Book Review: “Sex, Lies & Statistics” by Dr. Brooke Magnanti

The biggest uphill battle for advocates of sex workers’ rights and dignity is the constant barrage of bogus research and misrepresentation on the part of radical “feminists” and right-wing religious fanatics. Sex workers and their allies have had to comb through the Internet, finding bits and pieces here and there, like scroungers in a prison camp gathering what meager resources are available for survival and eventual escape. Imagine you’re such a scrounger, and you come across a treasure trove of maps, blueprints and other documents providing vital intelligence for the escape committee.

Brooke Magnanti’s book is just such an invaluable trove of information. She dissects the falsehoods of the “rescue industry” being peddled as research, and presents solid evidence that the best path towards assuring safety and human rights for people in commercial sex is full decriminalization. Skilled in both writing and scientific acumen, her work is both thorough and accessible, critiquing and dismantling her opposition, while providing solid evidence for her case.

She begins in the first two chapters at the unproven assumptions and sloppy studies used to “prove” negative effects of pornography, strip clubs, and even “sexualized” imagery in mainstream media. Chapters 3 through 6 are devoted to distinguishing the various legal models around prostitution, demonstrating the practical and ethical failures of the various forms of legalization and criminalization, especially the “Swedish model” and its fallacious “end demand” ideology. Her overview of the history of prostitution in the 19th century American West shows how commercial sex provided many women with economic independence, even the wherewithal to help build their communities. She shines a skeptical light on the claims of “anti-trafficking” organizations, takes aim at various prohibitionist leaders – Melissa Farley, Julie Bindel, and Swanee Hunt of Demand Abolition – revealing their ruthless machinations and profiteering at the expense of sex workers and their families. Chapter 7 is a transcript of her appearance with Paris Lees before the UK parliament’s Home Affairs Select Committee in 2016, bookended by her observations and commentary.

“Sex, Lies & Statistics” is the book for anyone who needs to sort fact from fiction regarding sex work. Get it, read it, and share it!

Advertisements

If You Think “End Demand” is a “Progressive” Program, You Need to Read This

People who label themselves political or social progressives like to think of themselves as both forward-thinking and freedom-loving. That has not always been the case, however. Progressives have at times been divided on certain issues, just as they are today over sex workers’ rights. Those who currently favor the so-called “end demand” policies first instituted by Sweden in 1999 (hence its nicknames of “Swedish model” and “Nordic model”) follow a basic logic of social engineering:

  1. X is bad for society.
  2. If X were eliminated, it would benefit society.
  3. Therefore, government should institute policies for eliminating X.

Where this logic fails is in identifying “X” in utterly simplistic ways. Alcohol, for example, was considered “bad for society,” leading to failed experiments in prohibition which increased crime, thus making things worse for society. Homosexuals were (and in many places still are) branded as harmful deviants, subject to criminal penalties and dubious cures.

Progressives forget that, from the late 19th century until well past the end of World War II, there was a movement dedicated to improving humanity through a series of programs, all justified by the mantle of science. In fact, primitive forms of this form of social engineering had been practiced in ancient societies, and supported by philosophers like Plato. The ideas behind this organized movement began with an eminent scientist, motivated by his cousin Charles Darwin, and were promoted in many countries in Europe, the Americas, and Australia. In the United States, feminists and other progressives embraced the movement, leading to the adoption of laws in many states and the Federal government. In Great Britain, they found support across political lines, from conservatives like Winston Churchill to members of the Fabian Society. Sweden adopted elements of the movement’s agenda as part of the folkhemmet envisioned by Social Democrats and other reformers. Of course, the movement did have its critics, from public intellectuals like G. K Chesterton to notable scientists like Franz Boas and J. B. S. Haldane. Still, many embraced the ideas of the movement, even after witnessing its most brutal implementation in Nazi Germany.

That movement was eugenics.

