The new publication, from sex worker-led organisation the Sex Worker Open University (SWOU), is being launched simultaneously in both English and French. Titled ‘Swedish Abolitionism as Violence Against Women’, it pulls together an overview of researcher Dr Jay Levy’s work in Sweden, interviewing hundreds of key actors, including sex workers, social workers, police, and policy-makers. The results are striking. Contrary to Sweden’s self-presentation on the international stage as a bastion of feminist ‘care’ for those who sell sex, Dr Levy found that the Swedish model institutionalises stigma - with disastrous results for sex workers. He found:
· An astonishing degree of opposition to harm reduction. Harm reduction is seen to legitimise and endorse sex work, potentially “encouraging” people to remain in sex work where they would otherwise have quit. As a result of this belief, the Stockholm Prostitution Unit does refuses to distribute condoms to sex workers, leading to sex workers having to share condoms amongst themselves, and to reports of shoplifting for condoms around the key street-sex work area. Sweden keeps no data on HIV prevalence amongst sex workers.
· Service providers describe treating sex workers with contempt, and sex workers report feeling humiliated and stigmatised. One service provider dismissed what sex workers were telling her as an “act”, stating: “… who wants to buy a sad whore? I mean prostitution is about playing a role, I am being what you want me to be, I am horny, I am happy ... they would never get any buyers if they were crying in the streets right, but it’s all an act. And that is the difficult thing about interviewing people who are active in prostitution and everything”. Or as a sex worker put it, “when I go home from them, I was crying, and I was feeling like, ‘oh my god, what a bad dirty people I am’”.
· Service provision to sex workers is dependent on a sex worker stating that they’re a victim who needs help to exit. No one else can receive services. There is no anonymous health care available to sex workers in Sweden, and, as we’ve already established, no condom provision. The Swedish government is open about stating that the law is supposed to cut off sex workers’ incomes: much has been made of Sweden’s “exiting services”, but the replacement income support programmes that were supposed to be provided, have never appeared. The Swedish government has no idea how many sex workers have used the “exiting” programmes set up, because it does not keep data on this.
The publication is in memory of Jasmine Petite, a Swedish sex worker who was murdered by her violent ex-partner this summer. She had tried to tell the authorities that he was violent, but because she was a sex worker, they refused to believe her, labelling her “self-harming” and unable to know what was best. Despite her warnings, Swedish authorities continued to award him custody of their children, and it was on a visit to her children that he fatally stabbed Jasmine. Her senseless death stands as testament to the people who are “collateral damage” to Sweden’s carefully constructed international image of ‘progressive feminism’.
In the immediate aftermath of Jasmine’s murder, sex workers across the world mobilised in an unprecedented uprising of pain, anger, grief and frustration. Three days previously, another sex worker – Dora Ozer, a trans woman in Turkey – had also been murdered, made vulnerable by transphobic anti-sex work laws that meant she was unable to work safely. In response to the murders of Jasmine and Dora, sex workers and allies held protests and vigils in 36 cities, on four continents and both hemispheres. We are still thinking of both Jasmine and Dora. This new publication continues on what Jasmine did in life – speaking of the damage and harm of the ‘Swedish model’; speaking truth to power.
The Sex Worker Open University’s new publication lifts the lid on the gap between Sweden’s self-mythologizing - and what actually happens to those that State deems undesirables.