We are extremely disappointed and saddened to note that Housmans bookshop is committed to hosting an event promoting Kajsa Ekis Ekman's book “Being and Being Bought”, despite several complaints from sex workers and their allies. Ekman has gone on record supporting the “Swedish model” of sex work legislation, criminalising the purchase of sex, and it is clear that she views this as a logical (and desired) outcome of the arguments in her book.
Firstly, we should be clear that the Swedish model demonstrably endangers sex workers and makes their working conditions more difficult. Under the Swedish model, criminalised clients are less likely to give their real names, are less willing to negotiate service in well-lit public places, and are more likely to negotiate services via a third party, thereby handing power to potentially abusive managers. For instance, the Swedish police themselves report that the number of Thai massage parlours offering sexual services around Stockholm increased from 90 to 250 between 2009 and 2012. Even if the law works on its own terms, i.e. by reducing the number of clients, this limits the choices available to sex workers, potentially forcing them to see abusive or disrespectful clients they would otherwise turn away, or perform services they otherwise wouldn't. By giving the criminal law remit over their lives, the Swedish model brings highly marginalised people further into contact with the police, immigration authorities and other agents of state violence. Any form of criminalisation further distances sex workers from providers of health services, including safe sex provision and drug treatment. This is why major health organisations like UNAIDS and the Lancet have come out in favour of full decriminalisation. Finally, criminalisation of clients is often in practice paired with other measures to make life difficult for sex workers. For instance, under the banner “Operation Homeless” (the name is a rare instance of honesty from the state), Norwegian police have systematically attempted to have sex workers evicted from rental apartments. This is despite evidence that indoor work is far safer for sex workers than working outdoors.
Proponents of the Swedish model are notoriously disingenuous about facts and statistics. To cite just one recent example, in the parliamentary debate on November 4th about the proposed Modern Slavery Bill, Fiona Mactaggart MP asserted that around 80% of women who sell sex are “trafficked” or coerced. She has been quoting this figure since 2008, despite its obvious implausibility and her failure to provide any supporting evidence for it. The most likely source for the figure is in fact a study which found that 80% of sex workers in working flats in London (an immigrant city) were foreign. So her use of this figure reflects not only an unwillingness to consider evidence that would refute her predetermined ideological position, but also a conflation of any sort of migration to work in the sex industry with “trafficking”. This type of conflation is, sadly, typical and reflects deep-seated xenophobic attitudes around migration.
Ekman’s is an example of a long line of avowedly “feminist” literature that seeks to deny the agency of sex workers. Much is made of the utterly trivial point that a sex worker only has sex with a client in return for payment, as if this does not characterise all work under capitalism. We are presented with a false dichotomy: either we must be good neoliberals and defend all work under capitalism; or we must accept that sex work is uniquely exploitative. We argue that all work under capitalism is exploitative, but also that we must respect the demands of workers themselves as they struggle to improve their condition. Why, we ask, are other workers assisted in their struggles against capitalists and the state, whereas sex worker are alleged to suffer false consciousness - or a “split self” - and stand in need of rescue by the state? These “feminists” emphasise the emotional or affective labour a sex worker undertakes in pleasing a client, but are strangely less indignant about other jobs - particularly jobs undertaken by poor, often migrant, women - that involve affective labour. One is left with the suspicion that middle class Western women single out sex work because they personally benefit from the affective labour of domestic workers, care workers and waitresses, and are satisfied for these particular relations of exploitation to continue.
Housmans has justified the decision to host this event on the grounds that it “prides itself on being non-aligned” and has also hosted events “that have made the positive case for sex-workers rights and the legalisation of prostitution”. It invites those who disagree with Ekman’s views to attend and express their objections. This is frankly abhorrent and implies a false equivalence. Sex worker led organisations around the world have for years been unanimously and forcefully making the demand for full decriminalisation, for all the reasons cited above. There is not a single organisation led by current sex workers that supports the legal measures Ekman endorses. Moreover, sex workers have defended their rights in the face in the face of economic marginalisation, state violence, and stigma. In providing a platform to Ekman, Housmans amplifies the voice of the oppressor and invites the oppressed to meekly attend and voice their objections. This is hardly a “radical” stance!
Once again, we call on Housmans to deny a platform to Kajsa Ekis Ekman. There is no “discussion” to be had here: sex workers have, collectively, made their stance on the criminalisation of clients and their status as helpless “victims” quite clear. Either you stand in solidarity with them, or you stand with the oppressor.
The book launch at Housmans was brought to wider attention by number of Housmans bookshop perusers, as well as independent researcher Laura Agustin who (as well as many sex workers' rights organisations) was lied about and attacked by Ekman. You can read an excellent piece by Laura Agustin on some of the problematic issues at hand here