Thursday, 13 February 2014

#JusticeforJasmine, Sex Work and The Swedish Model

On 11 July a sex worker who went by the name of Petite Jasmine was murdered. She was a sex worker rights activist and member of the Rose Alliance, “an organisation for former and current sex and erotic workers in Sweden”. Here’s the statement they released on Facebook today:
Our board member, fierce activist and friend Petite Jasmine got brutually murdered yesterday. Several years ago she lost custody of her children as she was considered to be an unfit parent due to being a sex worker. The children were placed with their father regardless of him being abusive towards Jasmine. They told her she didn’t know what was good for her and that she was “romantisizing” prostitution, they said she lacked insight and didn’t realise sex work was a form of self-harm. He threatened and stalked her on numerous occations, she was never offered any protection. She fought the system through four trials and had finally started seeing her children again. Yesterday the father of her children killed her. She always said “Even if I can’t get my kids back I will make sure this never happens to any other sex worker”. We will continue her fight. Justice for Jasmine!
One thing is clear: if sex work was considered more worthy of punishment than domestic abuse, then there is something incredibly wrong with Swedish legislation. Laws intended to protect those who might be exploited by the sex industry instead fuelled stigma that meant a mother lost custody of her children, and failed to protect her.

This excellent post from Jem at Sometimes, it’s just a cigar gives further details; until news reports become available in English I’m going to hold off from commenting in detail on this particular incident, as I don’t want to risk getting anything wrong thanks to shoddy Google translations. Instead, I’ll talk about how Jasmine’s death highlights one of the major problems of the legislation surrounding sex work around the world: legislators seem determined to listen to anyone but sex workers when making legislation that most affects them.
Anyone interested in sex workers’ rights will have heard frequent references to the Swedish model (or Nordic model) on both sides of criminalisation/non-criminalisation argument. In short, the Swedish model criminalises the buying of sex (as well as pimping or running a brothel), but not selling it (note, then, that Jasmine was not doing anything illegal, but was still deemed an unfit mother thanks to her job). The aim of the law is to eradicate prostitution by eliminating demand. Here’s why:
Prostitution is considered to cause serious harm both to individuals and to society as a whole. Large-scale crime, including human trafficking for sexual purposes, assault, procuring and drug-dealing, is also commonly associated with prostitution (Government Offices of Sweden)
The problem is, it hasn’t eliminated demand at all. Instead, it just means that there are fewer mechanisms in place to protect people who sell sexual services. It means that sex workers may be afraid to speak out if they suffer violence or abuse thanks to stigma perpetuated by the legislation, and that they are forced to work in unregulated, often unsafe, conditions.
In 2012, Pro Sentret, the City of Oslo’s service for women and men who sell sex and a “national centre of expertise”  released a report entitled Farlige Forbindelser (Dangerous Liasons) into the effects of similar legislation in Norway in 2009. Thomas Larson has helpfully translated the document into English – you can read it here. The report revealed that “59% of the participants in the investigation from 2012 said they had been exposed to violence in prostitution after the sex purchase law was introduced.”
This pretty conclusively dispels the myth that the Nordic model effectively protects sex workers from violence.

Larson goes on to make the point that in Norway, sex work is a buyer’s market. The claim that no one would voluntarily choose sex work has, to an extent, become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Rather than ensuring that no one should ever have to sell sex, it merely creates conditions under which no one would want to work. The likely outcome is that a higher proportion of sex workers do so because they have no other choice – because they are desperate.

So, to recap. The Swedish model makes it more difficult and less safe for those who freely choose sex work to do so, while doing nothing to protect those desperate enough to have no other choice. What’s more, it means that sex workers’ client base is limited to people who are undeterred by the idea of breaking the law.

And are we really that surprised? As Dr Eilís Ward writes in the Irish Times there is “no evidence that prostitution can be abolished”. Any legislation that aims to do so is based upon a fallacy. More worryingly, it is based upon an ideology – once that sees selling sex as inherently wrong, whether or not people actively choose to work in the industry. As Ireland edges closer to adopting the Swedish model, it is not difficult to identify religion as a key factor influencing policy while the Catholic Church remains powerful and abortion illegal.

In other cases, ‘antis’ – anti-sex work activists – claim that sex work is inherently exploitative; several groups have labelled the sale of sex “paid rape” or “voluntary slavery”. Not only is the implication that people (usually women; male sex workers are often erased) who freely choose to sell sex lack the capacity to do so rather insulting, it has another, more sinister implication. By denying sex workers’ agency and saying that any instance in which they consensually exchange sex for money is rape, you are saying that their consent is meaningless. That it doesn’t matter. And so, by extension, if they don’t consent, what then?

It seems clear to me that if governments are serious about tackling trafficking and violence against sex workers, the only answer is to provide legislation that enables them to work in safer, more regulated conditions. This isn’t something I can take credit for – it’s something that sex workers have been saying for years. A lot of this is research I’ve done as the result of reading blogs written by current and former sex workers, and by following activists on Twitter.

Which is funny, because sex workers seem to be conspicuously absent from this conversation about legislation – at least in official circles. Why is it that those with the power to put policy in place are ignoring the very demographic that their decisions will affect most? It’s about time those in power started listening to people who know what they’re talking about – people like Jasmine.

Auhtor / Source: Beckie Smith at Cis White Female