In 1999, the Danish government decriminalised sex work but failed to recognise it as a legal profession. Instead, sex work continued to be treated as a social problem and as the target of a range of taxpayer-funded initiatives.
“In a welfare state like Denmark, you are considered a worthy citizen if you pay your taxes. But while we want sex workers to register with the tax authority, they remain heavily stigmatised,” says Sine Plambech, an anthropologist and researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies.
For example, the Exit Prostitution project, carried out by the Danish National Centre for Social Research (SFI) from 2012 to 2016, sought to find the most efficient ways of helping prostitutes leave the profession. The 46 million kroner initiative was ultimately criticised by sex workers, who felt the project didn’t bother to ask for their perspective.
Which is important, given that sex workers occupy an insecure legal grey zone – while it is legal to sell sex, it is illegal to procure it. Even lawyers aren’t exactly sure what rights sex workers are entitled to.
“Many journalists and researchers ask me for clarity about the legal framework around sex work, but honestly, I don’t know,” says Maja Løvbjerg Hansen of the Danish Street Lawyers.
“Sex workers are excluded from the whole field of workers’ rights, which is strange because they pay taxes and are registered as businesses. Since it’s illegal to employ a sex worker, they can never be employees or obtain employee rights. But they cannot obtain the same rights as independent contractors or businesses, either.”
Self-employed—without the rights
The tax status of sex workers is one area where their rights lag behind those of the rest of the working population. Sex workers are legally required to register as self-employed workers with the tax authority, SKAT, which grants them access to healthcare and to day care for their children.
But they are not granted all the protections and rights that self-employed workers enjoy, however, such as those enshrined in work safety legislation and business lease laws. They also struggle to obtain union membership and unemployment insurance, which impacts their ability to take maternity leave.
Susanne Møller, a sex worker and spokesperson for the Sex Workers’ Interest Organization, argues that this unequal status keeps sex workers in a cycle of disempowerment.
“Our status as a not-legal, not-illegal business makes us so vulnerable,” she says. “We cannot fight the system when it is unfair, and we are constantly at risk of being criminalised. It is important to have the opportunity to protect ourselves for the future the way everybody else does in Denmark. Why shouldn’t we be allowed this protection?”
Rights on paper, stigma in reality
Sex workers are also denied rights because of the stigma attached to their profession. Information newspaper reported in 2010 that some insurers refused to offer business insurance to sex workers because of the social stigma.
Plambech argues this stigma demotivates sex workers from actually trying to get the insurances that they need.
“Generally, none of the women I work with want to be registered as sex workers with an A-kasse or SKAT. It’s not that they don’t want to register in the first place, it’s just that they fear the stigma will follow them later in life,” she says, adding that the fear is especially high for migrant sex workers who often come to Denmark to work for a limited time in order to support their families back home.
“If they are only doing sex work for six months, why would they want to be confronted with that ten years later?”
In addition to the obstacles to obtaining insurance, Løvbjerg Hansen explains how stigma also prevents sex workers from managing their finances according to legal guidelines.
“In Denmark, business owners are required to have business bank accounts, and on top of that, foreign business owners are required to have audited business plans when establishing themselves here. But that’s very difficult for sex workers, since no one wants them as clients,” she says.
“People don’t talk about it, because sex workers won’t complain. The banks don’t write in their rejection letters that they reject people because they’re sex workers, they say it on the phone. When people request it in writing, they claim the rejection is based on the person depositing too much cash per month.”
Danske Bank’s press office declined to clarify whether their institution accepts sex workers as business clients.
“As a general rule, we do not turn down customers who operate a legitimate business,” the bank wrote to The Murmur in an email. “Whether that is so is part of the assessment we make in each individual case.”
Løvbjerg Hansen also notes that without a bank account, sex workers end up having to carry large amounts of cash, which puts them at risk. A report published by Amnesty International last year found that sex workers around the world are at increased risk of violent robbery or theft compared to the rest of the population.
Pay the tax, but bear the costs
Sex workers are also at risk because they have a hard time finding a safe place to operate their business. According to Møller, landlords are unwilling to rent property to sex workers due to the ban on procuring sex, which pushes sex workers directly into the arms of organised crime.
“The procurement law prohibits sex workers from renting rooms or hiring any help for their business, ultimately forcing sex workers to collaborate with criminals,” she says.
There is little research in Denmark into the effect of procurement law on sex worker safety, though a 2011 report by the Canadian Library of Parliament found that banning the procurement of sex pushes it further into the shadows. In contrast, after the Netherlands lifted their procurement ban in 2000, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs found that an increasing number of procurers abide by legal and human rights standards, and working conditions have generally become safer for sex workers.
Vivi Hollænder is the spokesperson for Denmark’s Sexual Political Forum, a group of researchers, journalists and sexologists aiming to destigmatise Denmark’s debate around sex work. A seasoned advocate for sex workers’ rights, she has volunteered her time to assist them with bookkeeping and secretarial work at brothels.
She believes that the procurement ban also puts sex workers at a disproportionate financial disadvantage within the tax system.
“Most of us can write off our operational costs through SKAT. But you can’t do this to the same extent as a sex worker,” she says.
