It’s no secret that Copenhagen’s trendy Vesterbro neighbourhood doubles as a prominent red-light district. Take a late night saunter, and you’re likely to encounter sex workers lingering on certain streets, occupying an increasingly shrinking beat around the quarter’s eastern end. Most are women, and many are migrants to Denmark from African countries.
But unlike their openly displayed trade, we rarely hear these women’s voices articulated in the public arena, leaving a blank canvas onto which different back-stories are projected. They’re often assumed to be trafficking victims. In March, a flurry of opinion pieces in the Danish media presented competing narratives about sex workers, with one opinion column contending that many of these women are actually strong and financially self-sufficient.
The debate on how to improve conditions for the sex workers is just as polarised. Last year, Amnesty International came out in support of the decriminalisation of prostitution, arguing that sex workers would be better protected. Opponents push for a variation on the ‘Nordic Model’, which criminalises the purchase, but not the sale, of sex. The policy has been adopted to differing degrees across the Nordic countries, but not in Denmark, where both the sale and purchase of sex are legal.
These conflicting accounts reveal how little the city knows about the migrant sex workers occupying its streets or about how to best secure their rights and welfare.
When Vesterbro resident Siddik Lausten looks out of his window at the exchanges between “white men and African women,” he sees the exploitative legacy of colonialism at work.
“[The customer] stands like an old colonial master who has the right to buy the poor, black woman and make her his slave for a little while,” wrote Lausten in an op-ed for Politiken newspaper in March.
The commentary drew both criticism and praise from social workers in Vesterbro. One responder was Kira West, director of Reden International and Reden København, organisations that provide support to migrant sex workers. She penned a column thanking Lausten for drawing attention to the issue of the sex workers’ welfare, before making a case for increased support for the women, in particular for extra funding for trafficking victims.
In an interview in Politiken earlier in the month, West and another support organisation, HopeNow, asserted that the increasing numbers of sex workers soliciting in the area was forcing women to lower their prices and standards, while also pushing them further into the city.
However, Laustsen was challenged in another op-ed penned by lawyer Maja Løvbjerg Hansen from Gadejuristerne (The Street Lawyers), an organisation that provides legal aid to sex workers.
“If Siddik Lausten moved away from the window and actually came down to talk to the women, he would get a different picture,” read the response to Politiken.
“African sex workers in Vesterbro are independent, strong and incredibly self-aware.”
It’s a perspective rarely mentioned in discussions about sex workers, particularly migrants. I called Løvbjerg Hansen to ask whether it’s true that an oversupply of sex for sale is adversely affecting the workers. She’s sceptical, because she says that some journalists have refused to quote her perspective – which is that the numbers aren’t increasing at all.
“The numbers fluctuate with the seasons, and the media has been reporting that the price has been going down since 2006. Every time there is a chance to say prices are down and numbers are up or that the women on the street are getting younger, you read about it,” says the lawyer, who says that resource allocation is a motivation for non-profits to skew the facts.
“It’s a race to the bottom to tell the most dramatic story for attention and money.”
Løvbjerg Hansen argues that local non-profits also overrepresent the number of women who are victims of human trafficking, seduced to Denmark under false pretences, and then forced into sex work by the pimps who exploit them. This is because support for trafficked victims secures more funding she says.
While the lawyer sympathises with non-profits’ struggle for funding, she believes these organisations have an obligation to represent the whole truth.
“I could easily tell you a story about women who have made shitloads of money, and paid off their debts within ten months. Of migrant women who have degrees and have opted to go into sex work because they cannot find other sustainable work here – because that happens too. But it wouldn’t be the whole picture.”
She says the myths take the focus away from the immediate challenges facing the sex workers.
“I am not saying these women’s lives are fabulous, or that this is the work that they would choose if they had a variety of options. But I wish that we could look at reality and accept the real horror in the issues facing these women in terms of legal status, worker’s rights, the threat of deportation if they’re caught up in random police sweeps, or their health. Isn’t there horror enough in that?”
Explaining stigma away
Christian Groes-Green, associate professor at the Department of Culture and Identity at Roskilde University, researches the migration of sex workers. He agrees that the conversation about sex workers is highly politicised – and that it can be about more than securing resources. He says that the stigma attached to sex work is so prevalent that it needs to be framed in terms of extreme victimhood to be made palatable to the public.
“We live in a welfare state, we are highly individualised, and we think about sex as a kind of holy act. So we have a hard time understanding why women would migrate to undertake sex work, other than as trafficked victims.”
