Exploiting sex workers: Sweden as „pimp state“?

The Swedish state wants to export its own prostitution law. However, the Swedish approach to prostitution harms sex workers more than it helps.

Note on this piece: At the beginning of September 2020 I received an email by someone from the Swedish Embassy in Berlin inviting me to a “Fika” — an informal chat with tea and cake — with, among others, the Swedish Ambassador at Large for Combating Trafficking in Persons, Per-Anders Sunesson. The email was sent, probably, to many people. The “feminist” Swedish embassy did not start this email with a “Dear Sonja Dolinsek”. Probably this was too much work for someone who was paid a lot to do so. Maybe it’s their “feminist foreign policy” approach that led them to not address me by name. Either way, I initially offered to give my invite to sex workers, which they declined. Then I accepted. After a few weeks, they told me that they would meet sex workers, too. I was allowed to suggest someone. However, after much consideration I decided to write this text — as a private person who opposes what I see as the Swedish pimping model. I do not want to be a puppet in their long-term strategy, where they can say “We have talked to people with different opinions”.

Per-Anders Sunesson is visiting Germany and last weekend he spoke at a small workshop to abolish prostitution in Bonn. I don’t think that this networking activity to prohibit sex work and push sex workers into the hands of hardened criminals should remain invisible.

Imagine a man, or multiple men standing in front of an apartment. Armed. In this apartement a sex worker is working and meeting a client. These men know that this is not a trafficking situation, but a consensual exchange of sex for money. Neverthless, these men are waiting for the sexual services to be concluded and for the client to leave. Sometimes they don’t wait until the end. They listen through the door and, once certain that an agreement for paid sex has been reached, they enter the apartment. In doing so, they use violence. They use violence to enter the room by force, but also the violence of punishment. It is violence legitimized by the monopoly of violence of the state.

These man, police officers, want to make this man, a sex work client, pay for what he did: Paying someone for her labour, paying a sex worker for her labour. They may or may not arrest him. So far, the Swedes were reasonable enough not to put anyone in prison for having a consensual sexual service interaction with a sex worker. But they ask for money. They call this a “fine” — the punishment for what the Swedes call “purchase of sex”. Sadly, the Swedes (and some others) call this state sanctioned extraction of money from sex work and women’s bodies THE “feminist” approach to prostitution — while there are others that truly deserve that label.

I have come to the conclusion that the Swedish state is a pimp state. The Swedish pimp state sees himself as the great protector of prostitutes. He takes money from clients. He takes away sex workers’ rights, declares them to be psychologically sick and socially undesired, decidees for them, uses violence. He uses psychological violence by accusing sex workers of selling themselves, of having lost their dignity. It also seems to me that the Swedish state doesn’t quite see sex workers as equal and equally human. Most importantly, the Swedish pimp state does everything in his power to make sex workers’ working conditions terrible. The Swedish pimp state forces sex workers to work alone, in isolation, or else they will face punishment — punishment for (wait for it!) pimping or keeping a brothel. In reality, this Swedish state oppresses sex workers.

Officially, the sex worker doesn’t face any legal consequences in Sweden (or France and Ireland, etc.) — unless, of course, the sex worker is a migrant, then she’s deported no matter what. Unless s*he shares a workspace with other colleagues. Unless she is an activist who wants to fight for her rights and right to existence. It is not surprising that the pimp state, like any pimp, doesn’t like sex worker communities and organizations very much. Obvisously, they tend to challenge his authority and his oppressive power. They don’t want to be treated like objects who can’t speak for themselves.

A huge PR machinery has been put in place to present the Swedish pimp as a benevolent, feminist defender of human rights. They say that they “decriminalize” the “prostitutes, but not the clients.”+

They say they offer “exit” programs and, officially, the pimp state helps them find a “respectable” job, one about which the Swedes can smile and rejoyce. However, unofficially, this help is limited to very few sex workers — those who oppose the label “sex work” and confirm the image the Swedish pimp state has of “prostitutes”: Broken, “damaged” women in need of “moral” repair and a protector that decides for them. Those who do not conform to this image are, forgive me the metaphor, seen as evil demons to be banned from the reign.