The problem is that it’s illegal to make money from sex work, meaning that sex workers cannot declare where they are operating their business – in order to write off the cost of the rent – without putting their landlords at risk. And because landlords run a risk in renting property to sex workers, they charge well above market value.
Sædelighedspolitiet, a publication that gives a platform to sex workers, supports Hollænder’s perspective. In 2013, they calculated that the procurement law forbids sex workers from writing off a whopping 70 percent of their total expenses.
“It’s strange when you consider that everybody who makes money directly off of sex workers’ incomes is considered a criminal – except for SKAT,” Møller adds.
SKAT: Tax authority, or moral crusaders?
It could be argued that SKAT has no choice but to implement discriminatory government legislation. But its direct involvement in police raids on brothels blurs the lines between complicity, ethics and even unjustified use of power.
In 2015, SKAT joined an inter-ministerial operation that aims to combat human trafficking. The Action Plan to Combat Trafficking in Human Beings 2015-2018 extended SKAT’s role from a simple tax collector to an agent in the social fight against human trafficking.
“While SKAT would claim it’s ethical to conduct raids because it lets them increase control over human trafficking, sex workers would not agree,” Plambech says. “The idea that SKAT can participate in ‘rescuing women’ is certainly a very specific narrative regarding SKAT’s relationship to the sex industry.”
SKAT’s press office stresses that the anti-trafficking initiative justifies its collaboration with police to intervene in social issues that transcend tax payment, as well as raid locations it suspects of trafficking activity.
“In its efforts to combat human trafficking, SKAT assists the police in identifying any victims of human trafficking and traffickers themselves,” the agency wrote in an email to The Murmur, noting that personnel from the Danish Center Against Human Trafficking have trained its staff to identify signs of human trafficking during raids.
“At the same time, SKAT ensures that the people they meet in connection with outbound control checks pay the taxes and VAT they owe, not more and not less,” it adds.
But Møller claims that SKAT was already heavily involved in police raids even before the Action Plan to Combat Trafficking was in place.
“Five or six years ago, all brothels knew to expect a raid at least every month,” she says.
“When society wants to do something about ‘prostitution’, they use SKAT as a vehicle, because it’s easy to find illegal activity through tax mistakes or evasion. And when SKAT raids brothels, they bring the police.”
Danish police are legally required to obtain court orders before they can enter premises they suspect of illegal activity. But both Møller and Løvbjerg Hansen believe that the police use SKAT to enter brothels – without any legitimate suspicion of criminal activity – under the pretence of ‘providing security’ for SKAT employees, who are allowed to enter the property on routine tax checkpoint missions.
SKAT declined to comment on this allegation. The agency likewise declined to provide The Murmur with statistics on the number of brothel raids it performs, but it did insist that its cooperation with police is ethical.
“Checkpoints are selected based on an assessment of materiality and risks, and SKAT carries out its outbound control procedures using the powers available to SKAT,” the agency wrote. “SKAT or other authorities cannot use the control powers of other authorities when conducting outbound control checks, even if the efforts are implemented as a collaboration between several authorities.”
Yet Hollænder describes a more nefarious reality than SKAT admits.
“I agree with the characterisation that the police use SKAT to get into brothels and humiliate the sex workers – I have met sex workers who have been aatised by the police,” she says.
Sex workers in Denmark have published testimonies detailing their experiences with brothel raids on Sædelighedspolitiet. They suggest that, in practice, SKAT’s goal of combating human trafficking amounts to intimidation, coercion and humiliation of sex workers.
A culture of stigma
According to Løvbjerg Hansen, the lack of institutional accountability regarding brothel raids is merely a symptom of the larger social attitudes at play.
“I think a culture has developed around brothel raids that is unhealthy and a result of the stigma surrounding this industry,” she says.
Indeed, Plambech, Hollaender, Møller and Løvbjerg Hansen all point out that stigma is the greatest barrier to progress in making legislation toward sex workers more ethical.
“I mean, SKAT and the government won’t even use the words ‘sex work’!” Hollaender exclaims, noting that SKAT’s guide for sex workers still uses the term ‘prostitution’, which the workers themselves consider derogatory.
“SKAT wants their money, but they don’t want to recognise that it’s work. It’s so hypocritical.”
Møller and Plambech note that even a small change such as increased help with accounting and managing finances would significantly improve sex workers’ ability to navigate the system. Løvbjerg Hansen predicts even that won’t happen due to the debilitating stigma.
“Officially, SKAT provides sex workers with the same assistance as other businesses,” she says. “But there are many more test cases to observe in other businesses. With sex work, testing means putting your name on a complaint, and as long as there’s so much stigma around it, sex workers will not want to do that.”
In the meantime, the Sex Workers’ Interest Organization has created its own tax guide for sex workers, to fill the gaps in the sparse brochure provided by SKAT.
Ultimately, Løvbjerg Hansen argues, SKAT’s institutionalised discrimination against sex workers is merely a symptom of the failures and contradictions inherent in the political treatment of sex workers.
“SKAT is a civil service, they have to abide by the law,” she says.
“It’s not their fault: it’s a political failure that we chose to decriminalise sex work without fixing all the issues around it. The tragedy of all this is that as long as it’s difficult to figure out the laws, and as long as there is stigma, you leave the most important questions to the criminal environment.” M