When a student commits to a semester at DIS, they choose a course to be their “core course.” This is typically a class related to their major or to a subject of particular interest. It will hold a special place in their class schedule, as it entails 2 weeks of study covering material solely related to the class. The first week involves 3 days of travel and 2 lecture days in Copenhagen, while the second entails 5 days of travel. These blocks of time are great for immersion into the subject matter. DIS offers a myriad of options for all, and each core course is just as interesting as the next. (I really had the hardest time deciding) I study Criminal Justice, Communications, Women and Gender Studies, and Forensic Science so I looked at core courses like Terrorism and Counterterrorism, Humanitarian Law and Armed Conflict, and Prostitution and the Sex Trade. I chose the last-mentioned, to the stifled dismay of my parents, but have enjoyed it nonetheless. I won’t lie, it’s also pretty fun watching people’s faces when I tell them I study prostitution while abroad. It has also been very liberating to get out of my comfort zone and discuss a subject so repressed in American culture. The Danes are very open about topics related to sex and sexuality, which has fostered great discussions within the class.
For my short study tour, or core course week, I went to Malmö and Göteborg in Sweden. We heard several interesting speakers including the Swedish police, a transgender sex worker, a sex work researcher, and a human trafficking support NGO.
The Nordic Model of prostitution originated in Sweden and has been adopted by several other nations, including Norway, Iceland, Canada, and France. This system aims to eliminate prostitution as a whole by halting demand. To achieve this, the selling of sex has been legalized, but third parties and buyers have been criminalized. On the surface, this arrangement sounds beneficial—sex workers receive the support and protection they need. However, the implications are far more complex. Sex workers are protected in their right to sell sex, but are repressed in a number of other ways.
First, I’ll explain what a third party is. Typically, we consider a pimp to be a third party, but technically any person who aids a sex worker in their profession falls into this category. These could be brothel owners and escort drivers, or landlords and other sex workers. This is a great weakness of the legislation. If a landlord finds out that a tenant is a sex worker, they may be so inclined to increase rent in order to compensate for risk or even kick the tenant out. This results in homelessness, lack of a safe space to work, and inability to generate income. All of these are the opposite of the goal of the Nordic model, further repressing workers and creating poverty. Additionally, it creates a more hazardous environment because prostitutes are unable to work together. Numbers are important for safety and support, especially in an industry where the person working is highly vulnerable to a client they can only judge based on appearances. If found working together, sex workers can be arrested for pimping each other out.
These weaknesses, of course, were not highly emphasized in the lecture from the Swedish police. In fact, the lecturer emphasized that the workers could rely on the police for protection and resources. This would be countered by our next lecture. Additionally, she emphasized aspects of trafficking and the oppressive nature of the sex industry. One thing she said did resonate with me: “Women as the majority of prostitutes makes a statement about gender disparities in the world.”
In my heart and my heavy moral compass, I agreed with this and have struggled since with the inherent objectification associated with the sex industry. I continue to question how this reflects our view of women (who do make up the vast majority of sex workers) and their place in society. Listening to her speak, I honestly agreed with a lot of things about the Nordic model. It’s easy to fall for it because it’s beautifully idealistic. The aim of the model is to eliminate demand for buying sex as a way of undermining the industry as a whole. Women are oppressed by being prostituted and use the occupation as a last resort. It is not a fully voluntary choice because women are forced into it by a lack of options, and then most need help transitioning out of the industry.
I am a boring rule follower and value order (snore, I know). I was raised in a conservative, Catholic, American family in suburban Ohio. Especially in comparison to the Danes, sex is embarrassing to us Americans; it’s awkward and we abashedly avoid conversation surrounding it. While I thought I was as open minded as can be, deep down I knew for some reason I was uncomfortable with the idea of prostitution as a whole. One thing I took away from this trip, however, was central to my success in the class from this point on: my moral compass should be checked at the door. I’ll come back to this later.