Sir Francis Galton first conceived of the idea that, if animals could be selectively bred for certain traits, then the same principle ought to be applied to humans. He also suggested that those considered unfit “could find a welcome and a refuge in celibate monasteries or sisterhoods,” and that prospective immigrants should be screened for their potential fitness (thus anticipating policies to be enacted in the United States, Australia, and other countries). While he was motivated by Darwin’s ideas of natural selection, his illustrious cousin did not openly embrace his views; indeed, his writings indicated that he preferred that such choices be left to individuals rather than the state. But others picked up where Galton left off, and started a worldwide eugenics movement to improve the human race, whether by positive means (e.g., “Fit Family” competitions) or negative ones (compulsory sterilization of the mentally ill and “feeble-minded”).

A vocal minority raised serious questions. They worried about who was to decide whether someone was “fit” enough to breed, and how. They raised the point that many supposed weaknesses were not inheritable at all. They pointed to outstanding intellects and artists who also exhibited supposedly congenital weaknesses. G. K. Chesterton argued that the vague definitions of unfitness could very well lead to an unjust imposition of conformity: “Every tramp who is sulk, every labourer who is shy, every rustic who is eccentric, can quite easily be brought under such conditions as were designed for homicidal maniacs.”

Sure enough, eugenics programs were being implemented to rationalize exclusion of racial minorities, forced sterilization of “degenerates,” presumption of guilt in criminal cases based on pseudoscientific theories, and other violations of human rights. Sex workers were especially victimized by these programs, as prostitution and other “lewd and lascivious behavior” was considered a sign of degeneracy, leading to governments on both sides of the Atlantic including them in their compulsory sterilization programs. When the Nazis were questioned about the barbaric measures they took to achieve their goal of “racial purity,” they tried to argue that the only differences from the eugenics programs being implemented in countries like Sweden and the United States was a matter of scale.

Nowadays, many self-described progressives are so horrified at the idea of eugenics that it leads them to be skeptical about everything from reproductive surrogacy to genetically modified foods. They need to remember that their ideological predecessors were some of the biggest supporters of this failed program – and that the same simplistic logic behind it is now being used to promote the cruel failure of the Swedish model and other prohibitionist policies against sex workers.

The Problem with Moderates

Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

I’ve dealt before with friends and acquaintances who, relatively uninformed about sex work issues, would express their support for legalization, beginning a conversation about how that differed from decriminalization, and why the latter was preferable. Usually, the results were either:

  • The person’s idea of “legalization” was actually decriminalization.
  • The person didn’t know that the regulations which they thought were “reasonable” actually caused more harm than good.
  • The person only had a general understanding, but once they were more informed, embraced decrim.

Then there are the “moderates” …

They start by agreeing that criminal prohibition doesn’t work. They want an alternative to that. But they think decrim “goes too far” and may cause even more problems. No, they argue, we have to mandate testing for STIs, and keep the pimps at bay, and maybe even some kind of “Swedish Model Lite” where we just ticket the clients instead of throwing them in jail or making them go to “johns schools” …

They think legalization is some sort of acceptable “middle of the road” solution. Much like moderates on the marriage equality issue who thought “civil unions” would somehow solve the problem. Not a temporary bridge to our ultimate goal, as pragmatists like myself viewed it. They thought it was a permanent solution because, well, marriage is for heterosexuals to have children, and while gay people should have protections, it’s not the same thing …

That’s the major difference between moderates and pragmatists. It’s not whether a compromise is viewed as temporary or permanent. It’s the reason why moderates want it to be permanent: They are unable to get past many of the prejudices which led to the problem in the first place.

When it comes to sex work issues, moderates want mandatory testing because they still see sex workers as spreading disease. They want laws against pimping because they still think no one would actually choose to do sex work. They don’t think sex workers should have any input in the decision-making process around the laws and policies that affect them because they doubt that sex workers have the competence to make good decisions in the first place. And actually pay attention to what sex workers have to say? Oh, heaven forbid!

For all their good intentions, moderates still cling to a shallow understanding of sex work issues, rooted in paternalistic attitudes. That doesn’t mean they can’t be educated. It just means they need to do more work, not only about the facts behind sex work, but how they view the people involved in it.

Purity is a Luxury That Activists Cannot Afford

When we began working for marriage equality in Massachusetts in the 1990s, we fully expected opposition from social conservatives. What we didn’t quite expect was reluctance on the part of two supposedly natural allies. Among some LGBTQ folks, marriage was considered an oppressive institution; and a number of libertarians thought it best that government stay out of marriage entirely.

