Paper presented at the World Action Forum for Sexwork RightS


The title of this part of the conference is "Forcing Prostitutes to become Good Women, the Myth of Rehabilitation", but I would like to change the title to one that more accurate description of the Swedish situation; "Forcing a Nation To Become Good Feminists, the myth of the Emancipated North".

I guess I should begin to state that I am not one of those Good Feminists - at least not anymore. I used to be one of the feminist movement's sweethearts partially due to my devoted selfdefence work. But in the process of becoming the object of their hate - "an enemy", "advocate f o r violence against women" and "crazy" (to mention some of the more flattering invectives) awakened me to their underlaying sex hate, misogyny and twisted logic.

I am very saddened that their feminism has had influence all the way to the Swedish Government, and that the Mayor in Taipei and other politicians in the world are using the new Swedish legislation to criminalise the buyers of sex as an example, to further fuel the long history of discrimination and oppression of sexworkers.

I am here today to tell you what the current situation for sexworkers in Sweden is like, and how it came to be that way . My hope is that you will use this information whenever you accounter liars, regardless if they call themselves "Professors Experts in the Swedish Sexworker's Situation" or "Good Feminists" or have been elected a high office in your own country. My firm belief is that one of the ways to fight prejudice is through retaining actual knowledge and to educate others. One of the ways we can change society is by repeating the truth and be the drops that gradually hollows the stone.

The Swedish situation for sexworkers
Sweden has a long tradition of fighting for women's and workers' rights. We have the highest number of women in Parliament (44%) in the world. We are also considered as a sexually liberated country with increasing rights for homosexual people. But do not be fooled. The number of female boardmembers is the lowest in the western world - merely 2 %. And only 6 % of all executive directors are women . Also remember that we do not have a single organisation or formal network for sexworkers, and not a single organisation or public figure (me excluded) that have an open positive attitude to sexwork or actively support sexworkers rights.

Legal situation today
There is an estimated 2.500-3.000 prostitutes in Sweden. About 650 are streetworkers, and about half of them are drug or alcohol users/dependent.

All are currently totally unprotected with regard to labour legislation. They are not illegal but cannot pay taxes or register their business. The effect is that when they for instance become ill they are not entitled to any assistance from the social insurance office. Instead, they have to turn to the social authorities who mostly have a negative sexwork attitude and can only offer very limited help to certain people (i.e. women who wants to stop using drugs). When they retire, they are unable to benefit from any points accumulated under the Swedish system.

But we also have actual legislation that discriminates against sex workers. Renting premises or rooms to anyone who sells direct sexual services is illegal and constitutes grounds for terminating a tenancy agreement. This is a big problem since this can be her home or studio. Prostitutes are at risk of having their children put into the care of the social authorities, since a prostitute is not considered a suitable parent (this can be compared with the new Parliament inquiry that was formed a month ago to investigate if homosexuals will be allowed to adopt children, and the result will probably positive). Furthermore, anyone taking a percentage of a sex worker's income is considered a pimp and sentenced to prison. This can be her partner or agent. Prostitutes are therefore forced to work alone, and not in co-operatives or businesses, and are afraid to cohabit with their partner. The positive effect of this is that (exploitative) pimps are almost completely erased.

But one of the greatest problem for sexworkers in Sweden is social stigmatisation. This group is so despised and treated with such prejudice that they are not consulted when changes in legislation are proposed. Legislation that will change all aspects of their business and affect their health. They can't even refer to their job as "work" without being met with contempt. No one can come out as a prostitute since that would be a complete social suicide.

Current proposed legislation
A few years ago, the Swedish government submitted "Protection of women" (Kvinnofrid) bill to Parliament which is a result of the last 20 years of feminist activity. It is consistent of a number of legislative provisions and other measures to counteract violence to women. And since prostitution is considered violence against women, one of the legislation's is to prohibit the purchase, AND the attempt to purchase, temporary sexual services. This offence will be punished with fines or imprisonment for up to six months. The offence comprises a person that obtain a sexual service against compensation. Note that this does not need to be money, but can be things, mentioned as an example like alcohol r drugs.

The vote by Parliament will take place on May 28th, and the legislative change is intended to enter into force January 1st. The are no indications that the majority of Parliament will vote different from the Government's and Committee of Justice proposal. The Socialdemocratic Party, The Left Party, The Green Party and The Christian Party are all in favour. The Liberals are divided and The Conservatives are against.

