On BBC1 tonight you can see a report presented by Ruth Jacobs about the Merseyside Model. This is an initiative to protect sex workers from the violence that seems at times endemic to their trade. What happens is that assaults on sex workers are treated as hate crimes and prosecuted as such, which means that more severe penalties are available to the court following conviction. Te Mersey model has been promoted for some years now by groups campaigning for sex workers’ rights. More recently it has been discovered by groups campaigning to criminalise the purchase of sex through the implementation of the so-called ‘Swedish Model.’ Last week this article appeared in the Huffington Post. It starts out from the essentially ideological position that ‘all prostitution is violence against women’ and proceeds to advocate both the Merseyside Model and the Swedish Model. This article is so full of misrepresentations and non-sequiturs that it should not go unanswered.
The author starts with the assertion that all sex workers known to her engage in sex work for money. This is, I think, unsurprising. Did anyone ever seriously think that they do it for any other reason? After all a claim of the sex workers’ rights movement is that ‘sex work is work’ a job like any other. The vast majority of people do their jobs for er money. Similarly she states that 92% of sex workers would leave the sex industry if they could. But doesn’t that apply to most people in most jobs? I can well believe that 92% of sex workers would stop selling sex if their lottery numbers came up, but so would 92% of office cleaners, binmen, invoice clerks etc etc. What I think Apicella is trying to demonstrate is that sex workers have been coerced. A brief application of this logic to other occupations produces absurd conclusions and shows the flaws in the argument. Her conclusions simply do not follow from her premises. Poor logic, unfortunately, runs though the whole piece.
The claims made in the second paragraph are questionable. They are at variance with the findings of most impartial academic studies. The claim that 50% of women were coerced into prostitution is particularly interesting. Without a definition of coercion it is, of course, not particularly meaningful. The issue of trafficking is not specifically mentioned in this article but is worth looking at briefly. Clearly coercion and trafficking are not identical but it is reasonable to suppose that there is a significant overlap between the two, particularly in the context of British studies given that British law applies a much looser of definition of trafficking than that set out in international law. One particular type of coercion, debt bondage, is any way closely related to trafficking. In 2009 Operation Acumen concluded that there were probably 2,600 women in the UK who had been trafficked into prostitution, out of an estimated sex worker population of 80,000. This works out at a figure of 3.25%. Now, I am aware that the methodology of Operation Acumen has been much criticised by academic specialists but that was on the basis that the numbers may well be an OVER estimate. Is it really credible to claim that there are nearly 40,000 non-trafficked, therefore British women, forced to work as prostitutes?
Where Apicella is right is in saying that sex workers suffer both stigma and violence. Stigma and violence are closely related as shown by the tragic case of Swedish sex worker Petite Jasmine who was murdered by her violent former partner in July this year. Despite his violence towards her, he was awarded custody of their child as Swedish social services deemed Jasmine an unfit mother, precisely because she was a sex worker. This happened in Sweden, and is evidence that the criminalisation of sex workers’ clients has, in fact, served to perpetuate the stigma suffered by sex workers and increase their risk of suffering violence assault. This important point has clearly escaped Apicella, and other advocates of the Swedish Model. If you’re a Swedish sex worker who rejects the official discourse on your life choices and refuses to be ‘rescued’ you can expect police harassment and difficulty in accessing, for example, social services. Stigma is a real problem, yes, but the Swedish Model only makes it worse.
Violence is a problem in the UK too. There is an organisation called the Ugly Mugs here which helps sex workers avoid potentially violent clients, the ‘ugly mugs’, through text alerts, through a facility for sex workers to file reports online, and by working with the police who support the scheme. This has been a widely acknowledged success. It is part of the UK Network of Sex Work Projects which includes a number of support and outreach services to sex workers including help and support for those wanting to quit. The UKNSWP has unrivalled experience in helping and supporting sex workers, and is strongly opposed to any form of criminalisation as can be seen from their long and detailed response to Rhoda Grant’s consultation in Scotland here. You might have thought that people like Apicella and Banyard might listen to others who know more than they do but this is sadly not the case.
And what about the Merseyside Model? Apicella clearly fails to understand the essential contradiction between it and the Swedish Model. The Merseyside Model can only be effective where sex workers feel that they can trust the police. If they don’t trust the police they won’t report attacks. It seems obvious to me that, if the Swedish Model were implemented here, that would not be the case as the police would have a duty to arrest the clients and put them out of business.
The claims Apicella makes about the Swedish Model are , at best, dubious. It may be true that street prostitution has halved since 1999 but it has declined in other countries too, principally because of the internet and mobile phones. It is nothing to do with the change of the law. Apicella’s comment about respect for women being contagious is breathtakingly naive. Sweden is not, for example, a country where rape is taken seriously. In a case earlier this year a woman who had been injured in a very nasty assault at a party, where a group of men attempted to push a bottle up her vagina, was told by the judge who acquitted her attackers that she was to blame for her injuries a she had closed her legs to prevent the violation. Oh and trafficking hasn’t gone away either as you can read here.
Apicella is not the first British feminist to suspend her critical faculties in relation to Sweden and I doubt she will be the last. It is, however, a worry that some many voices are making themselves heard in support of a policy that is unsupported by evidence, a triumph of ideology over common sense.