The law on prostitution is about to change. Whether this will be for the better or the worse, however, remains to be seen.
Former Home Office Minister Fiona MacTaggart is calling for new legislation based on that implemented in Sweden in 1999, which criminalises the men who buy sex rather than the women who sell it. The call for a review of prostitution laws has been supported by leading Labour MPs, while deputy leader Harriet Harman has defined prostitution as violence against women.
At the moment, the buying and selling of sex is not illegal in the UK, only certain forms in which it is carried out, such as street soliciting and brothel keeping. The Swedish Model would change this, outlawing the buying of sex under any conditions.
It’s nothing new for sex workers to find themselves on the wrong side of British law and the victims of state repression masquerading as the regulation of “vice”. What makes the recent call for the introduction of the Swedish Model interesting, however, is that it is being touted as the feminist alternative to the existing laws which unfairly make the sex workers themselves liable for prosecution. Instead, it is claimed, the Swedish Model will protect the women working in prostitution while targeting the real perpetrators of violence and exploitation — the men who buy their services.
The anti-trafficking organisation the Poppy Project and many leading feminist campaigners against violence against women also support the proposals for this new legislation.
It is worth noting, however, that the same MPs claiming to be so concerned about sex workers in the context of the Swedish Model debates, also just voted for the government’s Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill which further criminalises prostitution and requires that street workers be subject to forced “rehabilitation” or face imprisonment.
It’s easy to see how the Swedish Model acquired its feminist appeal. The idea of finally turning the tables on the men who benefit from an undoubtedly exploitative industry, but who have up until now walked away scot-free from police raids and government crack-downs, is admittedly rather enjoyable. However, it is also clear that the criminalisation of clients would indirectly impact upon sex workers too, in some cases making their work even more dangerous than it is under existing laws.
As a result, the International Union of Sex Workers, the English Collective of Prostitutes, the Safety First Coalition (set up in 2006 after the Ipswich murders) and the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe all oppose the Swedish Model. They claim that women working with clients who are worried abut arrest will have less time to carry out basic safety precautions. Street workers will be deterred from working in more public and better lit areas and will have less time to assess the client beforehand.
Those working indoors will find it harder to find rented accommodation from which to work and will be put off working with other girls for fear of attracting too much attention. The laws effectively make the sex workers responsible for protecting their clients from arrest, or otherwise risk loosing custom and their means to earning a living.
Pye Jacobson, a founding member of Sex Workers and Allies in Sweden, who has been organising for sex workers’ rights since 1994, says that the Swedish laws have forced sex work underground, increasing the amount of pimping and middle-men. At a recent meeting on the proposed legislation, held in Parliament and sponsored by John McDonnell MP and the Labour Representation Committee women’s caucus, Jacobson said: “Now we have internet pimps, who arrange where we can put our ads for a ridiculous amount of money, and apartment pimps because we are not allowed to rent an apartment and work from it.”
Perhaps most worryingly, she also claimed that sex workers were now less likely to report violence to the police, since this would inevitably entail an investigation into their working lives and result in the closure of the brothels where they worked or heavier policing of red light districts. Whereas under the old laws male clients would sometimes report cases of violence from other clients or pimps, now none of them are willing to risk arrest in order to look out for the girls whose services they use.
Worst affected by the Swedish model have been illegal migrant workers in the Swedish sex industry. Those without papers are unable to access government initiatives to provide women with an alternative to the, now illegal, job of prostitution. With no choice but to keep working in an illegal industry they have no recourse to the law should they be subject to violence and, under the pressures of criminalisation, they are increasingly hidden away and isolated from other sex workers with whom they might act collectively to improve their conditions. The irony of this is that proponents of the Swedish Model loudly proclaim their aim to use it to combat sex trafficking. But the use of the term “trafficked” as a word for migrant sex workers of any kind is telling, and brings us to the heart of what much of the support for the Swedish model is really about — immigration control.
