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Letter to my (often feminist) friends who are concerned about those in “prostitution” and think that criminalizing those who pay for sex really can’t be such a bad idea.

Guest post by Susann Huschke

I write this with you in mind, those friends of mine who are generally open-minded, critical, progressive leftists. We agree on a lot of things – like, that capitalism is a problem, that Theresa May needs to go, and of course Trump, too, and that gender equality continues to be worth fighting for.

But when it comes to “prostitution” – that is, the selling and buying of sexual services – you are not so sure about my views. You have heard me argue that criminalizing those who pay for sex is a bad idea, but perhaps I have not done a good enough job explaining why that is. I believe it would be fair to sum up your position as follows: “We want to live in a society where women do not sell sex to men. And to get there, we think that it would help if we made it a crime to buy sex.”

I believe that you have good intentions, thinking this way, and that you are not driven by hatred of women as sexual beings, like for example, those fundamentalist Christians who lobby for the criminalization of sex work around the world.

Before I go into details, let’s check we’re on the same page. If you answer NO to any of these questions, we’re not starting from the same set of assumptions, and in that case, this article is not written for you.

1. Do you generally feel that the people who are affected by a given change in policy should have a say in the policy process?
2. Do you feel that women, or indeed all (adult) people, have the right to determine what to do with their bodies, for example when it comes to reproductive rights and LGBT+ rights?
3. Do you believe that sound empirical social research is a worthwhile endeavor and should be feeding into political decisions and public discourse? And by sound empirical research I mean research that is a) designed and conducted by people who have been trained to do research; b) reflects critically and transparently on research questions, research methodologies, funding sources and researcher bias; and c) does not do any harm to the communities that are targeted in the research?

If you answered those three questions with a YES, you cannot possibly agree with the “Swedish model” of criminalizing the buyer of sexual services. And here is why.

1. Sex worker movements do not support the criminalization of buyers, not in Sweden, not in Ireland, not anywhere (;;; Yes, individual former sex workers (or survivors of prostitution as they prefer to be called) are often very prominent supporters, for whatever their reasons may be. But if you actually look at groups, movements and organizations that represent the diverse people who work in the sex industry – they don’t want criminalization. Why not? For example, because they feel that the more their way of making a living is criminalized, the less safe it is for them. And because they feel that criminalization adds to the stigma that is one of the worst parts of their job. And because they feel that those who propose these laws have not actually bothered to meet them; listen to them; engage with them in any meaningful way.

Interesting fact on the side: the Swedish model is often hyped up as punishing the punter (by criminalizing the purchase) and helping the sex worker (by decriminalizing the sale of sex). Now, in Ireland, both North and South, we only got the first part of the bargain. Sex workers continue to be criminalized, for example when they work together in pairs for safety – that is deemed “brothel-keeping” with the two sex workers “pimping” each other, and they continue to get arrested for that. Now, you might say that policy-makers just forgot to decriminalize sex workers because they were busy with the really important social issues. Or you might say they actually don’t give a rat’s ass about the well-being and safety of “fallen women” – they just want to sound like they do.

2. Among the most prominent supporters of the Swedish model are right-wing Christian groups that oppose same-sex marriage and abortion rights. Surely, that should make you suspicious about their motives, and perhaps about the policies they propose. If you are ever in doubt about this, just take a brief look at the kind of worldview the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is spreading, and ask yourself if they are really your political allies?

3. There are many things that are unsound about the kind of “research” or statistics that get cited to support the claim that the Swedish model “works” – that is, that it really reduces sex trafficking and shrinks the sex industry, and that sex workers are happy and grateful about the law. Let me just highlight a few issues. For example, the fact that the Swedish police do not have many victims of sex trafficking in their statistics does not necessarily mean there are none. A very basic rule of thumb in research: the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. It might mean that they can’t find them, or worse, didn’t actually look for them because they were too busy policing consensual sexual acts between sex workers and clients. As a Northern Irish police officer explained to me in 2014, commenting on a collaboration with the Swedish police on an international crime network that exploited women in the sex industry: “They had no idea this was going on in Sweden. They said ‘we normally just go after the punters.’”

It is also a good idea (in any field and for any contested political question) to question the source of information. I am going to give you a very concrete example, and you will have to trust me that this is not an exception but a typical example of how research is misrepresented in this debate (or you start following the information back to the source like I did, which I highly recommend).

