked to above, their spokesperson writes:

“As well as profiling buyers the Immigrant Council of Ireland examined if the men ever came across women they believed were being controlled by pimps, were frightened or were trafficked. The results are startling, with over one in four admitting they had come across women and girls they believed were in such situations. A significantly lesser number considered to report this to the authorities, dispelling the myth that buyers are helpful is [sic] tackling human trafficking.”

“A significantly lesser number”? The report found that around a quarter of respondents had ticked one of those so-called trafficking indicator boxes. In a sample size of 58, that’s 14.5. The article above says “over one in four”, so we’ll round up to 15. It also found that 21% of respondents had considered reporting such a situation to the authorities. In the same sample size, that’s 12. The difference between 15 and 12 in a sample size of 58 may or may not be statistically significant (I’ll let someone else do the math), but it is hardly significant in layperson’s terms. The Immigrant Council’s use of that word in that article seems to be designed to mislead. And of course, when you consider the rephrasing of Q.16 (so that some of those 15 who walked away may not have done so because they thought the sex worker was being exploited), the difference could actually be even lower.

It is shameful how readily the Irish media allow themselves to be used as a vehicle for what can only be described as propaganda masquerading as research.

Another part of the survey that has drawn attention is a question asking clients what would deter them from paying for sex. Interestingly (though again bearing in mind the non-representative nature of the sample), “a bad experience or a disease” ranks first. Criminal penalties and the publication of their photo are also ranked highly. Predictably, this is treated as “evidence” that these measures would be successful in ending demand.

The problem with questions like this is that the answers are necessarily speculative, and human beings do not always behave as they expect themselves to. How people say they would react to the abstract hypothetical possibility of something happening, and how they actually do react when that something finally occurs, may not line up as neatly as the authors want us to think they will. The report fails to consider the phenomenon that criminologists call “initial deterrence decay”, whereby the effectiveness of a measure drops significantly after first appearing successful, as those who were originally deterred by it learn not to fear the penalties or find ways to get around them.

There are also some issues of concern with how the study was conducted. We are assured:

At all times, the research teams were aware of the ethical sensitivity of the issues being looked at.

However, there is no indication that any institutional ethical approval was sought or given. We are told that “training” and “guidelines” were given for the face-to-face interviews in two of the countries and for the handling of research data, but it is not clear whether full disclosure was made to any of the respondents about the nature and purpose of the study – a key ethical consideration when working with human research subjects.

A few other things struck me while reading the report, but I’ll leave it at this for now. One final comment: as the report’s real purpose is to advocate for the Swedish law of criminalising sex workers’ clients, it would be interesting to see a similar study carried out in Sweden. Presumably if the authors are going to accept these findings as authentic, they would have to do the same for an equivalent study on Swedish clients. I suspect the answers might surprise them.

Sex trafficking in Sweden, according to the Swedish police

I’ve commented several times that what the Swedes say internally about their sex industry is often very different to the impression they give abroad, when trying to export the sex purchase ban. This is a good recent(ish) example, a press statement from their police service website – only issued in Swedish – which, run through Google Translate, reveals something interesting about police knowledge of the sex trade:

Most of the sex trade [is] currently conducted via the internet. None of the inspecting authorities have a complete picture of the scope as they are not engaged in continuous or structured reconnaissance

It’s an interesting contrast with the claims we normally hear from the Swedes, which exude absolute confidence and certainty that their sex industry has declined since clients were criminalised. Self-evidently, if you aren’t monitoring something in a consistent and coherent fashion, you can’t reach a definitive conclusion as to whether or not it has declined.

The police do monitor the sex industry to some degree, of course, and their findings are included every year in a document titled Trafficking in human beings for sexual and other purposes. The English version of the latest report was published last May, and covers the year 2011. While that makes it slightly out of date at this point, it’s still more than a decade after the sex purchase ban was introduced, and therefore useful in helping to determine whether the law’s objectives really have been met.

Section 3.1 covers “Trafficking in human beings for sexual purposes”, and it starts off by hedging the statistics with the following disclaimer:

 According to the Swedish National Police Board it is difficult to estimate how many people fell victim to human trafficking in Sweden during 2011. The number of victims of human trafficking identified in Sweden largely depends on the resources which the police put into detecting this crime and on the experience and competence that exists within the police organisation. The level of these initiatives varies between police authorities and can vary from one year to another. It is not possible to identify or even to locate all of the victims, mainly girls and women, mentioned in tapped telephone calls or observed during police surveillance.

There’d be nothing remarkable about this paragraph, were it not for the fact that it entirely contradicts one of the lines the Swedes often use when trying to sell the sex purchase ban abroad: “if the customers could find these persons, we could find them”. That line is intended to refute the suggestion that the sex industry has merely gone underground; but the text quoted above (and similar elsewhere in this report) is an open admission that some of it is underground and will probably remain there. And this, bear in mind, refers only to those believed to be victims of trafficking; if they admittedly can’t estimate those numbers, it’s hardly possible they could estimate the numbers of people selling sex through choice or circumstance, who (one hopes) they aren’t expending as much of their resources to find.

While the report quite rightly attributes some of the increase in numbers to better investigative work, it also indicates a belief that at least some of the increase represents more actual cases. For example, describing an apparent rise in the number of “women from Lithuania who are being exploited in prostitution in Sweden”, the report says:

Changes in the victims’ backgrounds and nationalities can be explained by a weakened national socio-economic climate which is hitting women and girls particularly badly. The economic crisis in southern Europe may also mean that human traffickers and pimps are directing their activities towards countries with more stable economies, such as Sweden.

These two statements may seem somewhat at odds with each other – the first suggests that the numbers are increasing because Sweden’s economy is getting worse [ETA - see comments below from Laura Agustín], while the second suggests that it’s because Sweden’s economy is relatively stable – but the important points are this: first, the tacit acknowledgment (made explicit later in the report) that there has been an increase at all; and second, the admission that Sweden remains attractive to “human traffickers and pimps”, which is totally contrary to the propaganda we hear about it all. the. time.

A genuine jaw-dropper follows a few paragraphs later:

In 2009, the National Bureau of Investigation estimated that there were about 90 Thai massage parlours in Stockholm and vicinity, most of which were judged to be offering sexual services for sale. At the turn of 2011/2012, the number of Thai massage parlours in the Stockholm area was estimated to be about 250 and throughout the country about 450.

Now, what kind of “successful ban” leads to an almost threefold increase in one type of provider of the banned thing in less than three years? If the estimate is accurate, this statistic alone ought to put paid to any claim that the law is an effective deterrent. An industry that has lost a lot of its customers couldn’t possibly expand at a rate like that.  (See previous post on this topic here.)

The report goes on to shed an interesting light on the Swedish view of sex workers who choose their occupation – in particular, those who aren’t from Sweden. It states:

In February 2011, the police authority in the county of Halland decided to deport a Romanian woman … . Police authorities said that the woman, who made her living through prostitution, constituted a threat to public order and security. The woman appealed to the Swedish Migration Board who made the same assessment as the police authority in Halland: namely that prostitution is indeed legal in Sweden, but the purchase of sexual services is a criminal offence. This means in practice that a crime has to be committed under Swedish law to enable a person engaged in prostitution to support themselves.

