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Between Emotional Politics and Biased Practices—Prostitution Policies, Social Work, and Women Selling Sexual Services in Denmark


This article is an exploration of current Danish discourses on prostitution based on a material consisting of long-standing ethnographic fieldwork in the field of street prostitution, including interviews with sex workers, counselors, and policy makers, and of analyses of legal documents, newspaper articles, and evaluative reports commissioned by governments. The article outlines a polarized debate about possible change to the current legislation and how the ‘othering’ and victimizing rhetoric of main actors are based on generalization and biased estimations and a mutual blaming for “stealing the voices” of sex workers. It is demonstrated how this polarized and victimizing discourse mediated by social workers in encounters with women in prostitution reduces the women's possibilities to perform rationality and thus their ability to gain relevant capital in the eyes of the counselors. By reducing the women in prostitution to victims, the media and the social system in the last instance can be said to rob them their status as ‘citizens.’

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Fig. 1


  1. Women selling sexual services on the streets of the three largest cities in Denmark is the empirical object of my studies, and thus this paper do not focus on women working in parlors, trafficked women, men, and transgender people.

  2. Unaccompanied public appearance, drinking alcohol in public, or brief extra-marital relations were seen as threatening the family and the traditional role of women, and thus as reasons for police action (Spanger, 2007, p. 199).

  3. The spread of diseases like HIV and hepatitis, however, is still an important issue (Servicestyrelsen 2009, p. 9).

  4. An example: Sweden criminalized the buying of sexual services in 1999; Norway did the same in 2009. The Swedish and Norwegian experiences have been used on both sides of the argument about criminalization of purchasers.

  5. Including the The Sex Workers’ Interest Union, Forum of Sexual Politics, and right wing and liberal parties.

  6. Including The Nest, The initiative of 8th of Marts, and left wing parties.

  7. The Socialist Peoples' Party, currently in government, is in favor of criminalizing the purchase of sexual services and argues that buying access to other people's bodies is unacceptable in a modern society (

  8. I refer to my interviews with 67 women (aged 22–60) with experience of selling sexual services for my doctoral thesis (forthcoming) and for a research project for the Danish Government (Bjønness 2011). The information provided is not to be regarded as ‘objective’ incidents, but as the informants' own, context-dependent constructions (Bourdieu 1979).


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Correspondence to Jeanett Bjønness.

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Bjønness, J. Between Emotional Politics and Biased Practices—Prostitution Policies, Social Work, and Women Selling Sexual Services in Denmark. Sex Res Soc Policy 9, 192–202 (2012).

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  • Criminalization
  • Discourse
  • Objectification
  • Othering
  • Prostitution
  • Social construction
  • Victimization