Short Study Tour: Malmö & Göteborg

Happy Short Study Tour Week!!! This past week DIS students spent half their week across Western Denmark or Southern Sweden with their Core Course classes. To give a brief overview of the DIS academic system, your Core Course is a class at DIS that you’ve designated to be your main area of concentration while studying abroad, and you travel with this class twice—once for the Short Study Tour, and once for a Long Study Tour. During this week, you have no work or responsibilities to your other classes—you simply spend a week truly diving into your Core Course. My Core Course with DIS is Prostitution and the Sex Trade. For our Long Study Tour we’re headed to Amsterdam, but we just spent the past few days in Malmö and Göteborg in Southern Sweden, as well as Helsingør in Northern Denmark, and learning more about the sex trade in our background, within the city of Copenhagen.

I’m unsure what I anticipated for my trip, but I was extremely excited for my first (OK—technically second, because I went to Sweden with my host family the day before) proper trip out of the country. And while I didn’t get to see as much of Sweden (read: much of Sweden) as I hoped, I still had a really incredible experience. (In spite of the fact that our bus broke down on the side of the Swedish highway–the moment is captured below)

Our hike through the Swedish Wilderness 😉

Over the course of the week, we talked to the Swedish police, a representative from Noomi, a Christian organization that provides legal and emotional support to prostitutes, prostitution researchers, and a panel of people from Fuckforbundet and Rose Alliance, organizations designed to build community and support political activism and peer-to-peer education (aka by and for sex workers) about their rights. These two organizations are based in and centered around Sweden but do outreach and have members from across the world. While in Denmark, we took a trip to an exhibit at the Louisiana Museum of Art attentive to the idea of beauty standards’ relationship to capitalism, debriefed on our time in Sweden, and took a prostitution-oriented walking tour of Copenhagen. This post will focus specifically on my time in Sweden, as there’s simply too much to talk about to include both.

The Swedish and Danish Models of Prostitution

What was specifically interesting about our trip was that it allowed us to learn more about The Swedish Model of prostitution, policy which has been implemented in multiple countries throughout the world and is held in high esteem by the people in Sweden. Sometimes The Swedish Model is called “The Nordic Model”, but this is a misnomer, as Denmark and Sweden actually have quite different approaches to prostitution policy. Working in Sweden and Denmark over the course of the week also allowed us to work comparatively, studying the Danish and Swedish models. To sum it up, The Swedish Model is policy for prostitution which makes it illegal to buy sex but not illegal to sell sex—it criminalizes the person buying sex but not the person selling sex. The Swedish Model also frames prostitution as a gendered issue—insisting that gender equality, and the ideals of the Welfare State more broadly, cannot be fulfilled while men are legally allowed to demand sex from women for money (which also neglects the fact that there are plenty of male sex workers, that women are also capable of purchasing sex, and that non-binary people exist). It also tends to take on the so-called Radical Feminist perspective that women who are sex workers are so entrenched in the system of patriarchy that they do not realize that what they’re doing is hurting them, and that money for sex is not consensual sex at all but rape (several of our speakers actually used the word “brainwashed” and actively refused the idea of sex work as work, instead insisting that it can only be seen as patriarchal violence and abuse). The Danish Model, on the other hand, decriminalizes sex work for the buyer and seller of sex, but criminalizes brothels, and includes none of the gendered framing. Prostitution is instead seen as a social problem impacting everyone.