The next lecture, I think, sparked my new approach. We spoke with a transgender sex worker who had lived in America, Germany, and Sweden and worked in the former two. One thing she said changed my entire perspective:
“ONLY RIGHTS CAN UNDO THE WRONGS”
This, I wholeheartedly agree with. She helped me fully understand the human rights perspective on prostitution, sex work as work. In her opinion, the Nordic model is a violation of fundamental human rights. It eliminates a person’s fundamental right to choose their occupation by attempting to crush the profession. Additionally, it is a threat to the right to housing because sex workers can be kicked out of their homes or denied housing. They may be barred from opening bank accounts, taking out loans, and getting mortgages, etc. as a result of the stigma attached to the profession. She gave a statistic that 63% of Swedish people think the policy encourages prejudices against prostitutes. The only way to correct these and wrongs mentioned above is to give sex workers more rights. Additionally, resources directed toward terminating prostitution should be turned on the root causes, like poverty and forces driving people to migrate. Sex and sex work should be viewed as fundamental human rights.
Later that day, we heard from a researcher who specifically focused on the performance of race in sex work. Her niche involved studying Thai transgender sex workers who had migrated to Europe. We discussed sociological implications of how these women perform gender and race. She posed the idea that the women were exoticising, themselves to make more money. Additionally, she presented monumentally important ideas about the presentation of femininity. The sex workers come to Europe and dress, look, and act in the most feminine way they know according to Western norms. Trans people exhibited the need to be considered beautiful to feel validates. To feel beautiful, they needed men to want to buy sex from them. This places value on the body and sexual desirability. They seek heteronormalcy, mimicking feminine traits that are inherently deviant in their bodies. We also learned about post-colonialism, and men seeking out these sex workers in a search for the stereotypical “submissive Asian woman” making them the “superior white.” This is a highly racialized sexual desire and leads back to power and the sex worker’s need to be wanted. Her research was highly specific but very well conducted and presented.
The next day, we went to Göteborg and herd from a human trafficking outreach organization. This had Christian roots and provided resources to those in the sex industry, especially those seeking refuge. I mention Christian roots because of an interesting point mentioned in the lecture. Once a week, a church allows the organization to serve coffee, tea, and snacks to sex workers. They might need information, blankets, or someone to talk to. A priest is there to pray with women and hear confessions. Someone in the class asked if the religious aspect made any of the women uncomfortable, and they replied that many women are drawn in because of the connection, though it was very loose. Women sought religion as it was offered because they felt ostracized from the religion in their home country due to their work. Many of them had immigrated from Eastern Europe, a common thread. Another interesting thing we discussed were penalties for buyers. They get a small fine for soliciting prostitutes. This can even be sent to their office, because many of the men buying have families and have jobs. They have disposable time and income, and many of them have power. Politicians need voters, which is why these punishments cannot become stricter to actually be enforced. Only a couple people have been imprisoned. Another thing they presented was the idea of why some people turn to sex work. Sad as it is, many had been sexually assaulted as children or underwent some violent trauma, so they subject themselves to that same experience over and over to attempt to understand and conquer it. While this may be true in some cases, this directly compares sex work to rape and well-represents Sweden’s perspective that the sex workers are victims.
On a lighter note, we went to a very interesting restaurant for dinner. It was a “Boulebar,” basically French bocce ball on indoor courts. Some of my classmates were absolute Olympians out the gate, though none of us had played before. I, of course, was not so gifted. We had a lot of fun and ate some really good food. DIS really takes care of us when it comes to meals.
We returned to Copenhagen for a lecture and walking tour but as this is lengthy and I am probably wouldn’t have even gotten this far, I’ll wrap up with a few final remarks. We were taken on a walking tour of Copenhagen from a sex work perspective. We saw buildings where old brothels stood, old hospitals for those carrying venereal diseases, the courthouse, the square for public humiliation, and Copenhagen’s Red Light District. One interesting point the tour guide made was in pointing out a statue. She mentioned that many prostitutes were models for works of art. It’s interesting that those so stigmatized by society for so many years are now the ones immortalized and admired for their beauty in the form of art.
One final thing I want to mention is how we bonded as a group. I didn’t expect to have so much time to get to know my classmates. We had a great time exploring together, breaking down presentations, and forming our opinions as we gathered knowledge. Writing this in March, I’ve grown very fond of my class and am inspired by their intelligence, articulation, and thoughtfulness with each passing class meeting. I’ve had so much fun getting to know everyone and making memories as a group.
(enjoying art in Malmö)
(if you know…)