Do you come from a land down under?
Where women glow and men plunder?
Can’t you hear, can’t you hear the thunder?
You better run, you better take cover. - Ron Strykert & Colin James Hay
Perhaps it’s due to their geographical isolation, the reversal of the seasons, or their exposure to the Aurora Australis or some esoteric exhalation from the Antarctic regions or South Pacific. Or maybe it’s something in the food down there, or a frontier environment which fostered individualism without the congenital tumor of Puritanism which still afflicts America. But whatever the reason, it seems as though the people of Australia and New Zealand are a lot more practical and sensible than the rest of the English-speaking world about a lot of things, including sex work. As we’ve discussed before, New Zealand decriminalized prostitution entirely in 2003, and though our trade is only legalized in Australia most of the laws aren’t nearly as arbitrary and onerous as those of most legalization regimes. On May 12th the Prostitution Licensing Authority of the State of Queensland released an analysis of the Swedish Model, essentially dismissing it as a load of politically-motivated codswallop unsubstantiated by facts. The report is a joy to read; its arguments are lucid and its viewpoint so well-informed that I honestly had to keep reminding myself that it was a government report rather than a tract released by a sex worker rights organization! Here are a few highlights:
Gunilla Ekberg, Co-Executive Director, Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and former Special Advisor to the Swedish Government…has previously said that: “My whole life has been about ending male violence against women”. That Ekberg could [make this] claim…indicates a peculiar zealotry. Her extremist, one-dimensional views are evident from this statement, describing clients of sex workers as sexual predators and rapists: “In prostitution, men use women’s and girls’ bodies, vaginas, anuses, mouths for their sexual pleasures and as vessels of ejaculation, over and over and over again. Prostitution is not sexual liberation; it is humiliation, it is torture, it is rape, it is sexual exploitation and should be named as such. Consequently, males who use women and girls in prostitution are sexual predators and rapists.” All sex workers are seen through the prism of passive victimhood and the proponents of the Swedish model deny that any person could ever freely choose to work in the sex industry. Ekberg argues that…the dominant position of men in society means that for women freedom of choice is illusory because it is not possible to choose from equal alternatives…Laws which in any way give legitimacy to the sex industry by legalising or decriminalising prostitution are decried as legitimating violence and abuse of women by males and entrenching patriarchy…
After a section describing the British flirtation with Swedish-style laws and a profile of Australian anti-prostitution crusader Sheila Jeffreys (which is so good I’m saving it for tomorrow), there is a discussion on “a woman’s right to choose what she does with her body, who she wants to have sex with, and the form that sex will take,” concluding with these paragraphs:
The problem with the radical feminist perspective of sex work is that it is inherently simplistic and relies on stereotypes. So that sex workers are all from marginalised and impoverished backgrounds, are poorly educated, drug addicted, have been abused as a child, are homeless, have been trafficked or coerced, and generally have no other choice but to prostitute themselves. This not only appeals to, but reinforces, commonly held community prejudices about sex workers. This is clear from…Swedish Government publication[s]…[which] ignore…that there are women (and men) in sex work from a wide variety of backgrounds who have consciously chosen to enter the sex industry after considering a range of options, and who have diverse motivations for selling sex. High earnings (without requiring formal qualifications) in combination with flexible working hours are generally cited as the predominant reasons for sex work…The Selling Sex in Queensland 2003 report found that about one in four sex worker respondents had completed a university degree. Similarly, the June 2009, Working in Victorian Brothels report found that, “sex worker respondents to this study revealed high levels of training”. This would tend to indicate that these individuals were involved in sex work not because of lack of education and other skills, not as a result of not having any alternative employment options but because they had chosen to sell sex…This certainly does not support the claim of Ekberg that, “99% of the women in prostitution are certainly not willing to be there”.
There are undoubtedly individuals who are selling sex who are unhappy and would rather not be doing it but the same could be said of any occupation. To some extent, freedom of choice is an illusory concept. If we were truly free, how many of us would be in our current jobs? An annual survey of United States job satisfaction found that only 45 per cent of respondents were happy with their jobs in 2009, down from 49 per cent in the previous year. This means that more than one in two workers are unhappy in their job. Why do they turn up to work each day, however reluctantly, even though they have no job satisfaction? Because they have a standard of living to maintain, mouths to feed, and a mortgage or rent and bills to pay. Because despite the drudgery, monotony and unpleasantness of dragging themselves to work each day, the consequences of not working are too awful to contemplate. Why should it be any different for sex workers?
…the inherently condescending and paternalistic (although maternalistic would be more apt) nature of the Swedish model…tells all women selling sex that they are victims and that they need saving, even if they do not realise or are incapable of realising it. It tells them that there is no way that they could possibly have chosen to be a sex worker or in the terminology of radical feminists, a ‘prostituted woman’. The Swedish law fundamentally infantilises women and tells them that they are incapable of making rational choices. It is the state telling those women, we do not actually care what you think, because we know best. In this regard, it is instructive that sex workers or sex worker organisations were not even consulted on the Swedish law. It would be hard to think of any other area of policy where the major stakeholders, those most affected by the law, were not even consulted. Rather than being supportive of women, some sex workers and commentators have argued that it is oppressive…
I promise, I had nothing to do with writing this report! The reason it sounds so much like what I write on the subject is that it’s the truth; two intelligent authors who respect the rights of individuals to self-determination, both looking at the same set of clear facts with open minds, are bound to make similar observations. The next section is an analysis of the claims made about the Swedish model; it draws upon work by Petra Östergren, Laura Agustín, Nick Davies and others to reach the same conclusions as Dodillet and Östergren did in the paper I quoted in my column of May 22nd. And here’s its conclusion:
The available evidence does not match the widely heralded rhetoric of the success of the Swedish model in practically eliminating prostitution. Even the best that the Swedish Government’s own Skarhed Report can conclude is that prostitution has not increased in Sweden. Hardly a ringing endorsement. There is some evidence that the prohibition on the purchase of sexual services has driven the sex industry underground and sex workers feel less secure and consider themselves at greater risk of violence. The law does not protect sex workers who have been left worse off as a result. Trafficking is conflated with prostitution, so that all migrant women engaging in prostitution must be victims of trafficking and exploitation. One of the worst effects has been to marginalise an already stigmatised group in society. Sex workers have described how they feel like second rate citizens and they are infantilised by being told they could not possibly have freely chosen to enter the sex industry. They are not prostitutes, and certainly not sex workers, but prostituted women. They are told that they are disempowered victims of male violence and exploitation, even if they are incapable of comprehending that themselves because of a false consciousness syndrome. Their own views and experiences are discounted. They are deprived of their autonomy and agency as individuals. This is incompatible with the principles of a liberal democracy. Conversely, a harm minimisation model respects the right of adults to freely choose to enter the sex industry but puts in place measures to better protect the health, safety and welfare of sex workers and clients.
As I’ve said before, it’s really reassuring to know that at least some people who are not themselves sex workers get it.