Last week, an appeals court in Sweden upheld a decision in favour of a tavern owner and security staff who had denied entry on three separate occasions to Asian-looking women. The tavern admitted judging these women by their appearance, but said they had barred them in order to prevent prostitution from taking place on their premises. Police had told the tavern owner that this was going on, and that Asian women were involved. These particular Asian women weren’t though, and they brought a discrimination claim.
The women lost in the lower court, and then lost again on appeal. According to my best Google Translate, the appellate court found that preventing prostitution is an “inherently legitimate reason” which justifies the means that was taken by the tavern, even though the effect was to bar women from their premises who had done nothing more than appear to be Asian. That’s not unlawful discrimination, according to the Swedish courts.
There are a couple things going on here. First, of course, there’s the blatantly racist nature of the policy, now formally endorsed and legitimated by a Swedish judiciary which sees nothing wrong with singling out women of colour for whore stigma. It’s not particularly surprising that racialised women would bear the brunt of a policy aimed at a migrant-dominated industry, but the court’s seal of approval institutionalises racism within Official Sweden’s zero tolerance approach. Of such a priority is the Swedish state’s war against sex work that all else can be thrown by the wayside, even principles ordinarily regarded as pretty fucking basic in a supposedly advanced democracy.
The second thing is that this decision exposes the lie that the Swedish law is not about targeting sex workers. Of course it is. They may not be targeted for prosecution, but the Swedish authorities are more than happy to go after them with any other means at their disposal. They go after them with immigration laws, with the power to refuse them custody of their children; they stake out their homes. They have already involved non-state actors in their war, as when they train hotel staff to monitor the habits of female guests; now, it seems, other branches of the service sector are also being drafted into the Prohibitionist Army. Whose policy seems to be one of “shoot first, ask questions later”.
I don’t think there’s much risk of a similar court judgment in Ireland, even should the Swedish model be adopted here. Our Equal Status Act does allow for denial of services where it is believed that serving the person would give rise to a substantial risk of criminal activity, but “discriminatory grounds” are specifically excluded as a valid basis for that belief. The reason for that exclusion is so that pubs and shops and hotels cannot cite criminality by some Irish Travellers as a reason to deny entry to all of them, so it’s rather unlikely that the courts would allow use of a similar justification to bar all women from ethnic backgrounds popularly associated with prostitution.
But what the Equal Status Act says and what actually happens in pubs and shops and hotels are two different things. And just as Travellers are, in fact, routinely denied entry on discriminatory grounds in spite of the law, women who are seen as being “high risk” for prostitution because of their racial appearance could well find themselves being subjected to a de facto discrimination door policy. This is particularly likely to happen if the law creates “an offence of recklessly permitting a premises to be used for the purposes of prostitution”, as recommended by the Oireachtas Justice Committee and supported by the Turn Off the Red Light campaign and its member organisations, several of which operate in the migrant advocacy sector. If this law is passed and migrant women become collateral damage in the Irish war against sex work, as they have in the Swedish and Norwegian wars, will these groups also shrug it off as an “inherently legitimate reason”?