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“There was no lack of buyers” – Swedish sex trafficking trial concludes

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It may have escaped your notice if you rely on what the Swedes tell other countries about their sex trafficking problem, but last week several men were convicted for what Swedish prosecutors have called one of the largest trafficking rings of its kind ever uncovered in that country. It involved Romanian women who were brought to Sweden, some of them on the pretence of working in legal industries, and forced to sell sex in various Gothenburg arenas. You can read more about it here, here and here.

I won’t cite all the tragedy porn in those links (though I have no doubt supporters of the Swedish model would, if it had happened in a country where buying sex was legal), but there are a couple things I think are worth drawing attention to. The first is the quote in the title of this post, which comes from the third link. That article goes on to report one of the women’s testimony that she had seven or eight customers on her very first night. This doesn’t say much for the supposed deterrent effect of the sex purchase ban.

The second is the breakdown of ages (in the final link) of the men convicted of buying sex from these women: 36% were born in the 1960s, 21% in the 1970s and 30% in the 1980s. The other 13% aren’t accounted for except to say that the oldest was 76 and the youngest 17. So nearly a third, and perhaps slightly over that, were teenagers when the ban was introduced in 1999: further evidence (as I discussed here) that it hasn’t had the normative effect it was supposed to have on younger men.

The 17-year-old’s conviction is interesting for another reason. If Wikipedia (and all the other links I’ve found by Googling) is correct, Sweden’s age of majority is 18, which means that he is legally still a child. There’s nothing unusual about minors being convicted of crimes, of course, but the way that prostitution is conceptualised in Sweden does make this rather remarkable. The ideology underlying the sex purchase ban is that women cannot choose to sell sex; evidently, however, Swedish law considers that male children (at least of a certain age) can choose to buy it. In other words, when it comes to trading sex for money, adult women are less competent than male children. Could there be any clearer illustration of how this law infantilises women?

(It’s true that at least some of the women involved in this ring didn’t actually choose to sell sex, but the law doesn’t make a distinction between those who do and those who don’t. As far as I can tell from the various reports, the men were convicted for buying sex simpliciter, not for buying sex from trafficked persons, which does not appear to be a separate offence in Swedish law. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong.)

Nor is this an isolated incident. Last month, the same journal carried a story about another “large scale sex trafficking ring”, involving an even greater number of women, in Stockholm. In fact, the Swedish-language paper Sydsvenska, discussing the Gothenburg trial, says that “Många” (many) human trafficking cases have been reported since the law was brought in. The law’s advocates, funnily enough, seem to leave that detail out of their propaganda.

Some of the other Swedish language reports have equally interesting comments. I tracked down the source of that client age survey, this Dagens Nyheter (Daily News) article, in which I found the following information about the Gothenburg sex trade (Google Translate C&P job, but you get the gist):

The two worst pimps were convicted of trafficking and the other four for aggravated procuring. But in the street sex trade going back to normal. “Moreover, there prostitution in more arenas than we can access,” says social worker Ms Malmström…

We have also attempted to examine the major internet sites and SMS sent and email to over 300 who sell sex on the net, says Ms Malmström, so the market is actually much larger.

This article in the Gothenburg Post states that the men convicted included a municipal councillor, a Premier Division footballer, and several directors and sales managers. It also reports the County Police Commissioner as saying human trafficking is “a business with huge income and relatively low risks”. Not quite what we’ve been told about Sweden being an unattractive market for traffickers, is it?

I could go on but I think I’ve made my point. The picture that advocates of the Swedish model are painting outside of Sweden is clearly very different to the reality inside Sweden. Furthermore, the Swedes don’t seem unaware that they still have significant issues with prostitution and sex trafficking – they just don’t want the rest of the world to know about it. And so, they send their spokespersons out to lobby for the sex purchase ban in other countries, by making claims that are directly contradicted by their own officials in their own media. And credulous moralists and anti-sex work feminists swallow it wholesale, no questions asked.

What’s the Swedish for “con job”?

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.

Sex trafficking in the Netherlands: should we believe the hype?

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At some point in any debate over the legal status of sex work, supporters of prohibitory laws will invariably claim that sex trafficking has skyrocketed in the Netherlands since prostitution was legalised there, that this is a known fact not even disputed by the Dutch authorities and that this proves that legalisation and decriminalisation lead to an increase in sex trafficking.

It’s an argument that has always annoyed me, first because of its obvious cause-and-effect fallacy and second because the Dutch model is not one that is supported by any sex workers’ right advocate that I know of. It’s not unlike invoking the USSR to argue against socialism – in fact, it’s just another logical fallacy, the straw man.

Nonetheless, it’s something that comes up so often I thought it really couldn’t be ignored, so I had a look at the most recent (2010) Report of the Dutch National Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings. The Rapporteur’s role is described on this page:


The Rapporteur’s main task is to report on the nature and extent of human trafficking in the Netherlands, and on the effects of the anti-trafficking policy pursued…

The Dutch Rapporteur works independently and reports to the Dutch government…

The Bureau of the Dutch Rapporteur of Trafficking in Human Beings keeps in contact with and gathers information from individuals, organisations and authorities involved in the prevention and combating of human trafficking and in giving assistance to trafficking victims.

For their information, the Rapporteur and her staff have access to crimnial [sic] files held by police and judicial authorities. Because human trafficking often occurs across borders, the Bureau also has many contacts abroad and co-operates with international organisations.

This, I think, is as close to an “authoritative” source as we’re going to get. The usual caveats about measuring hidden/illegal economies obviously apply.

So let’s go straight to the statistics, which are maintained by a body called CoMensha. As sex work opponents claim, these do show a significant increase since the law reform of 2000. Here’s the chart on page 92:

So, case closed? Well, hardly. The Rapporteur herself states that:

The likely explanation for the increase is the intensification of investigations by the police and the public prosecution service, as well as the growing attention to human trafficking. It is also possible that there is greater awareness (and in more agencies) of the need to report victims of human trafficking to CoMensha.

[internal references omitted]

In other words, the numbers aren’t actually increasing, we’re just finding more of them. The Rapporteur could of course be entirely wrong about this; perhaps the recorded increase does reflect a real increase as well. I quote her here only to point out that what sex work opponents portray as an undisputed fact actually isn’t.

But even if you take her words with a grain of salt (she may be independent of the government, but she’s still appointed by them), there are a number of problems with these figures. The first becomes apparent after a moment’s glance at the chart: the number of detected victims actually remained fairly steady for a few years after the law reform, and in fact was significantly lower in 2003 than it was in 2000. Bear in mind, these are only detected victims, and the actual number could have varied in either direction. But on the face of it the numbers don’t seem to support the claim that legalisation itself is behind the increase. You might expect there to be some lag in the law’s effects, but a sharp increase after an initial slump strongly suggests there’s something else going on there.

