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Abolitionist feminism as patriarchal control: Swedish understandings of prostitution and trafficking

Abstract

In this special issue, we note some recurrent themes in international political and discursive engagement with a moral panic concerning human trafficking, notably a conflation of forced and free prostitution, alongside calls to abolish the sex industry through a criminalisation of the purchase of sex. We here specifically examine Sweden’s sex purchase criminalisation, with Sweden being the first state globally to legislate according to this call. Proclaimed as a measure to attack demand for prostitution and trafficking alike, this law is justified by an abolitionist radical feminist understanding of prostitution as a form of patriarchal violence against women. We argue that radical feminist discourse has been used as a means by which to posture as a progressive state, putatively recognising the apparent harms of the sex industry. In reality, however, radical feminist discourse is applied selectively and circumstantially in Sweden, with sex workers seen both as passive victims of gendered violence (per radical feminist discourse), and as dishonest and immoral. These constructions are used interchangeably, to justify displacing and controlling women perceived to be deviant and disruptive to normative hegemonic masculinity.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    A “moral panic,” as coined by Cohen (1972) should be understood as a social panic surrounding a phenomenon which threatens the moral fabric of normative society.

  2. 2.

    These conflations are despite a wealth of data and research indicating great heterogeneity in terms of sex work itself, and in terms of those involved in the industry (for example, see Agustín 2010; Brooks-Gordon 2010; Hubbard 1999; UNAIDS 2009), with these diversities additionally applying to sex work migration (for example, see Agustín 2006; Brooks-Gordon 2010; Danna 2012; Doezema 2005, 2010; UNAIDS 2009; Weitzer 2005b). But a binary and crude radical feminist abolitionist understanding is muddied by engagement with nuance and diversity, and so, these variabilities do little to destabilize radical feminism’s universalizations: Contradicting narratives of sex workers and others are undermined using arguments of false consciousness (Farley 2006; Jeffreys 1997) and accusations of their being un/misrepresentative (Farley 2004, 2006; Jeffreys 1997; Raymond 1998; also see Doezema 2010).

  3. 3.

    Rose Alliance, Sweden’s sex workers’ rights organization, are, however, aware of recent reports of increasing police surveillance of indoor sex workers.

  4. 4.

    Where temporary residents’ permits may be issued, these are contingent on participating and testifying at subsequent trial(s) of pimps/traffickers/clients, etc. that may take place (Danna 2012).

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Correspondence to Jay Levy.

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Levy, J., Jakobsson, P. Abolitionist feminism as patriarchal control: Swedish understandings of prostitution and trafficking. Dialect Anthropol 37, 333–340 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10624-013-9309-y

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Keywords

  • Human Trafficking
  • Moral Panic
  • Gender Violence
  • Radical Feminism
  • White Slavery