How the Danish Tax System Profits Off of Stigmatizing Sex Work

by polinaonthesea



I live in Denmark and understand that the Danish context around sex work may be unfamiliar to many in this course. Therefore, I felt it was necessary to preface my culture jamming assignment with a short introduction to demonstrate some of the complex ways sex work is stigmatized yet simultaneously institutionalized in Denmark.

You may read the following for initial context, but I would recommend reading my article in The Murmur about sex work and the Danish Tax Authority in addition or instead. It takes about five minutes, but it offers a more thorough explanation of the problematic relationship between the two.

“In a welfare state like Denmark, you are considered a worthy citizen if you pay your taxes. But while we want sex workers to register with the tax authority, they remain heavily stigmatised,” says Sine Plambech, an anthropologist and researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies. Indeed, the Danish government decriminalized sex work in 1999 but refrained from recognizing it as a legal profession. That distinction created a murky legal zone that remains difficult for sex workers to navigate today: although they are required to pay tax as self-employed workers at the same rate as other taxpayers falling under that category, they aren’t offered labor rights—which, according to many sex workers around the world, is the main barrier to reaching equality and eliminating anti-sex work stigma.

That very stigma also makes sex workers struggle to obtain unemployment insurance or business banks accounts; since these businesses are private, it’s up to their discretion who they choose to work with or turn away. Moreover, procurement of sex work is illegal in Denmark, which means sex workers cannot claim the expenses they pay on rent; as a result, they are often taken advantage of by landlords who require them to pay exorbitant fees for their workspaces or collaborate with organised crime to avoid detection, which increases their risk of harm.

All of these separate elements and more combine to perpetuate a quiet and somewhat institutionalized marginalization of sex workers that puts them at an economic and social disadvantage. And over the past few years, the Danish Tax Authority, SKAT, played a particularly key role in contributing to that marginalization by participating in a project dubbed Exit Prostitution. Carried out by the Danish National Centre for Social Research (SFI) from 2012 to 2016, the 46 million Danish kroner initiative aimed to help prostitutes leave the profession. As an extension of the project, an inter-ministerial operation called The Action Plan to Combat Trafficking in Human Beings was launched in 2015. This particular operation is what led SKAT to become complicit in the marginalization of sex workers: APCTHB heavily relies on SKAT and police cooperating to monitor suspected sites of illegal activity and carry out ‘raids’ to find victims of human trafficking. A typical raid on an establishment will be carried out by a few police officers and one SKAT agent, and multiple accounts written by sex workers over the past few years have portrayed these raids as demeaning at best and abusive at worst.

By creating legal grey areas for sex work and taking an arguably anti sex-work stance via nefarious involvement in police raids, SKAT isn’t merely a tax authority. Instead, they’re complicit in the institutionalized stigmatization and social exclusion of sex workers—and their income brochure for sex work is wholly emblematic of that.*

*Complete List of Sources:

Bachlakova, P. (2017, May 31). Murmur “Paying taxes gives Danish residents equal rights – unless you’re a sex worker.” Retrieved October 20, 2017, from

Relevant lovgivning. (2017, July 21). Retrieved October 20, 2017, from

Mac, J. (2016, January). Retrieved October 20, 2017, from

Mehlsen, L., Kjær, A. A., Amilon, A., & Dyrvig, T. (2016, March 31). Exit prostitution. Retrieved October 20, 2017, from

Handlingsplan til bekæmpelse af menneskehandel 2015-2018. (2015, May). Retrieved October 20, 2017, from

The Original Ad


I chose to culture jam SKAT’s “Income from prostitution and erotic massage” brochure, which aims to inform sex workers how to correctly pay tax within the system, because it demonstrates the discrimination inherent in SKAT’s attitude to sex workers in multiple ways.