The real spike in the numbers occurred after 2005, and it should be apparent from the shape of the curve that something significant happened at that point. Sure enough: in 2005 the Dutch law on trafficking was amended, to cover non-sexual labour and the trade in organs as well (previously it had only applied to sex trafficking). So, a certain amount of that increase has nothing to do with the sex industry. How much of it? Well, on pages 174-175 the total number of victims specifically linked to the sex sector in the years 2007, 2008 and 2009 is given as 338, 473 and 419 respectively. So here is that chart again, with the number of reported sex trafficking victims for those years noted in red:

In fairness that probably understates the case a bit, since in each of those years there were upwards of 200 reported victims whose sector of exploitation was unknown. I’ll come back to this in a minute, but for the time being we can reasonably assume that some of these were in the sex sector. Even taking that into account, though, it must be clear that the expansion of the trafficking law beyond the sex industry has a lot to do with the impression of a recent trafficking explosion.

Another interesting point is made on page 91. While the usual reaction to statistics like this is to assume that they underrepresent the real numbers – because so many victims go undetected (something I certainly acknowledge) – there is also the possibility that they overstate the case as well. The Rapporteur explains:

it is possible that the persons reported to CoMensha are not all actually victims, so the number of registered victims could also be higher than the actual number of known victims in the Netherlands. This is because there is no formal assessment based on specific criteria by which the registered person’s status as a victim can be verified.

The broad categories of “notifiers” (persons and groups reporting victims to CoMensha) are charted on page 99:

This looks to me as though basically anyone can report a “trafficking victim” to CoMensha, and CoMensha will include that person in its data without ensuring they truly qualify. That must call into question whether the numbers have been inflated through misrepresentation of their actual victim status. A footnote on page 91 says that “very vague reports” will not be registered, but also that CoMensha “has no firm criteria for defining a ‘vague report’”. Also worth pointing out is this bit on page 111:

For almost a third of the victims reported to CoMensha since 2007, it is not known whether they had already been exploited or, if they had been exploited, in which sector.

There are two separate issues here. First, what exactly are the criteria for identifying someone as a trafficking victim if they have not “already been exploited”? I don’t think that identification would be unjustified if, say, they were intercepted en route to a brothel when they thought they were being taken to work in a restaurant, but it’s not at all clear whether that level of certainty is being applied. (I’m reminded of the often-cited statistic of 100,000-300,000 children trafficked in the US every year, which actually refers to children who are simply deemed to be “at risk” of sexual exploitation because of their personal circumstances, such as runaways, and may never actually face exploitation at all.) There’s clearly potential here for erroneous inflation of numbers – and certainly for the statistics to include people who might not be included in the statistics of other countries which only count the “already exploited”.

The second issue is the part about it not being known which sector the victims were exploited in. As mentioned above, these unknowns have accounted for more than 200 trafficking cases per year. What exactly does it mean for a sector to be unknown? That the notifier didn’t know the sector, or that they knew it but didn’t report it? I can certainly accept, given the nature of human trafficking and the trauma its victims can suffer, that it may be possible in some cases to recognise that a person has been trafficked without being able to ascertain the sector. But 200+ per year strikes me as an awfully high number of indeterminate-sector cases, and I would have to question whether some of these reports can really be taken as evidence that trafficking occurred at all. If on the other hand the notifier simply didn’t include the sector in their report to CoMensha, that question doesn’t arise – but you would wonder why CoMensha wouldn’t go back to the notifier and ask for clarification, since it’s a pretty important variable.

Another interesting thing I noticed was in the tables indicating the nationality of victims (pages 160-167). These also include the ranking of the top five nationalities – and the number one nationality of reported victims, since 2004, is Dutch. In fact, Dutch victims have accounted for at least a quarter of all reported victims since 2006, and for nearly two-fifths in 2007-2008. I found that extraordinary. It is true that trafficking can occur within state borders, but it’s fairly unusual for a state to recognise its own nationals as trafficking victims, at least on such a wide scale.

It’s difficult to explain this anomaly without more information, such as a breakdown of the sectors in which the Dutch victims were exploited. The only hint is in the fact that the proportion of these victims who were underage has averaged to 30% since 2006, suggesting that the “loverboy” phenomenon may be implicated. But that doesn’t account for the majority of cases. One possibility could lie in the Dutch definition of trafficking, which to my reading is extraordinarily broad. The UN definition is often said to boil down to “movement, control and exploitation”; however, the Dutch law allows for convictions without any “movement” element at all, within or across state borders. Note Article 1.1.6, which defines a trafficker as anyone who “wilfully profits from the exploitation of another person”. I would suggest that applies to more bosses than it excludes.

If the Dutch authorities are applying this broad a definition of trafficking, is it any wonder the numbers are as high as they are?

In fact, when you take all these qualifications into account it’s quite possible the Dutch figures aren’t excessively high at all (by “excessively high” I mean in comparison with other countries; even one case is too many, of course). Let’s go back to that 2009 figure of 419 sex trafficking victims. Seems a lot higher than Sweden’s 2009 number of 34 (see page 35), doesn’t it?

But first of all, they don’t seem to be comparing like with like. Pages 10-13 of that Swedish report discuss the nationality of the victims and from what I can tell they are all foreign; the report refers specifically to people being trafficked into Sweden. Now this could mean that Dutch people are being trafficked in the Netherlands while Swedish people are not being trafficked in Sweden, but more likely is that Sweden simply uses different terminology for its own nationals who experience “trafficking” within Sweden. So, what we need to compare the Swedish number to is not the total number of reported sex trafficking cases in the Netherlands, but the total number of sex trafficking cases of non-Dutch citizens in the Netherlands. We don’t have that exact number, but the Dutch report states that in 2009, 26% of all trafficking victims were Dutch nationals; if we apply that percentage to the sex trafficking victims we get a rounded figure of 109. Subtract that from 419 and we can estimate now that in 2009, 310 people were reported as sex trafficked into the Netherlands.

Next thing we have to look at is who is doing the reporting. The Dutch figures reflect reports from all sources; the Swedish figures reflect only police reports. In 2009 the Dutch police reported 61% of all Netherlands cases. Applying that figure to the 310, we can estimate that the Dutch police reported 189 cases of sex trafficking into the Netherlands. This is still significantly higher than the 34 cases of sex trafficking into Sweden reported by the Swedish police, but you see how the difference narrows when you take greater care to ensure you’re comparing the same things.

