In June 2019, two sex workers, one of whom was pregnant, were jailed for nine months in Ireland. The two Romanian women were selling sexual services from a flat they shared for safety when they were raided by the police. Selling sex is legal in Ireland, which has implemented the so-called Swedish model of sex work regulation. But because there were two of them the police were able to charge both with brothel keeping, which isn’t legal.
This is just one example of complicated risks facing sex workers in Europe today. Those risks don’t disappear under Swedish model, a legal framework promoted as a win-win way for states to protect sex workers while punishing their clients, as has just been shown. Regardless of the model used, sex workers, especially undocumented migrant sex workers, remain at high risk of criminalisation in Europe and consequently of imprisonment and deportation.
Discriminatory policing, profiling, and surveillance by authorities affect many communities of sex workers in Europe. Sex workers who are migrants, homeless, gender non-conformist, or people of colour come into higher than average contact with the police. As a result they also face disproportionate levels of detention and imprisonment.
In countries where selling sex is an administrative or criminal offense, police routinely target both street-based sex workers and their clients. Sex workers soliciting in hotspots or cruising areas are particularly vulnerable to police harassment. Evidence from Serbia shows a pattern of arbitrary arrest for activities as minor as loitering at locations where sex workers usually solicit clients, offering services to passers-by, or even possessing condoms. Non-sex work related laws, such as traffic regulations or public morality and order offenses, are also routinely usedagainst sex workers in places where selling sex itself is not illegal.
Sex workers aren’t only targeted at their workplaces. Gender and racial profiling makes them vulnerable regardless of where they are or what they are doing. Roma women in the Balkans, for instance, report constant harassment from the police in their daily lives, while Chinese sex workers in Paris report that they are often afraid to leave their homes and workplaces. They fear the police targeting them based on their migration status.
Being chased by the police is part of the everyday reality of sex workers even in countries with the Swedish model. According to the 2018 evaluation of the client criminalisation law in France, municipal bylaws restricting sex work at the local level and regular identity checks aimed at those selling sex result in sex workers still being more often criminalised than their clients. Sex workers often report intimidation by the police, including being pressured to report clients. If they’re undocumented they are frequently threatened with deportation if they do not comply.
Government officials frequently justify these types of police intervention as part of the fight against trafficking. In practice, however, it’s clear the primary aim is to surveil, raid, and deport migrant sex workers. In some countries those suspected of being potential sex workers are stopped and returned at the border. In Sweden, the mere assumption that a migrant person will not support themselves by ‘honest means’ is sufficient grounds for denial of entry. As Swedish policies openly declare that victims of trafficking should not be reintegrated into society in Sweden, but rather in their country of origin, even those classified as victims of this crime are sent back. These are not caring policies. They are policies of identify, obstruct and remove.
That is not, however, how they are presented. Abolitionist feminists have long advocated for a model that primarily uses criminal justice to ‘protect’ women from prostitution. The Swedish model has its roots in these campaigns. But for sex workers, the police play a repressive rather than a protective role. It is this discrepancy between the lived realities of (migrant) sex workers and a white, middle-class hope in the police as the saviour of women that has led us to anti-trafficking policies that exacerbate the vulnerabilities of sex workers rather than supporting them.
Evidence is clear about the impact of approaching sex work as a criminal justice matter. According to new research, sex workers operating in a context of repressive policing have a three times higher chance of experiencing sexual or physical violence than those left alone to go about their work. Sex workers thus demand that policy makers and abolitionist feminists reconsider their rose-spectacled view of police intervention and instead listen to those who face the consequences of these policies every day.