"Our main goal is to support each other" (english)

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Interview with Pye Jakobsson

The so-called "Swedish model" was introduced in Sweden in 1999. The legislation, which is part of the "Act against Violence Against Women" ("Kvinnofrid"), criminalizes the purchase – but not selling – of sexual services. It also makes pimping, procuring and operating a brothel illegal. On top of that, the "pimping law" does not allow sex workers to share an apartment and work together, since they can be charged with exploiting the other person and with leading her into sex work. Norway and Iceland adopted similar legislation in 2009.

In Sweden the work of sex workers has become harder and more unsafe. They have had to find alternatives and not only protect their own identity but also the identity of their clients, who can be arrested and charged for buying sex. Rose Alliance, a sex workers' organization from Stockholm, gives a voice to those who remain unheard within the normative social discourse about sex work. When was Rose Alliance founded?

Pye Jakobsson: In the seventies three female sex workers supported by friends founded the first organization in Sweden. It was called "The Front for Sexual Politics". They went around the street area putting up posters and 15–20 women came to the first meeting. They were fighting the stigma and were out and proud. And of course they were totally harassed by the police. They said it was like the inquisition, really terrible.

Another attempt was made in the mid-nineties. It was basically me and another sex worker who were out. I was mainly talking about pornography and striptease, because that was how I was protecting myself, saying I was only stripping. The other woman worked as an escort. In 2001 we registered under the name "Rosea" (National Organization of Sex and Erotic Workers). The next step was to get allies. Of course we were flooded with happy liberals. The sex workers were very few to begin with and they became fewer as more liberals joined. In 2003, I and the other sex worker told the happy liberals that we were going to register the organization from then on under our name, so sex workers themselves could run it. We became more of an activist group, with a maximum of five people. A lot of time was spent on fighting the "Swedish model" in other countries. The last decade has basically been about that.

By 2010 things started to change slightly, because one or two politicians were against the law and the debates started to shift. We decided to mobilize, set some core values, and build a pretty webpage. After six months we had more than 60 members. We had a lot of growing pains within the organization and we still do when it comes to human and financial resources. Today we have about 150 members – current or former sex workers – and the number stays quite constant.

Do you meet up on a regular basis?

No. There is a core group of people, who are really active. And then there are those who write, for example, on their blogs about Rose Alliance or who occasionally do something or come to one meeting or a workshop. We have an annual meeting, and we have two workshops each year. We can't afford more regular meetings, because half of the members do not live in Stockholm.

Who are the members of Rose Alliance and what is your main focus nowadays?

We, the two founders of the organization, have also had experiences with drug use, which was also why the organization became a place where everything is allowed. There were some sex workers' organizations in the Nineties, who were obsessed with normality saying: "We don't do drugs and we don't do this and that". But we are not like that. We actually have people coming to us, who are sex workers and who use drugs and alcohol.

We always get accused, that we are this policy group that is against the Swedish model. And obviously we do that as well, but our main goal is to support each other. We also get e-mails from sex workers, who report about their problems with the law or on personal issues. And we are attempting to get a lawyer to work with us for this kind of counseling, but we are not there yet. So for now we either ask people we know or give basic legal advice ourselves.

Do you also do street work? Is that possible in Stockholm?

The streets in Stockholm are very quiet, most of the people work indoors. Our main concern is to distribute condoms, but we don't always have the capacities and the time for it.
The main service that is provided in Sweden for sex workers is run by three "Prostitution Units" ("Prostitutionsenheten") – one in Stockholm, one in Gothenburg and one in Malmö. They are part of the social service system and run with the goal to get sex workers out of sex work.

In Stockholm they are the worst. They do not give out condoms. If people would want condoms, they would have to come to their office, which is quite far away from the sex workers' place of work. Their idea is to lure sex workers into their office and talk to them. There is also a health clinic attached to their office, which is quite good, because it specializes in female sex workers with HIV and female sex workers, who use drugs. But since they are so driven by the ideology of getting sex workers out of their jobs, the therapies they are providing are problematic. They require continuous meetings and the main topics are shame, early abuses and problems with boundaries as the sorts of reasons that might have led them into sex work.

On top of that they also infantilize their clients. They do not ask sex workers directly to quit, but sex workers tell us, that if you are not making any attempts to quit, you do not get any help. They obviously have a very clear goal and they get funded pretty well.

How are you funded?

The funding we receive is very little. We are core-funded by the Dutch organization Mama Cash, which covers travel, meeting and phone costs. It's enough to pay for the expenses, so we don't have to pay out of our own pockets, but it doesn't pay the staff. Right now we also have a funding from the Open Society Foundation for a research project on the documentation of cases of discrimination. We also just finished a project with ten other countries, funded by the EU-program "Leonardo Da Vinci", that covered the mobility costs for meetings. We are also an official partner in a three-year project in a peer-to-peer methodology of HIV prevention in Sweden in cooperation with the organization HIV-Sweden.

How are you received by other organizations and by Swedish society?