We’re left with figures that suggest a sex trafficking rate in the Netherlands around 5.5 times greater than the rate in Sweden. According to Googled World Bank statistics, the Netherlands’ population is around 1.75 times greater than Sweden’s, making the Dutch rate disproportionate by a factor of 3.75 – you’d expect the Dutch police to report 127.5 cases of sex trafficking rather than 189. So that’s 61.5 cases in 2009 that can’t be accounted for by the population difference alone. I can think of several possible reasons for this extra 61.5 that have nothing to do with the legal status of prostitution (other things that make the Netherlands a more attractive destination country, like its location and climate; or the much broader definition of “trafficker” in Dutch law; or operational differences in Dutch and Swedish police approaches to trafficking), but we really are in the realm of pure speculation at this point.

Of course, we’d need a more detailed set of statistics to really compare the two countries anyway. It’s quite possible that there is actually a wide disparity between sex and non-sex trafficking behind the percentages applying to overall trafficking which I used to arrive at that 189 figure. But that disparity could go either way, so it can’t be assumed that I’m underestimating the real difference between reported cases in Sweden and reported cases in the Netherlands. I could, in fact, be overestimating it and the actual figures could be much closer together. The point of this exercise is not to make any claims about the actual rate of sex trafficking in the Netherlands, but simply to show that there is a wide variety of factors behind the reported rates – and that you can’t simply compare sets of figures from two different countries without considering how all these factors could influence the results.

Another relevant question is how the Dutch numbers after law reform compare to the numbers before it. The most recent Rapporteur report doesn’t give figures from before legalisation, but I was able to find them (in somewhat different format) in the First Report, on page 49:

So clearly the problem was growing in the Netherlands even before legalisation, and perhaps the law change was entirely irrelevant to a trend that was developing anyway. However, even if the law itself had an effect, the report suggests this may be due (at least in part) to a reason that is very different to the one put forward by the anti-sex work movement – and it’s a reason that echoes a point I’ve made over and over again on this blog.

To put it in context: In the latest report, the Rapporteur states (page 26) that the purpose of the 2000 law reform was to

legalise a situation that was already tolerated.

The first report had gone into this in much greater detail, saying on page 11 that prior to 2000

in practice a distinction was made between voluntary and involuntary prostitution and the government in principle limited its concern for prostitution to regulating the exploitation of voluntary prostitution and combating involuntary prostitution. Because the ban on brothels…was still in the Penal Code, this policy in practice meant that the exploitation of voluntary prostitution in the Netherlands was in fact tolerated. This toleration developed in the course of time from a passive tolerance to an active tolerance (Venicz c.s., 2000). Passive tolerance meant permitting the establishment of prostitution businesses, as long as they did not cause any inadmissible nuisance or other articles of the law were not infringed. Active tolerance, on the other hand, meant the government taking controlling action so as to guide developments in a particular direction by various measures. A classic example of this is the system of tolerance orders or licences for brothels and other sex establishments used in many municipalities at the end of the 20th century, by which requirements and stipulations were laid down for their establishment and operation. And so in the 20th century the government did take virtually no action against brothels, except in those cases involving manifest abuses, exploitation of involuntary prostitution or disturbance of public order, peace and safety. In spite of an earlier attempt to amend article 250bis Penal Code in the Eighties, the ban on brothels was finally only abolished from the Penal Code on 1 October 2000.

Now, you might read this thinking that the 2000 law didn’t actually change a thing, and that what we should be talking about here is not what happens when prostitution is legalised but when it is tolerated. But there is an important difference between the two, and it’s one that has been noted in the context of Australian law reform as well:

Police, of course, under a legal system which officially legitimises certain forms of prostitution or certain places, are obliged by the government to enforce laws on other prostitution in order to justify the “legalisation”.

So what are the “other forms of prostitution” which were tolerated in the Netherlands until 2000 and are now enforced against? Well, one of them is prostitution by non-EU migrant workers (or those from EU countries excluded from the Dutch labour market). The legality of sex work notwithstanding, it usually isn’t an option for them unless they have residency on some other ground; it is impossible to get a work permit for the Dutch sex sector and very difficult to get recognition as a self-employed sex worker. And thus, as the sex workers’ rights group De Rode Draad told the Norwegian Ministry of Justice in 2004,

The situation for immigrant women has become much more difficult. Formerly these women’s work was tolerated in the same way as other sex workers’. With the legalisation of one group of women, the work of another group of women now becomes illegal. (page 34)

The Rapporteur’s current report doesn’t really go into this, but it does quote from an earlier report (the third) which addressed it in some detail, noting on page 22 that:

A number of NGOs have repeatedly argued that where aliens cannot work legally in the sex industry in the Netherlands but are still interested in doing so, a ban on or obstacle to doing this legally means a considerable risk of becoming dependent on third parties, with exploitation as a potential and harmful consequence. They therefore regard the ban on issuing work permits for prostitution work in salaried employment and the conditions that are or may be imposed on subjects of Association countries who want to come and work in the Netherlands as self-employed prostitutes as encouraging [trafficking].

So in other words, if it is the case that trafficking has increased as a result of legalisation, it’s because of changes in the government’s approach to migrant sex work, not to sex work generally. It’s an issue of immigration law rather than prostitution law. This, I think, is absolutely critical to a proper understanding of sex trafficking in the Netherlands – whether the actual rate is going up, down or sideways.

What about the claims of exploitation in the legal sector? I’ve seen all sorts of statistics thrown around about this, used to justify the argument that you can’t protect sex workers by legalising the industry. The Rapporteur doesn’t cite any data on this topic, but does accept the existence of these abuses and the failure of Dutch policy to adequately address them. On page 140 she states,

the view that entering the profession was an individual’s free choice that should be respected…may have obscured the sight of forced prostitution, especially since establishing a licensing system for the prostitution sector was expected to make licensed prostitution more manageable, and hence lead to eradication of abuses in the sector. Over the last decade, the emphasis in attitudes towards the prostitution sector seems to have shifted to the vulnerability of the sector to human trafficking. Several notorious cases that have shown that widespread exploitation can also take place in the licensed prostitution sector have undoubtedly been a factor in this.

Well, if Dutch lawmakers assumed that licensing on its own would sort out coercion in the sector then it’s hardly any wonder they’ve had problems. If that was all that was needed, there would be no abuse in any legal and regulated sector, and clearly that is not the case. Here, the report shows the risks not of legal prostitution per se, but of a poorly thought-out scheme which lazily equates “legal” with “non-exploitative”. I suspect that if Dutch lawmakers had taken more input from Dutch sex workers when drawing up their law, this might have been pointed out to them.

