Here you can find out more about the term sex worker, about harm reduction and about the Swedish sex purchase law (sexköpslagen). These terms and concepts are essential to understand what sex workers fight for and why.
ABOUT SEX WORK
It is often believed that the word sex worker is primarily used to legitimise this line of work and to increase acceptance in society. This is partially true but there are other reasons that are at least as important.
SEX WORK IS WORK.
Far from everyone who provides sexual services would call it their profession. Some see it as a hobby, others as part of their private sexuality while some, for various reasons, lack other realistic ways of making a living. But a fact is that a majority consider what they do work and that they should have the same opportunities, rights and obligations as other workers.
SEX WORK IS SOMETHING YOU DO, NOT SOMETHING YOU ARE.
People who do sex work are not the homogenous group society’s stereotype would suggest. Other groups that provide services for money are rarely seen as having a number of characteristics in common, they are usually seen as a person separate from the kind of work they do. Sex workers deserve the same respect. The fact that we’ve chosen to work with sexual services says nothing about our background, class or life situation.
It is also not true that sex work is something one needs “saving” from. The social help we receive from Swedish society is built on the idea, with few exceptions, that all sex workers are victims. Those who don’t consider themselves in need of help are assumed to be suffering from false consciousness. Society is basically declaring us legally incompetent and unable to understand our own good. According to the same reasoning unwillingness to leave the business is just seen as one more example of the destructiveness of sex work. The theory being that we must all be so traumatised that we are unable to admit this even to ourselves and the only solution thus: that we must be saved from ourselves and out horrible situation.
This model of explanation enables authorities and politicians to time and time again discredit sex workers and refuse to listen to our voices when it comes to decisions that will affect us and our lives.
Despite the assumption that all sex workers are miserable there are a several studies (U.S.A., New Zealand, Australia and the Netherlands) that have compared the wellbeing of women who work with sex and women in other professions. They show that only a minority of sex workers, mostly those doing street based work, feel worse than the other group. The majority of sex workers are as happy, or happier than the other group. So it is not sex work per se, but the conditions they work under that affect how individual sex worker’s are feeling.
Apart from that: we seldom ask if dentists, hairdressers or politicians are happy and satisfied in order to justify the existence of their work. Happiness is a very personal experience and not necessarily connected to ones line of work. This is true for sex workers as well as for most people.
We use the word sex worker to highlight the fact that our job is our job – not the set of stereotype characteristics that a “prostitute”, or even worse, someone “prostituted” is assumed to have.
SEX WORK AND SOCIAL STIGMA
Most organisations that work with the human rights of sex workers agree about the importance of using the term sex work. Partially to emphasise that it is a financial exchange but also because it is considered less stigmatising than words like “prostitute” or stripper. But despite the fact that the World Health Organisation (WHO 2001; WHO 2205) and the UN (UN 2006; UNAIDS 2002) use the term sex worker Swedish authorities and politicians refuse to do the same.
When the EU-parliament in their resolution ”Prostitution – which stance to take” recommended the member states to consult sex workers in questions that affect them, on a international, national and local level then Swedish Attorney General Beatrice Ask disagreed: “It is controversial that the parliament recommends the member states to formulate a formulate a policy that explicitly tells the member states to to respect the prostituted’s right to chose to work as prostitutes and to allow them to have a say in questions that affect them. This is a outlandish view, a position that is very hard to combine with the view on prostitution that I argue that one should have.”
When other marginalised groups decide to use new, modern and less stigmatising terms this is almost always accepted. In Sweden we don’ seem to have that right, unlike almost all other European counties.
SEX WORKER RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS
Finally it’s important to remember that however you feel about sex work, we sex workers are included in the global human rights. Even though this should be a given it is constantly ignored, in every country world wide. Human rights worth mentioning are amongst others article 23: “Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.” and article 12: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”
You can read more on ICRSE’s website. When it comes down to it, it’s pretty simple: sex workers are humans and as such we have should be given the same rights and protected by the same laws as everyone else.
ABOUT HARM REDUCTION
Harm reduction or harm minimisation, refers to political views, social measures and practices that aim primarily to reduce the adverse health, social and economic consequences of sex work without necessarily wanting to eliminate sex work as a whole. Harm reduction has positive effects on sex workers, their families and the community.
