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Sex Work and the Swedish Model: Modern Prudery or Enlightened Ambition?

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A carefully orchestrated campaign to criminalise the buyer of sexual services is set to be centre staged this year. Emotions, prejudice, feminism, ideology and religion are creating a vortex, and revolving at its centre is the question as to whether selling and purchasing sexual services is right or wrong.

Where are the rights of sex workers in this debate, have they been consulted and has their voice been heard?

For many, the image of a sex worker is a cliché in our minds, typified by the common media depiction of a provocatively clad girl leaning into the open window of a car at the kerbside.
I have questioned society's mindset of sex workers by talking to sex workers about their lives. They are perfectly normal human beings with the same hopes, fears and desires we all share. There is one exception; their fear of exposure to a society which will treat them no better than the stigmatised child crossing the school playground. Consequently, they live double lives, are marginalised and are wary of stepping forward and expressing their views.

Sex sells. And the decision to sell sexual favours is driven by the need to earn money to pay bills, mortgages and even, student fees etc.

And then there is desire. As long as there is a living body there will be desire, yet we live in a world which has long attempted to suppress that urge. The roots of restraint extend back to unwanted pregnancies, the size of the families, available food resources and religious influence. The widespread availability of contraceptives has fundamentally changed the need to contain desire. So, is paying for sex between two consenting individuals a private moral issue or is the wider public good involved?

When my antennae first registered human trafficking for sexual exploitation, I had the impression of it being widespread. Researching the statistics and the material available, changed my view. I read of cases where, to escape poverty, women were willing to be smuggled and trafficked, knowing that they will be exploited and if rescued, deported. Which means there are, of course, two perspectives.

Human trafficking and smuggling are complex, stand-alone issues, involving migration, inequality and poverty, and each instance is seldom clear-cut. With the debate firmly focused on human trafficking for sexual exploitation many other labour sectors open to trafficking are being largely ignored.

The two complex issues of sex work and human trafficking are being fused in a campaign spearheaded by those who see sex work as abusive and as being inextricably linked to human trafficking for sexual exploitation. Their cure is to criminalise the buyer of sexual services - a criminal record, no less - to force demand reduction and consequently a decrease in human trafficking - the Swedish or Nordic Model.

Opponents maintain that the Swedish system reduces the already strained contact between police and sex workers, erodes transparency and that limited police resources will switch from identifying traffickers on the supply side to the clients on the demand side. They advocate the adoption of the Merseyside Model, a practical approach, which allows sex workers to operate in a safe environment in collaboration with the police.

Money is the reason for selling sexual services, although the sellers often veil this core fact behind the need for flexible working hours, freedom from laborious or menial jobs etc. They sell their services in an unregulated cash industry, leaving themselves and the industry exposed to criminal elements with recourse to the law often being fraught with dangers and prejudice.

One single factor clearly connects migration, smuggling, trafficking, the clichéd drug-addicted street worker and the high-end escort, and it's money. Any legislation concerning sex work grounded in ideology or belief which fails to take money into account as the prime motivator for sex workers will create misery and bad laws.

Mason N. Forbes is the author of Bitter Sweet ( amzn.to/18unNQr ), a crime thriller involving human trafficking and the sex business.