Supporters of the Swedish model present the view that sex work always constitutes violence and abuse. They pretend that this is a view based purely on empirical evidence, rather than a view based mainly on ideology – based on picking and choosing and tweaking selected bits of evidence rather than actually engaging with all the existing empirical data. See, if they clearly stated that their policy proposals were driven by their moral and political standpoints, at least we could have an open debate about these. None of us are morally neutral, especially when it comes to sex and money. [And if you are wondering what my moral and political position is, please re-read the questions I posed above, particularly No. 1. First and foremost, I am a firm believer in people’s right to self-determination, self-expression and self-representation, none of which are compatible with the views expressed by proponents of the Swedish model].

Now, let me give you an example of the misrepresentation of empirical evidence in this debate. In Northern Ireland, supporters of the Swedish model liked to support their view of sex work by arguing that the majority of people started selling sex when they were children or teenagers. This argument is explicitly presented, for example, on the website of the Turn Off the Red Light Campaign (a very successful lobby group across Ireland) as one of the “10 facts about prostitution.” They state that 75% of women in prostitution became involved when they were children, citing as a source a conference paper by Prof. Margaret Melrose from 2002. I read the original paper and learned that Prof. Melrose’s research specifically investigated the exploitation of children in the British sex industry. And logically, because she wanted to know about child sexual exploitation, she recruited participants who had experienced child sexual exploitation, that is, people who had entered the sex industry before the age of 18. In her presentation, she states that 75% of the people in her sample, 75% of the people she interviewed, had started selling sex when they were children, i.e., 14 or younger – not 75% of all people in the sex industry! Huge difference!! And pretty obvious, even to the untrained lay eye. I also emailed Prof. Melrose to ask her about this rather distorted use of her study, and she replied to me saying:

“The findings were never intended to suggest that 75% of ALL women involved in sex work become or became involved [as children] – only those included in the study – and as we were looking at adult women who became involved before they were 18 this is hardly surprising. I am aware that the work has been used by those who argue that all sex work is violence against women – it is not a position I adhere to myself.”

Now, my last point. After everything I just presented to you, you might still say: But what about the kind of society we want to live in, should we not envision a world without “prostitution”? And you know what, I might actually agree with you.

But I also envision a world without Amazon, where temporary workers run from one shelf to another all day long to meet the targets, and get punished for taking sick leave. And a world without large scale agricultural businesses that employ undocumented workers who get paid shitty wages and are exposed to poisonous chemicals on a regular basis. And yes, also a world without neoliberal universities trying to compete in a market by running their staff into the ground until we end up with “burn-out”.

How do we get there? I would say, first and foremost, through solidarity with the workers. And second, through a critique of the social structures that enable exploitation. Distributing books, growing vegetables, investigating the world, and having sex, mind you, are not inherently problematic activities that need to be eradicated. It is the ways in which they are integrated into the current economic system and tied up with multiple forms of oppression along the lines of gender, “race”, class, and nation, amongst others, that is problematic!

So, what sex workers could really do with is, for example: free access to higher education, equal pay for women, decent social welfare, erasure of their criminal record when they try to leave the sex industry, legalization of their immigration status, and gender norms that do not instill in young people that men need to fuck (lots of) women and women need to please men.

So how about we align ourselves with the workers – of whatever industry you fancy – and fight for a better, more just, less violent society, rather than spending our time applauding a bunch of narrow-minded, hard-hearted misogynists and their (perhaps) well-meaning, yet out-of-touch feminist allies, for a judgmental, regressive, and ineffective law.

If you want to read more, check out, for example, the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe and the Global Network of Sex Work Projects.

13 responses »

  1. Reblogged this on the plain language lawyer and commented:
    This is good.

  2. Such an excellent post I feel pedantic for pointing out this non sequitur:

    2. Among the most prominent supporters of the Swedish model are right-wing Christian groups that oppose same-sex marriage and abortion rights. Surely, that should make you suspicious about their motives, and perhaps about the policies they propose. If you are ever in doubt about this, just take a brief look at the kind of worldview the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is spreading, and ask yourself if they are really your political allies?

    So should I question my opposition to neoliberal trade treaties such as the TPP because Donald Trump also opposes them? My skepticism of the mainstream media because many rightwingers are also skeptical? My support for prison abolition because it was a policy of the (now defunct) Australian Nazi Party?

    • Very good point. I suppose my point is about considering WHY political actors hold certain positions. The DUP supports the Swedish model NOT because they are feminists, but most likely (and this is my interpretation) because they view sex work as a disgusting sin, and would support any law that stigmatizes sex workers further. But your examples clearly show that my argument is too superficial – just because some of the supporters of a certain proposal are right-wing fascists doesn’t mean that the proposal itself has to be problematic, you are right. Will have to think of a better argument!!

