The word prostitution is derived from the Latin word prōstituere, which means to be ‘exposed publicly, offered for sale.’ This implies that a person is set on display to the public eye, like an object in a shop window, with the purpose of being examined and sold to whoever is prepared to pay the price. The word quite accurately describes what those in prostitution face. In prostitution, it is not just one’s body that is for sale: it is the person’s entire dignity for sale.
Talita meets women who have been caught in human trafficking, but also women in prostitution who have not been transported within or between countries, but who have equally been treated as objects. Other people have, on the grounds that they can pay for it, felt entitled to treat these individuals in prostitution as they please. They have bought access to another person’s body to satisfy their own needs.
Although it is legal to sell sex in Sweden, the so-called ‘Nordic Model’ introduced in 1999 made it illegal to buy sex (read more about the Nordic model below). This is a result of the fact that after many years of research (1), we have realized that the person who suffers in prostitution is the person who sells their body (most often women) and she thereby requires all the support she can get to leave the sex trade. The purchaser however (most often a man), uses the woman as an object, which is unacceptable in an equal society.
But who is the girl who sells her body?
She is the young mother from a southern European country, left by her husband, with a debt of 300 000 SEK that was his – a debt she know pays off in her home country by selling herself in Sweden one week of every month. The alternative would be even worse—to lose her house and risk losing custody of her three small children.
She is the girl who sits in the rain and cries, who has a cramp and can barely breathe because her grandfather raped her again and again since she was nine years old, and who sold her to his friends since she was 13. Now, 18 years old, she hurts herself by meeting men who want to buy her. Not because she wants to. She tries to bury the pain and anxiety welling up within as day turns to night—a desperate attempt to anticipate the inevitable and regain control.
She is the woman who cannot stop cleaning, whose body full of soars after hundreds of hours in the shower and useless attempt to scrub away the memories of all the strangers’ hands who have touched her on the outside and inside. Sold by a man who claimed to love her, who took advantage of the fact that she was not aware of her own worth.
She is the girl who did not have the energy to live any longer and on a late winter night, hopped from a balcony in a suburb from Stockholm—but she survived. The girl who does not dare to go to the swimming hall alone in fear of being bullied by young boys on the street, boys who heard rumours that she sells herself downtown Friday nights. What they don’t know is that she has lived with a bottomless self-loathing since the first time her foster father raped her at five years old. She lays her “whore-clothes” (what she calls them) out on the balcony to avoid “dirtying” the apartment.
There is a strong link between how well someone knows their worth as an individual and what they subject themselves to. While we do not claim that no one has ever chosen a life of prostitution, during our fifteen years working in this field we have never come across a person who, after even briefly getting to know us, has told us that they are happy in prostitution. On the contrary, it often turns out that the women, in order to cope, unconsciously dissociate—split themselves from their experiences, or in the worst case, divide themselves as a person into different parts.
We fight for the equal worth of all people, and therefore refuse to accept that there are people who take advantage of the fact that some do not know their own worth.
- Arne Borg, Folke Elwien, Michael Fruhling, Lars Grönwall, Rita Liljeström, Sven-Axel Månsson, Anders Nelin, Hanna Olsson och Tage Sjöberg, Prostitution. Beskrivning. Analys. Förslag till åtgärder, Liber Förlag 1981/ Stig Larsson, Könshandels - om prostituerades villkor, Skeab Förlag 1983 / Sven-Axel Månsson, Könshandelns främjare och profitörer. Om förhållandet mellan hallick och prostituerad, Doxa 1981 / Sven-Axel Månsson och Ulla Karin Hedin, Vägen ut - om kvinnors uppbrott ur prostitutionen, Carlsson Bokförlag 1998
The way to prostitution is varies for different individuals in different societies. For some, it is a pimp that forces them; for others, it is life circumstances that force them, for instance needing to provide for their family and children and have no other alternatives than to sell their body. With a broken self-esteem, earlier abuses and lack of a support network increases the risk of them ending up in prostitution significantly.
In our personal relationships with women in prostitution, we have gathered experience that has led us to conclude that there is a strong association between prostitution and earlier sexual trauma. Even research supports these conclusions. It is possible to say that in these cases it has to do an inner (compared to an outer) “coercion” that is the basis for prostitution; a self-destructive that among other things stems from a wounded self-image, shame, anxiety, and an unconscious effort to regain control. Below is a quote from a pimp that reveals more than what numbers can about the relationship between earlier sexual abuse and prostitution:
“Beauty? Yes. Sexual experience? To a certain extent. But it’s easier than you think. What is more important than anything else is obedience. And how do you get obedience? You get obedience from woman who have had sex with their fathers, their uncles, their brothers—you know, someone they love and are afraid to lose if they defy them. Then, it’s just about being kinder than anyone the woman has experience before—and more dangerous. They will do everything and anything that pleases you. That’s how it is done.” He nods towards the woman and both smile. “Both of these girls have been with their fathers. Now they make me rich – and they are happy.”