This decision was ultimately thrown out in court as a breach of EU freedom of movement, but subsequently the Justice Ombudsman, considering the case of another EU sex worker, upheld the Migration Board’s position:

“…prostitution is to be regarded as a dishonest means of support according to the law. Prostitution – which can not occur without a crime having been committed – may also be considered as a prohibited occurrence in one principal element. Unlike the judgement in a previous determination by the Ombudsman for Justice, which related to begging, deportation in this case is considered to be compatible with the Aliens Act.”

This demonstrates a point which is well-made by Norwegian criminologist May-Len Skilbrei here: just because it isn’t a crime to sell sex doesn’t mean a person can do so without facing the strong arm of the law. If the State makes it a policy that sex work is something that cannot be tolerated, its officers will fight it with whatever means they have at their disposal: immigration laws, housing laws (as in Norway’s notorious “Operation Homeless”), public order laws (same link; see also the French bill which explicitly allows such laws to be used against street workers); Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (the reversal of which was deemed “frustrating” by a Swedish model-supporting Irish parliamentarian), custody laws (with tragic consequences last year) and probably anything else you can think of, short of actually prohibiting the sale of sexual services. And these have a similar effect as prohibiting the sale of sexual services, namely, giving sex workers an incentive to avoid state officials or anyone they think might rat them out to state officials (including the police and health and social services). In this context, the distinction between the Swedish model and one which directly criminalises the sale of sex is a distinction without all that much of a difference.

Getting back to the report, it goes on to describe in some detail the awful conditions and abuse that many migrant sex workers endure.  I won’t quote it here, but suffice to say it’s on a par with any of the tragedy porn regularly cited in support of the Swedish model. It describes the significant involvement of organised crime in the sex industry, another of the things we in Ireland are frequently told we need the Swedish model to address. And it also goes on to describe a Swedish “review” site which could easily have been used as a source on that Invisible Men tumblr (which, of course, also propagandises for the Swedish model). These are other ways in which the sex purchase ban seems to have fallen short of the grandiose claims made for it.

The report then confirms something sex workers themselves have complained of:

In 2011, the police Prostitution Team in Stockholm established that the sex-purchasers seemed to prefer to use “out-calls” to a greater extent than before. One reason for this is believed to be that the sex-purchasers consider that the risk of detection will be less if they order a woman to come to their home instead of exploiting her in a hotel room.

Here, the report directly contradicts one of the findings of the 2010 official evaluation, namely, that sex workers are not at greater risk of violence under the law.

Section 3.1 concludes with a couple pages on “Payment for sexual services”. Here, the report briefly discusses the law against buying sex, the statistics on the offence and the (positive) conclusions of the official evaluation (which it quotes without comment). Notably absent is a claim that appeared in previous years’ reports that the law deters traffickers from setting up business in Sweden. Perhaps the Swedish police no longer believe they can stand over this claim. It’s not hard to see why.


Last month, I took part in a debate with Sarah Benson from Ruhama and Nusha Yunkova from the Immigrant Council of Ireland – the two NGOs leading the Turn Off the Red Light campaign. (Kathryn McGarry, a researcher from NUI Maynooth, made up the balance on the panel.) In response to my citing this report, Sarah Benson said that the Swedes “never said” they would eliminate prostitution entirely. I don’t think this is strictly true; the Swedish Women’s Lobby, for example, has described the law as “a model to end prostitution and trafficking for sexual exploitation”.

But it’s certainly the case that the law has been promoted outside of Sweden – not least in Ireland – as one that has been a hell of a lot more effective than this report shows it to be. In fact, when interviewed by the Irish community TV programme The Live Register, Nusha Yunkova made the amazing claim that “there is no prostitution in Sweden”.  While this would stretch credulity of even the most gullible Irish politician, I think it’s fair to say that most of those who’ve declared their support for the Swedish model would be surprised by the contents of this report. They’ve been sold a law that has been “proven” to reduce the size of the sex industry, not one that isn’t actually being measured in this respect. A law that “reduces” sex trafficking from other countries, not one under which the number of women from certain countries “who are being exploited in prostitution in Sweden” has increased. A law that “deters” men from purchasing sex, not one that is such a useless deterrent the number of massage parlours in the capital has almost trebled in recent years. And so on.

Of course, knowing the considerably less rosy reality of the Swedish model probably wouldn’t make a difference to the average politician or those leading the TORL campaign; facts and evidence aren’t really their main concern. But at least they couldn’t cloak their moral, ideological and populist stances under a veneer of empiricism. For those whose support for the law stems from a sincere belief that it’s actually had a significant effect on deterring clients and reducing the extent of sex work and trafficking, they’re entitled to hear the evidence that it hasn’t. And we’re all entitled to an honest debate – something that’s been sorely lacking in Ireland so far.

The latest on Norway’s sex purchase ban

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I happened to notice today that the 2012 annual report by Pro-Sentret, Oslo’s official “help centre” for sex workers, is now online. This is the organisation whose Dangerous Liaisons report was so badly misrepresented by prohibitionists recently, so I thought it would be interesting to see what they’ve had to say in the wake of that report.

Unfortunately it’s only available in Norwegian, so I had to run it through Google Translate. I don’t really have the time to, or think I can, add much to what the report itself says so I’m just going to C&P below some of the report’s more notable findings. Anyone who thinks I’m cherry-picking is welcome to do the same exercise themselves, but one thing I’ll tell you now: in absolutely no way does it provide support for those prohibitionist claims. Not that I think that’ll stop them from trying to twist it to say that it does.

Excerpts below, still in pristine Google Translate state. I did fix a couple words that would have rendered the translation incomprehensible, but I’ve left the grammatical errors intact.


…there is no reason to believe that there has been a reduction in the prostitution market in the past year. On the contrary. Much suggests that the Norwegian prostitution market remains fairly stable in terms of the number of people who sell sex, nationality and how prostitution is organized.


More recently, it revealed new venues for prostitution in Trondheim by bars and restaurants are increasingly being used. Police have had an advisory role in relation to the establishments that have been most affected. In an extended period of supervised police downtown tanning salons. They found that these frequently used as a venue for prostitution. Police went out with warnings to holders and noted that it was put into action to impede prostitution on tanning salons (staffing, warnings monitoring and so on).

Police in Trondheim has marked a change in relation to the nationality of the the prostitute. They reported that several women from economically distressed countries Greece and Spain, and frequent prostitution market in Trondheim. There is also a large increase in terms of Romanian prostitute. Police believe that these activities can be organized.


The Nigerian women prostituting themselves mostly on the streets. In 2009 we had an expectation that the proportion of Nigerians on the streets would reduced when buying sex ban was a reality, as Nigerians basically have few rights in Norway and thus would make it harder. However, we have seen an increase in the Nigerian contingent in total during the last three years, while the number who have availed themselves of outpatient follow-up, decreased. This is still the largest group that uses the outpatient services.