Since people frequently seem to have trouble grasping this point, I’ll close by reiterating that these reports cannot be assumed to reflect the actual amount of sex trafficking in the countries they relate to. No really accurate, reliable measure is possible – and the true numbers could be either higher or lower. But if one legal model is going to be advocated over another on the basis of the trafficking rates under those models, those doing the advocating have to find some basis to show that a model has the effect they ascribe to it. This requires showing that, as best as can be determined, not only is there more trafficking under one model than under another but also that there is a causal link between the model and the trafficking rate. The Dutch Rapporteur’s report could support the anti-sex work argument on the first count, but the statistics are not sufficiently disaggregated to say for sure: we don’t know enough about them to pull out all the things that the Swedish authorities aren’t counting and make a like-for-like comparison of the numbers.

The report actually does more to support the claim of a causal link, in the sense that it acknowledges risk factors connected directly or indirectly to legalisation (the laissez-faire approach to the licensed sector and the restrictions on some foreign workers). But the crucial thing here is that these are causal links to the Dutch model of legalisation, not to legal prostitution per se. They could just as easily be used to support arguments for the establishment of a proper inspection scheme, or for allowing non-EU migrants to work in the industry – two things that can only happen in the context of legalisation, decriminalisation or de facto tolerance.

So to answer the question in the title of this post: no, but we shouldn’t discount it entirely either. It may be impossible to say for sure whether the Netherlands actually has more trafficking than other countries, but it definitely has a legal regime which in some ways seems to facilitate it. The reasons it does so may not be the ones put forward by the anti-sex work movement – but that doesn’t make the need for change any less compelling.

UNAIDS Advisory Group condemns Swedish sex purchase ban

Last month saw the publication of the long-awaited Report of the UNAIDS Advisory Group on HIV and Sex Work. The Advisory Group was established in 2009 by the Executive Director of UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, to provide clarification and advice around certain matters addressed in the most recent (2009) UNAIDS Guidance Note on HIV and Sex Work.

I finally had a chance to read the document this week, and there’s a lot of really good stuff in it. One of its most significant aspects is that it pulls no punches on the question of criminalising clients – not merely subsuming this issue, as many previous UN-associated statements have done, under a general opposition to laws against consensual commercial sex, but addressing it head-on and in some detail. On pages 5-6, it includes the Swedish sex-purchase ban in a section called “Laws, enforcement and policies that impede effective HIV responses for sex workers: Criminal prohibitions against sex work or aspects of it” and says:

The approach of criminalising the client has been shown to backfire on sex workers. In Sweden, sex workers who were unable to work indoors were left on the street with the most dangerous clients and little choice but to accept them.

In its “Conclusion and recommendations” on legal regimes, on page 8, it says:

States can take many actions to establish legal and policy environments that are conducive to universal access to HIV services for sex workers. Among these are the following: States should move away from criminalising sex work or activities associated with it. Decriminalisation of sex work should include removing criminal penalties for purchase and sale of sex…

Also significant is its criticism of the “end demand” strategy in general. In the introduction, on page 4, it says:

Policies and programmes to reduce the demand for sex work, designed ignoring the voices of sex workers, often result in unintended harms including increased HIV risk and vulnerability
for sex workers and their clients

On page 6, it points out:

There is very little evidence to suggest that any criminal laws related to sex work reduce demand for sex or the number of sex workers. Rather, all of them create an environment of fear and marginalisation for sex workers, who often have to work in remote and unsafe locations to avoid arrest of themselves or their clients. These laws can undermine sex workers’ ability to work together to identify potentially violent clients and their capacity to demand condom use of clients.

On pages 10-11, it notes that

well-meaning but ill-informed service and healthcare providers and policy actors from community-based organisations, nongovernmental organisations, donors, international organisations and government agencies believe that they are helping sex workers by calling for criminalisation of clients. However, there is no evidence that these “end demand” initiatives reduce sex work or HIV transmission, or improve the quality of life for sex workers…These laws do not reduce the scale of sex work, but they do make sex workers more vulnerable.

It calls instead for a shift of emphasis to ending demand for unprotected paid sex – and states on page 11:

Empowering sex workers to have greater control over their working conditions, rather than “end demand” approaches, should be the focus of HIV prevention efforts…When sex workers can successfully ensure that their customers use condoms, sex workers are less likely to become infected by HIV.

Of course, since it’s (usually) the clients who have to wear the condoms, convincing them that it’s in their interest to do so would go a long way toward reducing the demand for unprotected paid sex. The report describes working with clients in this way as the more effective strategy for HIV prevention, noting on page 14 that

demonising and marginalising clients are approaches that create major barriers to effective HIV programming with sex workers

On page 13 it gives a real-life example, from China, of how greater condom use has been achieved through a programme that treats clients not as irredeemable villains but rather as partners in the battle against HIV and other STIs:

Men working in industrial sectors that require them to work away from their families often engage in risky behaviours such as unprotected paid and casual sex…To address this, the International Labour Organization is working with large and medium-scale mining companies in southern China to promote responsible sexual behaviours among mine workers, including proper treatment of STIs, consistent condom use and elimination of violence against women, including sex workers. Preliminary results, assessed through qualitative and quantitative surveys, show significant increases in condom use and health-seeking behaviours, and increased reported condom use in paid and casual sex.

The report goes on to address the issue of trafficking. Here, I have a small difficulty with it, as it divides the sex industry into two distinct categories of voluntary/not trafficked and involuntary/trafficked:

A woman deciding to sell sexual services in order to support herself or her family is not a trafficked person. (page 17)

This is not strictly accurate as a matter of law, as the international definition of “trafficking” is broad enough to encompass some forms of “voluntary” sexual labour, such as debt bondage. It also ignores the fact that for most working people, not just sex workers, consent and coercion exist along a continuum, rather than being a binary.

Nonetheless, it’s absolutely true that sex work abolitionists tend to draw the line on that continuum in such a way as to strip the agency from most sex workers, especially migrants – and the Advisory Group is correct to highlight the problems this causes for HIV programmes. On page 18 it states:

Anti-trafficking measures often concentrate on getting people out of sex work, without considering whether they are trafficked, or whether the efforts will disrupt the access sex workers have to services that safeguard their health and well-being, and that create opportunities for them to share information and seek assistance for individuals they are concerned may have been trafficked. Many projects that focus on rescuing trafficked persons interrupt and undermine efforts to provide sex workers with access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support.

The next page continues:

Forced rescue and rehabilitation practices lower sex workers’ control over where and under what conditions they sell sexual services and to whom, exposing them to greater violence and exploitation.

It goes on to say that when sex workers’ livelihoods are disrupted in this way,

this leads to social disintegration and a loss of solidarity and cohesion (social capital) among sex workers, including reducing their ability to access health care, legal and social services. Low social capital is known to increase vulnerability to sexually transmitted infections among sex workers and therefore has a detrimental impact on HIV prevention efforts.