“All well and good,” we replied, “but those goals are a long way off. Meanwhile, there are couples and their families who would benefit enormously from having their unions legally recognized. So why not work with us on this for now, and your ideal goals over the long haul?”

That argument swayed some, but not all. Fortunately, those who insisted on remaining pure in their purpose were quite small, and we had plenty of folks across the political spectrum willing to work on achieving our goal.

I shudder when I think what might have happened if it was our side which was dominated by ideological purists – welcoming only left-wing LGBTQ people, viewing allies with suspicion, rejecting help from groups who endorsed same-sex marriage for the “wrong” reasons. It would have been a disaster.

This post is a warning to those in the sex worker rights movement who have adopted such a purist approach. My experience in social activism spans three and a half decades. I’ve seen my share of successes and mistakes. One of the most consistent factors is the more a group embraces purism, the more likely it is to either die or stagnate into irrelevancy. Purism has an understandable appeal, of making you feel comfortable in the short run, safe within a tribe. But in the long run, activism is not about staying in a safe place – it is about taking risks to achieve what change is possible and desirable, one step at a time.

Maggie McNeill draws the analogy of a bus stuck in the mud. Do you really care that much who helps you push it out? Because if you sit there waiting for the “perfect” people to help you in the “ideal” way, you’ll likely find that the bus has sunk in deeper and the mud dried out and hardened. If your bus is stuck in the mud, you get out and push, and you call on anyone passing by to help you.

But purism is not just impractical. It’s an approach to seeing the world which is rooted in bitter and cynical nihilism. As Alexis Shotwell, associate professor at Carleton University notes: “Purism is a de-collectivizing, de-mobilizing, paradoxical politics of despair. This world deserves better.” While purists condemn efforts at reform, they are failing to see how such efforts are not only more realistic, but more hopeful and inspiring.

Pitting purism against purism never works. Prohibitionists may try to sell their “end demand” approach as reform, but it is in fact a purist attempt at social engineering, built on a simplistic view of both economics and human sexuality. Decrim is the hopeful reform, not because it will transform society by itself, but because it will empower and inspire sex workers to improve their own lives.

What’s the Real Reason for Julie Bindel’s Obsession with Abolishing Sex Work?

In the United Kingdom, radical feminist Julie Bindel is perhaps the most prominent prohibitionist crusader. In her latest book, she claims to expose the “myths” behind the commercial sex industry, painting it as irredeemably horrid, dismissing anything that does not fit her worldview.

To me, a person’s view of the world, and their vision of an ideal future, answers the question of that person’s motivation more than any scripted response. And from what I’ve seen of Bindel, it’s darker than any portrait she paints of those she opposes.

First and foremost, Bindel hates men. She’s not been shy about it, and even said in this interview how she would “have their power taken from them”:

I mean, I would actually put them all in some kind of camp where they can all drive around in quad bikes, or bicycles, or white vans. I would give them a choice of vehicles to drive around with, give them no porn, they wouldn’t be able to fight – we would have wardens, of course! Women who want to see their sons or male loved ones would be able to go and visit, or take them out like a library book, and then bring them back.

She later complained in this article speculating on the “end of men” that: “Within hours of the interview going online, men’s rights groups were accusing me of wanting to put men in ‘Nazi concentration camps’. And they say feminists are the ones with no sense of humour.” Well, I have no sympathy myself for the so-called men’s rights movement, but if she thinks that talk about confining any group of people based on some characteristic is some sort of joke, she’s out of her mind. Granted, I am especially sensitive to her choice of words, given my Jewish relatives in Europe who were confined in camps and reduced to ashes. Bindel’s blatant lack of sensitivity, on the other hand, should give any decent person pause to support her.

If misandry wasn’t enough, Bindel hates transgender people. She would prefer the term “transcritical”, but she’s not content with raising questions. She has openly opposed gender-nonconforming folks from medical treatment, refuses to acknowledge transwomen as women, and doesn’t even talk about transmen or genderqueer people. Her whole beliefs and knowledge on the subject seem stuck in the 1950s, and in contradiction to the opposition of most feminists to biological determinism and gender essentialism.