In 2012 there were 80 people from Nigeria who received long-term social care support. We believe that the reason why women do not leave the country depends on the (lack of) opportunities they have elsewhere in Europe. There is rarely an option to return to poor Nigeria, and in Italy and Spain where they have resided for several years, is no other than prostitution due to the financial crisis. And prostitution pays enough more Norway than in the south of the continent.


Many women have found other ways to establish contact with customers after the ban on purchase of sex was introduced as well as due to increased competition from overseas on the street. Many have gained regular customers as they make arrangements with the phone or online instead of establishing contact with them in prostitution district. Some have found it necessary to finance its drug use through crime, such as theft and sale of illegal drugs.

Eastern Europe

Pro Centre still has contact with a large group of women from East European countries. In the early 2000′s, these were the largest foreign deployment Until the Nigerian women took the prostitution market a few years later. Many predicted that the Eastern European women would flood the market when the first EU eastward enlargement was a fact. This did not happen. EU enlargement created opportunities for regular employment for many. When the EU included Bulgaria and Romania we thought the same would happen to the women there. This has not been the same degree, and one of the reasons may be that many of women in prostitution from these two countries is Rom-women who are not in the same degree eligible for our regular labor market.

A large proportion of the Pro Centre users have come to Norway by a third party and pay a backer / pimp / agent to work here. Some of the women have been in Norway while working independently.

Unfortunately, we see great motivation and desire to work does not compensate for the lack of work experience, reading and writing skills and knowledge of Norwegian. It is therefore many become discouraged and end to continue in prostitution when job hunting is not results.

Sexual Health

We still get a lot of feedback from users that condom use declines. We hear that there are many women who perform oral sex on men without a condom, so that it difficult for those who want to use a condom to negotiate this with the customer. The customer is often willing to pay more for sex without, so that in a market that has greater supply than demand, so more and more of our users report that they take “trips” without a condom.

Violence and trauma

We started in 2010 to record separately the cases where violence was the reason for inquiry to the health by Pro Centre. In 2011 we had fourteen women who came to us for help after being exposed to violence and / or rape, compared with six in 2010. In 2012 we had 33 such incidents recorded. There is a strong increase.

The women who have been victims of violence come from nine different countries, but 22 of the 33′s Nigerian women. Four are ethnic Norwegian. Ten of the women have been raped. Some of these must be characterized as very serious as some involving serious violence and several perpetrators. Three of the women have been stabbed so severely that they have had to get immediate medical attention in hospital. Eight of the thirty-three have been hospital / emergency room before they came to us. In eleven of the cases police have been involved, but we have no idea of how many that ends with review and any judgment. Women in prostitution are afraid to report violence and abuse.

In six of the cases, the offender is a woman, whether a “madam” or Another woman in prostitution. Eleven of the women stated that the violence / rape is performed by a prostitution client. Some have been assaulted in prostitution district by a unknown man, some have found that the abuser has penetrated into the apartment they live.

Our message through the report Dangerous Liaisons is that women in prostitution is still very vulnerable to violence. They frequently exposed to crime in the form of violence, intimidation and harassment. The report shows that prostitution has become more individualized and fewer report that they seek relief services after they have been violence. In addition a number of women that they lack legal protection as part of legislation – which basically should cherish and protect women – also entails that they do not contact the police when exposed to criminal acts. They fear that they may lose their apartment (Operation homeless) and / or earnings base their if they call the police attention. Customers must now “protected” from being fined, and his role goes from being “business partner” to an ally parallel to the Police goes from being an ally that women can obtain protection from a party they must protect customers against.

Women in prostitution are reminded constantly of the environment that they act undesirable. Be it through police actions, media coverage of the field or Also passers. When exposed to violence takes in many cases even responsibility. Shame and guilt prevents them from asking for help. Our experience is that the more focus as we help measures on violence and violence against, the more women will share their experiences with us and we will better position to assist them. This recognition we take seriously. It is incumbent upon the support system a great responsibility in adding ensure that vulnerable people receive the care, support and any redress they have entitled. We must be present for women who sell sex on their terms: we must be “here and now”.

Pro Centre would like to focus on the protection of victims of violence rather than a political tug of war or a rematch of the law. The challenge for governments is to provide police guidelines are clear: how should the seller of sexual services position as the “weak” and the individual’s right to protection and protection proportionate to the pursuit of pimps and traffickers? Is the legislator’s intention that the individual prostitute rights should be subordinated to the large market reduction project? How to
police and judicial system could emerge as credible allies when individuals are exposed to violence, whenever any police activity suggests that their situation from day to day is not Important?

On “pimps” and policy

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The Godwin’s Law of the sex work debate is that inevitably, someone on one side will call someone on the other side a pimp. Most of the time, the person making the accusation will be a supporter of criminalising the purchase of sex – and at least some of the time, the only ground for the accusation is that the other person disagrees. Sometimes, of course, there’s a bit more to it than that – the accused may have picked up a brothel-keeping charge, for example – but seeing as that’s happened to people on both sides of the debate, it’s a fairly unedifying accusation. Even when it’s true.

Of course, the point of the accusation isn’t to improve the debate from an intellectual standpoint; it’s to discredit the person it’s made against. And when it’s made against a person who wants sex work decriminalised, the point is to discredit their entire argument – by suggesting anyone who puts it forward is a “vested interest”, a person who (quoting RTÉ’s Prime Time) “profits from prostitution”, a person who pretends to have the interest of sex workers at heart but really just seeks to exploit them. In this way, supporters of the Swedish model can not only take the high moral ground themselves, but can also add impetus to their argument by portraying the law as an anti-pimp measure (as they did, for example, in this press release last month).

The irony is that there are plenty of reasons to think the law would actually have the opposite effect, and promote pimps and pimping. In 2003 the Norwegian Ministry of Justice and the Police went to Sweden to investigate the outworking of the law, and this is what they reported:

It has been claimed that prostitutes’ dependence on pimps has increased because street prostitutes cannot work as openly. The police informed us that it is more difficult to investigate cases of pimping and trafficking in human beings because prostitution does not take place so openly on the streets anymore….

Prostitutes’ dependence on pimps has probably increased. Someone is needed in the background to arrange transport and new flats so that the women’s activity is more difficult to discover and so that it will attract the attention of the police.

A few years later, this was echoed in a report by the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare:

According to one informant in Göteborg, there are probably more pimps involved in prostitution nowadays. The informant says the law against purchasing sexual services has resulted in a larger role and market for pimps, since prostitution cannot take place as openly.

A woman engaged in indoor prostitution in Göteborg relates that when the law took effect in 1999, about ten women engaged in prostitution from various Eastern European countries approached her business because they wanted to hide indoors. Informants from the Stockholm Prostitution Centre also mention that the law has opened the door to middlemen (pimps), because it has become more difficult for sellers and buyers of sexual services to make direct contact with one another.