Not surprisingly, therefore, it states on page 7 that

From the perspective of universal access to HIV services, undermining sex worker organisations is one of the most important negative effects of law enforcement practices.

Furthermore – and this is incredibly important for the migrant sex workers whom abolitionists are always fretting about:

The conflation of sex work and trafficking directly limits the ability of migrant sex workers to protect themselves from HIV, since they are often assumed to be trafficked. Migrant sex workers often live with the constant threat of being reported, arrested and deported which creates a real barrier to accessing health and welfare services.(page 19)

Of course, this is an immigration issue which would exist even if there was no question of trafficking. But the moral panic around trafficking has unquestionably created a greater impetus for raids on sex industry venues, which frequently lead to deportations of the people alleged to have been “trafficked”. (I think perhaps the report could have made this clearer.)

As with the battle against HIV, the battle against trafficking also needs sex workers’ participation if it is to have any real effect. On page 18, the report notes that

anti-trafficking efforts typically ignore the possibility of engaging sex workers as partners in identifying, preventing and resolving situations that do involve trafficked people. Sex workers themselves are often best placed to know who is being trafficked into commercial sex and by whom, and are particularly motivated to work to stop such odious practices.

To this end, it promotes the establishment of sex worker organisations, saying on page 20:

Organised groups of sex workers are also best placed to establish safe working norms within the sex industry, and influence other actors in the industry to ensure that trafficked adults and children are not retained in sex work…self-regulatory mechanisms, which are established, implemented and overseen by sex workers’ organisations can limit trafficking into the sex industry as well as the sexual exploitation of children. They also form a platform for addressing labour exploitation of sex workers.

The last major issue addressed in the report is the need for sex workers to be economically empowered. The main point here is that such programmes shouldn’t seek only to remove people from sex work, or be made conditional on their willingness/ability to leave the industry, but should aim to also improve the economic circumstances of those who remain in it:

By increasing economic options, sex workers can achieve greater financial security, which makes it easier for them to make important decisions that affect their lives…Improving economic options also helps sex workers to reduce the likelihood of having to accept clients’ requests for unprotected sex or that they will be put in situations that inhibit their ability to negotiate with clients and reduce the risk of violence or abuse. (pages 22-23)

Some interesting examples are provided of successful programmes around the world, such as one in Andhra Pradesh, India, where

Among the 803 sex workers interviewed, involvement in economic independence programmes was positively associated with control over both the type and cost of sexual services provided and with consistent condom use. (page 24)

I can predict a couple criticisms of the report. The make-up of the Advisory Group will probably discredit it in some eyes, since it includes affiliates of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (along with “independent experts from academia and civil society organisations, representatives of UNAIDS Co-Sponsors and the [UNAIDS] Secretariat”). My response to that is to ask whether it would be reasonable for a UNAIDS Advisory Group on HIV and Men Who Have Sex With Men to not include any organisations comprising or working with MSMs. Of course it would not. They would rightly be seen as experts on the subject, and any “advisory group” without them would be seen as lacking in credibility.

It may also be argued that this is merely a report of the Advisory Group and not a UNAIDS policy document as such. This is true. However, its conclusions are entirely consistent with things UNAIDS has been saying all along, even if takes them a bit further. It justifies its positions by reference to earlier UNAIDS publications, such as on page 5 where it says:

The UNAIDS Strategy 2011-2015: Getting to Zero identifies as one of its 10 goals that the number of “countries with punitive laws and practices around HIV transmission, sex work, drug use or homosexuality will be reduced by half”

and on page 9 where it states that the 2006 International Guidelines on HIV/AIDS and Human Rights by the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights/UNAIDS note that

states have a responsibility to ensure that criminal law is reviewed with the aim of removing criminal sanctions on sex work and ensuring that any non-criminal regulations support safe sex in sex work and ready access of sex workers to comprehensive HIV services.

The fact of the matter is that UNAIDS, and many other global health and human rights organisations, have been saying for a long time that criminalisation of sex work is a barrier to effective HIV prevention and treatment. They have focused on criminalisation of the seller because that is how criminalisation manifests itself in most of the world; the Nordic model may look pretty significant from where I’m sitting in the north west corner of Europe but globally, it’s little more than a footnote. So the fact that it hasn’t specifically been addressed by UNAIDS (or the other international health and human rights groups who oppose criminalisation generally) should in no way be taken to indicate that they approve of it. Given all that we’re learning about how it actually works in practice, in fact, it’s pretty inconceivable that they would.

Of course, abolitionists won’t care what UNAIDS thinks about it anyway, since their view is that sex work would be bad and wrong even if it cured HIV. But most people are not abolitionists, and I think they would appreciate the significance of UNAIDS publishing this document. It is a valuable addition to the growing catalogue of material showing the health and human rights failures of criminalisation of sex workers’ clients, anti-trafficking policy and the fixation on ending demand.

Swedish government official sacked for running brothels

Interesting follow-up to the story I posted about here, in which it was shown that, contrary to the claims of advocates of the Swedish model, brothels continue to thrive under the sex purchase ban. Now, it seems that they’ve had a little bit of help from friends in high places:

A high-ranking civil servant in Sweden’s defence ministry has been sacked after it was revealed he was involved in running several Thai massage parlours on the side…

The raids revealed that the wife of the defence ministry official operated three massage parlours in the Stockholm area and that he served as an alternate board member of the company that ran the operation.

And according to the Swedish Tax Agency,

“We have clear indications both in the trafficking of girls and that many deal with unreported wages and pay unreasonably low payroll taxes”.

This isn’t the first time a high-ranking official has been found to be personally involved in undermining Sweden’s claims to have all but eliminated trafficking and sex work. Last year, the chief of police in Uppsala, Sweden’s fourth largest city, was convicted on numerous charges including rape, purchasing sex, and “procuring” (translation: he was running a prostitution ring, involving underage girls). And regular Swedish press reports prove that thay have as many examples as any other country of police and government officers being (literally) caught with their pants down.

Sweden’s defenders would probably argue that any country can have its bad apples and that Sweden is doing more than most to try to stop them. And that’s fair enough. What gets my goat is the deliberate deception of those Swedish officials who come to other countries and tell us that they don’t have these problems since they enacted the sex purchase ban. The claim that it’s “impossible to run a brothel in Sweden” when your own fucking government official is running several of them – and when their tax non-compliance seems to be the main source of your interest in them.

We should be able to have an honest debate about the actual effects of the sex purchase ban. But that requires Swedish officials to be honest about the sex trade that has continued in their country even after the ban was enacted, and to stop pretending that they have solved their trafficking problem with the stroke of a legislative pen.

