What do you know about the Nordic Model for regulating sex work? E&M-Author Antonia Frank takes a closer look at the realities of migrant sex workers in Sweden.
We often think of Nordic countries as progressive feminist wonderlands. In line with this public image, the Nordic Model promises to end demand for sex work and protect women. Under the Nordic Model, all forms of sex work are inherently seen as patriarchal violence against women perpetrated by men and abolishing sex work is considered a crucial contribution not only to the safety of sex workers, but towards less violence for all women.
But how does it aim to do that?
Through the following four main steps: 1. decriminalizing the selling of sex, 2. criminalizing the buying of sex, 3. criminalizing third-party involvement in the selling of sex, targetting mainly brothel owners and pimps, 4. providing safe exit services for sex workers who want to leave sex work. In 1999, Sweden was the first country that introduced this model under the Sex Purchase Act and since then, Norway, Finland, Canada, France and others have followed suit.
Criminalization of migrant sex workers
Proponents of the Nordic Model often emphasize that it protects vulnerable groups, for example young migrant women who are considered the ‘ultimate victims’ of human trafficking and the negative aspects of sex work. However, upon closer inspection, we see that it just as often harms the very groups it is supposed to protect.
For instance, in Sweden in particular, migrant sex workers are completely deprived of the supposed legal protection of the Nordic Model. Instead, selling sex is still criminalized for immigrants and can be a reason for deportation because it is considered ‘earning your living in a dishonest way’, according to a 2016 book by Jay Levy. This double standard is especially significant considering that 70% to 80% of sex workers in Sweden are migrants according to a 2009 report from TAMPEP. And this is no accident either: part of the reason the Nordic Model was even introduced in 1999 was the fear of sex workers and (with them) organized crime migrating to Sweden from the Eastern European countries that joined the EU in 2004. Therefore, migrant sex workers were not included in the decriminalization in 1999.
How the Nordic Model changed sex work
Whether this was effective in avoiding that phenomenon is questionable, to say the least. So far, the data on whether the Nordic Model is effective in decreasing sex work in Sweden has been inconclusive. Sex work has definitely moved away from the streets, but there is no sound data on the total amount of sex work in Sweden. It has also been a general trend for sex work to move to online platforms. Ironically, some migrant sex workers reported moving specifically to Sweden because of its unusually high payment rates for indoor sex work in a book by Jay Levy.
Health Services for migrant sex workers
This brings us to the other issue with the Nordic Model: insufficient social services. Services for sex workers in Sweden are usually geared towards helping sex workers exit sex work, but do not offer much else. When sex workers seek mental or physical health services and resources while wanting to stay in their line of work, they encounter the prejudice that they cannot have freely chosen their occupation according to a 2021 report from ‘Sex Work and Mental Health’. At the same time, sex workers’ problems are often blamed on their occupation and not taken seriously unless they quit. For Swedish sex workers this treatment is based on supposed histories of mental illness and difficult life experiences, while migrant sex workers are categorically considered the victims of human trafficking. However, that does not mean they will necessarily be treated with more compassion. For example in that same report, a Romanian woman who was a sex worker in Sweden recalled her boyfriend immediately being classified as a pimp by social services despite their consensual relationship.
On the other hand, if migrant sex workers do decide to leave sex work, it is almost impossible for them to stay in Sweden. Getting a work visa as an ‘unskilled’ worker requires sponsorship from the employer for six months and most employers do not want to make that commitment. Social services usually do not offer help with this process. Instead, all they can provide is a ticket to the sex workers home country, which is not an option for most migrant sex workers, be it for economic or personal reasons. Migrant sex workers’ difficult relationship with Swedish social services is also visible in how little they seek help. Only 30% of sex workers who come to the social services are not Swedish, while 70% to 80% of sex workers in total are migrants. This also means they endure mental and physical health issues as well as exploitation and violence for longer than their Swedish counterparts.
Relationship with the police
Migrant sex workers also reported bad experiences with the police in a 2018 study. The Swedish police is known for racially profiling potentially ‘illegal’ sex workers and checking the immigration status of the sex workers, when looking for buyers and third parties under the Sex Purchase Act. Specifically Nigerian sex workers reported more police checks and harassment than any other ethnic group.
This comes on top of issues with the police that concern all sex workers in Sweden, like forced evictions. There are cases where the Swedish police has revealed a sex worker’s identity to a landlord and forced an eviction of the sex worker by threatening the landlord with charges as a third party to ‘prostitution’. This creates unsafe living situations for sex workers as they might have to enter exploitative inofficial agreements to find a place to live or work.
A look into the future
So, to conclude with, Sweden is unfortunately not a progressive feminist wonderland. It is a flawed country with issues that need to be addressed instead of glossed over. It seems that Sweden has gotten so caught up in trying to eradicate ‘prostitution’ at all costs and ‘protect women’ in the future, it is ignoring the real people affected by it. Or even worse, it is willing to sacrifice migrant sex workers or current sex workers in general to a ‘feminist future’, whatever this might mean. However, one must ask what kind of better future can come from violence against and exclusion of vulnerable groups.
To create a sustainably better future the Swedish government must fix its hypocrisy in the present. It starts with the decriminalization of migrant sex workers, offering safe spaces to live and work for sex workers, training the police for interacting with sex workers and against racial profiling, offering economically viable exit services alongside non-judgemental mental and physical health resources, and most importantly listening to migrant sex workers whose voices have only been ignored so far.
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