“Trafficking” has become an incredibly powerful discourse amongst both MPs and feminists. Although the term is rarely defined in any precise manner, it conjures up images of women kidnapped, forcibly transported to another country where they is imprisoned and forced to have sex with men. This is certainly the story told by the government-funded Poppy Project and “The Truth Isn’t Sexy” anti-trafficking organisations, whose publicity borders on the pornographic in its accounts of women raped, beaten and “forced to have sex with up to fifty men a day”
All prostitution has increasingly come to be equated with trafficking, while all trafficking and migration within the sex industry is viewed as a synonym for slavery and sexual abuse.
The government’s statistics on trafficking have been criticised for lumping together all illegal migrants working in the sex industry, whether they came to the UK of their own volition, paid someone to bring them here, or were kidnapped off the street, held hostage and forced into slavery. Sex worker rights organisation have also criticised the fact that even when such women have been “rescued” in police raids their most likely fate is deportation. Creating panic about “trafficked women” thus provides a moral justification for the government’s draconian immigration policies, and a useful guise under which to step up the policing of migrant workers.
The IUSW and the ECP argue that of course the government should seek to prevent slavery, sexual abuse and rape, but it is counter-productive to associate these issues especially with the sex industry (it is often ignored that many trafficked women also work in domestic service or in agriculture), and that further criminalisation of prostitution will not solve these problems and might make them worse. Moreover, the trafficking debate is premised on a particular construction of all sex workers as victims and on the belief, adhered to by Harriet Harman and many radical feminists, that even consenting sex work is violence against women.
The Swedish model is based on a similar set of assumptions. But the recent debates about changes to the law on prostitution have also been revealing of feminists themselves and the kind of feminism that is currently driving the government’s wider policies on women and establishment women’s rights organisations.
Many of the “Blair’s Babes”, the female Labour MPs who support the Swedish model and have contributed to the trafficking debates, proudly call themselves feminists. Moreover, most of them became politicised in an context in which they would have identified as socialist-feminists. In calling for the criminalisation of men who buy sex they see themselves as concerned to protect economically underprivileged women from violence and exploitation, a desire that is in keeping with a broadly socialist-feminist perspective.
This causes me to pause to reflect upon what I mean when I call myself a socialist-feminist and how this might differ from the feminism of, say, Harriet Harman. Feminism in Britain has a rich and very complex history — drawing on a variety of political and intellectual traditions, including Christian morality, social purity and imperialism. Even those women in the labour movement who sought to fuse their support for women’s rights with their commitment to working-class solidarity or socialism inherited many of the more problematic feminist ideas about the need to “protect” women from male violence and male sexuality.
Thus, even today we find ourselves in a strange situation in which Labour MPs (who have at least a notional commitment to the principle of organised labour) and many trade unionist women, deny other women, i.e. those working as sex workers, the right to work and reject their attempts to organise against exploitation as a betrayal of the sisterhood. This kind of socialist feminism — or rather social-democratic feminism — is simply a case of bolting together two separate traditions: [male] workers rights’ on the one hand, [middle-class] women’s rights on the other. At times it leads to some strange inconsistencies.
For me, if the term “socialist-feminist” is to mean anything, it should be an attempt to use the one political analysis to illuminate and transform the other. Socialist feminism should be about looking at the ways in which the capitalist system oppresses women as well as workers, and women as workers, and about how gender power relations enhance and interconnect with economic power relations.
Surely the socialist principle of workers’ self-organisation is about empowerment from below rather than top-down philanthropic endeavours, and the belief that the oppressed have the ability to fight their exploitation rather than permanently exist as the victims of those more powerful than themselves. A socialist feminist perspective therefore, should encourage us to analyse exploitation in the sex industry from this perspective and to approach prostitutes as workers rather than victims.
This does not mean ignoring the poverty that compels the majority of sex workers to earn their living in this way, or the violence that many sex workers face, or imbalance of power that potentially exists between a sex worker and her client. It does mean, however, that we need to face up to the fact that criminalisation — no matter how well intentioned — will not work.