“We had an art show/contest with 200 pieces of art. There was a equal amount of men and women represented and no one knew who had painted what. There were no names on the art and the top 50 pieces were to be picked and put on long-term display. We were surprised by the findings: of the fifty picked, forty were from men. Which suggested what many thought; men were in fact better at art. Or, did it mean something different? Did it mean that men had created the filter in which we judged what ‘good art’ was and that was in fact what needed to be changed.” —Mr. Claes Borgstrom, former Gender Equality Ombudsman, Sweden.
This is the story Claes Borgstrom started his portion of a presentation I was a part of last week in Stockholm. I was part of a two-day program put on by the Swedish Institute for international journalists that looked at the Swedish model of prostitution law and combating human trafficking.
It was a jam-packed two days that representatives from the National Police Board, Prostitution Unit (exiting services), Council of the Baltic Sea States, Former Gender Equality Minister and others presented to us. I recorded the whole two days and will be putting together audio clips together in the coming weeks. What spoke to me the most about society in Sweden, however, were the Swedes themselves.
The Impact of Gender Equality
I acknowledge that being in a major city like Stockholm, I did not see how smaller towns fared, and only being there for about a week I only scratched the surface on all the issues. That said, I was intentional about talking to a wide variety of residents about the laws and culture–like talking to some high school students about what they thought of their country’s laws. I must say what struck me about the young women was their confidence … the fact not one wore a stitch of make-up. In fact, I noticed that throughout my whole time there. I will right here interject some general statements about my observances on my time there, remembering I was in Government offices a good majority of the time, went grocery shopping, ate out, interacted on transit and such.
Women don’t wear make up. Not even kidding. What I noticed more was when women were in fact wearing it.
Heels, or rather the current trend of stilettos that have women from all walks of life and professions here in North America cramming our tender tootsies into them … women don’t wear them there. Again, I could count the number of women wearing stilettos. Once relegated to the uniform of prostituted women, sometimes it seems like all women are “required” to wear them now.
European women are known for their fashion sense. Swedish women are no different. What surprised me about their wonderful fashion sense was not what they wore, but how much material was involved with their clothing.
Was it because of the adverts they saw?
A friend noticed a gym advertisement portraying a woman in real gym clothing, lifting weights as one would in a work-out. Not one thing about that ad was hypersexualized. In fact, it seemed cars, food, liquor, gym memberships, cell phone providers, etc, often had women in their ads, but not any more than men. Still, it was not women’s sexuality that was selling the product. Rather the product seemed to sell itself, the models were just in the ad to hold it up or point it out. It was not the commodification of women’s bodies that sold the item.
I saw rows and rows of magazines and although they were complete gibberish to this non-Swedish speaker, the pictures spoke volumes. It was not rows of perfect bodies in too tight clothing that pushed the cleavage boundary. It was rows of women, some recognizably famous, other not so, but the common theme was their average and non-manicured beauty.
When talking to the high school students, they were baffled at the thought of their male counter parts watching porn, or treating them like some rap videos teach our boys to treat girls. Does flirting happen? Yup. Does teenage sex happen? Yup. What they did know though is that prostitution is self-harm. Not even kidding. That is what they themselves called it–and taught me. It’s self-harm. Prostitution is self-harm and men who buy women, well, shame on them.
Shame: Doing Wrong Against Society
That’s a word they use freely in Sweden about men who buy sex. Shame.
I bristled at that at first, but as they talked I realized the shame they mean is the shame that an act carries with it that is in fact a wrong done against all of society. It is a shame that says, “This is wrong. You know it’s wrong and you know why it’s wrong. (It’s against gender equality and is a form of power imbalance and thus a form of violence against women.) And why would you do this horrible thing to vulnerable people?”
It was the shame that changed behavior.
Which is exactly what the Swedish laws on prostitution aimed to do: change behaviors. Lawmakers set out to change the way men see women. Better yet, they changed the filter in which women are viewed.
Core of the Problem
I always thought feminism was about standing up to patriarchy, standing up to men’s entitlement. Legalizing or fully decriminalizing prostitution does not do either of those things. Adopting the Swedish model of law does. It’s the true feminist embodiment of gender equality and is the step Canada must take.
All the systemic reasons women get involved in prostitution are not in fact the core reason. The core–the heart of prostitution–is because of gender inequality. I have to wonder: What other forms of inequality can we end by starting with saying our women and girls are not for sale?
Check out these interesting articles on Swedish society, gender equality and the Nordic model of Prostitution Law:
In Sweden, Men Can Have It All, The New York Times
Trisha Baptie is Executive Director of Honour Consulting and founding member of EVE (formerly Exploited Voices now Educating). In 2008 she won BC’s Courage to Come Back Award for her bravery in transitioning to a healthier lifestyle, for giving the murdered women of Vancouver a voice through her trial coverage of Vancouver’s serial killer and for her ongoing activism. Follow Trisha’s tweets at @trisha_baptie or friend her on facebook. She recently founded EVE (formerly Exploited Voices Now Educating.)