The list goes on. She’s dissed bisexuality as a fad. She wrote an article titled “Why I Hate Vegetarians”, accusing them of being “humourless, judgmental souls using spurious arguments” (apparently, she doesn’t read her own work that carefully). She expects heterosexual feminists to convert to lesbianism.

Yes, Bindel has done admirable work to fight violence against women, and that is often the basis of her support. But given her propensity for dismissing others, even to have them punished for who they are, one has to wonder if her work is based on genuine concern for victims, or a desire to control and even bully others to conform to her wishes. The only thing more tragic and dangerous is how many such individuals rise to prominence within the prohibitionist movement.

Trumping the Prohibitionists

Donald Trump’s latest debacle has weakened him even further by revealing that he’s not merely using the far-right as a steppingstone to power, but that he indeed supports their bigoted beliefs. This is not, however, Trump’s real Achilles’ heel. His entire methodology of “shooting from the hip” without concern for consequences, and most importantly his refusal to admit to, and apologize for, any mistakes he makes, is what will lead to his ultimate undoing.

This is the same weakness in the prohibitionist camp – their own sense of self-righteousness and absolutism prevents them from seeing when they make mistakes, much less owning up to them.

When journalists began to question Somaly Mam’s story, then expose her pattern of deception and fraud, did “anti-trafficking” activists in this country step back and take stock? Hardly. Many like Nicholas Kristof tried to minimize the damage, and some like Susan Sarandon even supported her efforts to form a new foundation in her name.

Groups like Polaris continually claimed that “the average age of entry into prostitution is thirteen” – and when this was thoroughly debunked those groups waffled and took their time pedaling back on the bogus figure.

Anti-prostitution activists and law enforcement have been pushing the panic around sex trafficking so much, they are now seeing histrionic claims multiply beyond their own control – yet they are still unwilling to admit that their own distortions and confabulations are the fatal flaw. Let’s also not forget the radical feminist concept of “re-framing experiences” by embellishment, exaggeration and even outright fabrication.

This is no reason, however, for sex worker rights groups to be overconfident. Just as Trump tries to divert attention from his errors as part of his “doubling down” tactic, it makes sense that prohibitionists will do the same. They will look for any flaw, any error, any shortcoming in their opposition, and exploit it for their own purposes. We need to anticipate these attacks, own up to any mistakes, show how we responded, and most importantly, bring the conversation back to the core issue of empowering sex workers by removing legal barriers, and holding the architects of the prohibitionist movement accountable for the harms they have caused.

Sex Robots: No Reason to Panic

People are going to be having sex with robots within five years – Henrik Christensen (2006)

Robots have always provoked fascination and fear. Adding sex creates a synergistic effect. From the classic tale of Pygmalion and Galatea, to the current television series Westworld, the very idea of creating machines to act as our lovers continues to provoke us on many levels. But as the quote above demonstrates, there is desire and imagination, and there’s reality. So before we ask what the social and ethical ramifications of having sex robots might be, we still need to ask about both the technological feasibility and economic accessibility of such devices.

Just around the corner?

Reading various news articles, I’ve observed several entrepreneurs claiming to be able to get a working sex robot available within a certain number of years – and none of them have reached that goal. Perhaps the one company that has come closest is Abyss Creations, founded by Matt McMullen and manufacturer of the RealDoll silicone sex dolls. Yet McMullen acknowledges that there are many hurdles to overcome, from animation to vocal interactions. Even a simple breakdown of the technology involved – and the costs behind them – shows how daunting the challenge is behind this project:

