Sex work in Scandinavia

There are two opposite trends in the political attitude towards sex work in these years. On one hand a number of countries around the world – e.g. Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, New Zealand and Brazil – have legalised sex work or in other ways liberalised existing legislations. On the other hand some Northern European countries are moving towards criminalisation, predominantly in Scandinavia. Sweden and Norway have banned the purchase of sexual services in 1999 and 2009. The criminalisation movement in Denmark is heavily inspired by our fellow Scandinavian countries.

Banning the purchasing and not the selling of sexual services is known as “the Swedish model”, which is a novel approach. Historically, criminalisation has been motivated by religious or otherwise moral views, gender equality is the headline in Sweden and Norway. The claim is that the very existence of sex work is a result of male dominance, and that sex work will maintain a negative attitude towards women. SIO finds this approach very misleading.

Forced sex work is rarely seen. Most of us are sex workers by choice, but indeed poverty is a motivation for some. Even though you are poor, what you need are rights and opportunities – not criminalisation and ultimately worsened working conditions. Gender equality should be about respecting people’s personal choices and differences, regardless of gender, not punishing those who differ from the norm.

The idea to criminalise the purchase of sexual services, and thereby punishing the supposedly male client and saving the supposedly female sex worker, is an illusion. The sex workers are the ones really being punished. We will have to move our business underground where we will be subject to criminal networks, poor and dangerous conditions and exploitation. This is clearly what has happened in Sweden. After ten years of criminalisation the authorities are still unable to document any decrease in sex work. They know that sex work is a reality and still an active business, but because of the ban they have great difficulty in determining who is involved and where. This makes it impossible to give sex workers legal or social protection in line with the rest of the population.