What is at the heart of feminist organising around the globe today? If sheer numbers are anything to go by, then it's the 'rescue industry' of international humanitarian welfare, highlighted by the anti-trafficking zeal with just the right amount of patronising "concern" for nations not in the developed world.
Everyone, from the Demi Moore/Ashton Kutcher power couple, to Lindsay Lohan are getting in on the action. From pop culture, to the charity circuit, the rescue industry has it sewn up.
Their rhetoric perceives all sex workers as victims. The Swedish model now a decade in as the worlds biggest social experiment has legislated this approach and criminalised sex worker clients in all forms: sex for money, sex for favours, sex after drinks in a bar – the lot. The law also criminalises all auxiliary activity to do with sex work, including using an accountant, cleaner, receptionist, or even a person to drive you to the bookings. For a full explanation of the law see Rachel Wotton 2009 presentation at Old Parliament House, Canberra, and Pye Jacbsson, Swedish sex worker, explaining the history and implementation of the law.
The legislation has resulted in sex workers facing greater danger, being paid less and without the means to work in a safe environment. Critics of the law include Jesper Bryngemark, Petra Ostergren, Laura Agustin, Johannes Eriksson, Janelle Fawkes and the entire Europap conference of European sex workers. All agree that the Swedish laws increase sex workers vulnerability to violence. The usual legal protections and access to justice are not available to sex workers in a criminalised setting. – Clients perceive themselves as criminals in the exchange and as such exercise an upper hand in the sex work negotiation. This is generally not experienced by sex workers in other European countries or in Australia and New Zealand. For example, the clients in Sweden are able to determine where the exchange will occur. Private work is less viable and as a result, more sex workers are doing escort or street based work. While not violent per se, these locations, when not the preference of individual sex workers, put sex workers outside their comfort zone and culminate in interactions happening on the clients terms, not the sex workers terms.
The law was intended to send clients a symbolic message about conventional morality, portrays sex workers as victims and, unsurprisingly, sex workers victimisation has increased as a result. The Swedish law has not impacted on the size of the industry or stopped sex workers from working. However it has been successful in criminalising the activities associated with sex work and harmed sex workers along the way. This harm is openly acknowledged even by supporters of the Swedish model internationally.
Supporter of the laws Ann-Charlotte Altstadt has gone as far as to admit:
So it is of minor importance that some women willingly prostitute themselves and are happy. This activity should not be made easier but rather more difficult with the help of the Act… there may be a few thousand prostitutes in Sweden who are thus sacrificed on the alter of gender equality.
Alstadt understands that the law makes life harder and more risky for sex workers. However, she believes that it is justified if the buyers of sex are scared off from being a consumer of sex because of criminal sanctions. This would make sense if the law had actually had any material affect on the size of the industry or the number of sex workers clients. But a decade later it has not had this effect. Just like sex work criminalisation the world over, sex work continues, only in a criminalised form.
The Swedish model has nurtured a degree of hypocrisy and lies about sex work, with a level of corruption that makes the Australian police pre-Fitzgerald inquiry look good! Recently, one of the most vocal supporters of the Swedish model, police officer Göran Lindberg, was found to be heavily involved in organising an illicit sex network – the kind of network that is made possible by the criminalisation of sex work and sex worker clients.The criminalisation of sex work has fostered such corruption.
By contrast, in a decriminalised setting such as New Zealand or New South Wales, there is no profit in creating underground networks. Not so in Sweden. Police officer Göran Lindberg profited, participated, and criminally benefited from the Swedish laws that he himself had publicly claimed as a success. He has been jailed for six and a half years for pimping, rape and procuring.
The hypocrisy of the law in Sweden means that everyone (including police) are tacitly involved in policies that are constantly harmful and damaging for sex workers. The reality is that the sex industry continues, but underground. In Sweden, this model is flaunted by law enforcers, creating an underground opportunity for duplicitous activity by police, including use of violence against sex workers.
Any policy that limits the rights of sex workers allows corruption and lies to grow among those charged with the power to regulate our lives. Closer to home, Yarra Council in inner-city Melbourne, has housed supporters of the Swedish Model including Victorian Greens hacks Greg Barber and anti-sex work campaigner Kathleen Maltzahn. This Council has been stringent in their anti-trafficking approaches, including supporting all manner of forced rescue interventions. AFP and DIAC raids are encouraged by local anti-sex work politics. Brothel Licensing Authority compliance visits coupled with constant pressure, are dealt upon the migrant sex workers, without any actual prosecutions or measurable outcomes.
Now a corruption investigation has been launched against one of the supporters and instrumental voices in these harsh policing tactics – a Yarra City Council compliance officer and supporter of the Greg Barber and Kathleen Maltzahn approach has allegedly used the laws to their advantage.
Sex workers know such policies breed corruption. Unfortunately, engagement with police in criminalised environments is also a common experience among sex workers in Australia. From the NSW Woods Royal Commission to the Neave Inquiry in Victoria, corruption was proven to be rife under criminalised regimes in the last century. And it continues to be a characteristic of anti-trafficking and anti-client criminalisation.
The reality is that sex work continues, regardless of the laws, regulatory challenges, corruption, discrimination, stigma, criminalisation or social marginalisation. The question for policy makers and those trying to support sex workers is to ask: How can we remove the problems sex workers face?
One answer is to remove harsh laws that harm sex workers. Decriminalisation is the only way to deliver true dignity to sex workers. The Swedish model in its attempt to protect sex workers, is actually violating the basic human rights of such women. People who call themselves feminists, or advocates for workers rights, should remember that increased criminal penalties only hurt the target populations that are intended to be "saved." Recognising and rejecting the feminist "victim" complex around sex work, is vital to understanding the rights of the workforce that is affected by anti-sex work policies. Sex work is work.