Based on our discussions with women as well as research on sexual abuse and prostitution, we would like to present some explanations about why a person, who has earlier been exposed to sexual abuse, is at a higher risk of being drawn into prostitution. We do not claim that this is a conclusive explanation of the underlying causes. We also emphasize that we do not believe that in most cases there is one single cause; instead, a variety of different factors likely lie behind a person’s step into prostitution. Below are some of these influencing factors.
Emotional shutdown and disassociation
Many researchers argue that sexual abuse during a person’s childhood affects, more than anything, whether or not they end up in prostitution later in life. A woman’s entrance into prostitution is explained by a so-called “direct effect model” which says that sexual abuse in a person’s childhood increases the risk for prostitution later in life – regardless of whether other contributing causes exist or not. Repeated sexual abuse leads to an early training in emotional shutdown and dissociation as soon as the person comes into contact with anything that has to do with sex. Dissociation is a survival strategy used by the person who sells their body in order for them to endure the humiliation of prostitution.
Shame is a feeling that can be both healthy (and therefore plays an important life function) and unhealthy. Unhealthy shame is a deep feeling of worthlessness and unimportant as a person. The profound sense of shame is rooted in the belief that a person is not a full human being. Those that have been sexually assaulted in their childhood often have this deep pain in their lives. This emotional pain often includes a deep abhorrence to one’s own body, which is perceived as if it has betrayed them. When the body responds to sexual touching during the assault/abuse and the child simultaneously loathes it, this often creates an overwhelming sense of shame, self-hatred, and confusion. With this in mind, it is not as difficult to understand why a person would accept being treated like an object.
According to research, the experience that the world is threatening is a long-term consequence of sexual abuse. What is meant by this is that a person who is sexually abused tends to see the world as a hostile place where there is no natural way to deserve something, and nothing is given “freely and at no cost.” The only way to get something is to offer something in return or to a person into it. The reason for this view is that individuals who were sexually abused as children learn that their bodies, in some significant adult’s eyes, was their most valuable “asset.”
“Even before puberty, many girls learn to use their sexuality to please their father. After many years, she may begin to see prostitution as a logical progression of having sold sex at home. Many abused girls hold the belief that since they are going to be forced to have sex with men, they may as well get paid for it.”
Earlier sexual abuse can lead to a sort of “learned powerlessness.” It does not matter what the child does (or does not do) to avoid the abuse – it does not cease to continue. The knowledge that ‘something happened, I don’t know when, but I know that’ creates a lot of anxiety. For some children, the only relief they ever feel is the relief that arises immediately after the assault has taken place. Precisely in that moment, they are finally left in peace for a while. Growing up with this sense of constant fear and learned powerlessness is for many, simply unbearable. Many struggle with feelings of fear and anxiety later in life, after the abuse has ended. To then expose one’s self to further abuse can be a way to control anxiety, which (as before) is least intrusive immediately after the assault.
Some research claims that prostitution is sometimes a way to repeat earlier traumatic experiences in a subconscious attempt to change the painful experience and thus heal a damaged self-image. It is very common for victims of sexual abuse to relive the event/events in flashbacks and nightmares, but the abuse can also be experienced in concrete, new events. The goal is (consciously or unconsciously) to regain power and control, but tragically, it instead leads, sooner or later, to the woman becoming trapped in a victimization cycle leading to a condition called ‘psychological paralysis.’
One important reason that victims of earlier sexual abuse is especially vulnerable to sexual exploitation later in life is confusions about their boundaries. Meaningful adults have treated the child as if they do not have a right to their own body, and that message remains in their adulthood. Many of the women we meet tell us about pushy men they encounter in their daily lives (in cafes, the subway, etc.) that indicate they want to have sex with them. Since the woman did not learn that her no means no, the man successfully has his way with her. The same woman sees her own inability to reject strangers as a very big problem. They feel that there is something fundamentally wrong with them. One woman said, “It feels like the word ‘prostitute’ is written on my forehead!”
Another reason a person takes the plunge into selling sex is, according to many women, the need for money. It is a push factor into prostitution that is often mentioned prior to all others. Money is also the push factor most often highlighted by the media when addressing the topic of prostitution. It is no coincidence that it is the last factor we mention here. The reason for this is that we consider it to be the tip of the iceberg and not the root of the problem. Over the years we have worked with women in prostitution, we have not met a single woman who felt good, simply sells their body for extra money (as it is often described in the media). At the same time, we believe that money without a doubt plays a large roll for many of the women who have stepped into prostitution. Many experience the feeling of being completely alone, without a single person to turn to when things get tough. What they lack is a sense of safety and security in life. For many, seeking out help from social authorities is unthinkable. In some cases this is due to earlier poor treatment; in other cases it is due to the difficulty in relying on others; and for others it is because they feel that they do not deserve help.
