“Prohibition” — the Danish frame
How many times can you fit the word “prohibition” into a lead story in Metro? We now have an exact answer to that question: 14 times.
As I recently traveled through Denmark, I grabbed a copy of the Danish edition of the for-free newspaper Metro, where the front page lead story covered the recent law in Norway prohibiting the purchase of sexual services. “Prostitutes warn against prohibition in Denmark”, the headline reads. And in less than 430 words, the word “prohibit” is used another 13 times, including the subhead.
Compare that to the story that the Swedish edition of Metro ran a few days later: While this article, too, describes the Norwegian and Swedish law in terms of a prohibition, the chosen angle is whether Sweden should follow the example set by Norway and prohibit its citizens from purchasing sexual services abroad too.
While two random articles have little analytical value, they say something interesting about the terms in which prostitution is discussed in Denmark and Sweden.
First, note that while Metro Denmark spends roughly half the space interviewing what is described as organised “sex workers”, Metro Sweden instead focuses on politicians’ view of the Norwegian law. This might indicate a difference in terms of whose views are counted as relevant and valid input in a discussion of prostitution policy.
Secondly, the term prohibition has very different connotations in the two national contexts. Danes cultivate an identity of being a bit more easy-going than the stiff Swedes, Norwegians and Finns. Especially, Danish public debate often alludes to Sweden as a horrific example of state intervention and regulation. The 1983 book Tilfældet Sverige established the image of “Prohibitionist Sweden” as an anti-utopia, regulating and outlawing anything that makes life worth living. Denmark, by contrast, is more liberal, more continental, more free-spirited, this story goes.
This national narrative, however, is not necessarily a depiction of reality in Denmark, or, for that matter, in Sweden. In fact, in many areas, Sweden is considerably less regulated than Denmark. While Swedes go to Denmark to buy beer, escaping taxes and the state-run liquour monopoly, Danes have crossed the Øresund to buy cheap fashion from Swedish outlets, because unlike in Sweden, zoning laws in Denmark prohibit shopping malls on city outskirts.
And if you happen to live in Denmark and have forgotten to buy your Sunday breakfast, you’d better check the Lukkeloven (Opening Hours Act). Yes, unlike overregulated Sweden, liberal Denmark has a law which states, among other things, that shops must be closed from 5 pm on Saturdays to 6 am on Mondays, except for eight Sundays a year, while tractors, pets, tents and plants may be sold every Sunday, and bread, milk, and newspapers may also be sold on Sundays and national holidays from 7 to 11 pm, but only in shops which sell newspapers and dairy products in the weekdays too.
Yet, true or false, this Danish self-image provides the deeper ideational framework in terms of which prostitution policy is cast in Denmark, so aptly caught in the Metro story: We Danes don’t like prohibitionism.
However, this is just one piece of the puzzle. From our ideational approach to policy change, the bigger question is how Danish policy makers have successfully employed this framing of prohibitions as something intrinsically bad and un-Danish, in order to discredit alternatives to the current prostitution policy – and why norm entrepreneurs in Denmark advocating the Swedish and Norwegian models have failed to graft their policy proposals onto these underlying discursive frames.
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