Sweden’s landmark 1999 sex work legislation—presented as decriminalizing the seller of sex while criminalizing the client—is aggressively marketed as a “progressive solution” to prostitution internationally. Versions of the “Swedish model” have been implemented in Norway, Iceland, and Canada, and last week a version was adopted in Northern Ireland. The intention, we’re told, is to “reduce demand” for paid sex: shrinking, then ultimately abolishing, the sex trade. 

It’s too bad that the reality of the law is not so simple, nor so uncomplicatedly progressive. 

Prostitution is criminalized to varying degrees across much of the world. In the U.K., the exchange of sex for money is not in itself illegal between consenting adults, but almost everything around it is. In other places, such as Germany, the Netherlands, and most of Nevada, sex work has been legalized. Widely presented as a more tolerant and pragmatic approach, the legalized model still criminalizes those sex workers who cannot or will not fulfill various bureaucratic responsibilities, and therefore retains some of the worst harms of criminalization. It disproportionately excludes sex workers who are already marginalized, like people who use drugs or who are undocumented. This makes their situation more precarious, and so reinforces the power of unscrupulous managers. 

In contrast, New Zealand has decriminalized sex work (the terminology is confusing, but the distinction is important). Instead of focusing on creating bureaucratic hoops for sex workers to jump through, decriminalization prioritizes sex workers’ safety and health —for example, making it possible for up to four people to work indoors in an informal collective without needing to do any paperwork, and, of course, without needing to fear arrest. The New Zealand model has been extensively praised by the U.N: The director of the U.N. Development Programme’s HIV, Health and Development Practice observed, in accidentally amusing phrasing, “I would like to be a sex worker in New Zealand.”

The mythos of the Swedish model is that it is producing a better, more feminist society. But a better society for whom? 

For street-based sex workers, a potential client driving past will be nervous and keen to agree to terms speedily if his role is criminalized, and to keep his business the sex worker has far less time to make crucial assessments about whether he seems safe. Research into anti-client laws around Vancouver street-based sex work found that, “without the opportunity to screen clients or safely negotiate the terms of sexual services … sex workers face increased risks of violence, abuse, and HIV.” The Norwegian government writes about its own law: “Women in the street market report [having] a weaker bargaining position and more safety concerns now than before the law was introduced.” 

While sex workers are not prosecuted simply for selling sex under the Swedish model, various laws continue to be used against them in punitive ways. “Operation Homeless,” the memorably-named Norwegian police initiative, evicted people suspected of selling sex—a law aimed at “pimps,” but used against sex workers’ landlords. 

When the Norwegian Police were pursuing “Operation Homeless,” they used surveillance to find targets for eviction—but they also evicted sex workers who came to their attention in other ways. A group of sex working Nigerian women were evicted—and left homeless—after reporting that they had been the victims of rape, a situation that illuminates the comment by the Norwegian government that “the threshold for reporting a violent customer to the police also seems to be higher after the law. People in prostitution are afraid that such actions will come back to [haunt] them at later stages.” Sex workers—including people with EU residency—are aggressively deported, and their deportation orders include commentary like: “She has not maintained herself in an honest manner.” 

People who claim sex workers are “decriminalized” under the Swedish model tend to be those approaching the topic from a feminist perspective—yet it’s hard to imagine the same feminists would consider abortion “decriminalized” if people suspected of seeking abortions were subject to deportation and extra-judicial (yet perfectly legal) eviction. In fact, Sweden’s policymakers are remarkably open about the extent to which the law is supposed to harm people who sell sex. The head of Sweden’s anti-trafficking unit told a journalist last year, “of course the law has negative consequences for women in prostitution, but that’s also some of the effect that we want to achieve with the law.” 

How, then, is the law sold as “feminist?” 

Partly because, while sex workers may be focused on our own safety, people who don’t sell sex have a lot of feelings about more abstract concepts —the idea of what “message” the law sends, for example, or an interest in indulging feelings of disgust regarding men who pay for sex. That distorts the debate.

In particular, women who push for the criminalization of clients tend to focus obsessively on the idea of “choice.” This allows those campaigners to divide people selling sex into two clear groups: those who chose it (who in this view, can simply make another “choice,” and should) and those who did not (who will welcome being forcibly rescued in the form of a deportation order).

Of course, the world isn’t that black and white. But what’s particularly troubling about this binary is that it harms even the people it ostensibly sets out to protect: people selling sex who feel they have no choice, and who are desperate to stop. Those people will still need time and support to achieve that goal—help with housing, social security, and employment and immigration status cannot be meaningfully delivered overnight. 

Sex worker organizers have argued for decades—if not centuries—against the division of people who sell sex into “worthy” or “unworthy,” deserving of safety or deserving of violence. June 2 was the 40th anniversary of the occupation of churches in France in Lyon, notably Saint-Nizier, by sex workers protesting police brutality and heavy fines. When the French police threatened to take custody of the sex workers’ children, the protesters were joined in the church by local non-sex working women, who dared the police to try to discern who was a prostitute and who was not. The Swedish model is marketed as creating a better society, while in reality reinforcing the notion that some sex workers can repent and be forgiven, while others deserve what they get. Forty years on from Saint-Nizier and the rebuke issued by those occupying the churches couldn’t be clearer. 

In one sense, those who argue for the criminalization of clients are right: sex work is a product of a deeply unequal society. But as one sex worker organization notes (disclosure—I am a member of this organization): “If campaigners are concerned that poverty takes away people’s choices, we suggest that a real solution would be to tackle poverty, not to criminalise what is often the final option that people have for surviving poverty.” We need the New Zealand model, because we need safety now—and we need real alternatives to sex work.