Niina Vuolajärvi – NSfK ResearchSeminar 2021

Preventing Violence Against Women or Violence Work? — The Swedish Model of Prostitution

Niina Vuolajärvi PhD, The Zolberg Institute of Migration and Mobility, The New School of Social Research


In 1999, Sweden was the first country to aim at abolishing the sex trade through criminalizing buying (rather than selling) of sex. Criminalizing the buying of sex has its roots in the Nordic feminist movement on violence against women and its understanding of prostitution as part of this violence. The legislative change was meant to advance gender equality and well-being at both societal and individual levels through using the law as a normative tool to “end demand” for sexual commerce. This policy approach commonly known as the “Swedish” or “Nordic” model has started to dominate the way several international organizations, nation-states and civil society think not only about prostitution policies but the overall sex trade. Drawing on a large-scale three-country ethnography conducted in the Nordic region (Sweden, Norway, Finland) between 2012 and 2018 including 210 interviews with migrant and national sex workers and people in the sex trade, policy-makers, the police and social workers this paper discusses how the Swedish model and the popularization of the understanding of commercial sex as a form of violence against women affects people who sell sex.

In this paper, I follow Ruthie Wilson Gilmore’s (2002) understanding of violence as the production of vulnerability to “premature death.” Crucial about this conceptualization is that moves beyond the “perpetrator perspective” – focus on interpersonal physical coercive violence – and extends the conception of violence to include state violence and production of vulnerability. I argue that despite its feminist-humanitarian aura the Swedish model functions as a form of violence in a Gilmorean sense, as it increases the vulnerability of sex workers and people in the sex trade and puts them in many ways in harm’s way. Following Gilmore’s definition, a wide range of people from the police to hotel receptionists and NGOs advancing increased policing of marginalized communities engage in what Micol Seigel (2018) calls “violence work,” production of vulnerabilities.


My fieldwork findings show that the understanding of prostitution as violence that needs to be abolished has led to repressive practices that perpetuate violence and stigma towards people who sell sex especially in Sweden and Norway where the full criminalization of sex buying is implemented (Vuolajärvi 2019, 2021). Contrary to the claims of the proponents of the Swedish model of shifting focus to the buyers and protection of people who sell sex, sex workers remain the main targets of policing and become de facto criminalized through the enforcement of third party laws, immigration laws and ambiguous fiscal policies leading to deportations, forced evictions and overall police harassment on sex workers. The policing of sex work in the countries focuses on migrant sex workers and is racialized targeting especially those of color (Vuolajärvi 2019, 2021). However, nationals cannot fully escape the punitive policing of sex work either and are targets of forced evictions and police harassment such as police constantly false booking and visiting a sex workers’ apartment and outing a sex worker to hotels, apartment and booking companies.

In Sweden and Norway, the aim of abolishing prostitution and trafficking has also justified the forging of public-private partnerships that extend policing of commercial sex to private individuals, hotels, taxis, and landlords. A Swedish police officer explained: “We have produced e-learning tools for the hotels, they could train their staff. So, they call us or otherwise sometimes they throw them [women] out, because we can’t always come, so then they throw them out.” These efforts have resulted in a dire housing situation for migrants which means that they need to rely more on third parties, increasing their vulnerability for exploitation.

What is more, the Swedish law and the discourse of commercial sex as a form of violence that the society needs to eradicate, has increased stigma towards sex work in Sweden. In 1996, 30% of Swedes believed that a woman selling sexual services should be criminalized, whereas in the 2002 survey and 2012 study, 59 % and 52 %, respectively, believed it should be prohibited by law (Kuosmanen 2011; Svedin et al. 2012). Stigmatizing views of sex work as violence prevalent in Sweden translate into sex workers’ experiences of victimization, lack of societal protection and overall discrimination in interactions with officials, service providers and the media.


This examination reveals how in many ways the Swedish model exposes sex workers and people in the sex trade to vulnerability. In addition to justifying deportations, forced evictions and increased policing of especially migrants engaging in sexual labor, the Swedish model results in sex workers’ increased exposure of interpersonal violence as sex workers need to prioritize making the client feel safe. Moreover, this study elucidates how “the systems of meaning” (Spade 2015:171) that the Swedish model produces, silences the multiplicity of experiences in the sex trade and results in sex workers’ experiences of increased stigma, as well as exclusion from state services, fiscal policies and political space. Taken together, these results demonstrate that through creating an ideological landscape that defines sex work as a form of men’s violence against women to be combatted, the Swedish model legitimates policing and state violence towards migrant and sex working women and enhances their social exclusion which in turn exacerbates their already precarious lives.

Feminists of color and queer scholars (INCITE! 2016; Spade 2015) have for long criticized the mainstream (white) antiviolence movement for its focus on interpersonal violence at the cost of institutional violence. The mainstream anti-violence movement has focused on narratives of sexual violence being perpetuated by ‘bad men’ who need to be punished through state criminal justice systems. In these narratives, which are also predominant in Nordic feminist discourses, the state is protective rather than oppressive. The feminist of color and queer critique have highlighted how the criminal justice system has been used to repress marginalized populations such as women of color, migrants, sex workers and trans women, hence demonstrating how the police is more often a source of violence than protection for them. Following this critique, I argue that the Nordic anti-violence movement needs to adopt a more intersectional and holistic analysis of harm and violence that does not rely on criminal justice and demands of increased police presence in marginalized communities but that would rather be based on solidarity and enforcing basic rights of marginalized groups. Without attention to what Angela Davis (2016) calls the intersectionality of struggles, the Nordic feminist anti-violence movement ends up perpetuating and justifying state violence towards marginalized women and enhancing their vulnerability.

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Seigel, Micol. 2018. Violence Work: State Power and the Limits of Police. Durham: Duke University Press.

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Svedin, Carl Göran, Linda Jonsson, Cecilia Kjellgren, Gisela Priebe, and Ingrid Åkerman. 2012. Prostitution i Sverige. kartläggning och utvärdering av prostitutionsgruppernas insatser samt erfarenheter och attityder i befolkningen. Linköping: Linköping University Electronic Press.

Vuolajärvi, Niina. 2019. “Governing in the Name of Caring—the Nordic Model of Prostitution and Its Punitive Consequences for Migrants Who Sell Sex.” Sexuality Research and Social Policy 16(2):151–65. doi: 10.1007/s13178-018-0338-9.

Vuolajärvi, Niina. 2021. “Governing in the Name of Caring: Migration, Sex Work and the ‘Nordic Model.’” Rutgers University – School of Graduate Studies.