  3. Excellent article – the clarity is needed and so well done. Only one thing missing, IMHO. There are also women who love sex work and choose it freely as a job they enjoy, as opposed to continually framing it in terms of desperation, poor/only choices, or addictions.

    • Absolutely – just like there are happy academics, and happy mushroom pickers, and happy delivery people! I would argue that the reason some people are happy in a given profession is because of their specific circumstances: in the sex industry, it appears to me that sex workers who enjoy a good amount of freedom in their job, i.e. being able to choose clients, pick their work locations, keep all their earnings to themselves, are more likely to be happy in their job than for example the very marginalized working class sex workers I worked with in illegal taverns in a South African township. Doesn’t mean they like being treated as stupid victims though! Just means that working conditions aren’t the same for everyone, and we need solidarity and complex, detailed pictures of this industry – just like any other.

      • Hear, hear.

        I live in NSW, Australia. I have friends and relatives who work/worked in the sex industry. In the 80s I shared a Darlinghurst flat with a series of sexworkers back when it was illegal. The inner Sydney brothels were controlled by a small contingent of quite nasty men who exploited the workers mercilessly in return for keeping the law off them via bribes. The workers on the streets were controlled largely by corrupt police who not only took a portion of their earnings but typically demanded free ‘trade’ for themselves and their mates as well.

        In 1995 sex work was decriminalised in NSW. It didn’t fix everything, but the Kings Cross kingpins were pretty much put out of business overnight and the cops were reduced to extorting from the handful of brothel keepers who still manage to operate outside the law.

        The sex workers I knew in the 80s mostly hated their work (and their clients) and lived in fear. Most of the sex workers I’ve known since decriminalisation are reasonably happy with their jobs and much more able to operate independently, set their own working conditions, organise to protect themselves and seek help from government and NGOs when needed. I wouldn’t say they love their work, by and large, but mostly they’ve chosen it freely because it’s the best option available to them. Some use it to put themselves through university in the hope of finding a career they do love.

        A couple of years ago the conservative (Liberal/National) NSW government initiated an inquiry that many thought was intended to recriminalise sex work. The committee members did the usual thing, taking submissions from all interested parties (including prominent SWERF academics), interviewing stakeholders, checking out the situation in other jurisdictions (including those following the Nordic model) and concluded – to the horror of much of the media – that the current NSW model is world’s best practice.

      • Yes! Again – well said.

  4. Thank you for an excellent article. In my experience (i.e. people I know), those who oppose decriminalisation of prostitution have a different view than your summary. It’s more like “Prostitution involves degradation, abuse and violence towards women, informed by, and helping perpetuate, misogyny more broadly in society.” They therefore want to “eliminate” prostitution. I wonder if you can comment on that position?

    • Absolutely, that’s exactly what I was trying to respond to. So, the question is, what can we do to create a society free of degradation, abuse and violence towards women? And I get that making something illegal is, at least partially, meant to express society’s disapproval of the abuse. But I do find it curious that nobody has so far suggested to criminalize any other industry, even though we all know that the conditions for workers in many different parts of the capitalist economic system are absolutely full of abuse, violence, racism, sexism etc. So that’s my question for you: why is criminalization viewed as the remedy when it comes to sex work, but when it comes to abuse in other industries, we might be more inclined to argue for workers’ rights and regulation?

      Secondly, what I am arguing is that on a very practical level, criminalizing any part of the sex industry only makes these problems worse. It is absolutely naive to think that criminalizing clients will get rid of sex work. Only someone who hasn’t engaged at all with the reasons why people buy and sell sex would believe this myth. It is actually quite similar to the myths we are fed about migration: that closing borders would stop migration. It doesn’t, it just criminalizes the process, and makes those who decide to cross borders (often for very similar reasons as those entering the sex industry – mainly economic hopes) much more vulnerable to be exploited and abused.

      If we were to try to “eliminate” sex work, or at least reduce it, I suppose what we would need to do is eliminate the reasons why people buy and sell sex. Like I said in the post:

      “free access to higher education, equal pay for women, decent social welfare, erasure of their criminal record when they try to leave the sex industry, legalization of their immigration status, and gender norms that do not instill in young people that men need to fuck (lots of) women and women need to please men.”

      Does that make sense?

      • While there are some people here opposing decriminalisation with the argument that it degrades women and promotes misogyny (presumably male sex workers are OK then) it seems to me that the most implacable and persistent opponents are ‘gentrifiers’ who worry that visible sex work will impact on property values.

        When the local ‘Islington Action Group’ isn’t trying to criminalise the sex workers that have been prominent in their suburb for over a century they’re busy opposing low cost housing developments.


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