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Swedish Justice Minister to the pillory!

by on July 10, 2010

– one Swedish woman’s view on the nation’s Prostitution Law Review report

SPARKS are still flying after Sweden’s self-congratulatory Skarhed report on its  law criminalising sex workers’ clients, notably over inflated Danish sex worker figures used for comparison. Here is a guest post by language teacher Helena von Schantz in Sweden, who has kindly translated it for us from her excellent blog. Over to you, Helena…

Background: During a seminar on prostitution on the 18th of March this year, Swedish Minister of Justice Beatrice Ask (right) came up with a novel idea: Public disgrace for suspected punters.

This is a direct quote from the seminar: “I want to send garish envelopes to the sex buyers, because I think the worst thing that can happen to a sex buyer is that somebody in their surroundings finds out what they have done, the wife or the neighbour… We should have purple envelopes, it should be clear that you’re suspected of having bought sex.” 

When confronted with the question, what if a child finds the envelope, she answered thus: “The daughter might just as well find out what kind of father she has. You have to remember not to protect the wrong factor (just as abstruse in Swedish). If the daughter has been abused by her father the letter may give her the courage to come forward.”

Naturally there was a lot of outrage and also demands for Beatrice Ask’s resignation. In the beginning she stuck to her guns, but six days later she made a half-hearted apology that allowed her to remain in office.

I thought a Utopian world view was the prerogative of the Communist party. However, our attorney general Beatrice Ask must lean that way too.  At least, that’s the only reason I can think of why she would commission a study where the conclusions are made before the investigation begins. Now it turns out that even the few meagre facts that are actually presented in the study are faulty.

The statistics on Danish street prostitution are based on nothing but air. Not only is it not known how many of the women reported actually are in the sex trade and how many others are homeless, drug addicts or for other reasons in need of assistance and protection. Even when that is disregarded the figures are off. Way off. But in this “investigation” facts have no bearing. The sex law simply may not be questioned.

If you consider the purple envelope debacle in March, things become a bit clearer. What can you expect from an Attorney General who suggests that men suspected of buying sex should be paraded in the square? Convicted murderers, bank robbers, smugglers and rapists do not need coloured envelopes and public condemnation, prison suffices for them. Men suspected of having paid for sex, however, they should be tarred and feathered. From this follows that being suspected of buying sex is worse than being a convicted rapist. What happens to rape statistics when the authorities send out that kind of signal?

The European Council has recommended that prostitutes should have their say in decisions that affect them, but that advice falls on deaf ears in Sweden. Beatrice Ask’s starting point is a zero vision. We are supposed to heap shame and disgrace on sex buyers until the market is dead, because sex is not a commodity.

How naïve can you get? Sex not a commodity? It’s probably one of the very first commodities. There are prostitutes of both sexes in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Iran, although the penalty is death – usually a painful and disgraceful death at that. Have none of the pro sexlaw people watched the documentary ”Prostitution behind the veil” by Nahid Persson? Do they really think that the Swedish sex law will succeed where Sharia laws have failed? Are they under the illusion that buying or selling sex without getting caught is hard in Sweden? I could probably not steal a car or rob a bank without going to prison, but I could definitely buy and/or sell sexual favours morning, noon and night without anyone being the wiser.

Consequently there were all of 69 poor sods prosecuted for buying sex in Sweden in 2009. I’m thinking that they were either drunk, incredibly stupid or had really nasty enemies, because this is a “crime” any fool should be able to perpetrate without being caught. You would have to have an advanced system of informants or police with Orwellian rights for us to keep track of whether people are paid for sex or not.

It’s so easy to judge people who buy or sell sex  from your sheltered suburban world. It’s easy, and it’s wrong. Moralizing about other people’s choices is wrong. Judging other people is wrong. Limiting the rights of others to rule over their bodies and their lives is wrong. Far more wrong than buying or selling sex – something that generally neither concerns nor harms anybody else. That’s why it’s Beatrice Ask, our own little Dolores Umbridge, who should be marched to the pillory. Not the sex buyers.

Marched to the pillory, or even better, made to resign.

(Photos of sex worker executions in Ghanzi Province, Afghanistan, by Rahmatullah Naikzad, AP Photos)

  1. Xena permalink


    I’m so moved by the photo. I know a little about Islam. I can’t stop thinking, what happened to the ladies’ heads?

  2. It can give you nightmares. Stephen added those very appropriate photos.

  3. Xena permalink

    Yes, Helena. I can see their heads in baskets and Suzanne Blamires head in that knapsack when I think too hard. And it’s rarely a trick that does something like this. There was a headcase here about 20 years ago that killed a few girls in Toronto. But he also killed a social worker and another girl. I think she was an actress or something.