Radio-debating the Swedish sex purchase ban

Yesterday I took part in a radio discussion with a representative of the Turn Off The Red Light campaign, which seeks the introduction of the Swedish sex trade law in Ireland. We only had seven minutes between us, and unfortunately the time did not end up being divided evenly: we each got to make a brief introductory statement, but in the second round, I was left with only a very short time to respond to quite a lengthy (and obviously well-rehearsed) defence of the Swedish law. And I was asked by the hosts to spend that short time answering a different question entirely, so I didn’t get a chance to respond at all to the points raised in that defence.

On the chance that anyone who listened to the “debate” is reading this blog wondering how I would have responded, I will briefly summarise the points that were made and what I would have said to them if I had had the opportunity. I’m keeping my answers short as if I was actually saying them on the air, but I’m happy to expand on the points if anyone wants me to (though I won’t have the opportunity until after Christmas).

I know the Swedish law is working because I travelled to Sweden last year and saw it for myself.

The speaker is referring to a trip in which anti-sex work advocates were accompanied by Department of Justice officials. I did a Freedom of Information request on that trip and learned that they did not meet with a single sex worker or representative organisation, and only met with supporters of the law. How can you measure whether a law is working if you don’t talk to anyone affected by it?

The law has been very successful at reducing prostitution and trafficking…

Great claims have been made about the Swedish law but there is little evidence to back them up. The Swedish government admitted in its report to UNAIDS last year that they have no idea how much prostitution there is in the country because it is such a hidden phenomenon. Swedish police reports indicate that the trafficking problem has grown significantly over the period since the law was brought in.

… compared to neighbouring countries where the amount is exploding.

Sweden was estimated to have less prostitution than neighbouring countries before the law was ever introduced. It is not surprising that commercial sex would be more visible now in those countries, where it has not been criminalised, than in Sweden where it has. However, the statistics that are being used for those countries are unreliable. In Denmark they derive from a figure that actually represents an estimate of female tourists. In Finland a figure that was specifically stated to be voluntary migrant sex workers has been misreported as “trafficking victims”.

The Swedish people support the law.

The same poll that showed Swedish people are largely in favour of the law also showed that only around 20% think it is actually working. Furthermore, about half of them think that sex workers should also be criminalised under the law.

Young people’s attitudes are changing.

A study carried out by the Swedish youth board only a couple years ago showed that young people have become more, not less, accepting of commercial sex.

We need this law in Ireland where migrants make up more than 90% of the sex industry.

That figure is derived from an audit of the women posting on one particular day on an escort ads website. It doesn’t take into account other sectors of the sex industry, sex workers not advertising on that day or on that site, the possibility of duplicate ads or the possibility of faked “foreign” nationalities. Many of those “migrants” are from Britain or other Global North countries where their nationality does not carry any implication of trafficking – and even those from less well-off countries cannot be assumed to have been trafficked.

[The final point was stated to be in response to my opening comment that there had been no consultation with the people who earn their living by selling sex:]

We have a coalition of one million people.

That is an extraordinary number for an island of only six million; I would be interested to see the evidence for it. But getting other people to support your cause is no substitute for consulting with those whose lives will be affected by the policies you advocate.

**

It’s fair to say that even if our time had actually been split evenly, I would have needed more time to respond to her points than she needed to make them. But that’s because the issue is more complicated than the simple soundbites that anti-sex work advocates put forward. The fact that they can boil things down to unsupportable claims and dodgy statistics probably goes some way toward explaining why their position is more widely reflected than mine, so in that respect it’s certainly an effective media strategy. It isn’t one I’d be proud of, though, as someone who prefers to deal in facts.

My thanks to DIT Radio for having me on, anyway.

More on the short-term thinking behind sex work abolitionism

In this post last week I questioned the assumption of anti-prostitution laws as a solution to the trafficking problem. The failure to consider the consequences of these laws for trafficked persons – even if it could be shown (which it hasn’t been) that they have their desired effect – is a really good example of the logical gaps and short-term thinking employed by sex work abolitionists.

But that short-term thinking is evident even without bringing trafficking into the equation. The very notion of ending sex work through anti-prostitution laws is inherently flawed, and I don’t even need to point to statistics to make this argument (but what the hell, I will anyway).

The flawed reasoning goes like this (apologies for the gendered language here but I’m talking like an abolitionist and let’s face it, men who sell sex and women who buy it simply aren’t on their radar): criminalise the purchase of sex, and men will stop buying it. With no more market for paid sex, women will stop selling it.

Yeah, ok and… then what?

Before I continue, there are a couple things I should mention in passing. First, there is absolutely no evidence that criminal laws make men stop buying sex (as opposed to telling pollsters that they’ve stopped buying it, while really just buying more discreetly). Secondly, even the “buying more discreetly” effect can have really negative consequences for the sex workers deemed by those clients to pose too big an arrest risk. Emi Koyama has a good concise summary of the reasons for this here and I’ll just point out that the Swedish and Norwegian experiences corroborate her arguments, and leave it at that.

Because what I really want to focus on is not whether criminalisation makes a change in buyers’ behaviour, but rather in sellers’. So let’s assume that these laws actually did dry up the market and force sex workers to find another source of income. Well, here we see a big ol’ gaping hole in abolitionist logic, because their entire notion of sex workers-as-victims (I’m sorry, “prostituted women”) is premised on the assumption that they are in the industry because they don’t have any alternate source of income. To imagine that you could take away their customers and they would then just leave the sex trade is to admit that they could have left the sex trade all along, if they had wanted to.

In saying this, I’m not denying that there are some sex workers who really don’t have any alternatives, such as those who are literally held in the industry, by another person(s), against their will. But I don’t think even the staunchest abolitionist believes that’s the case for most adult sex workers (with the possible exception of Senator Fiach Mac Conghail, whose speech during the recent Seanad debate on the Swedish model was a genuine masterpiece of half-baked mythology and propaganda). I also wouldn’t count shoplifting and drug dealing as “alternatives”, which some drug-using sex workers said in this study was what they were doing before settling on sex work as the preferable option. Take away that option, and what happens to these sex workers? Watch your purse, Rescue Lady.

To be fair, organisations like Ruhama do provide assistance to those who (want and) need it to find mainstream work, and the Swedish government has provided funding toward this end. But all this assistance isn’t going to help people find jobs that don’t exist in the first place. As I write this, the Irish unemployment rate is 14.4% – which means that sex workers who want to leave the industry will face a hell of a lot of competition for what jobs are still out there. If they have a criminal record (as many in this sector of the industry do), beating the competition will be that much harder. For ethnic minority and trans women, harder still. And if they have an immigration status that doesn’t allow them to work in the first place, well, “skills training” is about as useful as an elephant with a skip-rope. Sweden’s unemployment rate is lower but it isn’t immune to these problems either. And that’s not even getting into the Global South, where the phrase “survival sex” can take on meanings unimaginable here. To take away these sex workers’ livelihoods before you’ve made absolutely certain they have something to replace it with not only does them no favours, it is cruel, unethical and evinces a lack of perspective that can only come from people who either don’t care about sex workers’ lives or are too cocooned in their own privilege to recognise the harm their “good intentions” cause.

