Yesterday, the Independent ran this article by Joan Smith about Sweden’s sex trade law. Joan Smith is, in her own words, a “feminist author and columnist” and the essence of her article was that the law criminalising clients is an unqualified success.
This is despite the fact that she seemingly didn’t speak to a single member of the group most affected by the law, by which I mean Swedish sex workers. Her investigative method was to “jump in a squad car with local police” as they tailed working women around the streets of Stockholm, and then to uncritically report what those police told her.
Jem over at It’s Just A Hobby has already passionately conveyed her feelings about sex workers being ignored in this way. Please go and read her post and come back here when you’re done. If you only have time to read hers or mine, read hers. It’s more important.
For those of you who made it back here, I just want to add a couple things. The refusal to listen to sex workers’ voices isn’t only offensive, insulting and pretty much without parallel (would Smith “investigate” the results of a law on domestic violence without speaking to women who’d experienced it? Would she take police at face value that they had improved their handling of rape cases without asking rape victims if they agreed?), it’s also bad policy. It means she isn’t – can’t be – getting the full picture. She isn’t even asking all the relevant questions.
Just to give a few examples from that piece:
“The woman, who hasn’t broken any law, is offered help from social services if she wants to leave prostitution. Otherwise, she’s allowed to go.”
Did she accept the help? If not, why not? Has she accepted the help before? If so, why is she still on the streets? Now that she’s lost the income from that client, how will she compensate for it?
“[The national rapporteur on trafficking in human beings] talks about why women end up in prostitution, citing research that shows a history of childhood sexual abuse, compounded by problems with drugs and alcohol.”
Does that narrative accurately describe you? Were there different or other factors that brought you where you are [and that Sweden will need to address if it wants to get you out of the sex industry and prevent others like you from entering]?
“Where 70 or 80 women used to sell sex outdoors, these days it’s between five and 10 in winter, 25 in summer.”
What happened to the missing women? Did they just go indoors? Did they leave Sweden (perhaps to work in a country where the clients aren’t as well-behaved as the cop claims the Swedish clients are)? Did they find “straight” jobs, or did they have to turn to other less desirable ways of earning income? Are they all even still alive?
“Before 1999, most women in street prostitution in Stockholm were Swedish. Now they’re from the Baltic states or Africa, and have sold sex in other countries as well.”
Why did they come to Sweden? Was the sex trade law itself the draw, or did they come for different reasons but find themselves unable to get any other work? Why aren’t they availing of that “help from social services”?
“They tell Haggstrom’s officers they’re much more likely to be subjected to violence in countries where prostitution has been legalised.”
Do they really?
“one of the criticisms of the law was that it would make prostitution more dangerous. All the Swedish police officers I spoke to insisted this was a myth”
Is it really a myth? Or are sex workers just less likely to report violence to police officers, now that they depend on income from a criminalised source?
“”If a sex buyer can find a prostituted woman in a hotel or apartment, the police can do it,” Haggstrom observes sardonically.”
Is this really true? Or do the police simply not know when they haven’t found a sex worker whom a buyer has found?
“40 women, mostly from Romania, had sufficient confidence in the Swedish criminal justice system to testify against the men exploiting them”
How many women in the sex trade didn’t have sufficient confidence in the criminal justice system to testify?
“In a brightly lit street, Haggstrom points out a couple of Romanian women who work as prostitutes.”
Once again, why are they selling sex in Sweden? Why haven’t they availed of the social services? Why isn’t the Swedish law “working” for them?
My last question there is a key one. Reading this article, I was struck by the number of references in it to women still in the sex trade. The Baltic and African women. The Romanians on the street. The 40 Romanians who testified in last year’s trafficking trials. The woman of undisclosed nationality whose income source was arrested at the start of the article. Even if you buy the Swedish claims that their numbers have dropped precipitously – and remember, those claims relate only to street prostitution, which was only a tiny part of the industry to begin with – there’s obviously still a Swedish sex trade. And the women (and men) working in it are actual human beings who presumably have views on the law and what its consequences have been for them. One would think that those consequences would be at least as important, to a feminist like Joan Smith, as the crude number count. Which in any case clearly excludes these women from the “success” narrative, a fact I’d expect her to also deem worthy of exploration.
But Smith didn’t just consider it irrelevant to ask these women what the law has meant (and hasn’t meant) to them. She also refused to engage with the many sex workers who tweeted her to point out this omission, the sole exception being her dismissive response to Jem. She allowed police officers – people who see it as their mission to drive sex workers out of business, people who have a long history of using sex workers for their own ends in all sorts of nefarious ways (yes, even in post-criminalisation Sweden) – to define their experiences for them.
I have a few words for that type of reporting. “Feminist” isn’t one of them.