Groes-Green also points out that politicians feel compelled to reduce the reality to easily digestible concepts with strong emotional resonance. Meanwhile, the women themselves may have an interest in being identified as trafficked, as they are more likely to obtain asylum if they face deportation.
Løvbjerg Hansen agrees that conjuring up images of trafficked women is a strategy to wash away the stigma attached to sex work, garnering more public sympathy.
“Being a sex worker is the ultimate undignified status. As a society, we feel like we need a reason for why women go into sex work, to justify it and say it’s not their fault.”
Reden: increasing numbers
West, from Reden, agrees with Løvbjerg Hansen that the numbers of sex workers on the street can change on a seasonal basis. However, she says she has seen increasing numbers of women frequenting Natcaféen (The Night Café), a refuge space offered by Reden.
“We’re seeing up to 100 women in the night café since the new year. In the past, there were around 30 per night, which increased to 65 women in 2015.”
West draws on Reden’s 14-years-experience supporting migrant sex workers to point out that she has observed a general worsening of conditions in the trade.
“We have generally seen that there are too few customers relative to sex workers, which is why I suggested to Politiken that it would logically follow that women are forced to lower their prices, because at the end of the day, they must earn the money, for whatever reason.”
She also says that the organisation has seen migrant sex workers seeking out customers beyond Vesterbro’s borders, in neighbourhoods such as Frederiksberg, Sydhavn, Nørrebro and the city centre. “The police have been calling us to ask why this is happening.”
West points out that ‘trafficking’ is a broad spectrum. According to the director, the reality of migration from developing countries means that most sex workers are, to some degree, in debt to smugglers regardless of whether they freely elected to come to Europe.
“Many of them owe money to a pimp because they were transported, and therefore they feel threatened.”
However, West does concede that much of the media reportage of sex workers is sensationalised. She says that when she was last interviewed for a newspaper, she primarily focused on discussing long-term solutions to improve conditions for the women. Her points didn’t make the final edit.
“It is clearly not a very nuanced image. The issue gets sexed up, and journalists always want to take dramatic photos of red lights. We are tired of it, too. At the same time, it’s difficult for journalists to just go out and get a proper story from these women, as you need to first build up trust and rapport over a long period. It’s not that simple.”
West says that’s why it’s difficult to tap into the complexity of the sex workers’ situations.
“I agree that these women are strong. You have to be to live that kind of life. And when you meet them on the street, they seem pushy and brave. But when we meet them in the context of health clinics, and talk with them for months and years, we get a different picture of their vulnerabilities and the very real risks they face.”
A migration issue
Groes-Green agrees that there are usually elements of structural coercion at play, irrespective of whether the women were officially trafficked. Factors such as poverty and family pressure can compel women – possibly forcefully – to migrate and ultimately end up in sex work.
He says that many women face the choice between harsh, physical labour and entrenched poverty at home, or sex work abroad where they can quickly pay off their migration loans and begin to support family members.
However, the associate professor believes that these broader social implications are lost when the conversation simplifies sex workers as victims of trafficking. It’s easier, he says, to blame the pimps.
“We don’t want to have deeper conversations about migration caused by global inequality. It’s not a ‘sexy’ agenda.”
Furthermore, Groes-Green argues that as a society, we’re quick to connect migrant sex workers with exploitation, because gender stereotypes mean we assume migrant men relocate of their own free will, but we do not automatically ascribe the same degree of agency to migrant women.
“The panic around the exploitation of women migrating from poorer countries to Europe echoes the panic around women from Europe who migrated to Russia or the US in the early twentieth century,” he says.
“In both periods, we have failed to understand that these women don’t primarily migrate because they are forced by pimps, or the sex industry, but more often because they are forced by circumstances and inequality.”
The associate professor also believes this reality is being obscured by binary debates about whether the women are victims, or strong and independent.
“These women’s lives are conceived of as a journey from idyllic rural lives to terrible exploitation in Denmark. By the same token, you can’t just see the women as powerful and individualistic, because they are subject to structural limitations and forces beyond their control.”
Løvbjerg Hansen is quick to say that she is not romanticising sex work. Lausten’s column, she argues, was problematic because it invoked these old assumptions about migrant women as weak and men as powerful, without factoring in the autonomy some sex workers have to make choices within their extremely limited circumstances.
“People have criticised me for calling these women strong. But what is the definition of ‘strong’, anyway? How can we judge it by our own privileged standards? These women are making the most of what little they can. That is strong.” M
This article was amended on May 12 2016, 15:32, to correct errors to quotes that arose during the editing process.