A surprisingly mixed crowd gathered on the 13th of October in Dublin at the Department of Justice for a conference to discuss the future of Irish prostitution policy and law.
I came from Sweden as one of the critics of the Swedish model, and in particular the law that criminalized purchase of sex, a law that has been intensively marketed as a success around the world. It is also at the center of the prostitution debate in Ireland. The task was to support and if possible voice the critique and point out the absence of evidence behind any such claim.
The public debate in Ireland certainly seems to be largely driven by the anti-prostitution campaign ‘Turn Off the Red Lights’ (TORL) – strikingly similar to the Swedish debate.
There’s of course much to be said about each of the different arguments and claims used to support messages from TORL and its counterpart In Sweden, but focusing on the sex buyers law actually shows how evidence and solid conclusions are not at the heart of modern anti-prostitution campaigns. It’s something else, a political agenda blending itself with the usual stigma surrounding women in prostitution.
The law was implemented without consulting with sex workers. The official evaluation of the law in 2010 – the so called Skarhed report – exemplified scientific sloppiness, and was riddled with unfounded claims, conclusions by confusion, and displayed an astonishing absence of sex workers voices yet again. To ask how the law is working without asking those that are affected by it is of course blatantly ignorant. It also makes the report useless as an evaluation.
Not only has the Swedish sex buyers law been marketed – with the aid of the Skarhed report – as a law that has the ability to decrease the demand for sexual services and scare off traffickers, it actually claims it doesn’t harm people in prostitution. None of the claims that are attributed to the Swedish model has been proven, and both the law in itself and the Skarhed report are highly disputed by experts and researchers in the field, and by the most important voices: the sex workers themselves. Lack of data and the outright misuse of comparative data is one of the major concerns.
The report should be regarded as a national embarrassment, and even more so when it is marketed as if no important critique has happened.
With all this in mind I naturally went to the meeting with the fear that the Swedish model would in general terms be regarded as the good and nice way to make prostitution go away. I was wrong, it turned to be quite balanced.
Of all the speakers only three speakers were in favor of the Swedish law, two of them directly connected to the TORL- campaign, and a Swedish police officer whose obvious duty it was to present the law and evaluation as we are used to, namely without any hint of critique.
The sex worker perspective was presented by Pye Jakobsson who was invited to speak on behalf of Rose Alliance and presented an ongoing survey among sex workers in Sweden: where many of them claimed they were worse off now after the law. Also Teresa Whitaker, researcher, spoke on behalf of SWAI (Sex Workers Alliance Ireland) and spoke of the need for a harm reduction focus.
In the midst of this I took the opportunity to directly address the Swedish police officer – to be able to give a few summarized critical points in the Skarhed report. And finally to stress that it is important to listen to the sex workers, and also that drug users and sex workers have much in common when it comes to harm reduction: they will need to address more than just “prostitution”.
Prostitution stirs up emotions and much heated debates and discussions, moral judgments all too often take the upper hand. That makes it even more important for policy makers to sort out the known from the unknown. No matter of how we feel and what moral values we harbor, the real and difficult question is how to formulate a policy that makes sense and doesn’t harm sex workers. If the idea is to help and protect, listening to what sex workers have to say and taking that fully into account must be central. This is exactly where Sweden went wrong from start.
Sweden is stuck (for now) with a law that is harmful to those it was said to protect, and disempowerment instead of empowerment. Sweden’s policy makers display ignorance and indifference to sex workers. I hope Ireland’s policy makers are wiser, and that is the impression I got after attending the conference in Dublin. I hope I am right.