It shouldn’t even need to be pointed out that legal efforts to destroy the sex industry inevitably affect the lives and work of sex workers. Sweden’s extensive set of laws and restrictions include the forfeiture of rental flats and rooms used for sex work, the forcible placement of sex workers under the age of 21 in state care, and the denial of entry to foreigners with residence permits if they are suspected of sex work. Police stake out sex workers’ homes and workplaces, clandestinely film them, and subject them to invasive searches. Sex workers are often forced to testify in court, but have the rights of neither victim nor accused.
Because the tax office will not accept sex work as a business, sex workers are compelled to lie, running the risk of missing out on social insurance benefits or of receiving arbitrarily inflated tax bills. And health services, counselling, and further education available to sex workers generally require a commitment to exiting the sex industry.
All of the above obstacles operate in tandem with the criminalisation of clients, which brings still more perils to sex workers. With some clients deterred by the legislation, the remaining ones are in a better position to haggle for cheaper prices, with the result that sex workers may actually have to do business with more clients in order to make ends meet. (To those commentators who view all sex work as compensated rape, this should surely be cause for concern.) Afraid of attracting police attention, it’s the clients who set the terms of where business will take place, leading sex workers to operate from more isolated and dangerous locations. And when there are fewer clients to choose from, the most desperate sex workers will be targeted by those seeking services which would ordinarily be turned down. Such conditions are ideal for predators, and with peer support networks disrupted by excessive police surveillance, sex workers are less able to organize with one another, missing out on opportunities to share crucial safety information.
The Swedish government’s official evaluation of the laws, published in 2010, declared that the negative effects reported by sex workers “must be viewed as positive from the perspective that the purpose of the law is indeed to combat prostitution.” By this logic, anything which makes sex workers’ lives harder is fine. The authorities’ commitment to tackling violence against women is seriously called into question by this callous statement. And given that one of the report’s overt aims was to present the Swedish model as successful, this evaluation is incompatible with ethical standards of research.