Norway, meanwhile, has seen the emergence of what you might call “pimp-like” relationships – relationships of extreme dependency, in which the most vulnerable (drug using street workers) become totally reliant on a particular man or men for survival. According to last year’s City of Oslo report,

Among the women with a drug addiction who still sell sex many have changed methods for finding customers. Most of the support services have experienced that the women enter into more long term relations with men who they refer to as “friends”, “boyfriends”, “uncles”, or acquaintances. These are men they stay in contact with through telephones and that they stay with for longer periods, this could be hours, days, or weeks. They have sex with the men in exchange for the men supplying them with drugs, money, and other necessities. Many of the support services say that they perceive the women as being very vulnerable in the relationships. The women become very dependent on the few customers they have.

So where does the idea come from that pimps would oppose criminalising clients? I think in part, it’s the failure of prohibitionists to understand the difference between legalisation and decriminalisation. Admittedly, there isn’t always a clear line between the two, but an essential element of legalisation is that sex work is only lawful under specified conditions. For indoor workers, this usually means that a premise has to meet strict criteria to be deemed a legal brothel – and that certainly can promote “pimping” as prohibitionists would define it. Few self-employed sex workers have the resources or even the desire to wade through that much red tape, so if they don’t want to work illegally and/or alone (depending on the laws of the jurisdiction), they often have little choice but to work for someone else.

But, and here’s the important thing that always seems to get missed, this is not the model advocated by most supporters of sex workers’ rights. Including many of those who are regularly accused of being pimps. A more favoured model would be something along the lines of New Zealand’s, where up to four sex workers can share a premise as a “small owner operated brothel” (SOOB) without the reams of bureaucracy that a managed brothel is subject to – and where sole operators can take the safety precautions they need without putting themselves at risk of arrest, as happens in many “legalisation” jurisdictions. Does this promote pimping? No, it doesn’t. In fact, according to the 2008 report of NZ’s Prostitution Law Review Committee,

Some brothels have closed down with operators citing the lack of staff and increasing competition for workers because of sole operators/SOOBs as reasons for the failure of their business.

You see? Make it easier for people to work without someone managing them, and they’ll have less need for managers. It isn’t really rocket science. In fact, none of this is counter-intuitive, at least for anyone who doesn’t consider the sex industry to be totally sui generis (which it isn’t). I mean, think about it: most people who call for drugs to be legalised are not actually drug dealers themselves. I don’t think I’ve ever even heard a drug dealer call for drugs to be legalised, for bleeding obvious reasons. Nor does anyone ever argue that criminalising drug dealers’ customers makes a dent in drug dealers’ profits – and fewer and fewer seem to think it really deters the customers, either. Why would criminalising the sex industry have an entirely different effect?

I am fully aware that this post is an exercise in futility. Criminalisation advocates are going to keep throwing the accusation around, keep raising the spectre of the Pimp-Monster lurking behind a multitude of Twitter accounts. It’s an emotive tactic, and thus perfect for what has been a heavily emotive campaign. It’s just ironic that its success will be measured by whether it achieves a policy that real pimps may be the first to benefit from.

No, new research does NOT show that violence decreases under the Nordic model

[Update: in response to communication from Feminist Current's Meghan Murphy, I am happy to clarify that the article critiqued below is not a "Feminist Current piece" but a Sam Berg piece which Feminist Current merely hosted.]

There’s been a bit of a social media buzz over this article on a radical feminist website, which claims that a recent Pro Sentret report from Norway – which you can read in English here – shows that “violence decreases under the Nordic model”. The author backs up her claims with an impressive array of graphs (and a fair smattering of ad hominems), and unsurprisingly receives glowing praise in her comments from people who were clearly predisposed to believe anything she said on the subject anyway.

I hate to burst their bubble. Well, actually I don’t.

The author kindly linked to one of my own posts on the report, though she seems not to have read it. If she had, she would have noticed that very near the start I referred to “methodological limitations” that made it unsafe to draw cause-and-effect conclusions from the study. At the time I didn’t feel it important to get into those limitations, but I will now. Apart from the health warning that always applies in studying a hidden population, there are two really massively important issues here:

1. Lifetime vs recent experience. The 2007-2008 study asked sex workers if they had ever experienced violence, throughout their “entire career in prostitution (which could be anything from one day to 50 years)”. The newer study asked about violence in the past three years alone. These are two very different questions, which can’t possibly give rise to comparable answers – at least without a detailed examination of the raw data, which we don’t have. We don’t know how long the respondents had been selling sex, in either survey; we don’t know how many in the first study had sold for more than three years nor how many in the second study had sold for less (though 16% of the latter group said they were not selling at the time the survey was carried out). You would expect, of course, that the more actual sex work-years covered by the survey, the more violence would be reported; and if we assume that the first study covered more actual sex work-years then we would expect to see higher rates of violence in it. I’m not even comfortable making that assumption on such flimsy data (which is why I didn’t make it in my initial post). But we certainly cannot make the implicit assumption that the Feminist Current post depends on, ie, that the two studies cover the same number of actual sex work-years.

2. Norwegian vs. foreign experience. Both surveys recorded sex workers’ experience of violence in prostitution wherever it occurred. For the 2012 study, we have a breakdown: 70% of respondents said it only happened in Norway; 12% said Norway and elsewhere; 10% said only elsewhere; 8% didn’t answer. There is also a breakdown of the venues within each country, but that is all. We don’t know, for example, which types of violence occurred in which country, or how many of the specific incidents occurred in which country. This makes it impossible to know how much of the reported violence even took place under the Nordic model. And we don’t have any of this data from the 2007-2008 study, so there’s really nothing for us to compare here at all.

Now, really, that ought to be enough to make it clear that Feminist Current’s claim is totally unsubstantiated. But just for the sake of argument, let’s say we really were comparing like with like. Would that justify their conclusions?

I’ll just address their headline statistic, namely, the claim that rape is down by half in the new study. That comes from here:


And indeed, the drop from 29% to 15% looks impressive. But wait a minute – look over in the left-hand column, halfway down. See that category of “threatened/forced into sex that was not agreed to”? Last I checked, that’s rape. And the number who said it had happened to them in the past three years was not 15%, but 27%.

The Feminist Current author didn’t miss that category of violence – in fact, she commented on it, but totally missed its significance. She also missed what the report’s authors had to say about it, which is as follows:

We have looked at how many checked both answers which could mean that they define both these categories the same way. Only 6 people have done this, which confirms our suspicion that many of the women would not characterize actual rape as rape. This also means that the actual frequency of rape is considerably higher than what is shown in table 10. If we combine the amount that checked these options and then subtract those that checked both we see that as many as 34%(25 people) of those that have experienced violence in the last three years have been raped/threatened into sex that was not agreed to.