  • Realistic appearance – McMullen’s dolls have come closest to resembling actual humans, both visually and tactilely. They are also quite expensive, starting at $5,500 and with more customized models going over seven thousand. While other companies provide similar models under two thousand, that’s still quite a dent in one’s bank account.
  • Animated limbs – Medical prosthetics have come a long way, now using microchips and advanced materials. The cost of a full limb can reach, or in some cases, exceed $10,000. Even so, there are still significant limits in terms of the mobility of smaller and more complex joints in the hands and feet, not to mention combining all of that with a realistic appearance.
  • Facial animation – Yes, some robots are able to move eyes and lips, even appear to make simple expressions. McMullen’s Abyss Creations has been working on such a project as a steppingstone towards a full sex robot, with its projected cost at $15,000 each. But even these prototypes are rather primitive compared to the desired goal, so expect both the timeline and the final price tag to be many times that of current expectations.
  • Passing the Turing test – McMullen has said that the biggest challenge to his project is having a robotic lover that is capable of realistic behavior and interaction. Add to that keeping the hardware and software responsible within the confines of a realistic animated human figure, and one appreciates the difficulty. McMullen is working on an app, where users would be able to “create” an artificial personality with which to interact. Still, he admits it’s much tougher than he expected.

All of this technical complexity means that folks like McMullen are still a long ways off from achieving their goal. Even when that goal is achieved, the first models are likely to be priced in the six or seven figure range.

Crossing the uncanny valley

Robotic roustabouts, gardeners, firefighters and the like need not resemble humans too closely to fulfill their tasks. Indeed, the most commercially successful robot looks like an oversized hockey puck. For a robotic lover, however, appearance and behavior are absolutely crucial. With an automated vacuum cleaner, you program it to clean a certain area of floor in a certain time period, and you’re done. But sex isn’t just about completing some task – it involves interaction with another, in a manner that will (hopefully) provoke positive emotional and physiological reactions. That requires a blending of complex abilities with aesthetic presentation and the ability to perceive and respond to one’s partner.

This brings up the concept of the uncanny valley – the idea that human simulacra appearing not quite like real people will elicit discomfort or even revulsion in many who see or interact with them. The concept has been accounted for by animators, video game designers, and even some media critics. When applied to dolls and robots created for sex, it pushes the production standards practically to a state of perfection, especially regarding the movement and behavioral responses of the latter. Imagine having a romantic partner who provided no emotional cues, from facial expression to vocal tone to body language, or who reacted in ways that seemed inappropriate or “out of sync” to you. Preventing that in a robotic partner is perhaps the greatest technological gap; add the other challenges involved, and one realizes why previous attempts at sex robots – such as Roxxxy, introduced in 2010 – have never taken off.

Unpacking the panic

So, if fully functional and economically accessible sex robots are that far off, why are people like Kathleen Richardson – founder of the Campaign Against Sex Robots – so determined to preemptively ban them? Richardson is no Luddite (she supports the use of robots in providing therapy to children with autism), yet she’s convinced that the very idea of robot sexual partners will somehow promote greater gender inequality and exploitation. Her logic appears to be that, since robots are objects, sex robots would promote sexual objectification of women and children (apparently, she doesn’t realize that women could have sex with male robots).

But she believes without hesitation that sex robots are bad despite the fact that there are no sex robots around with which to test her thesis. Apparently, because another person wrote that he saw a parallel between sex robots and sex work, and because she opposes prostitution as inherently exploitative, that means that using sex robots would promote exploitation. By this logic, because some people think consuming cow’s milk is unhealthy, then substitutes like almond milk and soy cheese ought to be banned.

Keep in mind, I’ve yet to take a position here on whether sex robots are good or bad. I tend to think that, unless you’re able to prove that a given technology will unavoidably cause harm while providing no demonstrable benefit, I’m not ready to defend its prohibition. Explosives, for example, have been used to cause enormous harm, but careful and knowledgeable application of them also yields great benefits. So, it may be possible for people to utilize sex robots for therapeutic ends, such as becoming more comfortable with nudity, or learning basic interaction skills. Robots could also be programmed with safeguards and instructive dialogue, thus providing negative reinforcement against potentially harmful actions.

So if positive applications may be found for robots designed as surrogate sex partners, then why prohibit this based solely on ideological conjecture? Indeed, if Richardson is so concerned about men having sex with robots, why isn’t she crusading against the high-end lifelike sex dolls that are already out there, and have been on the market for more than two decades? Why not do an impartial study to see if the use of sex dolls has actually changed the attitudes of their owners towards women, and in what way? Did any of them manage to find flesh-and-blood sex partners, and did they find having the doll beneficial towards that end? Granted, there is still speculation involved in going from a study of people who have sex dolls to the possible consequences of having sex robots, but at least such a study would provide a more empirical grounding.