The new Act will make the situation worse for prostitutes. The streetworkers must find other ways to find their customers and once again become dependent on pimps that probably not will have high respect for them. They will be exposed to more abuse and have fewer opportunities to work towards preventing it. The arbitrary and illogical division of sex-related work that will be affected by the Act means that prostitutes will be alienated to an even greater extent from other forms of sex-related work which are still considered to be fairly clean - pornography, stripping, or selling sexual services over the phone. This will make it more difficult to start up common networks and pressure groups, since these parts of the sex industry will need to distance themselves from prostitutes so as not to risk being subjected to negative legislation themselves. The social stigmatisation and prejudism will deepen. And on a very basic level - how shall they support themselves? They are forced to get welfare, and those money are not sufficient to live on.

Sexworkers in Sweden are deeply worried about the situation. Not many others. The least worried is the womens movement. They are celebrating.

When politicians are confronted with the negative effects of the new legislation they admit that they are aware that prostitution will not end because of this law. Sometimes they can even admit that it might worsen the situation for prostitutes BUT that we live in a society that think that prostitution is not a desirable social phenomena, and that this is a law that will be a marker of this, as well as a marker towards the men who want to "use" women. What the seller and buyers of sex think of this marker does not seem to be relevant. People in favor for this Act frequently compare it with the law against child abuse (it is illegal to hit a child in Sweden) that was passed some years ago.

So please do not believe feminists and politicians that claim that the sexworkers of Sweden welcome this law. They are lying.

The ideology
The feminist ideology of the "Protection of Women" bill is simple: There is an imbalance in power between men and women. Men and the societal structure are oppressing women. Men's violence against women is the most extreme example of this social imbalance. Prostitution is an expression of this contempt for women and inequality between the sexes, and is violence in it self. The prostitute is the weaker party who is exploited by those who only want to satisfy their sexual needs.

The correct sexual ideology is also simple: Healthy sexuality only exists between two people that are continually and emotionally involved with each other and where no difference in power exists. Both parties in a sexual service are seen as emotionally damaged and must therefore be treated.

So why do we have this situation in the liberated and emancipated Sweden?
To begin with, the understanding of sexwork and sexworkers is limited and biased. Sexworkers are seen as a homogenous group, in which everyone feels bad about their job. No women can possibly like or want to sell sexual services. They have all been sexually abused as children and are constantly raped and battered by their customers. The majority are drug users and mentally ill. Sexwork is not seen as work but a selling of the body, selling of the self.

I will not take time to challenge these assumptions, instead I will concentrate on explaining why we have this situation. And is a sad story of collaboration of all societal levels.

