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Talking about carceral feminism: The Swedish ministers want jail time for sex buyers and add police resources in the name of protecting women

22 May 2020 22:05:11
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The Ministers of Justice and Migration, Morgan Johansson, and Gender Equality, Åsa Lindhagen, demand harder punishments for sex purchase and more resources to the policing of prostitution. In their opinion piece on the 20th of May 2020 at Aftonbladet they praise Sweden at the forefront of prostitution policies. Rutgers University sociologist Niina Vuolojarvi’s research contracts this view, and she explains why they are wrong.

The evidence-based research contracts this view. Based on over two years of fieldwork and 210 interviews that I conducted with sex workers, survivors and social workers in Sweden, Norway, and Finland, I can state that:

  1. The Sex Purchase Act and the aim to abolish commercial sex by whatever means has led to a very repressive environment to sex workers and survivors.
  2. The police efforts to curb commercial sex increase both interpersonal and state violence against sex workers.
  3. The police visits to sex workers/client arrests lead to sex workers being evicted from their apartments. They lose their homes and place where they can work (income)

Contrary to popular belief: The selling of sex is NOT decriminalized in Sweden. It is a ground for deportation. Police deport sex workers which is violence in itself. The majority of sex workers, 70-80%, in Sweden are migrants.


Swedish Ministers of Justice and Migration, Morgan Johansson, and Gender Equality, Åsa Lindhagen

Sex Purchase Act increases stigma sex workers experience and weaker their safety measures = Increases violence towards sex workers.

The majority of sex workers are NOT trafficked or forced according to research: For example, in a study made in London, where researchers interviewed a hundred migrants who sell sex, only 6% experienced that they had been forced to sell sex. In a survey of 126 sex workers in Austria and the Netherlands, 10% felt that they were forced to sell sex or otherwise working in unacceptable conditions. In India, a survey of 3000 sex workers found out that 16 % felt initially forced or cheated to sell sex (Mai 2009; Sahni and Shankar 2013; Wagenaar, Altink, and Amesberger 2013).

People need to stop victimizing women who migrate to provide a better life for themselves and often their families. It is patronizing to state that these people are “tricked” and don’t know what is the best solution in their situation.

Victimizing trafficking discourse draws attention away from state violence (deportation, evictions, harassment) that the police do in the name of trafficking prevention. People need rights, not rescue!

It is a very privileged view to think that police are there for your protection. It might be for white citizens, but rarely for Nigerian, Romanian, and Latin American migrant sex workers, I met during my fieldwork. Like one Nigerian sex worker told me “You only call the police if it is about life”.

Sweden’s support services are a disgrace: There is no low-threshold STI testing, healthcare, and legal aid. This means that migrants, the majority of sex workers and survivors, have no access to these services. These service contacts are crucial for the health and well-being of sex workers and provide support in a situation of exploitation/violence.

If Sweden wants to combat violence against sex workers and survivors, it should focus on non-judgmental harm-reduction services, decriminalize the sale of sex from migrants, decriminalize working together & regular landlords providing housing for sex workers, and direct resources from the police to sex workers’ and survivors’ organizations and social services.

Hunting down “evil clients and traffickers” individualizes the problem of exploitation in sex work and deviates from the root causes such as lack of rights, protection, access to other forms of sufficient income, and legal ways of migrating.

Police harassment, deportations, and evictions under the smokescreen of sex buyer arrests IS violence against women. Sidelining state violence and focusing on interpersonal one, hides the violence marginalized people, such as people of color, migrants, trans and gender non-conforming people, and sex workers experience.

I hope Swedish journalists would take their role seriously and report evidence-based research and listen to a variety of sex workers and survivors instead of circulating sensationalized click-bait stories of sexual abuse and state “truths”.

The “Swedish model” has become a Swedish export product that is part of the Swedish country brand. Sweden has invested a lot of money to spread its “gender equality invention”: Solely during years 2009 and 2010 it invested 14.75 million SEK (1.6 million USD) to push the Swedish Sex Purchase Act internationally. This should ring some alert bells in journalists.

Decriminalization is the solution. It centers those who are MOST affected by prostitution laws, meaning sex workers and survivors. Decriminalization is a change of perspective from criminal law to a rights-based approach. It starts with the protection of sex workers. Sex workers and anti-trafficking organizations all over the world together with World Health Organization, Amnesty International, UNAIDS, Human Rights Watch, and medical journal the Lancet support decriminalization of sex work as the best way to prevent exploitation in sex work.

Ps. Decriminalization is not the same as legalization. Legalization leaves those who do not want to / can’t (migrants) register as sex workers still outside of legality and criminalizes them.

Thrilled to see my article “Governing in the Name of Caring” on the detrimental consequence of the Nordic model for sex workers and survivors recognized with the Law and Society Association Article Prize Honorable Mention.

Thank you all who made this possible by participating and sharing your knowledge! I hope this helps the fight against this harmful policy

Prepared by Niina Vuolajarvi, Department of Sociology, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, USA

​You can download the article for free here.