Politics, prostitution and peer. Eh… beer.

The pictures in this post are from a stormy night in Reykjavík….

My stay in Iceland has become more interesting, ever since I started actually meeting people and socialize. Particularly I slowly merge into some sort of sub-society, which consists of both, Icelanders and foreigners like me, who are staying just temporarily. This sub-society is political, rather than only environmentalist, engaged in more or less “radical” direct action – what I am not used to. Hence I have been talking, thinking and reading a lot about politics, political philosophy and theory. Iceland is a quite interesting place for this, because it has (or used to have) some rather unique political legislations – whose discovery triggers many thoughts and inner discussions in my brain. To write about this is really difficult. So I want to stress that any thoughts described here are a mere play of thoughts, following different trains of thought in order to get a better understanding of what we’re even talking about…

Beer ban in Iceland – A little history for the beginning

Beer, as the only alcoholic beverage, used to be forbidden in Iceland. This prohibition was in power from 1915 to 1989 (!). This means, people could buy any other alcohol like wine and hard liquor in the state-owned liquor-stores (that actually hasn’t changed, the state has a monopoly on selling alcohol, you can only get it in special stores – and in pubs, bars etc.) but not beer. How is that possible? Alcohol in Iceland, as in a number of other western societies, used to be not accepted by the public, and even forbidden in 1915. This ban was abolished in Iceland in 1935, due to a referendum, where a slight majority of Icelanders voted against the ban. “The advocates of prohibition argued that beer posed a threat to the health and well-being of society, primarily of the working class and young people.” Writes Helgi Gunnlaugson, my Icelandic Society teacher, who wrote a quite interesting essay named “An extreme case of lifestyle regulation: the prohibition of beer in Iceland 1915-1989” (if you’re interested in that article drop me an email and I can send it to you). So this ban was mostly driven by emotional discussions, about the idea that the state needs to take care of its citizens. But this back then in Iceland happened in such a hypocritical, incoherent way that it is actually quite ridiculous. From today’s point of view it sounds funny how one can think that exactly beer is “the devil”, which is going to seduce our children and workers and turn them into drug-addicts. How interesting is that? It’s the working class who is going to not be able to resist the temptations of beer and hence needs protection: “…as a socialist I view the issue of alcohol usage from the standpoint of the working class and its development. Those with the lowest income, living under poor social conditions, have a great tendency to soothe their pain in alcohol drinking. Socialists all over the world are aware of this fact, and speak out against alcohol usage. Why is alcohol legal? It is because alcohol production is a big business, controlled by powerful capitalists and can´t therefore be easily abolished..” although this one I liked even more: „..Icelanders are not able to use alcohol as civilized persons, their nature is still too much of the Viking kind, they get too excited and brutal, with alcohol use. The Parliament should be like a father to a child, knowing what is best for its welfare. Therefore, the Parliament should be against the abolition of the ban” (Quotes from Helgis presentation on the beer ban) You wanna hear more of that? Here you are: “The experience of beer in Scandinavia is frightening, especially the increasing consumption among youth and women…also, beer consumption is widespread in work places and sometimes it is necessary to lock workers up in factories during working hours, because they otherwise tend to go to bars. This would most likely also happen in Iceland and hopefully MP´s will realize their obligation to defeat this proposal” Ha, so the only group of people who are able to take care of themselves are middleaged, middle- and upper-class man. I knew it! People in favor of the ban where arguing that beer would be part of the “everyday life”, that kids would need a beer in the morning to wake up, or something (that actually claimed a member of the Icelandic parliament who was defending the ban: “Few days ago I witnessed a 13 year old school boy saying that kids his age really needed this beer to get up in the morning and go to school. This boy also believed it to be handy for the homes, because then they did not have to bother about preparing tea or coffee, just grab the beer from the kitchen shelves. Thus it is apparent, that propaganda for beer has had some influence on young people’s minds.”). Helgi kept drawing attention to the parallels with the ban of Cannabis in many countries and there are for sure some very similar arguments used and incoherencies within the policies. Consumption of alcohol has been increasing in Iceland, but only within the last ten years. People drink in fact less hard liquor but more beer and wine. Wine consumption has relatively more increased than beer in recent years. Ok, so much on the beer ban in Iceland.

Another very interesting thing is the practical ban of prostitution.

I wrote my exam paper in the above mentioned course “Icelandic Society” on this topic. Why? Coming from Germany, which could be defined as a very liberal state, I found it very interesting how different the approaches to prostitution are. Iceland recently criminalized prostitution (find details below) and Germany legalized prostitution in 2001. Prostitution is a dodgy topic. It rises many questions in many different fields. And during my research I at least found out that there is no easy solution to it and that it is well worth it, to actually have a close look into the arguments on both sides.