I think, we became accepted faster than we thought we would. HIV-Sweden supports us. The LGBT organization RFSL ("Riksförbundet för homosexuellas, bisexuellas och transpersoners rättigheter") has been an ally since the beginning and they are very powerful in Sweden. RFSU ("Riksförbundet för sexuell upplysning"), the Swedish Association for Sexual Education, is not overly supportive but they are fine with us and invite us to meetings. Those are the three big organizations when it comes to HIV-prevention.

We also have good relations with self-organized groups like the Swedish Drug Users Union and ex-cons. The National Board of Health and Welfare is supportive of HIV-prevention and is also fine with us, and they are also quite critical of the "Prostitution Units". But the social services are a big problem. They are very biased, victimize sex workers and would like to "save" them. The health care professionals are much better, they are eager to learn more and are open to dialog. Their focus is health and HIV-prevention.

In general we have been very well received. We've had a truck at the pride parade for the last three years. First we were blamed by some people for glamorizing prostitution. We always said: "Well, we know we are supposed to be miserable, but one day per year we can dance! Is that ok?"

How have things changed since 1999, when the law that prohibited the purchase of sex was introduced?

The first change was, that there were fewer clients in the streets and the numbers of street workers went down. Sex workers moved indoors. This means outdoor sex workers have fewer clients to choose from. That's not good, because you either have to do things you don't agree to, like unprotected sex, or you have to take clients you normally would say no to. Also there's no negotiation time anymore: The clients rush to drive off. The contact should look like they are picking up a friend. The women have also less control over their working space. Many clients "suggest" better places, which are unknown to police. The first year police went out after outdoor clients, but lately there are not that many. So the police, whose core job it is to prevent crime, has to actually wait until the crime has happened, which is a problem itself.

But police have started storming private apartments of indoor workers. In the past, indoor workers had to protect just their own identities. Now they also have to protect the identities of their clients so they do not get arrested. Many sex workers used to do incalls either from their own apartments or in a rented space or from hotels. Now hotels have cameras and security staff, so this is not an option. And doing incalls to your own place is risky, because you can lose your apartment. Today, sex workers do outcalls to hotels, which is safe, but they also do outcalls to clients' homes, which means less safety.

In Sweden there are only two ways to work. One is in the streets and the other one is to work alone using the internet. The "pimping law" makes it risky to share apartments, so people work by themselves. The law implies that sex workers are victims and can't give consent and also that there is nothing like free will in sex work. It isolates people even more and restricts them from getting help if needed. However, there is an upside for Swedish sex workers, because they can now ask for more money, as the demand is bigger than the supply.

Were there any opposing voices when the law was introduced?

Only RFSU and RFSL were against the law out of a hundred different NGOs, from the health sector, the police and social services. In the meantime they both chickened out and are now asking for new evaluations. But we don't need to evaluate something that clearly doesn't work. The number of street workers has gone down, but that does not mean, that there are fewer sex workers. For the last five years, the government has argued that the law combats trafficking, but this is just in order to legitimize the law. This law is also in total conflict with recommendations from the WHO and the UN. None of them support it.

How high is the percentage of migrant sex workers in Sweden?

We have a low rate of migrants compared to other European countries: Three out of five are Swedish sex workers. The main reason is that it is difficult to work in Sweden as an indoor worker. You have to put up ads, you have to see the client and do outcalls. You have to answer calls and e-mails and you have to speak English. You can't work in Sweden without speaking English, because people will think that you are a trafficking victim. In other countries you have brothels and other working premises and it is enough if you just speak a little bit of English to talk about services and money. In Sweden you must have conversations, the more fluent the better, which of course excludes lots of migrants.

Some migrants, who come here, are members of Rose Alliance. And they have all kinds of problems. People are stopped at the border for having condoms in their suitcases and if the police arrest them they can get deported. Actually migrant workers usually come from the Ukraine and Romania. But there are also women from South America and Brazil, who live in Spain and travel to Stockholm. Also, people from France or England with short-term work permits work in Sweden, because the prices are so high. Usually sex workers can ask for 300 Euros an hour. Migrant workers might ask for a bit less, but it is still something like 250 Euros.

Do you expect any political changes to happen soon?

We don't really fight the "Swedish model" within Sweden. This would be a waste of time, because it won't change in my lifetime or within the next twenty years. Half of the parliament has made careers on it. So we rather spend energy on preventing installing the law somewhere else.

The RFSU, which is quite powerful, is actually going to take a look at our proposal and give the suggestion to the parliament. For the near future we hope that Norway – the second country that adopted it in 2009 – will take back the law. Unlike the Swedish NGOs in Norway all service providers, including the local counselor state service are against the law. They were against it from the beginning and they are fighting together with sex workers against it. Now they are writing a report with state service providers from all kinds of NGOs, churches, shelters and the red cross, who are very critical of the law. So, let's see what happens in Norway.

Interview: Regina Knoll

Link: Rose Alliance

Pye Jakobssonborn in 1968, is from Stockholm, Sweden. She is a sex worker activist and former sex worker. She is the co-founder of the national organization for sex workers in Sweden, Rose Alliance, a board member of NSWP (Global Network of Sex Work Projects), as well as a member of INPUD (International Network of People who Use Drugs). She is working as a project manager at HIV-Sweden. She is a frequent lecturer on issues about human rights, sex work and HIV.