A second-hand ambulance has been converted into a place where sex workers can meet their clients in Copenhagen. The aim is to help people at risk of violence and exploitation and it is the latest in a long list of ideas by a Danish social entrepreneur.
Michael Lodberg Olsen invites me into an old ambulance, long out of service.
“So what happens in here?” I ask.
“Sex,” he quickly answers, eyes flashing with laughter.
It’s not very inviting as I step inside. It still looks very medical – grey walls, blue seat. And it’s cold – it’s -1C and snowing outside.
But this old ambulance – called “Sexelance” – is a safe space for Copenhagen’s sex workers. They can bring clients here with the knowledge that volunteers are around to step in if things get ugly.
And the stats show that often things do.
“Sex workers in Denmark are violated or threatened 45% of the time, but at a brothel this figure is only 3%,” Michael says, using figures from the Danish National Centre for Social Research.
It’s the sex workers plying their trade on the streets – who cannot afford to use an illegal brothel – that Michael aims to help. Sexelance is free to use, as while prostitution has been legal in Denmark since 1999, it is still against the law for sex workers to rent rooms or hire any help for their business.
As well as human volunteers for protection, inside there is a notice on the wall saying police will be called at the first sign of violence and another encouraging sex workers to get in contact if they are victims of human trafficking.
And there are other items to help too. Wipes for cleaning after sex, three condom options, lube, even a heater run on electricity from a generator outside. All these suggestions came straight from sex workers.
“These people are my neighbours and friends so I listen to them, they have the best ideas for what they need,” Michael says. For instance, the sex workers told him they often get sore knees.
“So we came up with this”, he says, waving a rainbow-coloured chunk of polystyrene at me.
When Sexelance started operating in November 2016, Michael wasn’t sure it would work. People were initially reluctant to use it, particularly clients. But now it has been used 45 times and Michael says people are becoming more comfortable with the idea.
“If the sex workers think it’s a good idea then they will ask the customers to come here and tell them, ‘It’s a safe place, there are all the condoms we need, and there’s heat!'” Michael laughs.
He offers his ideas with a light, humorous touch, like his description of how sex workers would like to “pimp” up the ambulance with curtains, mirrors and red carpet on the walls.
Prostitution in Denmark (“Prostitution” in Danish) was decriminalised in 1999, based partly on the premise that it was easier to police a legal trade than an illegal one.
Third party activities, such as profiting from brothel administration and other forms ofprocuring, remain illegal activities in Denmark, as dopimping and prostitution by non-residents.
Legal status of Prostitution in Denmark
Sex work (sexarbejde) is addressed in Chapter 24 of the Danish Penal Code (Straffeloven): Crimes against Sexual Morality Sections 228, 229 and 233. Prior to 1999, a person was permitted to engage in sex work only if prostitution was not his or her main source of income. Prostitution was then fully decriminalized on 17 March 1999 when changes were made in the penal code. In practical terms, prostitution had been tolerated for many years prior to the change in legal status.
Both selling and buying sexual services are legal, but activities such as operating brothels and pimping are illegal. Also, the age of consent in Denmark is 15 years, but is 18 years for anyone wishing to undertake or purchase sex work.
The Danish police have a special “morality” unit to enforce the state’s prostitution laws.
Since sex work is not recognised as a lawful profession, sex workers are not entitled to the protection of employment laws or unemployment benefits, but are still required to pay tax.