The stigma is the problem

Anna Kontula - a Finnish Doctor of Social Sciences and the Left Alliance MP

Anna Kontula – a Finnish Doctor of Social Sciences and the Left Alliance MP


For her thesis published by LIKE in 2008 Anna Kontula interviewed more than 20 sex workers. Her research was thorough and many of the interviews lasted for hours. Whenever she visits a foreign country, the first thing she does is still getting to know the local field of sex work.


– Last trips I did were in Kenya and Chile. I still try to expand my view of this phenomena constantly. First I have to find out the locations and forms of sex trade in that specific culture. If possible I try to find out the essential characters and contacts who beforehand can get me acquainted with the sex work field of my destination beforehand. If there is a possibility to get acquainted with organizations formed by the sex workers themselves, I will try to arrange such a cooperation. I visit the locations where the service takes place and inquire people there about the situation.


Anna started to do her research more than 20 years ago working with various NGOs. But her academic research about the subject started in 2002, the time when she started planning her thesis. In 20 years the sex work phenomena has evolved and globalized drastically.


– When I started my research, it was common for the people to sell sex services in their own hometown secretly as a part time job, in order to get more income. Now people are moving around more within the borders of Finland and from one country to another. The market on the streets and restaurants has decreased because of the development of communications. Modern communication technology is one of the major transformations in the field of sex work. The Finnish climate is not in favor of street prostitution either, so it was quite natural to move the market into phones and internet as soon as it was possible.


Generally sex workers are not working in the field for more than 5 years, because of the emotional burden of the nature of the work.


– It is a continuous conflict against the norms of society. And such a conflict is naturally very stressful for any human. It is also very clear that if you sell sex for a long time, you have to learn to protect yourself. It is necessary in any position where you are constantly situated in an uncertain or potentially dangerous environment. Each job where you have to adapt constantly your emotions to an uncomfortable level requires you to build an emotional wall. This technique of building an emotional wall is also a part of the social workers education.


According to Kontula, sex work is not about just offering your body to another individual for certain use. It is about creating a sense of closeness and intimacy for the client and the same time to be able to protect yourself.


– None of us can open up for endless amount of people continuously seven days a week. It is unnatural for humans. So because of this, we can recognize a good sex worker for his or her ability to be able to maintain a professional distance between him/herself and the client.


The changes Kontula would like to see happening in society concerning the field of sex work are changes of major scale and Finland still far from her ideal. But the problem she sees the most disturbing common to all sex workers, is their social stigma. The problem of the society of not seeing or meeting them as individual persons and not allowing them to speak for themselves. They are mystified, demonized, glorified and presented through fictional production.


– If I work as a cleaner and you ask me if am I working voluntarily. I would probably answer you: “I don’t like this too much. This is heavy work and pay is not too good. But this is the best of my options right now. And I hope some things could be changed in the conditions of the field I’m working in, so this would be a bit more pleasant for me.” This kind of answer I could not give you as a sex worker. If you ask a sex worker are you whether he/she is doing this voluntarily s/he can either give you a negative answer which puts him/her in a position of a victim and he/she loses all her authority as a spokesperson because that makes him/her “just a victim who has been exploited.” In the other hand if the sexworker declares to work in this field voluntarily, he/she loses all the rights to demand any improvements to her position or situation. Even though in reality the possibilities for sexworkers sex workers to demand even their basic rights such as healthcare health care or social service are very low. In that area there is a lot to improve.


Kontula points out one law that which could be changed without too much effort and soon  just by itself it and would already rapidly make a big difference; : The refusal-of-entry article in Finnish law the purpose of which is to deportee foreigners who are merely suspected of selling sex services in Finland.


– This practically means that Russian sex workers are living in remarkably more risky environment than  sex workers who are coming from withing the borders of European Union. Because they know and their clients know too, that if they are raped or assaulted, they cannot go to officials to seek help because of the fear of being deported out of Finland. And from the point of view of autonomy of sex workers, this would be an easy and quick item sect to fix.


Anna Kontula often speaks often publicly in favour of decriminalizing the purchase of sex services in Finland. She declares that so far there has not been any proof that criminalizing it would have brought any improvements in the conditions of workers in sex industry.


– Personally I would also like to see the rise of cooperative brothels in Finland. That would mean that if two sex workers would like to rent an apartment together and sell sex from there, they could not be accused of pimping each other.


Anna thinks the most important thing for common folks anybody could do, is to contemplate their own prejudices and think about the way they speak openly about the  humans working in the sex field. Since the biggest problem in the phenomena is being the social stigma in the minds of common people.


– You can never know how many sex workers there are in your neighbourhood, in your family or at your workplace. Sex workers may be young or old, men or women. They may do something completely else as a part time job or sell sex full time. The common factor in Finnish society is that usually the sex workers relatives and close ones don’t know about their work. Every time you talk demeaningly about sex workers in public there is a chance that the person next to you is actually working in the sex field.


The 20 years research and journey of observing the field of sex work has also made a lot of changes in Anna´s perspective. She started from the point of view that the sex workers were not victims, but independent, free and strong women. But when she finished her thesis, her conclusion was that the sex workers were as strong or weak as people generally are. The problems outside their work, they had were pretty much the same problems as the people generally have. The time she published her thesis, the “radical” statement was that sex workers are humans just like us. Even this statement raised a lot of discussion at the time.


– Some people were actually shocked about such a wild statement. That’s why I recommend an open mind and conversation, for the people interested in this phenomena. The conversation about sex work happens usually from the point of view of the own sexuality of those discussing. And most of us have had both good and bad experiences in the field of sexuality. So all of our feelings of joy and horror are usually reflected in the conversation we are having about sex work industry. That’s what makes the subject so emotional and difficult.


For the coming year, Anna wishes for honest and informative journalism and discussion where the information comes from the sex workers themselves as much as possible. Therefore, if you are not acquainted in the field in any way or if you are not willing to listen to the people who are the objects of the conversation concerning sex work, it is unlikely that you are qualified to evolve it in any direction.