There’s a deep irony here, in that abolitionists claim that it’s precisely this category of sex worker that their campaign seeks to protect. Decriminalisation, they argue, is for the “elite” prostitutes, the ones who are lucky enough to really have a choice. This of course ignores that all the evidence shows it is the “elites” who suffer least from the harmful effects of criminalisation – which nearly always targets the more visible and vulnerable sectors. Indeed, the very way that we conceptualise “prostitution” has a distinct class bias: it covers only the types of immediate, short-term gains that are easily associated with low-income people – things like cash, drugs and alcohol – while excluding those transfers more likely to be made amongst the upper strata, such as real estate, diamond rings and credit card accounts at Dolce & Gabbana. Sweden’s WAGs can rest easy knowing that only “casual” sexual relations, at least according the official translation of the penal code, will trigger the law.

Even college fees, it seems, might be too high-class to matter. This recent Examiner article, about Irish students seeking “sugar daddies”, does not even contemplate the possible illegality of such arrangements under the prostitution laws that the Examiner has been the Irish media’s biggest cheerleader for. That piece appeared only a week after the Seanad debate linked above, so the possibility really should have been fresh in the editors’ minds.

I’ve digressed a bit but the point is this: the category of sex worker who would be able to just walk off and start a new life if criminalisation really did eradicate their client base is not the category of sex worker that abolitionists are concerned with. The centrepiece of their “solution” to survival sex work is a policy that would only drive their “prostituted women” even further into destitution and perhaps homelessness, crime and substance abuse.

I am all for “exit strategies” for those sex workers who wish to leave the industry (although I agree with Thierry Schaffauser about the problematic nature of the “exiting” concept and the desirability of a less stigmatising term). But a strategy is only that. It is a roadmap out, but without guaranteed jobs, work permits and the ability to overcome discrimination and stigma, for many of these sex workers it is likely to be a road to nowhere. Like criminalising abortion without making adequate provision for births, criminalising sex buyers without real, concrete, guaranteed alternative incomes for sex sellers is a myopic policy rooted in ideology rather than reason. And if it is not already having a devastating impact on the survival sex workers operating under it, that is only because “end demand” strategies don’t end as much as demand as abolitionists think they do.

Why I will not be standing in “solidarity” with Julian Assange

This morning, an email arrived in my inbox concerning a demonstration of “solidarity” with Julian Assange. The email indicated support for Assange’s cause of a number of left-wing and anti-war organisations.

Let me start this by saying that I have serious issues with the European Arrest Warrant. When it was transposed into Irish law the Human Rights Commission warned of the dangers of imposing by fiat mutual recognition of EU member states’ legal systems, when not all member states have equivalent human rights protections. This remains a legitimate concern and an argument against Assange’s extradition under that procedure, although it was also an argument against the extradition of a Holocaust denier a few years ago and I don’t remember the anti-war left lining up to stand in solidarity with him.

Assange’s defenders have presented the case against him as if the allegations were either completely concocted or an example of “political correctness gone mad” (christ, I hate that phrase). So let’s look at what his own lawyer has conceded [ETA – see comments]:

He described Assange as penetrating one woman while she slept without a condom, in defiance of her previously expressed wishes…

In the other incident, in which Assange is alleged to have held a woman down against her will during a sexual encounter, Emmerson offered this summary: “[The complainant] was lying on her back and Assange was on top of her … [she] felt that Assange wanted to insert his penis into her vagina directly, which she did not want since he was not wearing a condom … she therefore tried to turn her hips and squeeze her legs together in order to avoid a penetration … [she] tried several times to reach for a condom, which Assange had stopped her from doing by holding her arms and bending her legs open and trying to penetrate her with his penis without using a condom…”

What Assange’s defenders argue makes these clear (if accurate) cases of rape and attempted rape into not-rape is that the women subsequently decided they were ok with his actions. That this sort of retrospective consent does not exonerate him from the charges is presented as an example of Swedish law being bonkers.

Now I’m the first to acknowledge that Swedish law is bonkers in a lot of respects. But this isn’t one of them. In fact, it is quite possible that a charge of rape for what Assange allegedly did – at least in the first case – could be sustained under the common law, the basis of the legal systems in England and most of its former colonies, including Ireland.

Legally there are two elements required for an offence to be committed – the actus reus (physical manifestation of an act) and mens rea (the mental element). The mens rea for rape is either knowledge that the person was not consenting, or recklessness as to whether they were consenting. Rape is considered a “continuing act”, so the actus reus begins with penetration and ends with withdrawal.

As a general rule, there is a requirement that the actus reus and mens rea coincide in order for the offence to be committed. Crucially, it was held by the Privy Council in Kaitamaki v R that in a continuing act such as rape, the two only need to coincide for part of the act – it is not necessary that the mens rea be present the entire time that the act is being committed. So what Assange allegedly did to this woman was rape right up until the moment she decided to give consent. There is no retrospectivity in the law. (The facts of Kaitamaki are different, in that there the accused initially believed the woman was consenting but refused to withdraw after realising she was not, but the principle is the same – if at any time while having sex with her he realised she was not consenting, the offence is committed.)

Of course, people are free to believe that this is a bonkers law too if they wish. But even if the law was overturned, it would not change this simple fact: if what his own lawyer says is the allegations are true, then Julian Assange is a man who considers it perfectly ok to have condomless sex with a sleeping woman who had already refused to agree to this while awake. Perfectly ok to hold a woman’s arms down and try to force his penis inside her while she is clearly trying to prevent this from happening. That makes him a violent, misogynist sexual predator, irrespective of how these women later responded to him. It can reasonably be considered likely that he has done the same to other women. Who may not have later responded as these two did.

I don’t accept the argument that we should nonetheless defend Assange because of the alleged political undertones of this prosecution. That would be giving leftists, anarchists and other radicals a licence to rape. It may well be that if he was Joe Schmoe instead of Julian Assange these charges would not be pursued – but to even make that argument is to acknowledge the horrendous degree of underprosecution of sexual crimes. It is an argument for going after more sexual predators, not for excusing some of them because of another status they may have. I have seen it argued that if Assange is convicted it will serve as a precedent for targeting other enemies of the establishment. To this, I reply: if they are committing violent crimes against people more vulnerable than they are, they should be fucking targeted for those crimes. Why should they get a pass?