Technology is rarely “good” or “bad” in itself. It is how people choose to use them with which we need to be concerned. Given how far off in the future the likelihood of this technology appears to be, I’d say we have plenty of time to think about how it might be put to good use. Of course, some would argue that sex robots will never replace real people as erotic partners, whether romantic or professional. In that case, there is not only no harm in speculating on positive applications of sex robots, but that such thought experiments could encourage improvements in the interactions between sex workers, their clients, and the rest of society.

The Need for a Skeptical Feminism

Recently, an acquaintance of mine from college recognized me via social media, and we began some online chats about the issues surrounding sex work, the anti-trafficking movement, and feminism. Having embraced the more radical form of feminism in her youth, my former classmate had gone on to obtain a law degree, then to focus her legal practice on civil cases that advanced women’s rights, most notably in the area of sexual harassment.

What eventually disillusioned her from the ideas of Dworkin, Mackinnon and other radical feminists was when she was invited to talk about her work at a feminist conference. By this time, she had handled a total of seventy-seven cases involving sexual harassment. Reviewing the files, she broke them down as follows:

  • 68 of the 77 involved a man harassing a woman; four involved a woman harassing a man, three involved a man harassing another man, and two involved a woman harassing another woman.
  • Fourteen cases involved a man making a single inappropriate comment, then apologizing and not engaging in any harassing behavior, and no long-term negative impact on the woman’s career; in all of these cases, the attorney advised the plaintiff that the case had insufficient merit to pursue.
  • One case involved a woman making a false accusation which the attorney found was motivated by malice against the defendant; another case involved a woman who was found to have serious mental health issues resulting in confabulation.

Based on this, my acquaintance presented a conclusion that should have been uncontroversial for this conference: that sexual harassment was still predominantly an issue of men using their power over women. After all, two-thirds of cases were bona-fide incidents fitting that narrative. But as soon as she presented her figures showing that individual men could be victims, individual women could be perpetrators, and that a minority of claims were either overblown (18%) or false (2.6%), she saw herself being attacked and denounced by the more strident participants at the conference, and she was never invited back. Fortunately, she found support among the oft-despised liberal and libertarian feminists, whom she said “had no problem seeing the facts as they were, and discussing them thoughtfully”.

In her mind, the “radical feminists” have become authoritarian ideologues, for whom even the slightest disagreement was considered unforgiveable heresy and treason. She has since embraced the label of a “skeptical feminist” – based on the book by British philosopher Janet Radcliffe Richards – and, in her own words, “always takes a step back before taking sides”. This is certainly the case with her view of the anti-prostitution and anti-trafficking movements, having seen “outrageous” and “absolutist” claims with scant evidence, and leading her to consider full decriminalization as “a more workable approach” (again, her words).

Our discussions brought us back to a basic concept in the philosophy of ideas – the distinction between open and closed systems of thought. Open systems, while embracing certain core values or principles, are receptive of new evidence and ideas, and thus relatively flexible to change. Closed systems, by contrast, present a comprehensive set of doctrines to explain how the world works, and either explains away any conflicting evidence or rejects it outright.

It is no surprise that the prohibitionist camp sees sex work in overly simplistic and absolutist terms. This is, after all, the methodology of its parent ideologies – religious fundamentalism, and radical feminism. Some of the unchallenged presumptions of this system include:

  1. Sexual perfectionism – Sex must be confined to vanilla activities within either marriage or “committed relationships”; any expression outside of this is presumed to be “harmful” and/or “exploitative”.
  2. Gender essentialism – Men view sex a certain way, women view sex another way; this leads to the reduction of prostitution as “men buying women”, thus neglecting or ignoring the reality of male and genderqueer sex workers, and female and genderqueer sex work clients, as well as the complex reasons why people either enter sex work or seek the services of a sex worker.
  3. Punitive/corrective approaches – The way to address commercial sex is to “end demand” by either punishment (fines, jail, public shaming) or so-called therapeutic approaches (e.g., “johns schools”).
  4. Intolerance to opposition – This is exhibited by such methods as:
    • Ignoring questions and/or criticisms, often refusing to answer them.
    • Dismissive labels applied to other side (“not representative”, “pimp lobby”, etc.).
    • Controlling discourse to minimize or eliminate dissent and/or opposition.

