Commercial Sex and Nationhood

The text is based on the article “Constructing the Nation through Managing Sex” published in the English edition of Sosiologia, 2/2016.

Where does commercial sex fit in the Finnish society? That was the question on my mind as I started my PhD project “Managing Multiple Marginalization: Russian-Speaking Women Doing Sex Work in Finland”. After all, despite the popular image of a “Nordic Model”, the Nordic countries have very different approaches to dealing with commercial sex. There’s Sweden and Norway, on the one hand, and their criminalization of purchasing of sexual services; and Denmark, on the other, with a slant towards partial decriminalization. And then there’s Finland, where the exchange of money for sexual services is decriminalized, but many of the activities surrounding the process are illegal; and where purchasing sex is not outright banned, but there are restrictions on buying services from victims of pandering or trafficking.

But that’s just the legislation. What about those who work with issues of commercial sex or encounter those who engage in it? Where do they place commercial sex in the Finnish society? For my article published in Sosiologia 2/2016, I interviewed a number of people in NGOs, law enforcement, policymaking, and social and migration services. All these people had very different roles to play in relation to commercial sex and had very different attitudes towards it. Yet, despite their differences, they tended to draw a very similar picture of Finland. They imagined and described it as a nation built on the foundation of social and gender equality. But if Finland was a nation of equity, what was the place of commercial sex in it? Its existence was understood in terms of a number of external and internal factors such as global systems of inequality or the country’s equality project still being a work in progress. But all the interviewees agreed that it is precisely these principles that should guide how commercial sex is addressed. This was seen not only as good for those who participate in commercial sex, but also for Finland in general: by appealing to these principles in its approach to commercial sex, Finland could move forward in its equality project. Yet equality was a malleable value as it was used to support drastically different approaches to commercial sex from complete decriminalization to criminalization of the buyer. In effect, this positioning of commercial sex could be best described as a feedback loop where the nation’s ideals of equality would be utilized to manage commercial sex, which in turn, would reinforce the image of the nation as one based on equality.

Sexuality and, commercial sexuality in particular, plays a large role in construction of a nation, be it through actual reproduction of new members or through attributing deeper meaning to a nation’s collective attitudes to certain aspects of sexual behaviour. And in my article I try to see how this relationship between nationhood and commercial sex play out in the Finnish context. This may be a profitable line of inquiry within Finnish sociology and could be taken further to see how sexuality in general is understood and conceptualized in the context of the Finnish nationhood.

Anastasia Diatlova

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