#Borgen: Dramatic lessons on prostitution for Northern Ireland’s lawmakers?

Theatre and democracy had grown up together and were inextricably linked in the Athenian mind.

Dr Michael Scott, The Greatest Show on Earth

So human trafficking, and making prostitution illegal.  Such are the maximalist ambitions behind Lord Morrow’s private members bill.  The French lower house has just passed such a law up to the Senate.

But it was also part of a fictional treatment on the Danish political drama last weekend.

The Swedish research that’s been cited in the Northern Ireland takes a hammering in the programme (along with some less than quaint Swedish moralising), for pushing prostitutes not out of ‘the game’, but onto the streets and into the hands of the criminal classes.

It’s worth picking up from about 17 mins in when Katrine, a main character who’s acting as a party researcher and media handler at this point, interviews a fictional representative, Helene, from a sex workers union in Denmark.

Katrine: What do you think of a ban?

Helene: “It turns us into victims by criminalising our clients. And it’s patronising.

Katrine: I have trouble with the idea of a happy prostitute.

Helene: It’s weird to associate happiness with a trade. We don’t talk about the happy nurse or the happy policeman, do we?

Katrine: You have 200 members out of perhaps 3,200 prostitutes in Denmark. A mere fraction…

Helene: We’d have far more if there were not so much stigma about going public.

Katrine: Do all these women who work in secret share your views on a ban?

Helene: The buyer and seller both get something out of the transaction. No drugs are sold, no violence is committed. Where’s the crime?

Katrine: But regarding the Vesterbro girls*…

Helene: Yes they must be given help, but a ban won’t help them. A ban expresses a moral view held by certain members of society.

If you are short of time, clip  to 11 mins, 22.54 mins (for ref to failures of the Swedish project), 32 mins 41.20 and 53.30 for more ‘debate’. It’s great depiction of the dilemmas all politicians face between doing to the right thing and the popular thing.

But it also questions whether it is in every case to view law as an exact equation with personal morality. It also asks there a necessary trade off between that private personal morality and the wider public good.

*The episode begins with the busting of a sex trafficking operation and the freeing of thirty girls from the Vesterbro area of Copenhagen..

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  • Turgon

    It is worth noting that the Guardian recently covered the fact that Germany is rethinking its liberal laws on prostitution.

    The problem seems to be that prostitution seems to be seen as a dichotomous state of affairs: the happy hooker vs the enslaved woman. The drama seems to be trying to point out that that is a simplification. However, drama even good drama is poor at getting a real understanding of the problem.

    It does seem, however, that a number of the countries with more liberal laws are moving away from that position.

    There are undoubtedly women who seem to enjoy being prostitutes: Belle du Jour claims to have done and I think attempts to suggest she is wrong or misguided are highly patronising and inappropriate. She is an intelligent woman.

    Equally, however, there seem to be large numbers of women trapped in a truly unpleasant situation. there was a recent (? Channel 4) documentary on this which made for grim and not remotely titillating watching.

    Many men want to believe in the “happy hooker” concept. The men who use the prostitutes undoubtedly but also others who gain arousal from it and may hide this behind a spiel about female empowerment.

    Many prostitutes are probably in the middle but I would submit that it seems likely from the accumulated evidence that more fall into the abused and powerless end of the spectrum than the happy and powerful end.

    Neither Lord Morrow’s nor anyone else’s legislation will end prostitution but decriminalising the woman seems reasonable and in view of the way some of these women are treated it seems reasonable to ask serious questions about the legality of the actions of the men doing the purchasing.

  • Mick Fealty

    In Borgen they distinguish between street prostitution and that which happens indoors, and they put the split between one and the other at 20/80.

    The general argument in the programme suggests there’s less space in the latter case fir criminality and violence. And somewhere in the episode they suggest this is what has been on the rise in Sweden since the new law was brought.

  • I think thats always the case.
    Its hard to believe that less than a century ago, there was Prohibition on the sale of Alcohol in USA. (One that tallies with my personal sense of morality),
    It is hard to believe that when I was about 8 years old Betting Shops were legalised in Britain and they started showing the betting when covering horse races.
    I am more at ease with a few quid on the Grand National than a bottle of WKD.
    I dont know how many domestic violence cases or unwanted pregnancies result from smoking 20 Embassy Regal (not a smoker either) but it seems a bit odd that we have had legislation limiting the sale of cigarettes, and smoking in public.