So how does the 34% de facto rape rate compare with its 2007-2008 counterpart? To find that out, we’d need the same accounting exercise to be carried out on the earlier data. It could be that in 2007-2008 there was zero overlap between the persons who said they’d experienced rape, and the persons who said they’d been threatened or forced into having sex; this would give us a de facto rape rate of 64%, from which 2012′s 34% would still be an impressive drop. On the other hand, it could be that every person who said in the first study that they’d experienced “rape” also ticked the box for “threatened/forced etc”, which would mean the de facto rate in 2007/2008 was only 35%. In that case, the subsequent drop to 34% would be considerably less impressive, and probably statistically insignificant. The fact is, we simply don’t know.

Finally, since the Feminist Current argument rests entirely on the claim that “serious” violence is down in the 2012 study, I think there’s one other stat in that image worth highlighting:


This of course is subject to the same flaws as everything else in this study, and I’m not pointing it out to suggest that the number of sex workers threatened with a weapon actually has increased under the Nordic model, by 50%, from less than a quarter to approximately a third. I just think it’s kind of…curious that someone who takes the stats at face value, and accuses others of ignoring inconvenient data, doesn’t see any room for this in her analysis of how “serious” violence has changed under the law. But maybe she doesn’t consider “threatened with a weapon” to be serious enough.

There’s a lot more to criticise in that piece if I had more time, not least its contradictions with the radical feminist conception of sex work as inherently violent, inherently rape – and the way it almost mockingly dismisses certain forms of reported violence as not serious enough to be counted as violence for the purpose of this study, while then going on to insist that “any violence inflicted on them matters”. But I’ll let someone else unpack that one. As I said in my first post, we can’t safely draw any conclusion from the stats. The study’s significance lies in its qualitative findings – which are totally inconsistent with the idea of the law as a “success” and which are, unsurprisingly, totally ignored by Feminist Current.

I didn’t have to dig particularly deep into the study to find why the Feminist Current piece is wrong. Pro Sentret are careful to emphasise the lifetime/three years difference. They also highlight the fact that the number of sex workers who report being raped is much higher than the number who call it rape. There’s no reason why anyone who actually read the study wouldn’t be aware of these issues. If they choose not to share them with their audience, that’s a matter for them to explain.

UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health visits Ireland

The UN Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health – yes, that’s his full title – visited Ireland today to address a conference held by the National Women’s Council of Ireland. I couldn’t attend, which I was quite disappointed by as my Master’s research was in this area. However, I gather from Twitter that he spent a lot of time criticising Ireland’s abortion laws. And rightly so.

What conference attendees may not have been aware of (and I suspect the NWCI certainly weren’t) is that the Rapporteur, Mr Anand Grover, has also come down firmly on the side of decriminalising the sex industry. In fact, a 2010 report of his is one of the strongest statements I’ve ever seen in this regard by a UN official, and I’ve seen quite a few. I’ll just copy a few especially pertinent bits (omitting internal citations) and let them speak for themselves. Regular readers of this blog will notice a few familiar themes!

27. Sex workers remain subject to stigma and marginalization, and are at significant risk of experiencing violence in the course of their work, often as a result of criminalization. As with other criminalized practices, the sex-work sector invariably restructures itself so that those involved may evade punishment. In doing so, access to health services is impeded and occupational risk increases. Basic rights afforded to other workers are also denied to sex workers because of criminalization, as illegal work does not afford the protections that legal work requires, such as occupational health and safety standards.

30. Alongside the right to health, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights protects the right to freely chosen, gainful work (art. 6), which the State must take steps to safeguard. Article 6 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women does not require States to suppress consensual, adult sex work. Rather, it calls for the suppression of “all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of prostitution of women”. The term “exploitation of prostitution” has not been defined within the Convention, but is interpreted to refer to exploitation in the context of prostitution. Additionally, the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families applies to a significant number of sex workers who travel between States to engage in sex work.

33. The trafficking and enforced sexual slavery of any person is abhorrent, and undoubtedly merits criminal prohibition. However, the conflation of consensual sex work and sex trafficking in such legislation leads to, at best, the implementation of inappropriate
responses that fail to assist either of these groups in realizing their rights, and, at worst, to violence and oppression.

35. For example, New Zealand decriminalized sex work in 2003, with the express aim of safeguarding the human rights of sex workers. Prior to decriminalization, sex workers were less willing to disclose their occupation to health workers or to carry condoms. Since decriminalization, sex workers have reported feeling that they have enforceable rights, including the rights to health and security of person, and are increasingly able to refuse particular clients and practices, and negotiate safer sex.

43. The criminalization of sex work infringes on the enjoyment of the right to health, by creating barriers to access by sex workers to health services and legal remedies. When sex workers are not recognized as engaging in legitimate work, they are not recognized by standard labour laws in many countries. Sex workers often cannot gain access to State benefits, and are not protected by occupational health and safety regulations that routinely protect employees in other industries. The criminalization of selling sex also renders any
agreement concluded for sex work illegal or unenforceable by law on the grounds of being contrary to public policy, resulting in no legal recourse for sex workers.

44. Moreover, the criminalization of practices related to sex work can create barriers to the realization of safe working conditions. For instance, where laws exist prohibiting the running of a brothel, those who invariably subvert the law and run such a business can
impose unsafe working conditions without difficulty, as sex workers themselves have no recourse to legal mechanisms through which they can demand safer working conditions. Where criminalization in any form exists, the protection offered by a brothel or a manager may become increasingly desirable or necessary, but this also comes at a price: fiscally, through the opportunities created for extortion, and in terms of health.

46. The decriminalization or legalization of sex work with appropriate regulation forms a necessary part of a right-to-health approach to sex work, and can lead to improved health outcomes for sex workers. Any regulation of the sex sector should be implemented in accordance with a right-to-health framework, and should satisfy the requirement of safe working conditions as incorporated into the right to health. Decriminalization, along with the institution of appropriate occupational health and safety regulations, safeguards the rights of sex workers. Where sex work is legally recognized, the incidence of violence may also be reduced, through the enforcement of laws against abuse and exploitation.

48. It is vital that those designing interventions to assist victims of trafficking differentiate between those persons working in the sex sector against their will and those who consensually participate in sex work. Brothel raids that are designed to assist victims of trafficking but fail to discriminate between these individuals can impede the realization of the right to health of both groups in some circumstances. Conversely, evidence from one study indicates that individuals consensually engaging in sex work are well placed to assist trafficked and underage persons engaging involuntarily in this industry. This demonstrates the benefits of participation as part of a right-to-health approach.

50. Decriminalization also assists in appropriately targeting these health promotion projects, as sex workers are more likely to self-identify and voluntarily take part in interventions if the risk of legal repercussion is eliminated. Effective interventions around
the health of sex workers and clients should also consider shared responsibility and client behaviour; this is increasingly possible in an environment where clients are not criminalized for using the services of sex workers.

76. The Special Rapporteur calls upon States:

(b) To repeal all laws criminalizing sex work and practices around it, and to establish appropriate regulatory frameworks within which sex workers can enjoy the safe working conditions to which they are entitled.