Malmö and Göteborg

Representatives From Noomi & Fuckförbundet

While in Malmö and Göteborg, we spoke with the police and Noomi first, who tended to be in favor of The Swedish Model, citing how it has made prostitution less visible and thus, less prevalent in their society. They shamed Denmark for allowing such an open prostitution presence on their street (never something I’ve noticed, but perhaps this occurs in areas I don’t go to or I’m simply not picking up on it). They discussed how the vast bulk of prostitutes are migrant workers, who are easily exploited because they do not know the language when they arrive, are “illegally” in the country so they do not benefit from the Welfare State, and typically agree to pay smugglers exorbinantly high amounts of money to get to Sweden, thus plunging themselves into debt. While they illuminated sex workers as a particularly vulnerable group, they did it with a mix of respect for cultural differences in some instances (Noomi did a better job of this), but occasionally, made a spectacle of religious ceremonies and beliefs that Nigerian migrant workers held. What I did admire about these organizations was the honesty of the speakers—Noomi representatives acknowledged that it is extremely difficult to help former sex workers find other equally lucrative work, or ways to stay in the country if they are migrants. The police also noted how difficult it is to get human trafficking victims (a term they use interchangeably with sex workers such that it is difficult to tell how the person in question actually identifies) to cooperate with the police because they are unable to offer them asylum, the ability to stay in the country after their trial, or much of anything. But both speakers were steadfast in their belief in the model as a whole. To me, those organizations gave us a sense of the extent to which The Swedish Model is believed in (both by the police and some social workers). It also made the reality that the vast majority of sex workers are migrants, and that power dynamics clearly impact who gets involved in prostitution and who is criminalized for it, much clearer.

Fuckförbundet and the Rose Alliance

Our conversation with representatives from Fuckförbundet and the Rose Alliance was absolutely the highlight of the trip. The representatives were not only funny and powerful speakers, but gave a fresh perspective on sex work—providing a degree of nuance that the other two presentations lacked. They discussed the idea that most prostitutes are “survival prostitutes”—they work to survive, not because they are particularly passionate about their work. But that’s the same as so many other people in the world—not everyone loves their jobs, but in a capitalist society, you work to survive. It’s also a kind of labor that people who are not “legally” in the country can still perform without papers or an expansive knowledge of the Swedish language. The speaker from the Rose Alliance also made note of the terrible, exploitative working conditions in many of the more “respectable” factory jobs which are a logical next step for migrant workers—and the fact that such jobs pay significantly less than sex work. While placing their work in the context of a capitalist system, and calling for an end to stigma, they also were quick to add that the stigma they face and the nature of their work makes their jobs very unique ones, which mandates specific worker’s rights—decriminalization of their profession, specific efforts to end stigma, counseling/mental health services, and free anonymous STI testing, among others. When asked about holding her feminism and activism alongside her profession, the speaker from The Rose Alliance made a compelling case for the idea that “all labor is gendered labor”—not just sex work, but nursing, serving in the military, teaching—all of these professions have gendered associations. All the speakers also discussed how The Swedish Model hasn’t made sex work safer. By criminalizing their buyers, they explained that the model has made it harder for sex workers to screen clients before they meet them because things have to be kept so secretive. The Swedish Model also bars landlords from renting homes or apartments to sex workers, legally implicating them as a pimp if someone is selling sex out of their property. This means that many sex workers are selling sex not out of their own homes, but going directly to clients, which is one of the most dangerous ways to sell sex. In essence, everything around sex work is illegal except for the existence of the sex worker, such that the sex worker is constantly navigating the consequences of criminality in spite of the fact that selling sex itself is not technically criminalized.

These panels left me with a great deal to think about, and a multiplicity of competing perspectives and statistics to weigh in my head all at once. But at the same time, it also made something I had already implicitly believed so clear: the morality of sex work isn’t the question we’re asking. We cannot pretend that sex workers do not exist because they make us uncomfortable or threaten our understandings of pure womanhood or sexual virtue. There is so much exploitation in the world—we should be combatting the reasons why people feel as though sex work is their best option and creating equitable laws that keep sex workers as safe as possible. Whether or not you agree with sex work as a principle is irrelevant. It’s creating policy that keeps sex workers safe, that is designed FOR sex workers (with the help of sex worker’s input and perspective), not for a populace that stigmatizes sex work.

Being able to hear from people whose livelihoods are impacted by this policy—as sex workers, the groups that police them, or the groups that encourage them to leave the industry, was incredible. The energy, emotion, and stakes of everything became so apparent to me, as did the need for policymakers to do their job and design policy which speaks to the needs of the people, the needs of the effected, and the pursuit of a more equitable society.  

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