A harm reduction perspective towards sex workers is based on a strong commitment toward healthcare and human rights. It focuses on specific risks and harmful effects. Politicians, policy makers, scientists, healthcare professionals, social workers and sex workers themselves need to inform themselves about:
What the specific risks and possible harmful effects of sex work are.
What causes those risks and harms.
What can be done to reduce these risks and harms.
Harm reduction focuses on the reasons for the risks associated with sex work. Identification of the risks and the reasons behind them needs to be done properly in order to make good decisions about suitable interventions. When interventions with the aim of reducing risks and harmful effects are planned one must also take into account the various factors that can make sex workers particularly vulnerable such as social situation, age, gender, immigration status, sexual orientation, and alcohol or drug use.
EVIDENCE BASED AND COST EFFECTIVE
A harm reduction perspective is practical, executable, efficient, safe and cost efficient. Harm reduction is based on scientific research on how harm is best reduced instead of on moralistic police principles. Basing both policy and projects on the strongest evidence available involves a strong commitment. Most harm reduction approaches are cost effective, easy to implement and have a large positive effect on individuals as well as on the community. Harm reduction can help many people at a low cost: benefit is maximised when low-cost/high-impact interventions are preferred over high-cost/low-impact interventions.
Harm reduction practitioners acknowledge the significance of all positive change an individual makes. Harm reduction services are facilitative rather than coercive and are based on the needs of the individual. They are designed to meet the individuals needs where they currently are in their lives. Small gains for many people have a bigger impact on the community than big impacts on a select few and it’s more likely that people are able to change their lives gradually, step by step than in one big move.
The goals in a specific situation can with harm reduction often be arranged in a hierarchy with the more easily obtained goals (like staying healthy and safe) on one end and the harder to reach but still obtainable goals in the other end. To stop doing sex work is not always what an individual wants but if this is the goal it would, in this kind of hierarchy, be considered harder to reach. To keep sex workers safe and protect their physical, psychological and sexual health has highest priority while it is acknowledged that there may be many other important priorities to reach in a longer perspective.
DIGNITY AND COMPASSION
Harm reduction practitioners accept people the way they are and avoid being judgemental. This compassion is extended to include the families and communities around sex workers. Harm reduction practitioners oppose the deliberate stigmatisation of sex workers. Calling people “whores” or “prostituted women” or describing them as helpless victims without agency perpetuates stereotypes, marginalises and creates barriers to helping sex workers. Terminology and language should always convey respect and tolerance.
The universal human rights apply to all of us. Sex workers do not forfeit their human rights, including the right to the highest attainable standard of healthcare, social services, work, to benefit from scientific progress, to freedom from arbitrary detention and freedom from cruel inhuman and degrading treatment.
Harm reduction opposes all intentional harm and negative effects on sex workers’ lives as a method of controlling and/or eliminating the sex industry. Instead it promotes responses to drug use that respect and protect fundamental human rights.
CHALLENGING CURRENT METHODS AND POLITICS
The risks and harms associated with sex work are dependent on many factors. They include choices and behaviours of individuals, work environments as well as the laws and policies designed to control the sex industry.
Many policies and social practices create, both intentionally and unintentionally, increased risks for sex workers. These include: criminalisation of different aspects of sex work, abusive and corrupt policing practices, restrictive and punitive laws and policies, the denial of life-saving medical care and harm reduction services (like peer education and condom distribution), social isolation and social inequities. Harm reduction policies and practices are always applied on an individual level to support change but at the same time it is necessary to challenge national and global laws and policies that create increased risks and contribute to sex work related harms.
TRANSPARENCY, ACCOUNTABILITY AND PARTICIPATION
Practitioners and policy makers should assume accountability for their interventions and policies as well as for their successes and failures. Harm reduction encourages an dialogues, consultations and debate. A wide rage of stakeholders must be meaningfully involved in policy decisions and implementation as well as the execution and evaluation of these. It is of highest importance that sex workers themselves are involved in decisions that affect them and are central in the evaluation process.
ABOUT THE SWEDISH SEX PURCHASE LAW