On International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers

I thought this would be a good opportunity to revisit this post, in which I looked at a recent report commissioned by the City of Oslo, with support from the Norwegian Ministry of Justice, into violence against sex workers under the sex purchase ban. At the time I had to rely on Google Translate but since then a native Norwegian speaker, Thomas Larson, has given us an English version. You can read it in full here. And you should.

Many thanks to Thomas for the translation.

The Oslo report on violence against sex workers

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[Hi, Feminist Current readers! Please see this response to the piece that brought you here.]

A couple years ago, as many readers will know, the Swedish government commissioned a report into the outworking of that country’s sex purchase ban. The so-called Skårhed report had numerous flaws which have been dissected elsewhere, such as terms of reference which explicitly precluded repeal of the law (“One starting point of our work has been that the purchase of sexual services is to remain criminalized”), and the fact that only seven active sex workers participated in the study and their views were dismissed anyway. Nonetheless, the law’s advocates repeatedly point to the report as if its official status rendered it ipso facto a definitive statement about the law’s impact – so I’m sure they’ll be the first to latch onto the new report commissioned by the City of Oslo, right?

Well, maybe not. For one thing, the Norwegians haven’t been as quick to have it translated as the Swedes were, although there’s a brief English-language article about it here. From that headline you’ll guess the other reason this report won’t be trumpeted by the same people who took the Swedish report as gospel: because its own findings, based on questionnaires completed by 123 active sex workers as well as interviews with police and social services, paint a decidedly more negative picture than Anna Skårhed’s.

I’m not going to get into the statistics in the Oslo report, first because (as I’ve often said) I think figures are inherently problematic in this field, and there are some methodological limitations which call for caution in interpreting the findings. It’s important to note that the authors themselves state, on page 54, that

This data does not explain whether the high incidence of violence and the vulnerability that women in prostitution experience are due to the criminalization of buying sex or other factors.

So it’s unsafe to conclude from these statistics that the law has led to more violence against sex workers. It is, however, entirely safe to state that the evidence undermines claims that the law somehow protects sex workers, either by putting manners on their clients or improving their relations with police. In fact, on page 51 the report says:

[A] 2008 report noted the possibility that the criminalization of clients can be something that protects women, they can threaten customers who behave badly, or want to break the contract, to report sex buyers to police (Tveit and Skilbrei 2008:113). Nothing in the surveys we have conducted among women and assistance services suggests that criminalization could protect women against customer violence

Since this is one of the major arguments put forward by the law’s supporters, it is extremely relevant to the debate if neither sex workers nor their support services have found it to actually have that effect.

Based on interviews with police and support services, the report identifies a number of grounds on which sex workers may now be more vulnerable to client violence. Many of these, we’ve heard before:

Another trend is that the customer base has changed in that there are fewer “good” customers than before. “Good” clients refers to men who seek out women to buy sexual services, you pay the agreed price and adhere to the agreement. These are customers who are often the typical “man in the street.” With criminalization many people believe that fewer of these types of men are buying sexual services, because this client group often consists of law-abiding citizens. They refrain from buying sex now because of the new law. These customers are known as the easiest to operate.

A reduction in the number of “bad” customers is not reported, however, from either the police or other assistance. The term “bad” customers is used about customers who do not adhere to the agreement, try to push the prices, will not have sex with a condom, show lack of respect for women by being derogatory, violent/ threatening, intoxicated, mentally unstable/ill or who attend the women with the motive to violate them – not just to buy sexual services.

The consequence of the reduction in the number of customers in total, and that there are fewer “good” customers while the number of “bad” customers remains constant, is that the “bad” customers make up a larger portion of our customer base to more women than ever before. This means that although the number of “bad” customers has not necessarily increased, sales of sexual services have become more dependent on this particular group because the earnings base from the “good” customers is reduced. (page 38)

Meanwhile, for the (mostly Thai) women selling sex out of massage parlours,

there are reports that several have stopped prostitution activities in the establishments, for fear that the business shall be identified by the police. They now include agreements in the selling of sex at massage establishments, to meet the customer at a later stage in his own apartment for the implementation of the sexual services. (page 40)

Clearly, this poses a risk to the sex worker sent off to the client’s apartment. The latter page refers also to the “individualisation” of prostitution, in which

the community of women who sell sex has been reduced… Prostitution is not something we do together in selling sex from the same street corner/flat/establishment, but which is an isolated and personal project.


And with that goes the safety-in-numbers effect. Page 41 cites one potential positive of this individualisation, namely

Police believe this has meant that women are less vulnerable to traffickers because it is harder for traffickers to organize prostitution.

However, it goes on immediately to say:

Nevertheless, the police believe that the women in many ways are more vulnerable to other actors, such as customers, because women are more often alone in contact with them.

It then continues on a familiar theme:

In street prostitution, services reported that the time pressure to conclude an agreement with the customer has increased considerably since criminalization. Customers are more stressed because they fear that the police will find them, making contact on the street need to be done quickly and to get away from the area quickly. For many women this poses major challenges in contact with the customer because it is difficult to achieve a clear agreement with the customer about the price, sexual favors, place of execution and condom use before they must be off with the customer. The agreements are made only when one has come to a place that is “safer” for the client, such as in a hotel room, in a vehicle or in one of the parties’ apartment.

So when buyers are criminalised, it seems, there’s an inverse relationship between their safety and the seller’s – and his is paramount in the transaction.

Unsurprisingly, the report finds that sex workers may now be more vulnerable to riskier sexual practices:

As the customer base has been somewhat reduced … several support services also report that women have had to lower the requirements they have for customers. Many women have previously had clear demands on the clients they take, nationality, substance abuse, mental health/client’s appearance are examples. The women also have other standards that were absolute, the sexual services they sell/don’t sell, how they conduct the sale, the number of customers they take the at same time, the price they take and the use of condoms. More services believe that women have been forced to lower their original demand to get clients and earn the money they need. Whether this has led to increased violence and increased rates of infection of sexually transmitted infections, it is difficult for aid services to consider, but it seems like there is a broad consensus among aid services that the women feel more vulnerable, more at risk and that they have less control of themselves in relation to the customer than before – just because they have had to lower their demands. (page 41)

This is what is known as a “buyer’s market”, where

customers to a greater extent than in the past may set the terms for the sexual services they want to buy, price, where the prostitution act shall be implemented and condom use. (page 38)

Another area in which sex workers are reported to have less control is in arranging their accommodation. This is because of an ongoing police operation, which carries the incredible name “Husløs” (homeless), aimed at enforcing the laws against indoor prostitution. Page 39 explains that this operation

means that the police notify owners of apartments / offices / hotels where prostitution is found that they will charged with pimping, if the tenancy is not terminated

As a consequence,

the rental market has become narrower for women in prostitution – both in terms of rental apartments to live in and in relation to operating a massage establishment. Prostitution support services report that according to the women, at times it has been difficult to find space for a massage establishment, because landlords will not rent apartments / rooms for people from ethnic groups associated with prostitution.

