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Prostitution of poverty or sexual self-determination?

Never before in Denmark have so many different opinions been voiced in the trafficking debate. This article examines the different feminist perspectives towards this transnational and transgressive phenomenon – a phenomenon which has become a contentious topic on today’s political agenda.

In a side street in Copenhagen’s Vesterbro district, a smell of incense fills the morning air. As shops start to open and parents cycle their children to school, the incense sticks in front of the Thai massage clinics are lit. Along with the gaudy plastic flowers and the paw-waving golden cats in the windows, the scent of incense tells that this is the right place to come if you want to buy the sexual favours of a Thai woman or ladyboy.

Those offering their services are seldom seen out and about in the streets. No one knows their personal stories. Nevertheless – throughout Danish society – opinions about what these people need flourish.

According to estimates from the Danish authorities, approximately every second person selling sex in Denmark today is a foreigner. But what does this statistic really tell us? Do these foreign women in the Danish sex industry represent a growth in international trafficking? Or do they merely show that more people are migrating to find work – also to find work in Denmark’s sex industry?

These questions have polarised the Danish prostitution debate. In fact, opinions differ so much that the Copenhagen police actually feared that there would be clashes on International Women’s Day (8 March this year) when two groups of demonstrators marched through the Vesterbro district, each with their own political convictions regarding prostitution.

The demonstrations passed without event. Nevertheless, the fears of the police paint a poignant picture of the current climate in the Danish trafficking and prostitution debate – a climate where reconciliation seems out of the question any time soon.

A demand from the Danish people
Trafficking first burst into the public arena when the magazine of 3F (a Danish trade union) sent a journalist to Romania where he bought a 16-year-old girl, Carmen, from human traffickers. The aim was to show just how easy it is to buy another person. The story was the beginning of a massive 3F campaign against the trafficking of women, which culminated in the Danish people demanding politicians to take action. Over 100,000 Danes signed a protest petition presented to the then minister for social affairs.

The campaign, which went under the name Stop the trafficking of women, was an historic event as no trade union had ever previously engaged in the debate. But, with the increasing focus on trafficking within both Denmark and abroad, 3F changed its course.

“It was about moral indignation. As a trade union, we are engaged throughout a wide segment of society – also when it comes to a person’s way of life over and above having decent work life. We needed not only to denounce the increasing trade in women that was going on right under our noses, but also to address the prevailing laissez-faire attitudes of people,” explains Marianne Bruun, Equal Opportunities Consultant at 3F.

At the same time, 3F’s campaign signalled a completely new era for the trafficking debate in Denmark. 3F was not merely satisfied with collecting signatures on its petition or printing disclosing stories about the brutal exploitation of women in prostitution. The trade union went all the way to proposing the complete banning of prostitution in Denmark – in line with Norway and Sweden. And their colleagues in the Danish Social Democrat Party backed them up.

“I simply don’t understand how it can be legal to sexually abuse a woman – as that’s precisely what’s going on,” explained the chairman of 3F, Poul Erik Skov Christensen, to the Danish newspaper Dagbladet Information in 2007.

The birth of a resistance movement
Throughout Danish society, there were many who approved of 3F’s demands – not least those organisations who had long wanted a critical debate about prostitution. One of these was the Danish organisation Dansk Kvindesamfund (Danish Women’s Society). Seizing the impetus, Dansk Kvindesamfund launched the following year a web campaign against payment for sex – Take a stance, man. Here, men could publically pledge their support to the proposal. Many Danish men, including prominent and well-known men, did exactly that. One of the supporters, Editor in Chief of Politiken (a major Danish broadsheet newspaper), wrote:

“I fully support a ban on buying sex. It is simply grotesque that through the power of money, one person can force another person into providing false intimacy. It’s a violation of the most fundamental right to equality between human beings.”

However, not all agreed that a complete ban on buying sex was the way forward in the fight against trafficking. Nor did some completely agree that prostitution is a violation of a person’s right to equality. On the contrary, these new voices in the debate represented the birth of a whole new resistance movement.

Under the name Seksualpolitisk Forum (Sexual Political Forum), a number of researchers, sexologists and artists joined forces in 2007. They all shared a common opinion that the debate about sexuality in Denmark had become morally biased, one-sided and intolerant and that the debate needed new input and perspective.

One of the co-founders was the historian Nina Søndergaard. She was (and still is) tired of the fact that women in prostitution are per definition classed as victims.

“I think it’s a shame that we bestow a lower position of power upon women as compared to men. You could quite as easily turn it around and say that a powerful woman is a woman who sells a service which has to be bought by a man,” explains Nina Søndergaard.

Seksualpolitisk Forum believes that all women – also foreign women – have the right to decide over their own bodies and sexuality. Therefore, if a woman decides to sell sex, this is a human right with which the state cannot interfere. And that is what a ban on paying for sex would mean.

However, this does not mean that the network denies the existence of trafficking.

"Trafficking is a crime that must be punished severely. But at the same time, we have to understand that there is a difference between trafficking and exploitation. We want to focus more on that difference. Similarly, it’s important to emphasise that not all prostitution is trafficking and not all trafficking is prostitution,” says Nina Søndergaard.