To begin with - the intellectuals. In the middle of the 1970's sexworker Lillian Andersson, whom some of you know, and some other women were inspired of the rising feminist movement and started The Sexual Political Front, an organisation for sexworkers rights. In the beginning the feminists and academics came forward, welcomed and supported them. But within a few months the movement was destroyed by the very same people. They had understood , through the rising feminist anti pornography and anti prostitution movement, that sexwork was not a work at all, but abuse. Lillian and others were refused to speak at meetings, or even attend them. Researchers (and of whom today some are professors) manipulated their way into the sexworkers meetings and managed to ruin some crucial ones.
Sexual politics. Sweden is known to have a prosex attitude. This was a short period in the 70s when pornography was made legal (unfortunately I missed it..). Today we have laws regarding sexual violence in pornography that regulate how many fingers you can insert in a persons vagina or anus (more than 4 means fistfucking and that is not allowed), how many times you can slap someone's ass (today 3-4 times), or how hard you can pinch someone's nipples. All of this is considered sexual violence. I am not joking. In tle last few months feminists are concerned about how they shall help young women to say no to anal sex. Not how they shall teach them to have good and safe sex. The theme of the largest sexual education organisation, RFSU, throughout the years have been to educate people about the sacred connection between love and sex. ..RFSL, the gay and lesbian organisation has made huge progress by "normalising" homosexuality and stressing that homosexuality is not about sex at all but about love. Go figure.
Then we have the feminist groups. The ones that was working the hardest during the 80s- basic when the others were flat out dead after the hard ideological leftwing wars of the 70s was the radical feminist groups. They organised around causes that would unite all people and find sympathy - violence against women and children. They became the leaders of the now influential battered women shelters movement and invited "experts" such as Andrea Dworkin, Catherine McKinnon, Sheila Jeffrey and Kathlyn Barry to their conferences. They made sure to lobby to the female politicians. They silenced all opposition through slander, bullying and exclusion.
The academia is also guilty. Many who attempt to write about the industry and sexworkers from a sexworkers perspective were discouraged, or silenced when their controversial papers were published. Others who promised to help and take the side of the sexworkers they interviewed changed their minds in the process of writing their paper, and the result was that the sexworkers once again was portrayed as a women who did know her own good. We have no feminst scholars today in Sweden with a prosex workers attitude.
It is a similar story with the media. I have been shown some documents that suggest that there was an active silencing of pro-prostitution opinons originating from politicians, the police and socialworkers towards the editors in cheifs in many of the major newspapers. One journalist lost his job when he wrote a neutral review about a prosex work historical dissertation. Todays "whore news", be it in books or newpapers, always show he same negative image that I described earlier, despite indivdual sexworkers attempts to influence them.
Politicians. Reading the commission reports has been extremly frustrating. There has been three major done the last 20 years, and I do not know how much money that have been put into it, but it is a considerable amount. The same story and rhetoric is repeated time after time. But here it is more obvious since the only litterature that is being referred to is anti prostitution and antipornography, and the women interviewed are drug addicts and come from broken homes.
Swedish system and aspirations. We have a tradition of state power and NGOs with a lot of power. The mentioned shelters movement is one of them and what their opinion in this matter is being highly valued. And Sweden really enjoy playing the roles as the consciousness of the world, to be looked up upon and admired for its "advancedness". So when the Mayor of Taipei or the feminists here says we are good, the feminist politicians will surely have a mental orgasm.
To me all this is about power. One group that strives for power over another. One easy and commonly practised way to achieve and uphold state or religious power is to control a population through stipulation of what is a correct sexual and gender behaviour. Women are supposed to act in a certain way and men in another. People who fall in between - or transgress - the two agnowledged genders are heavily stigmatised, such as transsexual and transgenderd people. We are supposed to have sex in a certain way, with certain gender and with a certain number of people.

I told you that I was kicked out from the feminst's happiness - what happened? Precisely this. I challenged their basic truths about gender and sexuality. I was OK, and even extra political correct because I was a lesbian, but when I asked three questions; Why are not same sex battering acknowledged when we discuss domestic violence? Why do we not hear the voices of sexworkers themselves when we discuss prostitution? And why do the feminists raise hell when women want to explore their sexuality outside the "vanilla" realm (such as using pornography or sadomasochism or penetration with dildoes or hands)?

Well, they raised hell and I was out. I was advocating violence against women by just posing these questions.

I want you to know that I understand what violence is. I can make a difference between violence and respect. I have been abused myself by a lover. And I lost my mother, when she was murdered by the battering boyfriend that she broke up with.

It is important that we all understand this and can make a distiction between violence and consentual behavior. Because this time I am here to help you in your struggle. The next time it might be me who will need your help and ask you to come to the "developed" Sweden, because I can assure you that neither my sexual behaviour nor the gender behaviour of my partners are in any way politically correct.

But I also ask for all of your support to the sisters in Sweden. The new bill will pass to criminalise the customs of sexual services and in a few years I am sure we will have another law to criminalise the sellers. Many international sexwork organisations has already come forward with support, and I hope Taiwan and Sweden can further our contacts and support for the rights or sexworkers.

Petra Östergren
Studied Chineese and Social Antrophology 1986-1988 at Stockholm University. Visited China 1985-1989 in a total of 5 months.
Trained and taught selfdefence and Martial Arts full time 1989-1996 for women, incest survivors, people with disabilities and occupational groups who are exposed to possible violent clients.

Currently doing research and prepares a new book "Sex, vald och feminism" (Sex, violence and feminism) that is published in Sweden.

Writes and lectures on topics about sexualpolitics, genderpolitics and feminism.

Teaching safe (advanced)sex for women who have sex with women.

Management consulting with NGOs

"Sla tillbaka! En handbok i sjalvforsvar for kvinnor." (Fight back! A Self-defence Manual for Women) Stockholm Natur och Kultur 1993

"Att komma till ro med det allra varsta." (Coming to Peace With the Possible Worst) A book about her and her mother that was murdered in 1988. Stockholm Natur och Kultur 1996


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