One wonders how many non-sex workers from those ethnic groups are also affected by this law. The result is that rather than being able to run their own establishment,

some women have had to get help from a Norwegian person to rent a room/studio in his name

… which means that rather than preventing dependency relationships, the law in this respect may actually encourage them. Page 39 reports a similar trend for drug-using street workers:

Among the addicts, women who still sell sex have many modified methods of how they come into contact with customers. Most aid services find that women are included in more long-term relationships with men who are referred to as “friends”, “boyfriends”, “uncles” or acquaintances. These are men they keep in touch with over the phone and that they are with for long periods, it can be about hours, days or weeks. They have sex with men in exchange for the men supplying them with drugs, money and other necessities. Many of the aid services say they feel women are very vulnerable in these relationships. The women are very dependent on the few customers they have.

Operation “Homeless” (I’m still utterly gobsmacked they call it that) also helps to explain why sex workers are reluctant to report violence to police. As page 42 notes:

Few women in the indoor sector contact the police when there is violence in the establishment or the apartment they work in because they fear that they will affected by operation “Homeless”, report aid services.

And then there’s my usual bugbear, the use of “anti-prostitution” laws as an immigration control measure. Page 37 states,

In relation to the foreign people who sell sexual services, police checks for valid identity and residence papers have soared.

On the next page,

The increase in immigration control has led to a strong presence of police in parts of the foreign prostitution environment and more are taken from Norway, while the use of various provisions of the order has resulted in more fines and being expelled for a period from various downtown areas.

The increased control of the market has meant that many of those who sell sex feel they have been criminalized. This is despite the fact that legislation has not changed in relation to those who sell sexual services. Both the police and aid services report on this trend.

Many of the aid services also report that police are no longer perceived by women as an ally they can turn to when they have been the victim of a crime because they fear that they will be checked for other conditions while in contact with the police.

This is an entirely predictable consequence of a crackdown on a market with many undocumented immigrants – and yet pro-criminalisation advocates still claim that their law will make sex workers more comfortable with police. Why in the world is this so hard for them to understand?

Notwithstanding my suspicion of figures, there is one in this report I think is worth highlighting (the usual caveats apply). On page 37 there is a reference to a study published in 2008, just before the law against buying sex took effect, in which sex workers were asked whether they thought the law would have an impact on their vulnerability to violence. 74% said yes, and of these, 90% said they would be more exposed – citing many of the same reasons already discussed here. Even accounting for any methodological weaknesses in that study, there were clearly significant concerns among sex workers as to what the law might mean for them. Why were those concerns ignored?

Page 41 gives a possible answer to that question: namely, that sex workers themselves were conceptualised as the problem that the law would address. Never mind that feminist stuff in Sweden, here it was seen as a public order issue and a highly racialised one at that:

Several support services, particularly prostitution services, report that in recent years there has been a shift in how the outside world reviews and relates to women in prostitution. This tendency can be traced back to 2006/2007 when the Nigerian women took the street prostitution market in Norway and started to sell sex in new and visible public areas. The debate often revolved around that these women acted inappropriately and immorally. Women in prostitution became more and more often referred to as disruptive and unwelcome, than as people in difficult circumstances. This focus was very clear in the debate prior to the criminalization of buying sex.

Unsurprisingly, the push for criminalisation has increased the stigma faced by sex workers:

The services reported that the direction the prostitution debate took in advance of and in connection with the ban has had a major impact on how “the man in the street” looks at women who sell sex, and they hear more women share experiences where they are harassed by strangers in public places than before.

In recent years, prostitution initiatives regularly received reports of people who attend the prostitution district of Oslo and harass women. The episodes that have been described, for example, are that individuals seek out prostitutes to shout abuse, throw things at women and behave rudely to them.

The Oslo report doesn’t address the key question in the Skårhed report, namely, whether the ban has reduced the amount of prostitution. This article cites a separate report which does; I’ll probably look at that at some future date. It’s pretty clear, though, that whatever about the statistics, the perception among those closest to the action – sex workers, their support services and the police – is that conditions are pretty rotten for those on the game in Norway’s capital and largest city. “The man in the street” in Oslo may not care about them, but for those who do or who claim to do so, there really can be no excuse for ignoring the very strong warning signals in this report and focusing immediately on how to improve these conditions – even if it means taking the foot off the End Demand train for a while.

“There was no lack of buyers” – Swedish sex trafficking trial concludes

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It may have escaped your notice if you rely on what the Swedes tell other countries about their sex trafficking problem, but last week several men were convicted for what Swedish prosecutors have called one of the largest trafficking rings of its kind ever uncovered in that country. It involved Romanian women who were brought to Sweden, some of them on the pretence of working in legal industries, and forced to sell sex in various Gothenburg arenas. You can read more about it here, here and here.

I won’t cite all the tragedy porn in those links (though I have no doubt supporters of the Swedish model would, if it had happened in a country where buying sex was legal), but there are a couple things I think are worth drawing attention to. The first is the quote in the title of this post, which comes from the third link. That article goes on to report one of the women’s testimony that she had seven or eight customers on her very first night. This doesn’t say much for the supposed deterrent effect of the sex purchase ban.

The second is the breakdown of ages (in the final link) of the men convicted of buying sex from these women: 36% were born in the 1960s, 21% in the 1970s and 30% in the 1980s. The other 13% aren’t accounted for except to say that the oldest was 76 and the youngest 17. So nearly a third, and perhaps slightly over that, were teenagers when the ban was introduced in 1999: further evidence (as I discussed here) that it hasn’t had the normative effect it was supposed to have on younger men.

The 17-year-old’s conviction is interesting for another reason. If Wikipedia (and all the other links I’ve found by Googling) is correct, Sweden’s age of majority is 18, which means that he is legally still a child. There’s nothing unusual about minors being convicted of crimes, of course, but the way that prostitution is conceptualised in Sweden does make this rather remarkable. The ideology underlying the sex purchase ban is that women cannot choose to sell sex; evidently, however, Swedish law considers that male children (at least of a certain age) can choose to buy it. In other words, when it comes to trading sex for money, adult women are less competent than male children. Could there be any clearer illustration of how this law infantilises women?

(It’s true that at least some of the women involved in this ring didn’t actually choose to sell sex, but the law doesn’t make a distinction between those who do and those who don’t. As far as I can tell from the various reports, the men were convicted for buying sex simpliciter, not for buying sex from trafficked persons, which does not appear to be a separate offence in Swedish law. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong.)

Nor is this an isolated incident. Last month, the same journal carried a story about another “large scale sex trafficking ring”, involving an even greater number of women, in Stockholm. In fact, the Swedish-language paper Sydsvenska, discussing the Gothenburg trial, says that “Många” (many) human trafficking cases have been reported since the law was brought in. The law’s advocates, funnily enough, seem to leave that detail out of their propaganda.