This is not to say that the sex worker rights movement does not have its own faults, or that certain elements within it are more closed than others. But there is a greater tendency to base their beliefs upon evidence than ideology, and a greater diversity of viewpoints and approaches than seen within the contemporary prohibitionist movement. This raises the question of which approach is more compatible with the core values of human rights and democratic polity generally, and the feminist principles of achieving greater gender equality and personal autonomy. Is it any wonder that my former classmate and I, and many other “skeptical feminists”, have decided to support this movement?

The Social Contexts of Sweden’s Sex-Purchase Ban

Ever since Sweden passed its “sex-purchase ban” in 1999, those seeking to eliminate commercial sex have been trying to duplicate its supposed success in other countries. What these prohibitionists fail to understand is the cultural, political and historical contexts in which this legal scheme emerged.

Scandinavian societies – Norway, Denmark and Sweden – are known for their peaceful and egalitarian cultures, and their comprehensive social programs. What most outsiders may not recognize is that they are relatively more conformist than other Western societies. Dano-Norwegian author Aksel Sandermose coined the term “Jante Law” (Janteloven in Danish and Norwegian, Jantelögen in Swedish) to refer to the traditional communitarian attitudes against excessive individual pride, if not individualism in general. The name derived from the fictional town of Jante, where its elder citizens enforced through various means the admonition: “You are not to think you’re anyone special, or that you’re better than us.”

In Sweden, this principle was combined with the Social Democratic Party’s concept of folkhemmet – “people’s home” – where the society is to be modelled on the family unit, with every member contributing to the prosperity of the whole. This vision emerged at a time when Social Democratic ideology was being revised to a more corporatist model of class collaboration, with the state serving as arbiters between labor and capital, thus encouraging a more stable and cohesive society. In their zeal to create such a society, they not only strove to level the playing field between the classes, but to improve society through a number of “social engineering” programs, including some eugenics policies starting in the 1930s. [See Introduction in “Criminalising the Purchase of Sex: Lessons from Sweden” by Jay Levy (Routledge Press)]

Many critics of the sex-purchase ban have referred to it as “a failed experiment in social engineering”, but its roots precede the advent of the Social Democrats’ folkhemmet ideology. In 1724, Swedish law required that unmarried women officially certify that they had a “legitimate” source of income, or face arrest and imprisonment in a workhouse to prevent them “indecently” earning a living. Even women who did have a legal profession were not exempt from state scrutiny and control; police often raided pubs and coffee houses owned and operated by women, on the pretext that they might be fronts for prostitution, and compel waitresses to undergo medical examinations for sexually transmitted diseases. The early 20th century saw prostitutes pathologized, arrested for “vagrancy”, and even subjected to forced sterilization under Sweden’s eugenics policies. While the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s saw traditional mores questioned, the old “vagrancy” law was replaced by a law against “antisocial behavior”, until it was challenged in court. Throughout this period, Swedish feminists attempted to stress a focus on demand, but failed to overcome the prevailing stigma against commercial sex. Indeed, the negative attitude towards “social deviance” in Sweden is not confined to sex workers; people who use drugs face persecution under “zero-tolerance” policies, and HIV-positive people risk summary confinement if they fail to report their status to sexual partners.

By the 1990s, Swedish law did not outlaw either the purchase or sale of sex, but did prohibit various related activities (pimping, pandering, brothel-keeping) as well as allowing immediate deportation of any immigrant found to be engaging in prostitution. It was during that time that various political groups, including the Social Democrats, became increasingly concerned with the influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe, Africa and East Asia, many of them women engaging in commercial sex. While some politicians considered total criminalization as the answer, radical feminists proposed through the Social Democrats and other left-wing parties that only the purchase be banned, constructing the argument that prostitution was “violence against women” and that those who engaged in selling sex were to be considered victims. Unfortunately, this model did not take into account the longstanding stigmatization of prostitutes as social deviants, thus resulting in further victimization of sex workers by police, social workers, and other government agencies.