    In some way or other these issues reflect our attitude to morality and health.
    What about smoking a joint…or taking cocaine.
    Seemingly if you are high profile enough, you will be offered some Class A Drugs by a friend. Theres a libertarian view, a health view a moral view.
    Maybe in 25 years people will say hard to believe this was illegal.

    Good liberal minded people like us are prolly in favour of legalizing marijuana. Even if we have never indulged or inhaled, the music we listened to, was influenced by that scene.
    But we are good liberal minded folks so obviously we are for the personal freedom argument and against the “morality”
    And we try to balance being Pro Choice and Pro Life.
    Not just at the beginning of Life.

    But while Society rules out Cannabis as immoral…..and currently rules out Euthenasia …it will certainly in the latter case come round to it.
    Retirement at 70 and end up in a nursing home….and a nice long stay between 85 and 103….or huddle up in the winter and hope the hypothermia doesn’t get you.
    Any volunteers ? No me neither.
    The morality against Mercy Killing will lose out to the Economics….but of course it will be presented to us as a a revolutionary break thru in Personal Freedom.
    Suicide For the Public Good.
    Thats actually why we tolerate Drink, Online gambling and Lung cancer….economics dressed up as freedoms.

    The problem with the Worlds Oldest Profession is that there are two “moral questions”. The one that says a simple transaction buying and selling sex should be as legal as most other transactions.
    If the women …and men….are all regulated …then it is argued they will be healthy and all that. But that seems to ignore the fact that so many are from abused backgrounds. And if legalised…the people best placed to take advantage will be a previous criminal element.
    Just like “street bookies” had the nous to open legal bookmakers in early 1960s.

    Legal Prostitution wont end Trafficking.
    Trafficking is not just about Prostitution …its about low paid jobs….and illegal working in restaurants. Economics.
    In 2013 we look back to a time before we were born when there was no pensions, no unemployment benefit.
    And we think we are civilised.
    But in the 22nd century will civilised people not wonder about a morality that sent space-ships to Mars for our scientific curiousity and sent satellites up to improve our Tintenet connexion….while children starved.
    As always Civilisation is focussed on Trivia.

  • Seamuscamp

    “In Borgen they distinguish between street prostitution and that which happens indoors, and they put the split between one and the other at 20/80.”
    “The Swedish research that’s been cited in the Northern Ireland takes a hammering in the programme.”

    Perhaps it has escaped your notice, but Borgan is fiction. No doubt there are elements of truth; much of it is just made up; but which is which? Are you suggesting that evidence should be taken from fictional entertainment?

    The problem is much more complex than private morality v public good. The debate should be about whether it is in the public interest to legalise prostitution and, if it is, what safeguards should be in place. Questions of personal morality have a dubious role in politics. Yet personal morality has sometimes to be subordinate to the law – otherwise we would be free to kill people who we think need killing. Fake moralising on the basis of a foreign entertainment is no substitute for political and social debate.

    Personally, I think that, for some, prostitution is a service industry that puts food on the table; for others it is a benefit for parasites who abuse the vulnerable. Some form of licensing/control/regularising might reduce the latter but cannot eliminate it

  • Mick Fealty


    The top quote came in anticipation of your first point. 😉

  • Coll Ciotach

    Read these testimonials before commenting. Just to inform yourself.


  • fordprefect

    IMHO, I only saw the law that was brought in, in France on the text on TV. It said that prostitution was still legal, but that anyone paying for a sexual act was liable to prosecution!? Could someone please explain that to me. I watched a fascinating documentary on channel 4 earlier on this year, where a young disabled lad from England was brought over to the Netherlands by his father. The disabled lad was brought to a legal brothel where he did the business with (what I can only describe as a beautiful woman) she did the business with/or for him). The Docu explained that if you are disabled in Holland, then the government gives you a grant every month so that you can avail of these services. The lad couldn’t get his “hole” in Britain (because he said no girl would go near him) and if he tried a prostitute, he could get prosecuted, and that’s why his dad had brought him over. The Docu crew spoke to the “madam” and the girls in the place, and they were all happy with what they were doing (there were no scumbag pimps or people like that anywhere near the place, it was regulated by the government, and they paid taxes!) and every customer had to wear a condom, or it was a no-no. Maybe that’s what we need here! It might lower the stress and tension!