I have also come to the conclusion that the Swedish pimp state is a sex police state. It’s a sex police state that ensures, under threat of state violence and punishment, that no woman negotiates sex for money. While this policy is publicly framed as “feminist”, it actually reproduces an old patriarchal logic: Sex with women has to be “free” for the (Swedish) man. It has to be imbued with love and passion, the emotional labour of female care which supposedly is free of any economic rationale. Any woman who asks for money — any sex worker, whore, prostitute — will face dire social consequences and be outcast– as has always been the case in patriarchal societies of the past (and the present!).

Until recently, a client could even rape a sex worker and still only be fined for what in the Swedish anti-labor rhetoric is described as the “purchase of sex”. After all, the Swedish pimp state publicly says that prostitution and rape are the same thing: Both are supposedly non-consensual. However, sex workers clearly negotiate what kind of sexual interaction they have for what amount of money, while a person that is raped has no say in what is being done to him or her. By blurring the lines of what it means to say “yes” and what it means to say “no” to sex to a degree that twists the experience of sex workers, the Swedes are playing a dangerous game.

The Swedish sex police state decides for the women (and men — who are rarely discussed) what their sexuel experience is and whether it should be punished. The women have no say in defining whether the sex they had was consensual or not. And in fact, the criterion is not consent, but money. And let me be clear that I am talking of adult women, not children. Either way, one is left wondering, how taking away the power to define consent from women is different from the attitude that defines the “rapist”.

As I see it, women’s sexual self-determination in Sweden has been curtailed by the state: They can only say “yes” to unpaid sex. And, it seems, relationship sex is clearly preferred over other types of sexual behavior. When women say “yes” to sex for money, their yes is invalidated. However, a sex worker can’t even say “no” to a client (or someone who poses as one), because obviously, in the Swedish rationale, being paid for sex already is akin being raped and, therefore, a prostitute can’t be raped. Sounds absurd? It is. Unfortunately, the lack of distinction between rape and sex work invariably leads to impunity of rape, while consensual sex work is punished more harshly than group rape of minors.

The Swedish pimp state also has some of its officials doing more than they should: Some do pay for sex. Some have sex with sex workers against their will, they extract sex from sex work. By not paying for sex, they technically act quite in line with the law, which prohibits paying for sex.

During the first decade of the Swedish prostitution law, a Swedish vice police chief, Göran Lindberg, was known for doing things like this. Even with minors. He presented himself like the biggest feminist and advocate of gender equality until he was caught and convicted in 2010 “for aggravated rape, assault, buying sex and procuring young girls for other sex buyers.” Whether corruption and crimes against sex workers by police officers have disappeared or whether the Swedes have simply become really good at covering up their own corruption and failures, is a question I am not in a position to answer. But anyone who has the rights of sex workers at heart should ask these questions.

The Swedish pimp state is pushing women into other labor segments. In doing so, he seems unable (or perhaps unwilling?) to think critically about the “yes” to other work performed by women, many of them migrants, under conditions of capitalism. The Swedish pimp state is pimping women from sex work into other exploitative industries, which are deemed more “useful” to Western societies like Sweden.

In Western countries, like Sweden, women are climbing career ladders, while other women, migrant women are needed to clean houses, care for children or the elderly. Despite the blatant socio-economic, racialized and gendered inequality that this “division of labour” exposes, the Swedish pimp state sees inequality only in sex work. Migrant men, too, are doing the work that Swedish men have long stopped doing.

One is left wondering whether Swedish anti-prostitution pimping is actually a labor market approach — one where those marginalized persons are directed (pimped and lured?) into unpleasant, undesired and often terrible jobs, with much exploitation happening every day. Migrants often work under harsh conditions in homes, on fields and in factories, some of them are trafficked and work under conditions of exploitation that deserve the label of “forced labor” or “trafficking”. They also often remain excluded from welfare systems. But they don’t get the same attention from the Swedish pimp state. True. No sex happens there…Well not quite. Migrant women workers are often raped on their workplace. But there is no money exchanging hands here, so the anti-trafficking ambassador doesn’t seem to care.

