A pub called Harry’s Bar in Vaxjo in south central Sweden had a policy where they refused entry to “Asian-looking women”. This policy was put in place on the grounds that the pub were trying to prevent prostitution from taking place on their premises as the pub owner had been informed by the police that prostitution was taking place in the area and that Asian women were involved.
A group of Asian women (who were not sex workers) and who had been refused entry to this particular pub in 2012 pursued a claim for race discrimination against the pub owner and six members of the security staff. Talking about the experience one of the women, Merlita Malmstrom, said “it was a traumatic experience. No one should be treated the way they treated us."
The case was heard by the Vaxjo District Court in 2013. While prosecutors believed strongly that the actions of the pub had amounted to unlawful discrimination the court disagreed and the women lost their case. The court found that the prevention of prostitution, a ‘criminal activity’, was a ‘legitimate reason’ to refuse entry to the women. In a nonsensical judgment the court said that the women had been refused entry not on the grounds of their appearance but on the suspicion of criminal activity.
Some of the women pursued an appeal and the decision of the Appeal Court was released a few weeks ago. Sadly, the Appeal Court upheld the decision of the lower court finding again that no discrimination had taken place. The Appeal Court agreed with the lower court that the prevention of prostitution was a ‘legitimate reason’ for the actions taken by the pub in refusing entry to Asian-looking women.
Wendy Lyon, blogging at Feminist Ire, analyses the decision:
“First, of course, there’s the blatantly racist nature of the policy, now formally endorsed and legitimated by a Swedish judiciary which sees nothing wrong with singling out women of colour for whore stigma… The second thing is that this decision exposes the lie that the Swedish law is not about targeting sex workers. Of course it is. They may not be targeted for prosecution, but the Swedish authorities are more than happy to go after them with any other means at their disposal.”
This decision from the Swedish courts is highly disturbing. Not only does it condone the racial profiling of women of colour but it also gives services in Sweden the green light to discriminate against sex workers. While the women in this case were not sex workers the courts have stated that preventing prostitution is a ‘legitimate reason’ for permitting discrimination that would ordinarily be unlawful. That means that any discrimination against people who do actually sell sex can be justified on the same grounds and discrimination against sex workers will go unpunished. This confirms what we already know – that the Swedish approach to sex work hurts most those it is supposedly designed to protect.