The Danish election: a new government – and towards a new prostitution regime?
After a very closely fought battle in the 2011 Danish parliamentary election campaign, a centre-left coalition led by the Social Democratic Party (S) was victorious late last Thursday. While Social Democratic Party leader Helle Thorning-Schmidt is set to be the first female prime minister, the party suffered its worst fate at the polls since 1903, receiving just under 25% of the votes. Together with the Socialist People’s Party (SF), S is now negotiating with the Social-Liberal Party (R) to form a coalition.
While not central to the election campaign, the question of whether or not to criminalize the purchase of sex has been a particularly salient issue in Denmark over the past year. The centre-left parties, with the Social Democrats in the lead, have been discussing a criminalization of the purchase of sex for some time now. Given official support from the Social Democrats, the Socialist Left and the Unity List (EL) for such a ban, plus the support of the previous Equality spokesperson from the Social Liberals, many assumed that the ban would be a done deal if the four parties managed to bring about a shift in government. Yet, despite their victory, it does not appear that a Swedish-style ban on the purchase of sexual services will immediately be the case. To some extent, this appears to be the result of the Social-Liberal Party appointing a new Equality spokesperson, who opposed criminalization. Beyond the immediate impact (or lack thereof) on policy, it’s also clear that the balance of the underlying ideas being mobilized in the Danish prostitution policy debate has been shifting, and this could have an impact on future policy developments.
One particularly important pro-ban actor in Denmark is the Social Democratic MP Mette Frederiksen. She proposed the ban already in 2002 and was later backed by both the left-wing Socialist People’s Party and the red-green Unity List. In 2009, also her own party agreed to support her. The March 8th Initiative (2008-), which from the beginning was constituted by a number of women’s movements and NGOs, have subsequently seen some very powerful new members join them in their goal to ban the purchase of sex. However, the Social Liberals, whose parliamentary support S, SF and EL desperately need in order to realize the ban, never fully agreed on a criminalization. The Social Liberal Party is something of a rebel in the Danish parliament, reluctant to categorize itself as belonging to either of the two blocs with their mix of social and liberal politics. Although the Social-Liberal Party have pledged support to S and SF since 2007, the party have a history of supporting the centre-right alliance.
In 2008, the Social-Liberal Party’s spokesperson for Equality, Lone Dybkjær, announced that she wanted to criminalize the customers and was celebrated by both Mette Frederiksen (S) and SF for this statement. Dybkjær motivated her position with reference to the experiences with the Swedish ban and pointed to that more than 90 percent of the Swedes now think buying sex is unacceptable. She also referred to the “violent increase” in trafficking in women and claimed that since men cannot seem to tell victims of trafficking apart from “other prostitutes”, the customers have to be criminalized. But there was disagreement within the Social-Liberal Party. Linda Kristiansen (R) is a strong opponent to criminalization and ironically, she also pointed to the Swedish ban and argued that the criminalization has made it harder for authorities to reach out to prostitutes.
At one point in 2009, it looked like the left bloc, including R were close to an agreement on demanding a criminalization of the purchase of sexual services. Thereby, a shift in political power would mean a realization of the ban. Margrethe Wivel (R) put forward a motion for resolution to criminalize the purchase of sex on a party congress and argued for the moral value of such a bill. But no decision was taken.
On January 1st this year, Manu Sareen stepped in as a substitute for Lone Dybkjær in Folketinget while she was taking a few months time-out. Less than two months after stepping in as Dybkjær’s substitute, Sareen pointed to criticism of the Swedish ban in conjunction with announcing that the Social Liberals would now oppose criminalization. “A significant reason for our decision not to support a criminalization of sex customers is the experiences from Sweden. The latest evaluation report shows that there is no evidence pointing to a decrease in the number of prostitutes over the 10 year period that the bill has existed”, Sareen declared on his homepage.
In June, the prostitution debate was refuelled yet again when it became evident that a majority of the Danish people did not agree with the S-SF-EL alliance on banning the purchase of sex; a survey showed that 57 percent of the Danish people wanted to make prostitution a fully legal job and improve the rights for sex workers, including the right to join a labour rights union and to receive unemployment funds. Only 19 percent were against it. At the same time, the Social Democrats raged against a new report on prostitution that was issued by the National Research Centre for Welfare (SFI) and was the most extensive of its kind thus far. The report showed that a majority of the sex workers in massage parlours wished to remain in their jobs. But the Social Democrats protested: “Sex should be about love, not money”. “Voluntary prostitution is a myth”, the party’s spokesperson for Equality said.
By this time, Lone Dybkjær had returned to the parliament and commented on the survey: “If you would have asked if people believe that it is fair to legalize a job where there is 50 percent of violence, I am sure you would get a different answer”. However, she made it clear that she did not speak for the whole party. Dybkjær had previously announced that she would not run for parliament in the 2011 election and was therefore no longer an important player. Moreover, the survey had shown that almost 60 percent of the Social-Liberal voters were in favour of increased rights for sex workers. And Manu Sareen, who was now a leading candidate for the Social-Liberal Party in Copenhagen, announced only a week before the election that R would definitely not support S and SF in a criminalization of sex customers. He said that he did not believe in “the happy whore”, but that he neither could see any advantages of following Sweden in a ban. Instead, he claimed that the Social-Liberal Party wanted to develop a national exit strategy, much in line with the centre-right position.
Arguably the most remarkable about this renewed interest for prostitution in Denmark is that the issue is now discussed within the context of a gender equality debate, something that would have been unimaginable 10 years ago; when even the connotation of the words “feminism” and “gender” was frowned upon as a left-over from the 70s, alternatively a puritan idea from Sweden. However, Denmark is not only seeing a shift towards a feminist perspective on the purchase of sex, but there is also a rise in sex worker rights activism (see SIO for instance). Overall, there is a politicization of the whole prostitution debate, which is extremely different from the one that took place prior to the decriminalization of prostitution in 1999 – and in the middle of the heated debate is the Swedish ban on sexual services.
Gradually, gender-neutral and rather depoliticized ideas about prostitution as an individual social problem have had to give way to feminist ideas, framing prostitution as a symptom of gender inequality and sometimes even as violence against women – an argument that is well recognized from Swedish rhetoric. These voices have over the years made their way from peripheral corners of the debate and into the very core where they are now agitating loud and clear for a criminalization of the purchase of sexual services. At this year’s International Conference on Prostitution and Trafficking, “Grosse Freiheit?”, the Social Democrat Magnus Heunicke announced that “if we can gather the required majority, and I think we can, I promise that I will implement the legislative amendment that criminalizes the sex customer within the first 100 days of a S-SF government.”
Danish sociologist Claus Lautrup has also voiced confidence that Denmark soon will follow the Nordic neighbours in banning the purchase of sex. “Well-educated women view all prostitution as a matter of gender politics and as violence against women, and they are getting more and more influential in their parties. The movement is in full bloom and it is just a matter of time before a criminalization is introduced.” Indeed, the gender equality perspective on prostitution seems to be held primarily by the political elite, while the previously mentioned public survey implies that the majority of the Danish people want to increase the legal rights for sex workers.
It is possible that if Lone Dybkjær would have remained as the Social-Liberal Party’s spokesperson for Equality, the party could have joined the centre-left bloc in their demand for a criminalization. And it is possible that in time, R will change their position, although it is very unlikely that the ban will be realized within the first 100 days of the S-SF government. Beyond doubt though, is that the tone of the Danish prostitution debate has definitely changed – radically – when feminist ideas about prostitution as violence against women are expressed by the most central Danish policymakers; and when the Swedish model that was so detested in 1999, now is discussed as a real alternative.