– Can one do this? Thoughts on scientific credibility after reading Susanne Dodillet’s book « Är sex arbete? » (Is Sex Work?)

By Sven-Axel Månsson (March 12, 2009)

Source: http://www.socialpolitik.com/far-man-gora-sahar/

The subject of the book, which is a dissertation on the history of concepts, is a comparison of German and Swedish prostitution policy since the 1970s. The background is that these two countries have chosen different paths. Germany has implemented an active legalization of prostitution. In 2001, Parliament passed a law which has the declared objective of integrating prostitution into society. The Act regulates the prostitutes’ relationship with the law in various fields. Simply put, you could say that it treats prostitution like any other job. Sweden has chosen a different policy. Since 1999, it has decided, among other things, to prohibit the purchase of sexual services in order to curtail the prostitution industry.

In the introduction of her thesis, the author argues that her purpose is not to reject any of these laws, without understanding why these countries’ legislators came to such diverging interpretations. Despite this assurance, the reader understands quite soon where her greatest sympathy lies. One of Dodillet’s main arguments is that Swedish prostitution policy was enforced over the heads of those whom it was designed to help, namely prostitutes, while the German policy was inspired by and reflected the wishes of prostitutes themselves.

My criticism of this thesis has to do with the author’s presentation of her arguments. I understand that there are serious problems with scientific meticulousness, i.e. precision/accuracy and credibility. It could be that this dissertation should never have been approved; I will return to that question. Moreover, my criticism of Dodillet’s text is subject to special conditions, for I am one of the authors whose work is being scrutinized. This is an awkward position, one of needing keep in check one’s emotions when reading a strongly distorted and tendentious presentation. At the same time, this constitutes an asset. My own texts can be found there, relatively easy to pick up, as a correction against the fraudulent selectivity of distant memory.

Dodillet’s main thesis targets the current Swedish prostitution policy, which is largely based on the scientific and social program that was conducted in Sweden in the 1970s and the 1980s. The problem is, according to her, that the researchers did not listen to the prostitutes and that men, especially, were disinclined to include « positive prostitution experiences » in their research. The books and research papers written during these years painted a much too gloomy picture of the prostitution industry. In addition, she believes that the social workers who were working in Swedish prostitution environments did not take into account prostitutes’ own agency to enter prostitution. The joy and pleasure experienced at « work » were neither described nor appreciated sufficiently by researchers and social workers, says Dodillet.

This theory is well-known from other books in this domain, including that of debater Petra Östergren « Porr, horor och feminister » (Pornography, Whores and Feminists), published a few years ago. Indeed, Östergren is thanked in Dodillet’s foreword for the author’s inspiration. Dodillet may of course be of any opinion she likes about the social and human value and benefit of prostitution; debate is free. But when she tries to fashion her personal attitude into science, the whole thing falls apart. A social scientist must meet higher demands than a debater, in terms of accuracy and credibility. And the fact is that in order to wrap up her argument, Dodillet obviously feels compelled to distort reality.

I am certainly not the first to have noticed this problem. Dagens Nyheter journalist Kajsa Ekis Ekman [Dagens Nyheter is a national Swedish daily newspaper] who reviewed Dodillet’s thesis called it a « falsification of history » (« historieförvanskning ») (DN 2009-02-20: http://www.dn.se/dnbok/bokrecensioner/susanne-dodillet-ar-sex-arbete-svensk-och-tysk-prostitutionspolitik-sedan-1970-talet/). Harsh words. What I myself can say is that cherry-picking facts at will is part of Dodillet’s working method. So is ignoring source-critical rules and concealing and euphemizing major and minor elements to achieve her objectives. The quality and methodology of the thesis are substandard; in some parts, it is outright distortion. I’ll give some examples of such irregularities in the dissertation, but first a few words about « victim thinking », one of Dodillet’s theses.

In the book, she devotes much space to the Malmö project (1977-1981), the first social project organized in Sweden to help prostituted women exit the sex trade. The project became a trend-setter for other similar efforts, e.g. in Gothenburg, Stockholm, Norrköping and Oslo. Dodillet is highly critical of Malmö, her main argument being that the social workers viewed the prostitutes as victims who did not know what was best for them, thus taking the liberty of manipulating these women in various ways to make them exit prostitution against their true will. This is a serious accusation, but a completely inaccurate one – I myself worked on this project and know what I’m talking about.

It is quite obvious that many of the women we had contact with were victims of poverty, abusive and violent parents, emotionally impoverished childhood environments, long-term foster care and institutional stays and, in some cases, victims of sexual abuse. Life had dealt harshly with them, restricting their choices. Understanding these mechanisms, however, is not tantamount to depriving the women of their agency potential, as Dodillet seems to think. We never regarded these women as helpless or incompetent.