While Sweden tries to present its sex-purchase ban as a progressive innovation, it is in fact the latest in a long line of efforts to suppress sex workers based on rigid social attitudes against nonconformity, a political tradition of paternalistic social engineering, and radical feminist ideological constructs being appropriated during a period of heightened anxiety around increased immigration and Swedish identity in a changing Europe. While terminology and demographic factors may change, one constant remains in all of these futile attempts to deal with prostitution: Sex workers themselves have never been allowed a voice in the political process in which these decisions are made about them. This is in stark contrast to the situation in New South Wales and New Zealand, where sex worker organizations were important stakeholders in developing laws and policies that improved the lives of their constituents. Whether and when Sweden will learn from these examples – and their own repeated failures – remains to be seen.


I’m indebted to Dr. Jay Levy, who conducted extensive fieldwork and research on the impact of Sweden’s sex-purchase law and related policies; click here for his webpage, with links to his books and articles for more information.

A Very Large Grain of Salt

Recently, someone posed a question via the Contact page: “You seem very skeptical of the anti-trafficking movement. What about the women who share their experiences of being trafficked? Do you actually think they’re lying?”

I should preface my answer with the caveat that the various anti-trafficking organizations do not make up a single monolithic movement. There are at least two major anti-trafficking trends:

  • Those who oppose sex work, conflating it with trafficking, and are ideologically driven to favor punitive measures directed mostly against clients while claiming to help “prostituted women”; these are represented by neoliberal groups like Demand Abolition, radical feminists like Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, and “faith-based” organizations like Shared Hope International.
  • Those who make a distinction between sex work and sex trafficking, generally supporting a rights-based approach that often includes harm reduction and decriminalization of voluntary commercial sex; they include groups such as Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women and Freedom Network USA.

As you might guess, I favor the latter over the former. A major reason for this is that the rights-based groups are very careful in their research and presentation; they are not only rights-based, but fact-based, including an appreciation for the nuance and complexity of lived experiences for both sex workers and sex trafficking survivors.

If a rights-based group presents the story of a sex trafficking survivor, I’m much more inclined to accept it as is. The track record of such organizations suggests that they have checked it and not altered the narrative in any way (at least not without the consent of the survivor). So, why not accept narratives from the more ideological anti-trafficking groups?

Look at their track record. These groups and their leaders have a history of distortion, embellishment and fabrication in order to advance their goals. Stories are often presented second-hand, with no means of verifying them, almost invariably following the same narrative template. Even when survivors are given space to tell their stories, they are “encouraged” to “re-frame” them.

In social and behavioral science, re-framing usually refers to shifting the perspective from which one views an event or piece of information. It does not, however, include or support embellishing the narrative in question. Unfortunately, as survivor Jill Brenneman noted in an interview: “As difficult and extreme as my experiences were, [ideological anti-trafficking activists] wanted me to re-frame them, meaning add things that didn’t happen to make it worse.” In an even more notorious and flagrant example, Long Pros, a young Cambodian woman, was coached by Somaly Mam to recount a story of being stabbed in the eye by a vicious pimp – until her parents and doctors provided evidence to refute that account.

Let that sink in.

Is it any wonder, then, that individuals such as Somaly Mam, Chong Kim, Stella Marr, Justine Reilly, and others have been able to misrepresent themselves as “victims” and “survivors” within such organizations, or to set up shop on their own to bilk donors of their cash? Or how evasive these groups become when the game is played out?

I’m certainly not accusing every survivor connected with these groups to be fraudulent. I’m sure many have suffered, and turned to these groups for support. But given the propensity for these groups to twist facts and manipulate others into doing the same, these survivors should not be surprised when I and others take their stories with a very large grain of salt. And if, indeed, you were persuaded to embellish your own story in the name of “re-framing”, I would hope that you come clean and speak out. Such truth-telling is not an act of betrayal, but of personal integrity.