Rose Alliance strongly condemns the vote by French National Assembly which criminalises the clients of sex workers in France. We stand in solidarity with the French sex workers who have fought against the introduction of this law and feel deep sorrow that yet another country has chosen the same path as Sweden despite evidence of the harm this path has caused here.
15 years ago Sweden claimed to have come up with a new model on how to solve ‘prostitution’. This model was built on the idea that ‘prostitution’ is a form of men’s violence against women. Thus, clients and pimps were criminalized and all sex workers were labeled as victims in need of rescue. The model was not designed to protect sex workers rights, it was about protecting fundamental values in the Swedish society, values that are so important that the increased stigma against sex workers resulting from the law is described as something positive for society as a whole. The law was said to be necessary in order to achieve gender equality.
The Desired Outcome
The desired outcome of this giant experiment was the complete eradication of sex work from society. We sex workers were the guinea pigs and neither our opinions nor our knowledge on the subject were taken into consideration before the law was implemented. Sweden believed so much in the model that it’s export to other countries was stipulated in government reports long before the law was even implemented.
After a decade and a half we can clearly see that the experiment has failed: the “Swedish Model” has not led to a decrease in sex work and has led to a greater vulnerability and stigmatisation of sex workers in Sweden.
This model is said to only criminalise clients and pimps but in reality it makes many aspects of work illegal for sex workers themselves. Even though it’s technically legal to sell sex, people are in practice stopped from doing so as it is illegal to rent out a home or a hotel room to a sex worker or to let them advertise their services in print or online. Police stalk sex workers under the guise of arresting clients and storm their homes to make arrests. Procurement laws have led to sex workers being arrested for working together for safety as they are seen as pimping each other.
Apart from these very concrete problems the “Swedish Model” has also caused danger in a more invisible but equally harmful way: because the law is presented as a way to protect vulnerable women from abuse, sex workers in Sweden are seen as passive victims with no agency, dignity or self-respect. We can’t consent to the work we do as it is not seen work at all, but as a form of self-harm that is beyond our control. We are not seen as capable of taking care of ourselves, let alone having custody of our children.
After 15 years of client criminalisation this view is shared by the majority of the Swedish population and has spread though our educational, health and social service system. We are now met with more prejudice than ever before, and are frequently described as “objects that men can buy and do what they want with”. In reality it is society turning us into objects of their politics. Any protest from sex workers against this kind of terminology is not taken seriously as the law has dehumanised us to the extent where we are seen as incapable of having rational thoughts or opinions.
Despite these failures the law continues to be marketed to other countries as a model of success. When Sweden’s initial attempt to advocate for it as a tool for equality didn’t work they re-branded it as a tool against trafficking. In a time of increased migration and fear of the western welfare states’ decline, this worked. Norway, Iceland, Canada, Northern Ireland and now, France, have all adopted versions of the ‘Swedish Model’.
As a sex workers rights group we are especially worried about the effect the new French laws will have on the large number of migrant sex workers in France. In Sweden the money put into client criminalisation has largely been used to profile migrant women as victims of human trafficking. When they refuse to state that they are victims or refuse to testify they are deported for making a “dishonest” living, regardless of them holding the appropriate visa or an EU-passport.
In France the government has presented the new law as positive for migrant sex workers, as they will be permitted to stay in France legally for 6 months if they abandon sex work and re-insert professionally and socially. Another exit model will be put into place to help French nationals leave sex work. But even though both groups are classified as victims under the new law, help is only given to those who repent and promise to stop doing sex work. Similar programs are in place in Sweden. They only focus on rescue and “rehabilitation”. For sex workers who do not want to quit there are no resources at all.
It is completely unacceptable that this kind of ultimatum is forced upon people who might not want to or be able to leave sex work. Sex workers right to safety and help should not be conditional!
Lastly we would like to point to the fact that this law has been opposed by hundreds of French organisations such as sex worker-led trade union STRASS, human rights organisation League of Human Rights and health organisation Médecins du Monde and that the criminalisation of clients is denounced by international organisations such as international Amnesty International, Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women and many UN bodies such as the World Health Organisation.
These organisations have done thorough academic research and listened to the voices of sex workers to make sure they advocate for the model, decriminalisation, that best protects sex workers and their human rights. The French National Assembly should do the same instead of buying into Sweden’s well-orchestrated PR campaign which is built on ideology instead of research.