The government 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 government has also introduced a Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill which further criminalises prostitution and requires that street workers be subject to forced “rehabilitation” or face imprisonment.
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.
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 work from rented premises 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 losing custom and their means of survival.
Anti-trafficking organisations such as the Poppy Project and many leading feminist campaigners against violence against women also support the proposals for this new legislation. Yet, in Sweden those 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.
“Trafficking” is a term that is rarely defined in any precise manner. But it conjures up images of women kidnapped, forcibly transported to another country where they is imprisoned and forced to have sex with men.
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 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, and that further criminalisation of prostitution will not solve these problems and might make them worse. Moreover, the trafficking debate centres on the idea all sex workers as victims — consenting sex work is “violence against women”.