Is prostitution inequality?

When Denmark made human trafficking illegal in 2002 with a new clause in Danish criminal law, no one protested. Hardly is there anyone – except for human traffickers themselves – who believes that trafficking is a good thing.

Even though the opposing sides in the Danish trafficking debate disagree about many points, they are unanimous in their condemnation of trafficking – just as they agree that trafficking has its roots in poverty and an unbalanced distribution of the world’s resources. After all, Danish women are not being trafficked to Nigeria or Romania.

But differences of opinion become evident when addressing the more specific questions of the causes of trafficking, who the victims of trafficking are and how to prevent trafficking.

These are the questions that significantly polarise the different sides in the debate – not least because the issue also concerns prostitution. Whereas trafficking in other countries is a phenomenon prevalent in different sectors, such as in the fishing industry or the building trade, the only official victims of trafficking so far met by the Danish authorities are women working in prostitution.

It is this fact that is the reason that many in the trafficking debate believe that the only way to combat organised crime is to ban buying sex outright. Regulating demand is the solution, they argue.

A major proponent of this approach is the 8th March Initiative – a group of 28 different organisations and political groups who want to make paying for sex illegal.

The 8th March Initiative was formed in 2008 with the aim of influencing the Danish prostitution and trafficking debate – just like Seksualpolitisk Forum. But unlike the sexual political debaters, the 8th March Initiative does not believe that you can separate prostitution from trafficking. In fact, they believe the opposite. In their eyes, prostitution is the backbone of the trafficking phenomenon.

“Prostitution and trafficking are expressions of great class divides. Here, those paying for sex in the rich western word are exploiting other people. Those exploited are most often from poorer parts of the world and are people with hopes and dreams of escaping their poverty,” tells Balder Mørk Andersen, spokesperson for the initiative.

“Prostitution and trafficking are also expressions of a patriarchal sexual domination. Here, women have to make themselves available for the men buying sex – men who still believe that their own sexual satisfaction is more important than respect for the health of others. Both aspects are equally as offensive and serve to confine both women and men to their skewed roles,” he explains.

The 8th March Initiative wants a fundamental change of society that will reflect equality between men and women. As a proclaimed feminist and socialist, Balder Mørk Andersen was therefore one of the main speakers during one of the two demonstrations which the police feared would lead to a clash of feminist groups on International Women’s’ Day this year.

The same day, another proclaimed feminist and socialist was marching in the other protest, which had the slogan Rights for sex workers - now!

A nuanced debate, please
Mette Grimstrup, member of the left-wing Danish political party Enhedslisten, is one of the new feminist voices in the trafficking debate. She was present when sex workers and feminists demonstrated on 8 March.

She was also present a few months earlier when Copenhagen’s Folkets Hus (People’s house) played host to a debate about trafficking under the slogan Government out of our knickers – our fannies are our own!

The objective of both events was to establish new perspectives within the prostitution and trafficking debate.

“Trafficking is an abomination and something must be done about it. The question is ‘what?’ And that debate is just so difficult because we’re talking about people other than ourselves and on behalf of people other than ourselves,” she explains.

Consequently, Mette Grimstrup first and foremost wants to let the women the debate is about have their say.

“We need to watch out that we don’t end up coming across as white feminists full of opinions based around our own gender-centric interpretation of sex and the sex industry, ultimately making life worse for those we’re trying to protect. We need to base our approach upon what these women themselves say they need. For some, the prospect of their children dying of starvation is more traumatising that than what they use their bodies for. This is something we simply have to respect, otherwise we rob them of the opportunity to change their own lives,” she explains.

Mette Grimstrup believes that the trafficking debate is askew and lacks nuanced thinking. She also feels the debate lacks a discussion about how migration laws and an unregulated, unprotected sex work marketplace together make foreign women vulnerable to exploitation and provide a breeding ground for trafficking.

“The borders for trafficking are fluid. Many of the women are economic migrants looking to work, but they are vulnerable because they work illegally in Denmark without any contact to the social authorities or other support networks. That’s why providing them with better protection is what it’s all about. Just as we protect Polish construction workers with union rights, we need to protect the rights of those working in the sex industry,” she concludes.

This message, however, falls on deaf ears among those wishing to ban paying for sex outright.

There is a difference
On a side street to Istedgade in the heart of Copenhagen’s red-light district lives one of the ’grand old ladies’ of the trafficking debate. Reden International (RI) was the first organisation in Denmark to take care of foreign women in prostitution and open a shelter for trafficking victims. Leader of RI, Vibeke Lenskjold, agrees that the boundaries for trafficking are fluid, but she is diametrically opposed to the idea that the solution is more workers’ rights for those in the sex industry.

“I would actually call it severe manipulation with words to talk about ‘migrants’ within the sex industry. Perhaps one or two women do come here without any form of coercion, but at street level, there’s no way you can just come and take a pitch without a strong organised network behind you. You will simply be shut out,” she explains.

Vibeke Lenskjold believes that, in the whole trafficking debate, any talk of rights for sex workers is highly problematic. For example, she finds it difficult to imagine how workers’ rights would protect women from the damaging effects that RI’s experience has shown affect many of these women.