A small insight into the history and the status quo of the legislation in Iceland

Due to the General Penal Code of Iceland from 1940 up until 2007 being engaged in prostitution in Iceland was illegal with a punishment of imprisonment for up to 2 years. The paragraph was deleted in 2007. The government hoped that decriminalizing selling sex might encourage those engaged to report abuse and third parties, who organize the prostitution. Then, in 2010, the purchasing of prostitution (not the selling of it) was illegalized. The changed article in the General Penal Code also prohibits advertising of and third parties benefiting from prostitution. Furthermore, also in 2010, a full ban on strip clubs was enacted, banning profiting from nudity. In “The Icelandic Action Plan against Trafficking in Human Beings”, which the Government approved at a cabinet meeting on 17th March 2009, the working group stated a very important claim, that: “[…] prostitution and any kind of sex services will be subject to our definition of sexual violence and will equate the buyers of prostitution with other perpetrators of sexual violence” . Furthermore they stress, that “[…] the human body should not be a commodity for sale […]”. This particular shift in the focus, from the “provider” of sexual services, i.e. the prostitute, to the “consumer”, the buyer of it, as well as the view, that it is immoral to “sell one’s body” and the consequence to prohibit prostitution, is often referred to as the “Nordic model of prostitute policies”. Here Iceland is seen as part of the “Nordic countries”, where Sweden was the first to introduce such a law in 1999. Due to the lack of available references in English on the case of Iceland, I will use literature on the “Nordic model”, assuming that the argumentation and justification here mirrors the debates in Iceland. So investigating the arguments in Sweden that finally led to the prohibition of the purchase of sex will hopefully help us to also understand why Iceland decided to follow this path.

Arguments for the ban of prostitution

Because of the limitation of this blog (and my readers’ assumed capacities) I will only mention some few, in my opinion most striking arguments for the criminalization of prostitution. The first logical step within this argumentation is to clarify why prostitution is bad. The argument claims that prostituted girls have according to research very often been abused sexually in the childhood, living in poor conditions, and being forced into prostitution often under the age of 18. Max Waltman (who wrote a paper called: Sweden’s Prohibition of Purchase of Sex: The Law’s Reasons, Impact, and Potential) thus concludes: “In most situations of prostitution, coercive circumstances exist that push women into the sex industry. These circumstances may include subjection to sexual abuse as children, homelessness, sex and economic discrimination, and often racism.”

Furthermore it is a matter of fact, that many women (and men) face severe violence when being prostituted, as, in the words of the Swedish 1993 Prostitution Inquiry,

“it is common that women in the sex trade are subjected to various forms of violations such as physical abuse and rape. Some purchasers conceive the situation such as that they, since they‘re paying, have a right to treat the woman as they wish. The purchaser thinks that he has not only paid for particular sexual services, but also paid for the woman‘s right to a humane and dignified treatment.”

Here the arguments against prostitution use empirical research in order to prove that in reality vast forms of prostitution are exploiting, abusing and traumatizing the ones involved and hence is bad as opposed to derive this conclusion within a philosophical investigation. The following step is to acknowledge, that we want to live in a good society and that the state is explicitly in charge of contributing to this aim. Those two points are taken for granted in most discussions in favor of a ban. So then people in favor of a ban of prostitution need to explain, why they think a ban of prostitution will help to extinct prostitution.

If buying sex service is illegal, it might be possible to engage the “consumers” into helping to find the “third parties”, the pimps, by “providing that it might be so arranged that the buyers would receive reduced punishment if they provided information on the organizers of prostitution” (said MP’s of the Icelandic parliament). Also the hope is that men would change their behavior, i.e. stop purchasing sex services, because of the fear of being arrested and socially stigmatized. The last argument I want to present here, is the idea, that by the simple fact, that there is the (male) demand for prostitution, this demand will be satisfied by supplying women in prostitution. This supply of prostitution will, at least partly, create new demand. So by legalizing prostitution we’re creating a vicious circle which will eventually lead to more prostitution: “men buy prostitution because they can.” (writes feminist Janice Raymond).

So all those arguments, amongst others, bring supporters of the criminalization of prostitution to the conclusion, that the best thing to do within a society in order to guarantee gender equality, human rights and hence the extinction of prostitution, is its legal ban.

A small insight into the history and the status quo of the legislation in Germany

So if we can contrast Germany’s legislation on prostitution against the “Nordic” one, we first need to briefly describe the German legislation – and the argumentation behind it. In 2002 Germany passed the so called “law for the regulation of the state of legislation on prostitution” (“Gesetz zur Regelung der Rechtsverhältnisse der Prostituierten”, ProstG). This law legalizes prostitution as an occupation and hence both, offering and buying sexual services. Within this law the German legislative decided to define prostitution as ones „autonomous decision on a risky occupation” (“Prostitution als autonome Entscheidung zu einer riskanten Tätigkeit”), as opposed to “Prostitution as violation of human dignity” (which the “Nordic model” uses), “Prostitution as a mere violation of morals and manners” and “Prostitution as an occupation as any other” (those categories where used in the German legal paper on the issue). Before the legalization of prostitution in 2002 it was not forbidden, but considered “against public policy”, or simply immoral. As a consequence of this attitude it could not be seen as a “proper occupation”. Hence prostitutes, as “workers” or “employees”, were not protected: the “contract” between the one who purchases and the one who offers sexual services was not legally accepted. The prostitute thus was not able to legally enforce payment, to be accepted in the social insurance system and therefore have access to compulsory health-insurance, unemployment insurance and pension insurance. Even though prostitution was made a legal, morally accepted “occupation” by the “ProstG”, it was not supposed to “be considered as a job like any other” which practically means that the prostitute was supposed to have more rights than his/her “employer” or the “customer”. He/she could not be possibly legally forced to “deliver” promised sexual services. Furthermore prostitution was not considered a “job as any other”, inasmuch as the state wanted to offer more social services which would help concerned people to “quit” prostitution and an unemployed person would not be offered an occupation in this “business” by the employment agency.