The Swedish ambassador against trafficking doesn’t claim that the legality of domestic work or agicultural labor increases trafficking and exploitation into these industries. He only condems the legality of work when it comes to sex work. Why? In my view: Because the Swedish pimp state is concerned about sexual discipline more than about labour rights or inequalities. Any kind of labor rights. Any inequality.

Either way, the Swedish pimp state seems to do exactly what a pimp does: He extracts money from sex work, he profits from sex work, while doing nothing to protect sex workers. I have also been told that the Swedish pimp state even takes the money earned by the hard work of sex workers — it was earned, after all, in connection with what Swedes consider a crime: The so-called “purchase of sex”. Once client and sex worker have given their due to the Swedish state for having engaged in illicit sex (sex for money), the Swedes celebrate this as yet another success in the battle against trafficking. But in fact, they are celebrating the fact that they have made the lives of sex workers more difficult, that the state has stolen their wages.

Privacy doesn’t exist in Sweden in these cases. Some clients are publicly shamed for their transgression. One feels thrown back centuries, when people engaging in the wrong kind of sex were paraded through the streets of villages and cities to be publicly derided and shamed. The Swedes see in this pillory the realization of “human rights” and “feminism”. Not sure with what arguments, since the pillory is historically quite the opposite.

True. The Swedish pimp state doesn’t coerce anyone into selling sex, like an individual pimp does. But individual pimps coercing people into selling sex continue to exist in Sweden. Traffickers exist as well. In fact, Sweden is in a very difficult position comparable to the Socialist countries of the past, which had claimed to have abolished prostitution with the introduction of Socialism. Of course, this wasn’t true.

Sweden tries to do the same thing arguing at every turn that prostitution has decreased and that there is no market for traffickers in Sweden. This is wishful thinking, very harmful wishful thinking. But most importantlly, as a historian, I feel thrown back decades to when the Soviet Union (and all other Socialist countries) asserted that there was no prostitution, there was no prostitution, there was no prostitution, there was no prostitution, there was no prostitution, there was no prostitution, there was no prostitution. That there was gender equality, etc. etc. etc. But of course there was prostitution. And there is in Sweden. And there was no gender equality in socialist countries.

And I am left wondering, whether the Swedish fairy tale of equality is actually just a publicity stunt.

The numbers in Sweden are low and the explanation for that is simple. The dilemma faced by Sweden is similar to the one faced by Socialist countries: If you want to claim that your model is successful in reducing or even abolishing prostitution, the statistics in this field have to remain low. But at the same time, you need to show that all the police units (which cost a lot of money) are actually needed. And so you need the crime to be visible to a certain extent, but never too much, so as not to challenge your public claim that you have solved (or nearly solved) the problem. Historians, like myself, know that the police has always had limited resources, often there have been police quotas for arrest in certain crime areas. Periods of intensified raids for prostitution were mostly connected to the political needs or public pressure. Rarely arrest rates reflected the actual extent of criminalied behavior. There is nothing to suggest that for Sweden it is not the same. Of course, they’ll deny it. If I were in their shoes, I would, too.

But back to sex workers and their labour: One could argue that the Swedish pimp state has effectively handed sex workers over to individual pimps. After all, individual sex work may not be penalized but under the conditions of criminalization of clients it is barely possible to find a work space without an intermediary, and thus, work legally. Since Sweden has criminalized landlords, all those persons who are in a position to provide a workspace are either already hardened criminals or, at least, willing to risk becoming one. The power these intermediaries and pimps have over sex workers is, obviously, great. And this is, arguably, the intention of the Swedish pimp state.