“This is where I draw the line. There’s a lot you can do to ensure that dangerous working conditions are kept out of the workplace. But how do you protect against the social psychological damage caused directly by having multiple sexual encounters daily without any relationship on a personal level?”

Nor does she believe that it is possible to place foreign women in prostitution on an equal footing with Danish women in prostitution.

“The so-called ‘freedom to choose’ that a few Danish sex workers talk about is worthless in the debate about trafficking. There’s a reason that the foreign women tend to come from places such as Nigeria or Eastern Europe where corruption, poverty and inequality are rife – where the role of breadwinner is that of the woman’s.”

Balder Mørk Andersen from the 8th March Initiative agrees completely. He does not agree with those “who almost characterise the buying of sex as a form of bilateral ‘banging’ aid that the prostitutes are grateful to receive,” he says.

“This is a misconception that only serves to help those buying sex to turn a blind eye to the fact that they have abused a very vulnerable human being.”

More analysis is needed
As the activists continue slogging it out in the Danish trafficking debate, researchers and analysts stand on the sidelines and follow developments.

As a feminist cultural sociologist and researcher, Christel Stormhøj has been a keen follower of the debate and is not impressed by what she calls a “reductionist, highly individualising and completely de-politicised” debate.

Firstly, she finds that the debate lacks a ‘helicopter perspective’ looking at trafficking as a global distribution of perks and burdens and addressing our understanding of justness and inequality.

Secondly, she finds that the debate is lacking analysis of what actually occurs to the relationship between the individual and society when women choose to sell sex abroad as a life strategy whilst others applaud their choice for exercising personal autonomy.

“Identity isn’t something we can just pick and choose as we like. Developing an identity is a complex process which evolves through the relationship between the individual and the society in which he or she socialises. And it’s a process in which the terms of how we can exercise personal autonomy are set. What is it that makes a person choose to provide sex as a service rather than getting a cleaning job? How does such a preference arise? And how does it come about in a gender-segregated society?” she asks.

In New York, another Danish writer sits bemused by the trafficking debate unfolding in Denmark. Anthropologist Sine Palmbech, who has focussed her work around Thai and Nigerian women in prostitution, also finds that the debate lacks substance.

There are to two things that puzzle her. Firstly, why do people apparently seem to accept that women would choose to participate in their own exploitation. Secondly, where does all the money go?

“I don’t think the Danish debate tackles either of these two things. We are constantly talking about prostitution, but not about the political economic side of trafficking. It’s as if the elements of money and work have been completely detached from the debate”, she explains.

“We talk about trafficking as sexual exploitation and victimisation. However, we’re quick to forget the political economy which is the fundamental reason for the existence of trafficking – at least that branch of feminism stemming from the 70s that views a woman in her essence to be a victim is quick to forget this. For marriage, for the man – this remains a very stiff patriarchal and moral analysis. I understand that sometimes adopting this perspective is necessary, but by doing so, we’re not seeing the whole market of which trafficking is just one part – namely, the global migration market. Trafficking is about people who are in an exposed and vulnerable position because they don’t have rights. That’s why they can be abused by the patriarchy, if I can describe it this way. But what is it in the first place that makes these women exposed and vulnerable? Structural conditions have got much more to do with it than patriarchy,” explains Sine Palmbech.

Impossible to categorise
Back in Vesterbro, Copenhagen, the morning’s incense sticks have burned out, quite oblivious to the debate – a debate which is precisely about them, the foreigners who sell sex in Denmark.

Are they victims of trafficking because Denmark has a lax attitude to prostitution? Or do their problems stem from strict foreign policy?

Are they strong, independent workers who run their own businesses and are their own mistresses and masters of their bodies? Or are they ‘guest workers’ exposed to exploitation which could be avoided if the Danish state regulated and monitored their working conditions? The answers depend very much upon who is asking.

As Marlene Spanger, one of the first Danish researchers working with transnational prostitution, says:

“The trafficking debate opened the door for the debate about buying sex, which we are seeing now. In this debate, we’re now discussing how we should perceive the foreign women in prostitution in Denmark – are they victims or are they strong sex workers? I don’t, however, believe that any of the women who I have met through my research work would be able to identify herself with either of the two categories.”



Currently, there are a minimum of 2,000 foreign women working in prostitution in Denmark. These women can either be women who have been trafficked and/or migrant women.

Trafficking is often called ‘human trafficking’ or ‘human trade’.
The term covers many complex forms of coercion and exploitation of individuals and is difficult to define simply.

The trade in women for prostitution has been estimated to constitute the largest part of all global trafficking.

Trafficking means that the women are moved from one place to another – either within a country or abroad – usually from a poorer country or area to a richer country or area.
The women may not necessarily be forced to undertake the journey – often a woman will be manipulated to travel on her own free will with threats and coercion only entering the picture later either during the journey or at the destination.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that at any given time there are 2.45 million victims of human trafficking (A global alliance against forced labour, 2005). Of these, the organisation estimates that approximately 43% are trafficked for the sex industry and 25% for both the sex industry and non-sexual economic exploitation.

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