    With all the creepy men and a few women that mistake me for a sex worker when I have to hitchhike to school because I’m poor, I sometimes wonder if one of those psychos will turn up again. If it will be my nipples in some hog trough a la Willie Pickton, my head in a knapsack in the next front page story.

    Or worse, sometimes I wonder if I’ll have to get shipped off to Penetang (a maximum security mental institution) under the FALSE headline-grabber “Canada’s Aileen Wuornos” for using my crowbar in self-defense.

    It does keep me awake some nights. I’m dreading the end of my student sublet in September, and hoping I don’t get stuck sleeping on park benches or underfunded unfit homeless shelters again.

  4. Xena, I’m sorry you feel such fear and desperation. There are really scary people out there, but there are some really nice ones too. I so much hope that you meet someone who shows you kindness, because you so clearly need that.

    But If I may offer you some advice: Keep your crowbar or pepperspray handy in case you’re proven wrong, but expect people to be nice until that moment. I think you’d be happier that way and I think people would treat you better as well. We all rise to expectations to some degree.

  5. Thanks as always Helena:

    “The European Council has recommended that prostitutes should have their say in decisions that affect them, but that advice falls on deaf ears in Sweden.”

    This puts me in mind of a meeting last year addressed by Gunilla Ekberg. Dick Wase reports “Then one of the participants stood up and asked if it could be possible to listen to what some prostitutes had to say. A representative of an international women’s program then grabbed the podium microphone and shouted: ‘We do not need to talk to prostitutes to know what prostitution is.’

    That’s not my brand of feminism which seeks to understand and stand in the shoes of ‘other’. I took the liberty of adding that amongst other links to Ekberg’s Swedish language Wikipedia article.

  6. Orwell permalink

    @Michael Goodyear
    Things have been lost in translation, it wasn’t at the conference Dick Wase attended, before what you are referring to he actually writes:

    “This reminded me very much of an incident at a 3 day conference in Spain about trafficking and and prostitution that Laura Agustin writes about: One of the participants stood up…

    (and he doesn’t say G.Ekberg was at that conference (the one Laura G. attended), maybe she was but he doesn’t say so)

  7. Orwell permalink

    I meant Laura A.

  8. Thanks for the tip, Michael! That is a very good article. Angry, intelligent and funny all at the same time. I particularly liked the comparison with religion. Very apt.

    Orwell is right in his correction, though. Thanks for your input, Orwell!

  9. @Orwell

    Tack Orwell!
    Not translation – memory. I had remembered the phrase I quoted, and the article had been bookmarked under Ekberg, and I just pulled out the phrase, adding it was connected to Ekberg. My apologies, and thanks for your sharp eyes.

    The reason I raise this is that Stephen had asked – what happened to Gunilla Ekberg, considered the Equality Ministry’s star spokesperson in the first part of the last decade. She had been involved in a series of controversies, see for instance Bo Rothstein’s scathing criticism of the moral collapse of Swedish journalism:

    The Minister, Jens Orback, however defended her publicly. Shortly thereafter she disappeared from the public scene in Sweden and resurfaced in Brussels at CATW head office as Co-Executive Director. Isabella Lund dates this as occurring in 2006 (The Legacy of Gunilla Ekberg):

    Later that year Isabella states that her departure was when the Government changed (September 2006).

    Since then she has billed herself as ‘former’ adviser to the Swedish Government. A Canadian source dated Dec 6 2006 uses the term ‘former’. Recently I have seen her described as being formerly at CATW. I searched the CATW archives and she is only listed there between July 2007 (replacing Janice Raymond) and August 2008.

    Ekberg is worth reading in terms of the insights she has into the creation of the process, the resistance (e.g. The police) and her despair when the Government became conservative.

  10. Orwell permalink

    Ekberg is still touring the world

    Met Police Monthly:Promoting changes to prostitution laws

    Kit Malthouse met Gunilla Ekberg, Eaves’ Policy and Legislative Adviser on Prostitution and Human Trafficking and expert on international human rights. They met to discuss Clause 14 of the Policing and Crime Act that will make buying sexual services illegal, they discussed ways to promote changes to ‘customers’, enforcing the law and what happens in other countries.

    Beirut must make prostitution illegal

    Human rights expert says supporting prostitution is violence against women

  11. @Orwell
    Thanks. Yes, I know she is touring the world, she turns up wherever there is a hint the laws might be liberalised. I am not sure who exactly is paying the bills – there is a reference there to CATW, but as I mentioned they dropped her from their executive some time ago – not the easiest person to work with. Maybe she is now a hired speaker and consultant.

