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Marie Bruvik Heinskou, sociologist at the University of Copenhagen, explains why the criminalisation of prostitution undermines those that are most vulnerable and demonises sexually active women
The debate for and against the sex trade has heated up in recent years. Sweden made it illegal to buy sex in 1999, France has just followed suit, and 26 February the European Parliament advised its member states to do the same.
26 Danish scientists, several of whom are from the University of Copenhagen, accuse the EU Commission of acting on unscientific grounds. In a press release, the scientists write that outlawing prostitution won’t improve social conditions for sex workers.
In fact, most research on the topic – as well as international reports from the UN, WHO, UN Women, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch – favours decriminalisation. And data from Sweden shows that sex workers have less faith in the authorities now, and work and live more secretively and dangerously than before the ban.
Marie Bruvik Heinskou, one of the 26 Danish scientists, suggests legalising prostitution instead and giving sex workers more rights:
“If we want to help sex workers, we can remove the taboo surrounding them and start acknowledging their work as a legitimate profession,” she says.
Marie Bruvik Heinskou believes that the discussion about rules and regulations isn’t just about the sex trade, but about female sexuality in general. “It isn’t just sex workers, but feminism, that’s in danger. We have a political discussion concerning a practice, but a moralistic discourse then ensues. And it is here that we find specific stereotypes of women.
Is it not allowed for a woman to have an active sexuality? Is it a stigma to have many partners? Is it a crime to earn money and have sex at the same time?”
“At the root of these questions you’ll find a firm conviction that women ought to express their sexuality with a special degree of care. Women who have an active sexuality, and who perhaps make money with it, are deemed to be cheap, problematic identities that sully the men who touch them,” she says.
But a part of the discussion is about a group of women who are victims of sex trafficking, who live under slave-like conditions. Surely we ought to help them before we, the privileged western middle-class, spend time theorising over a discourse that devalues a particular type of sexuality?
“There are victims, this has to be acknowledged. And these should be helped,” says Marie Bruvik Heinskou.
But she doesn’t think that criminalisation is the answer.
“It can quickly become totalitarian, and you end up harming some female identities that are on their way to a new kind of liberation than we have previously thought female liberation ought to be – an active female sexuality, and women who make their money directly off of men.”
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