Dodillet’s bantering about « victim thinking » and, perhaps above all, her simplistic view of the mechanisms that lead to difficulties for women in prostitution, are extremely frustrating. Nowhere in this thick book about prostitution is there a single sign of deep knowledge of these mechanisms. This is frustrating and deeply disturbing, because Swedish prostitution research has much to offer in this area, e.g. the expert report of 1977 about prostitution investigation (Borg et al. 1981), but also the book written by Ulla-Carin Hedin and myself « Vägen ut! Om kvinnors uppbrott ur prostitutionen » (The Way Out – About women exiting prostitution) (1998).

Moreover, the description of the work done on the Malmö project consists of a biased and random selection of quotes from project members’ books and dissertations. A recurrent distortion method in Dodillet’s thesis is the bringing together of disjointed sentences from different passages to thereby displace and change the meaning of the original text. With regard to the Malmö project, this technique is used in order to provide a picture of manipulative social workers and reluctant clients [= the prostitutes]. In my own doctoral thesis on the relationship between the pimp and the prostitutes (Mansson 1981), I write about the different categories of people, in addition to the prostituted women, which we came in contact with through social work. In one section, I describe how some women chose to keep us social workers outside their private life, while others shared with us accounts of their relationships. Here is the text of the original:

While working with the women, we also came in close contact with their relatives and friends, especially with their companions. However, not in all cases. Intentionally or unintentionally, some women chose to keep us out of their private lives. In some cases, we eventually heard about other people’s existence by the women’s own stories. Overall, we simply have different ways of knowledge about the different relationships that can exist between men and women in the sex trade (Månsson 1981: 48-49).

Dodillet presents this as follows:

« Intentionally or unintentionally, some women chose to keep us out of their private lives, » writes Månsson, and only « in some cases, » the women told about their personal relationships. He does not discuss the women’s reluctance to cooperate closer, but calms his readers: « Overall, we simply have different ways of knowledge about the different relationships that can exist between men and women in the sex trade » (Dodillet 2009: 115).

What evidence is there in my text for women’s « reluctance to cooperate »? None at all. But this does not seem to bother the author. She handles her sources at her own discretion, cutting and pasting them; the end justifies the means.

Here is another example of how quotes are taken out of their original context to give them a totally new meaning in the author’s political argumentation. In the original text, here is how I describe the organization of social work in the Malmö project:

Two social workers with extensive experience in social work were linked to the project. As the project was a pilot project and there were no models for operations like this elsewhere at that time, there were no drafted and approved job descriptions for the two social workers at the beginning. The only thing these two were told was that they would engage in a social and therapeutic activity on a trial basis among the prostitutes in Malmö. The aim of this work was mainly to help the prostitutes away from the sex trade to a different and better life (Månsson 1981: 33).

In Dodillet’s version, six words from that description are used as evidence of the social workers’ lack of respect for the prostitutes’ own will.

The persistent attempts of the Malmö project to guide prostitutes who claimed to want to sell their services « to a new and better life » can be seen as an expression of this. An existence outside society was unthinkable for Stig Larsson, Sven-Axel Månsson and their colleagues as well as for Hägerström and Myrdalarna (Dodillet 2009: 210; emphasis in italics by me).

When I read Dodillet’s biased representation of the Malmö project work, I am inclined to agree with Kajsa Ekis Ekman; if it is not falsification, then it is at least a gross distortion.

Dodillet finishes her tendentious representation of the Malmö project by regretting that almost nobody « questioned » its content and results, after it had ended 28 years ago. Note the wording: « questioned ». Why not « evaluated »? She seems to presuppose that the results of the Malmö project are incorrect. Cautious estimates by the end of this project showed that 111 out of 153 persons had in all probability exited prostitution (Larsson 1983: 215). It is obvious that the success of the project irritates Dodillet. Her thesis is that the women stopped prostitution against their will, which in plain language would mean 111 spineless women, victims of society’s concerns?! Dodillet’s insinuations are tasteless, but still relatively easy to handle for me and my former co-workers. However, the risk is obvious that they can be perceived as insulting to the women who accepted the difficult challenge of breaking with prostitution.

The dubious and selective gathering of evidence continues when, in the next section of the thesis, she describes the results of the prostitution investigation from 1977. The theory is the same: the investigative work was conducted without the prostitutes themselves being allowed to speak. Kajsa Ekis Ekman’s criticism of Dodillet’s thesis is precisely about the presentation of the prostitution investigation work (DN 2009-02-20: http://www.dn.se/dnbok/bokrecensioner/susanne-dodillet-ar-sex-arbete-svensk-och-tysk-prostitutionspolitik-sedan-1970-talet/). The true story is the following: as the work called for in-depth interviews, Hanna Olsson, the commission’s secretary, conducted interviews with 25 women about their life in prostitution. The meetings with the women took place over a period of three years, and the result is a 140-page text which is considered by many to be a breakthrough in terms of understanding the implications of prostitution and its consequences for women. The text contains lengthy and detailed quotations where the women talk about their agreements and their meetings with the buyers, their psychological defense mechanisms and the role of the « whore ». Dodillet dismisses this with « there are only a few brief quotations. » Ekis Ekman has counted them: in fact, there are exactly 219 quotations (DN 2009-02-26).

