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:


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

2) depriving women (and ditto) of a living

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:


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?

This post was published on 20/04/10 in Pisani's picks, The sex trade.

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  1. Comment by Pheasant, 21/04/10, 04:44:

    Legalize it!

  2. Comment by Dag Brück, 21/04/10, 07:27:

    So your point is that based on the chart you cannot claim anything with statistical significance? Except that the total number of convictions are on the rise, reason unknown.

  3. Comment by Amanda, 22/04/10, 12:06:

    Unlike Sweden, who thinks all sex workers are victims, Americans seem to think that women should NOT be sex workers and it’s their fault if they are. To answer your final question, this bill only helps sex workers in that it’s meant to encourage us to leave sex work.


  4. Comment by Serpent, 24/04/10, 06:19:

    Wonderful article Elizabeth. I just received some interesting news on HB6195 last night and it seems good, but for now the bill has a hearing in the Senate Executive Committee on Wednesday, April 28.

    An no, we don’t want to “legalize it”, we want to decriminalize it.

  5. Comment by Aspasia, 24/04/10, 07:28:

    Thank you for this, Dr. Pisani! I only wish you could testify at the Senate this month here in Illinois. The hearing date is April 28th.


  6. Comment by laura agustin, 27/04/10, 10:35:

    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 in comparison with complaints, 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. That is not the same as a law being vague. The data show what statisticians call attrition – a crime seems to increase but fewer perpetrators are convicted, which indicates something that has to be investigated further. The European report clearly states this: neither the bizarrely low rate of crime and conviction in Hungary nor the bizarrely high rate in Sweden can be taken at face value.

    It’s considered unacceptable in the social sciences to suggest cause-and-effect relationships like mentioned here: there’s a bad and ineffective law, and, in another event, there is a rise in some crimes. No connexion can be proved. This is, as they say, Sociology 101.

  7. Comment by s w schiller, 03/05/10, 09:52:

    most prostitutes are heavy users of narcotics and are therefore a victim of circumstance forced into prostitution needing the money for their unhealthy habits leading them to go out onto the dangerous streets…. this is really bad in russia as crime drugs and prostitution exploded with the collapse of communism there…. go figure

  8. Comment by Amalie, 28/05/10, 01:36:

    Can I just ask what the Ice Queen agenda is?

  9. Comment by Martin, 11/08/10, 04:55:

    Amanda’s comment is broadly right: while the old-style moralizing about prostitutes rested on the view that it’s morally wrong *of the girl* to entice men and it’s the girl’s own fault, the thinking behind the 2000 Sweedish law implies a recognition that most prostitutes are not in it from genuinely free choices. It turns the moralizing away from the hooker and towards the buyer. I’d add that very few people over here would imagine that the law by itself will abolish prostitution, and it’s rarely possible to use it if the girl isn’t also behind the inquiry, which means it’s not about “persecuting nice and neat whores”. The law is seen as a statement of public values, and yanks who trumpet about banning the burning of the American flag should be a bit less sanctimonious about these issues.

  10. Comment by Martin, 11/08/10, 05:45:

    By the way, the law dates to 1998 (in force as of Jan.1, 1999), not 1989. And no, patrolling the red-light alleys 24/7 and hauling every consenting girl and their customers into the police cars is not high priority in Sweden, no more than in France or in the UK.

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