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Exporting the problem – Irish abortion, Swedish prostitution

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During last week’s Irish parliamentary debate on a bill to allow life-saving abortions in Ireland (it failed), Clare Daly of the Socialist Party stated:

This debate is not about whether to allow abortion in Ireland. Irish abortion exists; it just does not take place in Ireland.

Daly was, of course, referring to the several thousands of Irish women each year who travel abroad to obtain a procedure that is illegal in their own country. As advocates of reform have regularly pointed out, the strict legal regime has not abolished the reality of abortion in Ireland; it has simply exported the problem. In the words of another supporter of the failed bill, Independent member John Halligan, it has simply led to “abortion tourism”.

I thought about this today as I was reading the Swedish government’s 2012 submission to UNAIDS, which among other things “addresses” what Sweden is doing in the way of HIV prevention and treatment for people who sell sex. I use the scare quotes because in truth, the report fails to address this issue in any but the most pathetically cursory fashion, as can be seen from the fact that the government didn’t even bother to collect data for it:

There is, however, a very interesting comment about the people who buy sex, on page 29:

Annual reports from Swedish social workers who meet buyers and sellers of sex indicate that the number of Swedish men who pay for or give other than a monetary form of compensation for sex is increasing. The increase seems to be due to purchase of sex when travelling to places where the sale of sexual services is common rather than purchase of sex within Sweden [21]. HIV and STIs are often endemic in these destinations.

A similar point is made on page 28, referring to “widespread sex tourism”, and on page 19, which says:

Among people born in Sweden, about 45 cases associated with heterosexual contact were reported per year in 2010-2011. A majority of these cases (65%) contracted the disease abroad, mainly in Thailand (60%).

I followed that footnote 21 from the first quote and found this report, a 2011 study by Niclas Olsson for Malmö City Social Resource Management, whose title Google-Translates as Mobility and commercial sex: A report on HIV/STI prevention by person and situation with a particular focus on Sweden, Denmark and Thailand. Here are a few of its more interesting findings:

There is a lot of Swedish sex tourism to Thailand, and it’s not just middle-aged men. A 2011 study is cited by Manieri and Svensson, Sex Tourist Risk Behaviour, An on-site survey among Swedish men buying sex in Thailand. I cannot find the original online. According to Olsson (page 19), the researchers collected questionnaires from 158 Swedish men who bought sex in Bangkok and Pattaya. They ranged in age from 20 to 70+ with a mean of 45; half of them had bought sex previously, and over a third planned to do so before their arrival in Thailand.

Olsson also interviewed a number of service providers, some of whom confirm that Swedish men of all ages are buying sex in Thailand. Jonny Harborg of the Triangle Youth Clinic in Malmö even describes it (page 31) as a father-son bonding experience for some:

Jonny also met with a small number of guys who travelled with their fathers, whose parents were divorced. They have bought various forms of sexual services together with their parent. Jonny says that the framing of sun, sand and holiday in Thailand, where father and son buy sex together is very special…

A significant minority fail to protect themselves and their sex partners.
In the Manieri and Svensson study, 70% said they always used a condom when buying sex, 6% never did – for a total of nearly one-third of Swedish punters whose condom use with Thai sex workers is inconsistent or nil (page 50). The Olsson report goes on to say that the 18-25 group in particular is increasingly travelling to Thailand and coming back with STIs. That’s, erm, not good.

There is a lot of Swedish sex tourism to Thailand, redux. Or at least a lot of wanna-be Swedish sex tourists. Page 46 refers to a Thai sex tourism web forum on which about 9600 people from Sweden are registered. Sweden’s population is just over double that of Ireland (south), so that would equate to around 4500-4600 people from the 26 Counties. I invite Irish readers to imagine the outraged NGO press releases, Seanad Independent Private Members’ Motions, and sensationalist TV3 “documentaries” if it was discovered there were 4500-4600 of us signed up to Thai sex tourism web forums.

Swedes are also buying sex in Denmark. On page 20, it is stated that men crossing the Öresund to punt account for “the largest mobility” within the regional sex trade. This is probably not surprising, however…

Swedes are also selling sex in Denmark, according to page 22. And there is repeated reference (pages 20, 38, 39 and 41) to Thai women resident in Sweden who “commute” to Denmark to work in brothels. There’s no indication that this movement is anything but voluntary, although one wonders why it hasn’t drawn the attention of those who equate any form of migrant sex work with trafficking. Finally,

The “traffic” isn’t all one way: clients come to Sweden, too. A sex worker interviewed for the report, identified as “Lovisa”, says on pages 45-46 that she has had clients “from, inter alia, Dubai, England, Germany, Italy and Denmark”. Page 23 cites the National Board of Health and Welfare as finding that in Sweden generally, and the Malmö region particularly, “there has been an increased internationalization and migration, as the sex trade traffic crosses national boundaries in several directions in a transnational market”. On page 36, Suzann Larsdotter and Jonas Johnsson of the RFSL say they have seen “an increase in international mobility for both buyers and sellers” in the LGBT community, and also refer to exchange students in Sweden who earn their income by selling sex. Clearly, not even the Swedish sex industry is immune to the forces of globalisation.

So what’s the point of all this, anyway? Well, first of all, it can’t be demonstrated that Swedish sex tourism has increased because of the sex purchase ban – if indeed it has increased at all, which we also don’t know (although Sweden’s UNAIDS submission appears to suggest that). Nor is that in itself a reason to reverse the ban. I certainly think there are troublesome aspects to a law that diverts sex buyers to the developing world, especially the objectionable distinction it makes between “our” women and “theirs”, but it’s futile to go down that road when we haven’t got the data to show the law does that in the first place.

The real significance of these reports, I think, is that they demonstrate the failure of the sex purchase ban in one of its primary aims – in fact, its most important aim, according to some of its supporters. It has not had the normative effect it was supposed to have, persuading Swedish men of the inherent wrongness of paying a woman for sex. Even the ones who grew up under the law don’t seem to have gotten that memo: the popularity of sex tourism among the younger age group seems to demonstrate this pretty conclusively.

I expect that the law’s supporters would react to this like supporters of Ireland’s abortion laws. “Just because we can’t stop people travelling to another country to do it doesn’t mean we should allow it in this country.” And perhaps it doesn’t. But it is time for supporters of the sex purchase ban to acknowledge that, as Clare Daly pointed out about Irish abortions, Swedish prostitution still exists. Even when it doesn’t take place in Sweden.