  • canteluna

    I thought the prostitution debate on Borgen was quite disappointing. The argument against legalizing it was mainly presented by a lesbian labor minister with a “big brother/sister” perspective who was not above using data from a report that was “fudged” as a means to an ends. (It is obvious the creator of this show has problems with labor given the characters that represent it.) She was portrayed as an “old school” feminist out of touch with the enlightened yuppie view of the subject as presented by the heroines of the series, Birgitte and Katrine who based their views not on prejudice but data and the idea that the women choose prostitution as a career for themselves out of other options. They even use the euphemism “sex worker” rather than prostitute because it sounds more acceptable and professional. “Hey, kids, mom’s not a street walking prostitute who rents her vagina, mouth and anus to men with self esteem issues who can’t simply masterbate but need to subjugate women. No, she’s a professional sex worker who fucks the brains out of respectable business men in need of human contact while forced into the lonely life of business travel away from wives and lovers. Cool, mom! Beats working at McDonalds!”

    Missing from the discussion of the issue was any real exploration of morality about prostitution itself. It was as if the morality question was irrelevant and there was just a cold cost-benefit calculus. Is prostitution a result of coercion or not? But then they never really explored the aspect of the coercion from the social/economic point of view, only at the individual level.

    Morality is a tricky issue; what is it? Where does it come from? It’s hard to say, given that we’re so conditioned. It’s more than inherited social norms that we observe for the sake of upholding tradition. On the other hand, it isn’t simply utilitarian or a means to an end. It needs to be determined by examining our own consciences via a continual dialectic.

    When Birgitte’s all-too-perfect boy friend, Jeremy, admitted using a prostitute while traveling for business, Birgitte recoiled and looked at him disappointed and judgmentally. Her instinct was repulsion. And while it’s good to question our instincts — are they just thoughtless conditioning? — it’s this process that begins the examination.

    How do we know what’s moral? I think if we wouldn’t want our family members or beloved friends engaging in such activity, it tells us something about our morality. We find prostitution degrading because we understand that it is men objectifying and using (mostly) women for their own sexual fantasies that have to do with subjugation and power relations regardless of gender. This is what is most ugly about prostitution and while it’s understandable, it’s probably not something we should condone as a society.

    I think another way we can question the morality of an act is to ask would we do it if there were no financial gain (sure there are plenty of things we wouldn’t do otherwise without financial gain, but we don’t find all of them immoral, simply objectionable or demeaning in other ways.)

    Our thinking about morality is usually based on the “golden rule” (a universal) and whether the acts in question harm others. We tend to want to allow others to harm themselves if it is their wish based on the concept that people “own” themselves. But mostly I return to the idea of what does society need to sanction for the sake of the social good and when should it simply keep its collective mouth shut.

    Also missing from the analysis on the show was the fact that we take the market context for granted. We can trade ourselves on the market as we see fit and, more to the point, as we NEED to. Again, would prostitutes engage in sex with strangers without the pay incentive? I think mostly not. So, just because sex workers prefer prostitution to working at McDonalds or some low wage job does not mean it’s ok or that it’s an ideal choice, it’s just preferable to some people — mostly women — who can rationalize away the demeaning aspect of prostitution because of a cost-benefit analysis. Generally speaking, people are valued in society based on how much money they earn.

    Finally, we have to look at male sexuality. Why is 90% of porn consumed by men? Why are 90% of the clients of sex workers men? I think if this were not the case, that if men and women were more equally represented in the ways we conceptualize sex, the prostitution and porn issues would be different and more acceptable. I think it is the male aggression/objectification that is off-putting and for good reason. Psychologists and other biology based scientists can talk about the differences in men and women and how that plays out in our sexual lives but we curb male aggression in other aspects of society, so the “boys will be boys” excuse is at least in part not acceptable.

    Obviously I am against the legalization of prostitution. However, I am not at all interested in punishing sex workers. I am less sympathetic to the (mostly) men that create the demand for this trade. I don’t want to see them in prison but I do think society should make help available to them.

    Switzerland is considering a guaranteed living wage now. While it is unlikely to pass and there are some good reasons against it, there are also good reasons for it, such as that people could really contribute to society much more in the way they choose since working a demeaning or socially questionable job would not be necessary. Such businesses would have to pay above the guaranteed wage thus putting many of them out of business — and good riddance. People who do sex work because they need to in order to survive would not need to do it. I don’t deny that there will be some who would continue to do it. There will always be people who rationalize their behavior when there are incentives to do so, but at least it would give people real choice and real choice is the basis for democracy, the form of government most of us claim to favor.