After all, the Swedish government report on their own law stated that the “negative effects of the ban that they describe must be viewed as positive from the perspective that the purpose of the law is indeed to combat prostitution” (p. 34). By making legal sex work impossible, the Swedish state is pushing sex workers into the hands of criminals. It is then only ironic that the Swedish pimp state every once in a while publicizes a raid against traffickers. Those traffickers have used their monopoly over the prostitution market that the Swedish pimp state has readily given to them.

The Swedish pimp model prohibits any kind of non-penal regulation of sex work. The so-called “Nordic Model” prohibits regulation — including the kind of regulation practiced in countries like Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand and parts of Australia. Everything relating to sex work is a crime in the “Nordic Model”. This also means that work environments cannot be regulated, they can only be shut down. In this sense, the Swedish pimp state actively works against the creation of safe working environments for sex work.

The Swedish pimp state actively works against sex workers who work together, for example, by sharing a flat as work space — as this is considered to be brothel keeping. The Swedish pimp readily uses millions of Euros to expand the police state to prevent paid sex. Sweden must be seen as a sex police state who wants to make sure women don’t trade sex for money. If they do so, despite the state’s heavy hand, they will be punished by terrible work environment, the exclusion from Swedish society (which for foreigners means deportation) and, if they publicly protest, by shaming them as “pimp lobbyists”.

Of course, the Swedish pimp state says he himself is quite the opposite of a pimp. He says that he’s doing this to support the human rights of the “prostituted women” — and yet, he does not think that these women have any rights or dignity as long as they sell sex. A proper, full-blown equal woman does not take money for sex, in this view. He says that he does this to prevent human trafficking — and yet, the Swedish pimp state has driven sex workers into the hands of criminal third parties, since independent sex work seems to be hardly possible in practice.

The Swedish pimp state penalizes paying a sex worker for his*her work and does not see how forcing someone into unpaid labor is not much better than the exploitation and wage theft by the traffickers that the Swedish state apparently wants to combat.

Or why else is it that the Swedish state does not fight trafficking in agriculture by penalizing the payment of wages?

The Swedish pimp state has a huge transnational network. It isn’t content with working at home to extract money from clients and free sexual labour from women. It creates networks abroad. It calls this a “Swedish feminist policy”. They send the ambassador against trafficking in other countries — including Germany — to make everyone learn about the new ways of exploiting sex workers, but without calling it that.

Of course, the rhetoric is about feminism, women’s rights and human rights, but sex workers are really not seen as equals and bearers of women’s and human rights in the ideology of the Swedish pimp state. They are bodies to be disciplined into the “right” kind of sex and the “right” kind of “capitalist” labor.

The Swedish anti-trafficking ambassador is travelling the world to encourage other countries to adopt the Swedish pimping model. Specifically, they target countries with legal prostitution rather than countries where sex workers are criminalized, like the United States. Obviously, decriminalizing sex workers is not a primary concern for the Swedes: Penalizing clients takes a clear precendence over keeping sex workers out of jail — this is clear when one observes what advocates of the “Nordich Model” want in the US.

This is why, last weekend, Per-Anders Sunesson was in Germany: He is on a global mission against legal sex work — a global mission against sex workers. One wonders, how different this missionary zeal is from the colonizing missionary zeal of other protestants and protestant countries of the past… But let’s not make this about religion. The Swedes say it’s about feminism, not religious sexual morality!

The Swedish pimp state does not speak to sex workers as equals. Supporters of the Swedish pimping method readily deflect from the exploitative nature of the Swedish pimping model by calling others, notably politicized sex workers, as “pimp lobby”. A smart move. Also, a hideous move that aims at killing any debate before it even started. After all, who wants to hear a pimp speak? Obviously, no one.