 See for example, Salter, Anna C., Transforming Trauma – A Guide to Understanding and Treating Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, SAGE Publications (1995), sid 186-187; Briere, John N., Child Abuse Trauma – Theory and Treatment of the Lasting Effects, IVPS (1992), sid. 52-53 and 55; Bagley, Chris; Young, Loretta, Juvenile prostitution and child sexual abuse: A controlled study. Canadian Journal of Community Mental Health, Vol 6(1), 1987, 5-26; Kelly, Liz, Surviving Sexual Violence, Polity Press (1988), sid. 174; Hedin, Ulla-Carin and Månsson, Sven-Axel,Vägen ut! (1998); Silbert and Pines, Early Sexual Exploitation as an Influence in Prostitution (1982)
 Salter, Anna C., Transforming Trauma – A Guide to Understanding and Treating Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, SAGE Publications (1995), sid 186-187
 Dissociation is the absence of awareness of what you are doing and what is going on around you, and can be seen as a normal process that occurs occasionally. It is a relateively common phenomenon among children, and decrease with age. Dissociative experiences as part of normal development do not cause fragmentation in how a person experiences herself/himself. However, when the person does not have a supportive environment to regulate and interpret the emotions associated with potentially traumatizing events, so that the fear continues to hold its grip on the individual, when dissociation increases and the person’s inner sense of self weakens and divides. Wieland, S.. Dissociation in Traumatized Children and Adolescents: Theory and Clinical Interventions. Routledge Psychosocial Stress Series, New York (2011)
 Briere, John N., Child Abuse Trauma – Theory and Treatment of the Lasting Effects, IVPS (1992), sid. 52-53 and 55
SEX PURCHASE ACT
While it is legal to sell sex in Sweden, the so-called ‘Nordic Model’ introduced in 1999 made it illegal to buy sex. This is a result of many years of research, demonstrating that the person who suffers in prostitution is the person who sells their body (most often women) and she thereby requires all the support she can get to leave the sex trade. The purchaser however (most often a man), uses the woman as an object, which is unacceptable in an equal society.
From the beginning, the ban against the purchase of sexual services was placed in a specific law, which is often called the ‘Sex Purchase Act.’ Now, the ban is found in 6 Chapter 11 in the Swedish Penal Code and reads: “A person who, otherwise than as previously provided in this Chapter, obtains a casual sexual relation in return for payment, shall be sentenced for purchase of sexual service to a fine or imprisonment for at most one year. The provision of the first paragraph shall also apply if the payment was promised or given by another person.”
Payment for sexual services can be in the form of money, as well as alcohol, drugs, and so on. It can be paid prior to or at the time the sexual service is performed.
The punishment for the purchase of sexual services is fines or prison up to a maximum of one year. The person who buys sex from a child (a person under 18 years) is convicted of the crime “purchase of sexual acts from a child” (Penal Code 6:9) and sentenced to pay a fine or prison for a maximum 2 years. The more stringent punishment for the purchase of sexual acts from a child signals that this crime is a more serious crime than the purchase of sexual services of a person that has turned 18.
In 2010, an official evaluation of the ban against purchase of sexual services was conducted.(1) The evaluation demonstrated that the ban has had a dampening effect on the sex trade. Below are some of the findings:
- Since the ban against the purchase of sexual services was implemented, street prostitution in Sweden has decreased by 50%.
- The law has a deterring effect on prospective buyers of sexual services
- Criminal networks take the law into account when they establish themselves in Sweden. They do not perceive Sweden as an attractive market for their criminal activities, since sex-purchasers fear being caught.
- The number of foreign women in street prostitution has certainly increased since the ban was introduced, but it should be noted that this sharp increase was reported by both Denmark and Norway, and at an “unparalleled” level to Sweden.
- Internet prostitution has also increased, but the extent of this form of prostitution is much larger in our neighbouring countries, Denmark and Norway. There is no evidence suggesting that there was a larger increase of prostitution online than in these comparable countries. This speaks against the notion that the ban resulted in street prostitution in Sweden switching arenas to the Internet. Put simply, the increased extent of internet prostitution is a natural progression consequence to the availability of the internet, not because of the law.
- There is no evidence that the extent of indoor prostitution that is not marketed through advertisements in newspapers or on the internet, for example prostitution in massage parlours, sex clubs, hotels, as well as restaurants and night clubs has increased. There is also no evidence that those previously exploited in outdoor prostitution are now available in indoor prostitution
- Because activities surrounding prostitution are dependent on displaying ones’ self to come into contact with customers, it is not likely that an unknown portion of prostitution exists. In other words, the decrease in prostitution that was found within this evaluation is reliable.