My concerns about the EAW notwithstanding, the bottom line here is that the police and the judicial system are doing exactly what they are supposed to do: prosecute a man who his own lawyer concedes is alleged to have committed violent acts against two women, attacks that can reasonably be suspected of meeting the legal definition of rape and/or attempted rape (of course this will ultimately have to be proven in a court of law). The left need not show solidarity with these particular women if they genuinely believe their decision to press charges was malicious, but that does not excuse them for failing to show solidarity with all the other women who have been victimised by men who believe themselves entitled to do the things that Assange allegedly did. And all the other women who potentially could be. Which is all of us.

Women are 50% of the 99%. It’s time for the left to remember this.

What happens to the victims?

Regular readers may have noticed by now my deep scepticism that Sweden’s sex purchase ban has actually reduced the amount of sex trafficking to Sweden. There are a couple of reasons for my suspicions. First, as I wrote in this post on another blog, the definition of “trafficking” is so easily (and so often) manipulated to suit particular agendas that I’m automatically sceptical of any claims made about it, anywhere. (Actually, I’m increasingly coming around to doubting the usefulness of the term at all, but that’s a subject for another post.) The second is that when you strip away the Swedish spin and look at the number of trafficking cases their police are actually finding, as detailed in a number of my posts on this blog, it becomes pretty obvious that the country is in a state of collective denial.

But let’s assume for a moment that I’m wrong, and that the ban actually has had the claimed effect on sex trafficking to Sweden. Obviously, if you’re a member of a Swedish government party or a police official coming under pressure to “solve the trafficking problem”, this looks like a very good thing. But here’s a question I’ve never actually seen answered (or even asked) by the law’s advocates: what happens to the victims?

Because there seems to be this assumption that if sex traffickers can’t get their victims into Sweden, they’ll just give up and go home. Why would that be? There’s nothing special about sex trafficking into Sweden that would lead traffickers to make a career change if they couldn’t do it anymore. So what would they do instead?

One well-noted side effect of the almost singular focus on trafficking into the sex industry is the tendency to overlook this type of exploitation in other sectors. In fact, trafficking for non-sexual purposes wasn’t even criminalised in Sweden until 2004 – two years after sex trafficking was specifically outlawed, and five years after the sex purchase ban was introduced. Yet Swedish police reports confirm significant incidences of other types of trafficking:

The fifth item there is “Human trafficking for other purposes, total”, and as you can see the numbers are actually higher than for the second item, “Human trafficking for sexual purposes”. The usual caveat about actual vs detected cases applies, but it seems to me there are one of two possibilities: either the chart understates the amount of sex trafficking and there is actually far more than the Swedish police know about (in which case the law really is a dud, at least from that perspective), or trafficking for non-sexual purposes is a bigger problem than sex trafficking. And if the latter is true, then that suggests that to the extent (if any) that the law has reduced sex trafficking, the traffickers are simply placing their victims into other industries. (For those who are tempted to believe that this in itself is a victory, on the theory that any type of trafficking is better than sex trafficking, please do some reading on the abuse faced by migrant domestic workers and then come back and tell me that sex trafficking should be “solved” by shifting victims into that sector.)

An alternative possibility is that sex traffickers haven’t changed industries at all, but merely destination countries. This in fact is the position advanced by the Swedish government, which regularly compares its “foreign prostitute” count to that of its neighbours in order to promote the deterrent effect of the law (although, as Laura Agustín has pointed out, it’s relied on erroneous data to do so). What if we assume that the law actually has reduced the number of migrant sex workers in Sweden compared to its neighbours, and that this in fact represents fewer sex trafficking victims (an unsafe assumption, but one we’ll make for the sake of argument)? Well, again, this is all very good from the Swedish government’s perspective: it makes those victims someone else’s problem. But what does it do for them? And why is this issue so thoroughly ignored by the law’s advocates?

“But it isn’t,” abolitionists might protest. “We want all countries to adopt the same law, so that there is no other country the traffickers can go to.” But if that’s the best they can come up with their plan is doomed from the start. Realistically the law is not going to be adopted in every single country, and even if it was it would not be identically enforced everywhere. Sex traffickers would simply find the countries where it was easiest to get around the law at any particular point in time, and operate there. If anyone has any doubts about this just bear in mind the apparent displacement (as noted here) of migrant sex workers to Sweden after Norway adopted its own sex purchase ban.

Some abolitionists, it seems, aren’t even aiming as high as a worldwide ban. I can’t find the page now, but a week or so ago I read an article advocating the spread of the Swedish model in order to make Europe a cold house for traffickers, or words to that effect. Think about that for a minute. Even if we got past the problem of non-uniform laws and enforcement, where do they want the victims displaced to? Iran?

I’m not suggesting there is no place for criminalisation in counter-trafficking work. There is – for genuine cases of exploitation. But if we are actually interested in preventing people becoming victims, and not just keeping those victims out of our backyards, we simply have to go beyond deterrence strategies aimed at traffickers and service users in particular sectors. We need to look at structural issues, issues around development in source countries, the interrelationship between sex trafficking and trafficking for non-sexual labour, inadequate labour protection for workers in general and migrant and sex workers in particular, and how fortress-like border policies drive labour migrants and refugees into traffickers’ arms.

These are not easy issues to address, especially given the lack of political will to address them. But how much easier would it be to pressurise countries to address them if abolitionists weren’t giving them an easy way out by allowing them to say they’ve done their bit by cracking down on prostitution?

The simple fact is that even if the sex purchase ban worked to prevent sex trafficking to Sweden, there is no reason to believe it has prevented a single person from being trafficked. None whatsoever. It is not, in any sense of the matter, a solution to the trafficking problem. And it is diverting people’s energies from looking for real solutions. Trafficked persons, and persons at risk of being trafficked, deserve better than being told we’re “helping” them by trying only to keep them out of our country.

More on those non-existent Swedish brothels

In this post last week I questioned the bald assertion by Stockholm Police Department Detective Inspector Jonas Trolle that it is “impossible to run a brothel in Sweden” thanks to the country’s sex purchase ban.

Now we have this article in which no less than the head of the anti-trafficking section in the very same police department laments that there may, in fact, be a brothel on every Stockholm corner:

Police and the tax authorities have launched closer surveillance of Thai massage parlours in the country, suspecting that the sharp increase in their number indicates sex trafficking and tax evasion…

“We also hear of and witness other, more advanced sexual services, which means that you may soon wonder if we have a brothel on every or every other street corner,” said Ewa Carlenfors, head of the section against trafficking at Stockholm police

Do these Stockholm police ever talk to each other? Or do they just agree to lie to people from other countries?