Some of the other Swedish language reports have equally interesting comments. I tracked down the source of that client age survey, this Dagens Nyheter (Daily News) article, in which I found the following information about the Gothenburg sex trade (Google Translate C&P job, but you get the gist):

The two worst pimps were convicted of trafficking and the other four for aggravated procuring. But in the street sex trade going back to normal. “Moreover, there prostitution in more arenas than we can access,” says social worker Ms Malmström…

We have also attempted to examine the major internet sites and SMS sent and email to over 300 who sell sex on the net, says Ms Malmström, so the market is actually much larger.

This article in the Gothenburg Post states that the men convicted included a municipal councillor, a Premier Division footballer, and several directors and sales managers. It also reports the County Police Commissioner as saying human trafficking is “a business with huge income and relatively low risks”. Not quite what we’ve been told about Sweden being an unattractive market for traffickers, is it?

I could go on but I think I’ve made my point. The picture that advocates of the Swedish model are painting outside of Sweden is clearly very different to the reality inside Sweden. Furthermore, the Swedes don’t seem unaware that they still have significant issues with prostitution and sex trafficking – they just don’t want the rest of the world to know about it. And so, they send their spokespersons out to lobby for the sex purchase ban in other countries, by making claims that are directly contradicted by their own officials in their own media. And credulous moralists and anti-sex work feminists swallow it wholesale, no questions asked.

What’s the Swedish for “con job”?

More on the short-term thinking behind sex work abolitionism

In this post last week I questioned the assumption of anti-prostitution laws as a solution to the trafficking problem. The failure to consider the consequences of these laws for trafficked persons – even if it could be shown (which it hasn’t been) that they have their desired effect – is a really good example of the logical gaps and short-term thinking employed by sex work abolitionists.

But that short-term thinking is evident even without bringing trafficking into the equation. The very notion of ending sex work through anti-prostitution laws is inherently flawed, and I don’t even need to point to statistics to make this argument (but what the hell, I will anyway).

The flawed reasoning goes like this (apologies for the gendered language here but I’m talking like an abolitionist and let’s face it, men who sell sex and women who buy it simply aren’t on their radar): criminalise the purchase of sex, and men will stop buying it. With no more market for paid sex, women will stop selling it.

Yeah, ok and… then what?

Before I continue, there are a couple things I should mention in passing. First, there is absolutely no evidence that criminal laws make men stop buying sex (as opposed to telling pollsters that they’ve stopped buying it, while really just buying more discreetly). Secondly, even the “buying more discreetly” effect can have really negative consequences for the sex workers deemed by those clients to pose too big an arrest risk. Emi Koyama has a good concise summary of the reasons for this here and I’ll just point out that the Swedish and Norwegian experiences corroborate her arguments, and leave it at that.

Because what I really want to focus on is not whether criminalisation makes a change in buyers’ behaviour, but rather in sellers’. So let’s assume that these laws actually did dry up the market and force sex workers to find another source of income. Well, here we see a big ol’ gaping hole in abolitionist logic, because their entire notion of sex workers-as-victims (I’m sorry, “prostituted women”) is premised on the assumption that they are in the industry because they don’t have any alternate source of income. To imagine that you could take away their customers and they would then just leave the sex trade is to admit that they could have left the sex trade all along, if they had wanted to.

In saying this, I’m not denying that there are some sex workers who really don’t have any alternatives, such as those who are literally held in the industry, by another person(s), against their will. But I don’t think even the staunchest abolitionist believes that’s the case for most adult sex workers (with the possible exception of Senator Fiach Mac Conghail, whose speech during the recent Seanad debate on the Swedish model was a genuine masterpiece of half-baked mythology and propaganda). I also wouldn’t count shoplifting and drug dealing as “alternatives”, which some drug-using sex workers said in this study was what they were doing before settling on sex work as the preferable option. Take away that option, and what happens to these sex workers? Watch your purse, Rescue Lady.

To be fair, organisations like Ruhama do provide assistance to those who (want and) need it to find mainstream work, and the Swedish government has provided funding toward this end. But all this assistance isn’t going to help people find jobs that don’t exist in the first place. As I write this, the Irish unemployment rate is 14.4% – which means that sex workers who want to leave the industry will face a hell of a lot of competition for what jobs are still out there. If they have a criminal record (as many in this sector of the industry do), beating the competition will be that much harder. For ethnic minority and trans women, harder still. And if they have an immigration status that doesn’t allow them to work in the first place, well, “skills training” is about as useful as an elephant with a skip-rope. Sweden’s unemployment rate is lower but it isn’t immune to these problems either. And that’s not even getting into the Global South, where the phrase “survival sex” can take on meanings unimaginable here. To take away these sex workers’ livelihoods before you’ve made absolutely certain they have something to replace it with not only does them no favours, it is cruel, unethical and evinces a lack of perspective that can only come from people who either don’t care about sex workers’ lives or are too cocooned in their own privilege to recognise the harm their “good intentions” cause.

There’s a deep irony here, in that abolitionists claim that it’s precisely this category of sex worker that their campaign seeks to protect. Decriminalisation, they argue, is for the “elite” prostitutes, the ones who are lucky enough to really have a choice. This of course ignores that all the evidence shows it is the “elites” who suffer least from the harmful effects of criminalisation – which nearly always targets the more visible and vulnerable sectors. Indeed, the very way that we conceptualise “prostitution” has a distinct class bias: it covers only the types of immediate, short-term gains that are easily associated with low-income people – things like cash, drugs and alcohol – while excluding those transfers more likely to be made amongst the upper strata, such as real estate, diamond rings and credit card accounts at Dolce & Gabbana. Sweden’s WAGs can rest easy knowing that only “casual” sexual relations, at least according the official translation of the penal code, will trigger the law.

Even college fees, it seems, might be too high-class to matter. This recent Examiner article, about Irish students seeking “sugar daddies”, does not even contemplate the possible illegality of such arrangements under the prostitution laws that the Examiner has been the Irish media’s biggest cheerleader for. That piece appeared only a week after the Seanad debate linked above, so the possibility really should have been fresh in the editors’ minds.

I’ve digressed a bit but the point is this: the category of sex worker who would be able to just walk off and start a new life if criminalisation really did eradicate their client base is not the category of sex worker that abolitionists are concerned with. The centrepiece of their “solution” to survival sex work is a policy that would only drive their “prostituted women” even further into destitution and perhaps homelessness, crime and substance abuse.

I am all for “exit strategies” for those sex workers who wish to leave the industry (although I agree with Thierry Schaffauser about the problematic nature of the “exiting” concept and the desirability of a less stigmatising term). But a strategy is only that. It is a roadmap out, but without guaranteed jobs, work permits and the ability to overcome discrimination and stigma, for many of these sex workers it is likely to be a road to nowhere. Like criminalising abortion without making adequate provision for births, criminalising sex buyers without real, concrete, guaranteed alternative incomes for sex sellers is a myopic policy rooted in ideology rather than reason. And if it is not already having a devastating impact on the survival sex workers operating under it, that is only because “end demand” strategies don’t end as much as demand as abolitionists think they do.


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