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Collective action by sex service providers and sex clients on the Internet

10.06.2014 - (idw) Schwedischer Forschungsrat - The Swedish Research Council

A new study from Linnaeus University in Sweden shows how, despite it being illegal to purchase sexual services in Sweden, sex clients and sex service providers meet on forums on the Internet. They meet to pursue joint interests and negotiate with each other, to be able to minimize conflicts on the prostitution market. Gabriella Scaramuzzino examines the meaning of prostitution forums for the exercise of power and influence in the area of prostitution. The study shows how a series of conflicts arose when sex clients met sex service providers In Real Life. One of the things that sex clients were most dissatisfied with was the alleged deceptive marketing performed on regular basis by sex service providers. As in the case of other consumer forums, sex clients shared information and experiences concerning the services they had purchased, and started to demand certain joint consumer rights such as a money-back guarantee. The results reveal that sex clients position as consumers were strengthened during the study. They also shows how the sex service providers emphasized that prostitution could not be simply equated with any market or any working activity. The services provided could not, therefore, be reviewed with the aid of standardised templates as was common on many prostitution forums in other countries. To gain more rights as producers, and to protect the boundaries between private sex and sex for money, the sex service providers tried to negotiate collective contracts with sex clients concerning the rules that should apply when they met physically.

Prostitution was often described in the forums as a risky business and most subjected to risk were the occasions when sex service providers and sex clients met in person. Sex service providers made use of a number of strategies in order to improve their working conditions. They used the forums to create a hierarchy of harms, to call for caution, to examine potential threats, spread information about dangerous clients, provide contacts, offer support and, especially, to tip off young, new, and inexperienced sex service providers who ran the greatest risk of being deceived, robbed, or exposed to violence. The sex service providers developed a self-organised, peer-to-peer, voluntary social work, and such collaboration gave greater control over the threats and also increased each individuals possibilities for self-determination.

- They expressed a lack of trust in public authorities and their representatives such as law enforcement officers and social workers. One of the consequences of such distrust was that many sex service providers and sex clients instead turned to prostitution forums for advice and support, says Gabriella Scaramuzzino.

Sex service providers expressed a fear of being labelled as legally incompetent and of losing custody of their children if the wrong public official found out that they sold sexual services. Although social workers were rarely visible on the forums, one municipal prostitution unit started to offer a prevention package. Such provision, geared towards sex workers, followed the logic of harm reduction, which was in direct opposition to the Swedish prostitution policy, whose goal is to eliminate prostitution and help service users to exit prostitution. Access to the prevention package was, however, conditioned with the acceptance of a face-to-face meeting with the social workers.

Both the sex service providers and the sex clients seemed to be affected by social stigmatisation. Sex service providers, however, gave more concrete expression of being stigmatised than did the sex clients. In the forums, however, both clients and providers could feel a sense of belonging, and share their prostitution experiences, which they often kept secret from everyone else, including their loved ones. In the forums, they constantly felt monitored by the Swedish authorities.

- The study does not show if this monitoring actually occurred, as sex clients, sex service providers, and moderators perceived it, but the sense of being monitored did affect the interaction, says Gabriella Scaramuzzino. They continuously self-regulated the activities on the forums and, sometimes, they also reported criminal offences and collaborated with public authorities in fighting against child prostitution and human trafficking for sexual purposes.

The study shows a complex image of how the Internet has created new preconditions for the exercise of power and influence in the area of prostitution in Sweden, and how social work is challenged in trying to find its new role in this new environment. How can social workers help a group that has a different view on how prostitution should be understood and addressed, and whose members have varying needs, in a country where prostitution is such a politically sensitive issue?

Gabriella Scaramuzzino has previously worked at RFSU (the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education) and in a municipal prostitution unit, where she mapped out the sex trade on the Internet and worked with sex clients who wanted to quit or reduce their purchasing of sexual services. Gabriella is currently involved in several other research projects about civil society, the Internet, sexuality, and social work. She writes about sex workers and sex clients mobilisation and organisation at local, national, and international level and teaches social workers at Linnaeus University.

The dissertation: Collective Action by Sex Service Providers and Sex Clients on the Internet. is written in Swedish with a summary in English and can be ordered from Linnaeus University Press:

For more information please contact Gabriella Scaramuzzino, email:, phone +46 733-69 75 50.

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