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Governing sex work. New way of categorizing prostitution policy may be the standard for years to come

Social anthropologist Petra Östergren’s research rethinks prostitution policies and receives international response and praise. Her chapter "From zero-tolerance to full integration. Rethinking prostitution policies" has now been published in The Sage Handbook of Global Sexuality. According to professor Hendrik Wagenaar at Kings College in London it is a "seminal typology of prostitution policies" and "the standard typology for years to come”*.
 Petra Östergren by a mural of a street worker.
Petra Östergren next to a mural of a sex worker on Marion Street, Wellington, during her 2017 field studies in New Zealand, the only country in the world with an integrative policy.. Photo: Catherine Healy.

Traditionally, instead of protecting the human rights of sex workers, responses to the sex industry have focused on using criminal law to limit or eliminate the sector. A repressive or restrictive policy model has often been chosen over an integrative model.

The chapter develops a new categorization

Petra Östergren’s chapter develops a new typology for prostitution policy model, consisting of three general models, or regimes, based on an inductive methodological approach:

  1. repressive, when the policy aims to eliminate the sector, using penal law and other repressive measures,
  2. restrictive, when the aim is to limit the sector, by the means of strict and arbitrary regulation,
  3. integrative, when the aim is to integrate the sector and workers into society with the help of labor laws and other policy tools.

Analytical tool

The intention of such a tripartite typology is that it can serve as a tool for assessing, evaluating and comparing prostitution policies, even in cases where they seem to contain contradictory or incoherent elements. Besides using the prostitution policy typology for analytical purposes, it can also serve as a tool for developing context-sensitive measures against violence, exploitation and trafficking in human beings in the sex work sector. Furthermore, it can be applied to the governance of other issues of moral politics, such as drugs, abortion and homosexuality.

Petra Östergren developed the typology when she was project manager for the interdisciplinary EU project DemandAT - Demand-side Measures Against Trafficking - a research project that examined initiatives and policies that focus on the demand side of human trafficking.

DemandAT drawing on insights on regulating demand

Trafficking in human beings covers various forms of coercion and exploitation of women, men and children. Responses to trafficking have traditionally focused on combating the criminal networks involved in it or protecting the human rights of victims. However, European countries are increasingly exploring ways in which to influence the demand for services or products involving the use of trafficked persons or for the trafficked persons themselves. DemandAT aimed to understand the role of demand in the trafficking of human beings and to assess the impact and potential of demand-side measures to reduce trafficking, drawing on insights on regulating demand from related areas.

About the book

The Sage Handbook of Global Sexuality provides a major thematic overview of global sexualities, spanning each of the continents, and its study, which is both reflective and prospective, and includes traditional approaches and emerging themes. The Handbook offers a robust theoretical underpinning and critical outlook on current global, glocal, and ‘new’ sexualities and practices, whilst offering an extensive reflection on current challenges and future directions of the field. The broad coverage of topics engages with a range of theories, and maintains a multi-disciplinary framework.

Social Anthropologist Petra Östergren

Petra Östergren has been researching Swedish sex work policy and discourse since the late 1990´s, using social anthropological method and theory.

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