Arguments for the legalization of prostitution

It is important to note the assumption, which is significantly different from the one in the “Nordic model”: prostitution is not an act against human dignity, it is not even immoral. Prostitution is not bad as such. The conclusion which was then drawn by the German legislation was the following: if prostitution has to be considered as an acceptable, even if maybe not necessarily desirable, way to “make a living”, the state needs to ensure the rights of people working in this “business”. Hence the main goal of the legalization was to improve the situation of prostitutes, not to extinct it. One argument was, that by the elucidation of the “red light district”, violence, degradation and exploitation within prostitution, but also the still as illegal considered manifestations of prostitution like human trafficking, forced prostitution and prostitution of underage persons could be better fought. Furthermore the German argumentation contains an important element: the legalization of prostitution is being considered as ensuring one’s personal freedom, as the following statement makes clear:

“One attribute of a liberal constitutional state is the respect for the autonomous decision of the individual, as long as no legally protected interests of others are violated. In an ideologically neutral state of the constitution, the voluntary practice of prostitution is to be respected as an autonomous decision, as long as no rights of others are violated. As the free self-determination is an expression of human dignity, the individuals decide themselves first and foremost, what defines their dignity. Even through morally dishonorable behavior, the human dignity would not be lost.”


This stresses the considered intrinsic good of the liberty of the individual, hence evaluating prohibition as not desirable by tend.

So…Who’s right?

It will for sure not be possible, to say which of those contrasting models could be considered as “right”, especially not within the limited space of this paper. It might be interesting to mention though, that research done on both examples doesn’t prove the results, which were hoped for. At this point I want to only present two examples of papers, which question the justification of both, criminalization and liberalization of prostitution. Jordan particularly criticizes in her essay “The Swedish Law to Criminalize Clients: A Failed Experiment in Social Engineering” the way the Swedish government claims their model to have proven itself as a good way to handle the “issue” of prostitution and hence be a model which should be adopted by other countries. In her opinion this is not at all the case, she even accuses the government to assert the claim despite the lack of any empirical evidence, which would proof that the aims of the prohibition were reached.

Jordan thus clearly speaks out for Sweden repealing the law, focusing on trafficking into forced prostitution as well as the prostitution of minors, work on an effective prevention system which includes the voices of sex-workers themselves for how to improve their situation and “accept the reality that some women (men and trans people) will decide to remain in prostitution and ensure that they are provided with the same labor and other legal protections that are enjoyed by other workers”.

In contradiction to the case of Sweden, in Germany the state itself offers a critique of its own legislation. The “ministry for family, seniors, women and youth“ commissioned a study which was supposed to investigate the results of the legalization of prostitution in Germany. This study shows as well, that most of the goals of the legalization of prostitution could not be reached. The “Governmental report on the effects of the law for the regulation of the legal relationships of prostitutes” makes clear, that the situation of prostitutes after introducing the law could not at all be significantly improved: although prostitutes are now allowed to be a part of all social services, barely any used this option. Also the situation of prostitutes regarding abuse, exploitation and violence in the business as well as the possibilities of quitting prostitution could not be improved. The “ProstG” furthermore failed in increasing the transparency within the “red light district”. Still the report does not criticize the legalization as such. It stresses that the legislation did at least not worsen the situation for prostitutes and that in order to reach the aforesaid goals the law needs to be adjusted and improved by a closer investigation of how those goals can be reached .

Concluding it might be said, that there is obviously no easy solution for this problem, at least if one trusts those sources. The question which might be raised here is if the legislative system is the right leverage to use in order to achieve social change – assumed we as a society can decide on prostitution being an undesirable practice. And this is probably a very crucial question – how can we as a society improve the communication, improve the political but also educational system so that a really open discourse would be possible? An open discourse about the questions “what is good and desirable in our society?” and “does a particular practice (such as prostitution) contribute to the overall human flourishing?” As a rough idea I’d pose the potentially provocative claim, that the problem here is inherent within our neoliberal, capitalist system, in which the question for “real morals” is not even seriously put out there for an open discussion. What is good and bad for our societies and how the “bad things” could be possibly solved is rather decided by small elite.

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