The framing of sex workers as victims in Denmark
During my research into the case of Denmark, I bumped into an interesting debate that seems to be a decisive starting point for the increased framing of sex workers as victims; a debate about weather health-care workers should facilitate access to sex workers for the differently-abled. It seems that simple questions of legality are unable to encompass all of the dynamics in the prostitution debate. Even within a legal framework allowing the purchase of sexual services, there is an emerging powerful frame that chooses to cast sex workers as victims.
From the start, the law that in 1999 decriminalized prostitution in Denmark, had two sides: one that decriminalized and one that illegitimized sex workers. They are and are not legal and this has confused the debate. Sex workers can register as workers and pay tax, but they are not able to get sickness allowance, pensions or unemployment funding. Prostitution is not to be regarded as a legitimate job. Another part of the law is criminalization of the purchase of sexual services from sex workers under 18 years old. But the purchase is only illegal if the sex worker is selling sex on a regular basis. If s/he just wanted to exchange sex for a dinner or a pair of new shoes, we won’t judge, the Minister of Justice Frank Jensen said.
About the same time as the decriminalization law was implemented, another law came into practice, that enhanced the basic human rights and needs of differently-abled people. It was stated that the municipality have to pay for any extra expenses that a differently-abled person might have; that other persons of the same age does not have. Those basic needs included help and support in relation to sex – if a person want to have sex but can’t perform the action by him/herself due to a disability, s/he should get the help to do it and the municipality should pay for the expenses. Some municipalities interpreted this paragraph like it was their responsibility to pay for and arrange a meeting with a sex worker, some did not. In 2001 the Ministry of Social Affairs (Socialministeriet) in Denmark published a report “Seksualitet – uanset handicap”, containing guide-lines for health-care workers to follow in supporting the sexual needs of differently-abled persons. In the report it is stated that the health-care workers have to create an openness and a dialogue about sexuality with the differently-abled caretaker. It is said that if s/he wants to have sex with a sex worker, the health-care workers should make an assessment of the situation and offer help to arrange the meeting. The Social Ministry established in this report that sex is a basic human need and that the municipalities has a responsibility to fulfil it, be it through prostitution.
This was an approach taken within the legal framework. However, the response among politicians was somewhat surprising in that it was univocal: the whole range of political parties in Folketinget, from right to left prostested. Jette Gotlieb, a member of the political party Enhedslisten said that mentioning prostitutes as a possibility in supporting the sexuality of differently-abled was absurd. The organization Reden, a rest-house looking after some of the worst-off prostitutes on the streets, claimed that the human rights of the socially disabled had been ignored while claiming the rights for physically or intellectually disabled (Ritzaus Bureau, 8/8 2000). This started a heated debate where interest organizations claimed that differently-abled should have the same opportunities as other citizens. Sex workers claimed their right to sell sex to whoever they wanted and that the intimacy the differently-abled experienced with sex workers was very important.
So, whose rights were actually walked over? In 2005, the political parties’ respective chairmen of the Equal Opportuneties decided not to follow the Social Ministry’s guidelines. What people did in their private homes and in their free time was their business, but it should not be the public institutions job to parttake in prostitution (Ankestyrelsen SM C-1-06). In some municipalities it was prohibited and in 2007 the municipality of Copenhagen decided to ban it.
Sex workers were successfully framed as victims in this debate, which possibly legitimized and facilitated the continued use of the victim-frame in Denmark. It seems that with this framing, Denmark is now approaching a ban on sexual services and the view of sex workers as voluntary and independent individuals is passed more and more to peripheral arenas such as the sensationalist newspaper Extrabladet.