A controversy in Sweden illustrates how the world's so-called oldest profession fits hand in glove with the sharing economy.
Stockholm police recently told the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter that sex workers were using as many as 200 apartments listed on Airbnb and other subletting services.
If police discover what's going on, they send a letter to the apartment owners.
"Many will be completely broken when they read the letter and understand what is going on," said Simon Häggström, who lead's the city police department's prostitution team, in a Dagens Nheter interview. "They want to get rid of the bed and sell the apartment."
Advocates of decriminalizing prostitution said sex work in temporary apartments reflected the failure of the so-called "Nordic model" of making it legal to sell sex but illegal to buy it.
"They are very very good at selling the idea that it's going well," said Pye Jakobsson, co-founder of the Rose Alliance Sweden, an advocacy group for prostitutes, told VICE News. "We're not supposed to exist. It's a major identity thing for Swedish people. They love being the moral compass of the world. It's a little like the US."
In 1999, Sweden made it legal to sell sex but illegal to buy it. The law purportedly aims to reduce prostitution by penalizing the john, or solicitor, and not the women working in the trade who often hail from poor Eastern European countries or South Asia. The model appealed to many around the world, especially to a certain sub-section of feminists and progressives who say they are seeking to protect victimized women. Norway and Iceland adopted similar laws. Canada and Ireland are debating similar versions. The UK attempted to bring in a similar model but it was voted down at the eleventh hour.
But the law has also attracted significant opposition, especially from sex workers rights organizations. Those working in the industry say the law makes them less safe, as it forces the trade underground and inhibits them from being able to properly vet their customers. Clients often want to meet prostitutes in one place and then move quickly to another undisclosed location to avoid police who might be surveilling them.
"If they pick you up at some place, they can drive you someplace but you don't know where you are going," said Jakobssen. "That's risky."
Critics also argue the the impetus behind the law denigrates women.
"It's very sexist," said Norma Jean Almodovar, executive director of the Los Angeles branch of COYOTE, a sex workers' rights organization. "They think women are all victims; we are all being exploited."
Proponents of the law say that line of thought is bunk.
"Anyone who believes there is such a thing as a happy prostitute should walk down the street with us one night and look these women in the eye," said Nadine Bergquist, a member of Rosenlundstodet, a Swedish volunteer group that helps prostitutes leave the profession, in an interview with Canada's Globe & Mail last year.
In 2014, a Swedish government study found that on-street prostitution had decreased by half compared to nine years earlier. But its methodology has been questioned, and other in-depth studies have found that the law has failed to reduce levels of prostitution overall and has significantly increased the harms and social exclusions associated with the work.
News that prostitutes are booking apartments online via Airbnb undercuts the gains boasted about by the government, said Jakobsson.
"The police are very very actively closing down every venue where we have to work," she said, adding that staff in Swedish hotels have been trained to keep prostitutes out. "People have to come up with creative solutions."
Under Swedish law, authorities can charge someone with pimping if they knowingly rent a room to a prostitute, Jakobsson added. That's why the cops send hosts letters — and it's also probably why the hosts get nervous when they receive them, she said.
"The owner of the apartment would be culpable under the anti-pimping law, but only when they find out," she said. "It's when they find out that they are obliged to take reasonable steps to make them stop."
Airbnb might be a way to get around the pimping laws, Jacobsson added, because the website — not a person — is arranging the accommodations, she said.
In another recent Dagens Nyheter article about prostitution in Gothenburg, Airbnb issued a statement saying it didn't sanction illegal activities.
"We have a zero tolerance policy on issues like these," the statement said. "Over 70 million guests have stayed with Airbnb, and problems for the hosts and guests are incredibly rare. If problems arise, we work quickly to take care of our hosts and guests and to permanently shut down users who abuse our platform and community."
Jakobssen drew a parallel between how police wanted to crack down on prostitution and how officials around the world want to regulate Airbnb, Uber, and other companies in the sharing economy. The government is inclined to raise questions about any business that involves people transacting money beyond the gaze of tax collectors, the police, or other regulators, she said.
"The state is everything in Sweden," said Jakobssen, adding that the Scandinavian country offered generous social welfare benefits but also expected Swedes to behave within rigid social boundaries, too.
"It's really about getting in the state's little family. For those of us who decide to live a little outside of that, they are angry at us and they want to stop us."
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