Do Chicago Sex Workers need Swedish laws?

By Elizabeth Pisani

Do Chicago sex workers need Swedish laws?

I’m in Chicago for the month of April, just as the Illinois state Senate tries to increase the penalties for buying and selling sex. The bill (which passed the House unanimously last month) will make it a felony to buy sex, so that any vet, doctor, lawyer etc convicted of the crime will lose their livelihood for ever. Which is neither here nor there to many people, unless it’s the doctor that is treating your child’s leukemia. It is avidly supported by End Demand and other abolitionists groups.

These groups look to Sweden as their model, or at least half of it. Arguing that all prostitution is violence of men against women, the Swedes in 1989 made it illegal to buy sex (even from men and transgenders, go figure). Arresting and fining punters was supposed to strike a blow against partriarchy, advance the feminist cause, and, of course, reduce violence against women. Here’s what has happened since the law was passed:

sweden_rape_prostitution_data

At a cost to the Swedish tax payer of over US$ 7 million a year, Sweden has, over the last four years, convicted an annual average of three people for trafficking and 18 for pimping, and has fined an average of 75 men a year for buying sex. Street-based sex work did nose-dive soon after the law was passed, then stabilised and remains constant. There’s no information about what’s happened to women selling sex in other venues, including apartments, clients’ homes, neighbouring Denmark… What we do know is that convictions for rape have increased by 28% since it became illegal to buy sex, and convictions for sexual crimes overall have increased by 68%. Some of this may be because the hoopla surrounding the law did effectively advance the Ice Queen agenda, and more women are successfully prosecuting men under the country’s incredibly vague “rape” laws. But it hardly fills one with confidence that “end demand” campaigns will reduce violence against women overall.

Chicago’s abolitionists are a strange miscegenation of paternalistic feminists (I’ll tell you when you can and can’t consent to sex, dear) and tub-thumping moralisers (extra-marital sex is bad, and convenient, no-strings, paid extramarital sex is much, much worse). They have both failed to grasp the logic that underlies the Swedish approach. If all sex workers are victims by definition, then it is hardly fair to bang them up in jail for the violence that is done to them. And indeed, in Sweden, people who sell sex can’t be prosecuted. In Chicago, on the other hand, we’re busy increasing the penalties for both the buyers and the sellers of sex. So we are:

1) depriving women (and men, and transgenders) of their right to consent to sex, if payment is involved

AND
2) depriving women (and ditto) of a living

AND
3) depriving women (and other prostitutes) of their liberty, if they get caught.

You’d think from the Chicago police department’s Rogues’ Gallery that the only people who get arrested for soliciting and prostitution are blokes and the odd trans. But that just reflects a policy decision only to put up photographs of people with Y chromosomes. If you delve into the stats a bit, you’ll find that women bear the brunt of prostitution-related arrests right now. Look at this:

chicago_prostitution

It’s already illegal both to sell sex and to buy it in Chicago, and indeed all of Illinois. Making it MORE illegal on both sides, which is what HR6195 is proposing to do, is not going to change that. What it may change is the overall volume of arrests, since a felony is more likely to lead to a court case than a misdemeanour, which is what most prostitution charges currently qualify as. More court cases mean more police time in court. And since Illinois cops are paid time-and-a-half with a three hour minimum for showing their face in court, that rather increases the incentive to arrest. And as you can see from the graph above, it’s easier to arrest women than men. So my question to the good feminists of End Demand is this: How, exactly, do they think HR6195 helps women who choose to sell sex for a living?

5 Responses

  1. It’s not going to make much of a difference since the selling of sex remains criminalized.

    As far as the “felony conviction”, well, professional men such as doctors and lawyers have more options than working-class men do in the buying of sex-services, so they’re better able to cover themselves legally. For instance, professional men can travel to places were the law is less harsh more frequently then the latter. So this law would, as usual, effect mainly working-class men.

    This sort of reminds of an article I read where, at a so-called “john school”, a man who worked night-shift couldn’t stay awake during the day to listen to Julie Bindel haranging him. I guess Ms. Bindel couldn’t understand why a man who works night-shift (at probably a low wage) would have few enough sexual options that he would have to pay what was probably a street worker for his companionship.

  2. The thrust of my article on rape convictions in Sweden was, like the research that funded the Europe-wide study, to point out that convictions are low, not high. The Swedish data is bizarre because it makes it look as though gigantic, disproportionate numbers of rapes are committed in Sweden, in contrast with neighbouring countries with similar population demographics. The reason is understood by most, not only me, to be that ‘rape’ is now the term being applied to many acts that could be called assault, ambiguous consent, harassment and so on.

    It’s against all sociological principles to suggest cause-and-effect relationships like those in this article: there’s a bad law and, in another event, there is a rise in certain crimes. No connexion can be proved. This is, as they say, Sociology 101.

  3. Great news today- Hb6195 has been gutted and is dead, at least for now. Part of that bill’s language was incorporated into another bill, but most of the penalty increases for patronizing adult prostitutes did not make the cut.

  4. i’m not arguing against your right to be sex workers, but what about the thousands of women who are beaten and locked in rooms to service fifty men a day and don’t get a cent? I give you this link:

    http://www.priceofsex.org/content/price-sex-women-speak

    It seems sex work needs to be legalized immediately AND criminal gangsterism within the sex work industry needs to be fought against, hand in hand.

  5. Since slavery, rape, assault and kidnapping are already against the law, changes to existing prostitution laws really don’t affect any of that. The laws on the books should simply be enforced — the tools are there but they aren’t being used except to arrest consulting adult sex workers.

    We don’t want legalization and heavy-handed invasive regulation, we want decriminalization so we can work in peace.

    XX

    PS: I’m speaking about sex work in the US, which is what this blog post is about. The link you posted deals with sex work in a completely different situation. There is no one-size-fits-all solution though not criminalizing sex work is usually a first basic step.

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