    The story of her childhood is very telling.

    I also find it bizarre that CATW types bill themselves as Human Rights Groups and Human Rights Experts. It has a nice ring, but I try and counter it wherever I see it. Thus we see both those trying to eradicate sex work and those trying to remove oppressive laws both claiming that they are working for human rights. The difference is CATW wants to take away people’s rights. They should be exposed wherever they pop their heads up above the trenches, for what they are.

  12. Human rights expert says supporting prostitution is violence against women

    A Swedish-Canadian lawyer, feminist and human rights expert, Gunilla S. Ekberg, lectures about the “International Situation on Prostitution and Trafficking in Human Beings: A Feminist Analysis” at LAU.

    April 14, 2010—

    A Swedish-Canadian lawyer, feminist and human rights expert, Gunilla S. Ekberg, spoke about the relationship between prostitution and violence against women in a lecture entitled “International Situation on Prostitution and Trafficking in Human Beings: A Feminist Analysis” at LAU on April 8.

    “Prostitution is the keystone in holding up a patriarchal society,” said Ekberg in the opening remarks of her lecture, held in the Irwin Hall – Conference Room, at the Beirut campus.

    The lecture was organized by LAU’s Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World in cooperation with the NGO KAFA (enough) Violence and Exploitation, and incidentally came just one day after Lebanon passed a law protecting women against domestic violence.

    Attended by women’s studies students and academics, the Sweden-based lawyer discussed how prostitution should be regarded as being equivalent to violence against women and that condoning the practice is a mistake.

    “It’s a gender-specific crime, where the buyer is almost a hundred percent male,” Ekberg said. She added that it is “the factor” that “men use to control women and the main barrier for women to have equal citizenship and full rights.”

    She recalled that 30 years ago it was difficult for women who were raped to get their rights in court. Today, activists are fighting for the prosecution of male clients and for the women prostitutes themselves to be seen as victims.

    “These women are no different from us,” she emphasized. “If we understand feminism in that way, then we have the responsibility to find out about women in different situations than ourselves.”

    Ekberg, who grew up in a rural area of southern Sweden, then shared a story of her childhood: When she was in high school, two teenage sisters from her village disappeared. Months later, they resurfaced in the Danish capital of Copenhagen, where it was discovered they had turned to prostitution after having endured years of sexual abuse by their father.

    Women who turn to prostitution should not be judged as the vast majority of them were abused as children, said Ekberg, adding their situation should not be seen as a choice.

    Because of the dire circumstances that lead women down this path as well as the inhumane conditions they endure when working, Ekberg believes prostitution should never be legalized, including in Lebanon, where it is implicitly permitted — but is not officially legal — within the system of “super nightclubs.”

    She took the examples of the Netherlands, Germany and Australia, all of which allow prostitution and have thriving sex industries. Interestingly, most of the men who travel for sex tourism come from these very same countries, a sign Ekberg said legalized prostitution only promotes the industry, rather than simply regulating what already exists.

    Because of a strong education campaign, today “Sweden is no longer a good market” for prostitution, said Ekberg.

    She concluded, “Without a market, there’s no demand, and without demand, business will go away.”

    Following the lecture, Ghada Jabbour, co-founder of KAFA and head of the unit on exploitation and trafficking in women, said, “It’s very important for people to start listening and debating.”

    According to Jabbour, whose group is currently compiling data about human trafficking and prostitution in Lebanon, “what’s clear is that the artist visa is a facilitation of prostitution.” She added, “Prostitution is happening here, and everyone knows it, but they turn a blind eye.”

    She said, “It’s good to hear about the Swedish experience, and see how they’ve dealt with the problem. They’re a role model for other countries and feminists.”

    Ekberg was appointed co-executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women International in 2007, an international non-governmental organization established in 1988 that promotes women’s human rights by working internationally to combat sexual exploitation in all its forms.

    Prior to this appointment, Ekberg held the position of special adviser to the Swedish government on trafficking in human beings for five and a half years, responsible for developing public and legislative policy. She regularly acts as an expert on trafficking in human beings to international bodies and to national parliamentary commissions developing measures on trafficking in human beings.

  13. When we consider how easily a woman can be raped by her husband or relative in Islamic countries, we really see how male lust for power over women is incredibly degrading.

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  1. how which-hunt can be seen as means to achieve gender equality: based on Swedish and Afghan example « Lo Tekk

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