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GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 11.2 (2005) 205-235

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Four Hundred Thousand Swedish Perverts

In 1998 Sweden suddenly acquired hundreds of thousands of new perverts. Their existence was asserted in a report, commissioned by the government, called Sex in Sweden. The 284-page report discussed the results of a questionnaire survey, the first of its kind in thirty years, in which 187 of 2,810 respondents answered yes to a new question, "Have you ever, with money or other remuneration, paid to be together sexually with someone else?" That 187 Swedes, all of them men, claimed to have paid for sex at one time or another was regarded as so disturbing that the report devoted an entire thirty-page chapter (more than 10 percent of the text) to trying to understand it and similar phenomena, such as that 725 men also reported that they had seen one or more pornographic films during the previous year.1

The 187 men who answered yes to the question about paying for sex constituted 12.7 percent of the male respondents to the survey (see table 1). The report extrapolates this figure to claim that one in eight men in Sweden has purchased sexual services. In sheer numbers this must mean, the report tells us, that "more than four hundred thousand men over eighteen years of age have at some point in their lives paid for sexual services."2 This figure has circulated widely in Sweden, most prominently in a 2002 government-financed campaign to promote public awareness of a law passed several years previously that made it a crime to purchase sexual services. The campaign included posters on billboards throughout the country that announced that "one man in eight has bought sex" (fig. 1).

The Sex in Sweden survey did not come right out and say that the four hundred thousand men supposed to have paid for sexual services at one time or another were perverts. However, this kind of quantification is one of the processes that is leading to the pathologizing of a new group—one that had been regarded, not unlike Foucault's famous sodomite, as a temporary aberration, as individuals who transgressed socially accepted norms of sexuality but whose transgressions [End Page 205] did not render them "a personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood."3 Indeed, when I teach Foucault, I always use the example of the client of sex workers to explain the difference between the sodomite and the homosexual. In both English and Swedish, words like client, punter, and torsk allude to something a man does—that is, exchange money for sexual services. It is not clear that the man's client status has any salience beyond that context. Is the same man still a client when he goes to work the next morning? Is he a client when he reads his children a bedtime story? Do clients have a similar nature, distinct from the nature of nonclients? Will researchers someday claim to have discovered a "client gene"? Can we look at a six-year-old child and whisper, "That boy's gonna grow up to be a client"?

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Table 1
Percentages of men and women who responded that they had "paid to be together with someone sexually" (betalat för att vara sexuellt tillsammans med någon)

The students I teach in Sweden generally laughed at those questions and found them far-fetched. This drove home the pedagogical point I wanted to make with them, namely, the difference between sexuality as behavior (the sodomite and the client) and sexuality as identity (the homosexual). What is happening in Sweden today, however, means that my well-worn example of this difference is losing its explanatory purchase, because the clients of prostitutes are making the transition from "temporary aberrations" to "a species." This essay outlines this transition as a contemporary example of what Foucault called the deployment of sexuality. What I believe is ultimately at stake in this transition is a much wider phenomenon, namely...


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