« Prostitution Research on the brink of failure » is the title of a blog text about Dodillet’s thesis, drafted by Jenny Westerstrand, a lawyer from Uppsala, who followed the prostitution debate for a number of years, and who wrote her doctoral thesis on international law and the discourses surrounding prostitution and trafficking (http://jennywesterstrand.blogspot.com/2009/02/prostitutionsforskning-over-randen-till.html). Westerstrand’s criticism does not bear on Dodillet’s presentation of the Malmö project nor to the 1977 prostitution investigation, but to another part of the thesis, namely the one that treats the beginnings of the sex purchase law in the 1990s. Westerstrand writes: « The chapter of the thesis about the Swedish 90s is indeed lacking any connection between the empirical data and the conclusions. Another outrageous fact is that Dodillet’s quoting style is comparable to a film trailer, that is, when reading the whole test being quoted, it tells you something different than what she has taken from it for illustration purposes. This is shocking. Is one allowed to do this? »

Yes, obviously. At least in the eyes of the directors of the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Gothenburg. At the end of February, Dodillet’s doctoral thesis was approved. How do they dare do this, I thought. Are they not afraid for their reputation? Hardly had the turmoil died down around the so-called Gillberg affair, and then this. « What emerges is a scientific environment that is lacking limits…, » writes Jenny Westerstrand. « For I have rarely seen such an absence of fear of how a critical reader will receive the paper. There must be cold expectance that support will be available, regardless of the content nature and the conscious misuse of the source material. »

Numerous research projects in the social sciences and humanities are based on the researcher’s social and political engagement. This is quite natural, but it does not mean that the research may be conducted in any manner. Interpretations and conclusions must be based on a reliable and professional handling of sources. As I have shown, Dodillet’s dissertation has crucial shortcomings in this respect.

It happens, of course, that the availability of source material is a major constraint for the researcher, but this is not at all the case here. Dodillet has conducted research on a contemporary phenomenon and the availability of materials is extensive. The problem is rather that she has selected exactly the material that fits her thesis. A proven research method is to use different sources to illustrate the same phenomenon and to verify their interpretations. Dodillet could, for instance, have interviewed the scientists and social workers in order to complete the written materials she collected. She has of course not been unaware of this possibility, but it is not hard to guess the reason why she renounced. She would have risked seeing her prejudged portrait of the situation become more complicated and nuanced!

Dodillet ends her book with a proposal for a new prostitution policy. I cannot see how she needed a 600-page « thesis » in order to arrive at what is in debate. For here the connections between the empirical data and her conclusions are not too obvious either. In addition, there are passages which are a direct misinterpretation of the sources being referred to. Still, this proposal is not at all unattractive as a contribution to a discussion that needs to be kept alive, if only because prostitution’s content and expression are constantly changing.

A relevant and progressive prostitution policy should reflect the social conditions that apply at the present time. At the same time, we must not forget what prostitution involves in the vast, vast majority of cases, namely exploitation: exploitation of others’ disadvantage and vulnerability. Allowing this knowledge to constitute the foundation of the prostitution policy we are creating in Sweden is not synonymous with a lack of respect for people’s agency, as Dodillet would have us believe – on the contrary. Our goal should instead be to create conditions for liberating this agency, and such conditions can rarely or never be found in prostitution.

Sven-Axel Månsson is a Professor of Social Work at Malmö University


Borg, Arne et al. (1981): Prostitution. Beskrivning, analys, förslag till åtgärder, Stockholm: Publica

Dodillet, Susanne (2009): Är sex arbete? Svensk och tysk prostitutionspolitik sedan 1970-talet, Stockholm/Sala: Vertigo Förlag

Hedin, Ulla-Carin & Månsson, Sven-Axel (19981): Vägen ut! Om kvinnors uppbrott ur prostitutionen, Stockholm: Carlssons

Larsson, Stig (1983): Könshandeln. Om prostituerades villkor, Stockholm: Skeab Förlag

Månsson, Sven-Axel (1981): Könshandelns främjare och profitörer. Om förhållandet mellan hallick och prostituerad, Karlshamn: Doxa

Newspaper articles and blogs:

DN 2009-02-20: Susanne Dodillet: ”Är sex arbete? Svensk och tysk prostitutionspolitik sedan 1970-talet” by Kajsa Ekis Ekman; http://www.dn.se/dnbok/bokrecensioner/susanne-dodillet-ar-sex-arbete-svensk-och-tysk-prostitutionspolitik-sedan-1970-talet/

DN 2009-02-26: ”Dodillets enda vapen verkar vara historieförfalskning” by Kajsa Ekis Ekman

http://jennywesterstrand.blogspot.com/2009/02/prostitutionsforskning-over-randen-till.html , “Prostitutionsforskning over randen till haveri?” by Jenny Westerstrand


Sans titre-1