Sex workers who organize worldwide for the decriminalization of sex work and for respect for their labor have often been accused of being pimps. One must know, however, that the Swedish idea of “pimp” is very broad. Any intermediary is considered a pimp. What is normal for every other job, for instance, having a landlord renting workspace, using some sort of intermediary to find clients, having someone drive you to the clients, all this is seen as pimping. Sometimes, even handing out condoms to sex workers is seen as pimping. Other times, even just telling a sex worker about the work and safety strategies, is considered pimping. The Swedish pimp model basically turns every interaction with a sex worker into a pimping relationship, thus effectively distracting from its own pimping activity, the extraction of money from clients, the prohibition of creating any safe work environment for sex workers and, of course, multiple indirect punishments for sex workers.

I do not understand why anyone who has women’s and human rights at heart can with any good conscience support the Swedish approach to prostitution. As a women doing research on the politics of prostitution, I understand some of the rationales behind this approach. But I believe that the supporters of this pimping model are extremely shortsighted.

True. Historically, it was the prostitute who was targeted by laws on prostitution and, one could argue, that it is a step forward to shift the blame onto men. However, I personally think that it would be much better to abolish the “blame”. Full stop. There is no one to blame for engaging in consensual sex for money per se. If this relationship is coercive it is usually the lack of alternative means of income, e.g. due to limited access to welfare, coupling of welfare to being forced to find a job, that provides the conditions for coercion, and the same person finds similar, if not worse conditions in other labor intensive, location-bound industries such as agriculture, slaughter houses, home care or cleaning.

Historically, it would be a step forward not to penalize clients of sex workers, but to integrate sex workers as full members of our societies. Sex workers did not disappear with a Swedish pimping model, but they are worse off.

There are alternatives to the Swedish pimping model: Sex workers should have many options and possibilities of selling sex legally, of having access to legal workplace, of being integrated in our modern welfare states. Sweden does none of this. The Swedish pimp state takes away all of these options.

People claim that legal sex work creates the market for trafficking. Well, I challenge you to prove that, for example, in Thailand or the United States, where sex work is fully prohibited, there is no trafficking. I challenge you to prove the same for Sweden, France and Ireland.

And let me also tell you, dear Per-Anders Sunesson, that your theory is a hundred years old. The League of Nations addressed trafficking into prostitution by advocating for the abolition of state-regulated prostitution. Today, few countries regulate prostitution, because the League’s approach was implemented on nearly globally. And yet, trafficking has increased exponentially.

I would say, dear Per-Anders Sunesson, that trafficking increased because most states have implemented this ill-advised abolitionist approach to prostitution of the past. Most states have decided to not regulate sex work, but to push it into the hands of criminals and corrupt state and police officials.

The abolitionist approach hailed by the League of Nations and the early United Nations is not the solution to trafficking, but one of its main causes. The Swedish approach has just added one element — the penalization of the client. But that doesn’t make the abolitionist approach better — it actually brings it closer to “prohibition”. After all, most Swedes wouldn’t really have a problem with putting sex workers in jail, too. And that is the kind of societal change — a change towards sexism and hatred — that the Swedish prostitution law started. It is a development for the worse.

I challenge you to think about the kind of politics that you are promoting in the name of feminism and human rights, because I do not see in what way your Swedish pimp model is in any way feminist or human rights based.

However, I am quite sure that you are not free to think freely (the repetition is intentional) about these matters. You do not have a choice in your position. You’re a state official following orders. In that you may not be very different from the sex workers you think you’re saving. Except for the money, the prestige, and, of course, the power that you have and sex workers don’t. Just like a pimping relationship.

I encourage you to think about the analogy. And in case you every want to speak to me, we’ll do it in Sweden. You’ll have me invited with a proper email, with proper payment for my time and labour.

I want to tell the Swedes in Sweden why their “approach” is wrong, just like you want to tell the Germans in Germany why legal sex work is wrong. THAT is equality.

* I thank all the academics, sex workers and activists who have written about the Swedish approach before me.

** I am a researcher, but this is not a research piece. Per-Anders Sunesson doesn’t think there is any research on this topic anyway. So what’s the point of research?

PhD student #twitterstorians #histsex #humanrights #sexwork. I love typos & my views are mine. Also see @sexworkresearch