First, the image they chose to represent a sex worker regurgitates archaic stereotypes around what sex workers look like and what their clothes say about their level of social deviancy. The model in the ad is wearing fishnet tights and knee-high, heeled boots. Those particular items are what people in the 20th century associated with sex work—which also happens to be when narratives around sex work positioned it as a problem resulting from individual psychological issues, deviant tendencies and poor social conditions.* Therefore, SKAT’s choice to portray a sex worker in the stereotypical garb of the 20th century implicitly reaffirms that century’s moral judgements passed onto sex workers—which is quite the double standard, since SKAT is asking sex workers to pay tax like normal, unstigmatized citizens.

The double standard extends to the choice of wording in the ad: rather than using the term ‘sex work’, they used the term ‘prostitution.’ While it is true that some sex workers embrace the term ‘prostitute’, as exemplified by Lilian Mathieu’s research and by activist sex workers like Grisélidis Réal, many others reject the word due to the stigma it implies***. Sex workers increasingly advocate for using the term ‘sex work’ as a means of recognising their legitimacy as wage earners and workers, in Denmark as well; therefore, using the term ‘prostitute’ in a government brochure feels like a subtle symbol that the work is tolerated but not respected or accepted. It is also not a coincidence that this brochure come out the same year that the state-run Exit Prostitution initiative was launched, which takes an anti-sex work stance by attempting to drive women out of the profession; therefore, one could assume a red thread exists between SKAT’s choice to use the word ‘prostitute’ and the anti sex work aims of the Exit Prostitution initiative.

In addition, this stereotypical outfit presents a wholly inaccurate and almost romanticized vision of sex work in Denmark. The fact of the matter is that most sex workers in Denmark do not look like the model in the picture—healthy, lean, white. On the contrary, 60 to 75 percent of sex workers in Denmark are migrants.**** In Copenhagen, the Danish sex workers are often middle aged and struggle with addiction issues, while the migrant women are a diverse group whose traits tend to be based on nationality. For example, Thai migrant sex workers are often mothers in their 20s or 30s working in massage parlours, or transgendered women. Nigerian sex workers tend to be teenagers working the streets in sneakers and jeans. Eastern European sex workers, typically from Romania, perhaps come closest to this image: you’ll often see them occupying specific corners of the neighbourhood wearing tights and short dresses.***** While it is true that most of the migrant sex workers are undocumented – meaning, they aren’t eligible to pay tax – it is still undeniable that the face of sex work in Denmark is diverse and represent a range of social, cultural and economical transformations affecting Denmark as well as Europe, Africa and Asia. Painting that diversity with a fishnet-and-high-heeled brush actively negates a realistic and sensitive dialogue about sex work and the effects of migration on Denmark, and ultimately ignores the lived experiences of one of society’s most marginalized groups.

Moreover, SKAT chose to represent a sex worker with a pair of ambiguous legs. Not a torso nor a face—just legs. In the context of the high risk of violence sex workers around the world are affected by on a daily basis******, this in itself seems to be a violent act: by ‘cutting the head off’ the model, SKAT also cuts away her identity—implying that being a sex worker isn’t worth empathizing with or considering human.

*Mathieu, L. (2015). Sociologie de la prostitution. Paris: La Découverte.

**Réal, G. (2006). La Passe Imaginaire. Gallimard, FR: Verticales/phase deux.

*** Mathieu, L. IV/Protagonistes du monde de la prostitution, Sociologie de la prostitution. Paris: La Découverte.

**** Brussa, L. (2009). SEX WORK IN EUROPE: A mapping of the prostitution scene in 25 European countries (Rep.). Retrieved October 19, 2017, from European Network for HIV/STI Prevention and Health Promotion among Migrant Sex Workers website:

*****A Conversation With Reden International About Sex Workers in Denmark [Personal interview]. (2017, January 05).
Followed by 6 months of volunteer work with the organization, closely working with migrant sex workers in Denmark.

******Addressing Violence Against Sex Workers (Rep.). (2013, October). Retrieved October 19, 2017, from World Health Organization website:

The Jammed Ad


For my jammed version of the ad, I chose to depict a man wearing business wear having sex with a sex worker from behind. The contrasts between their clothing and the social classes those items signify are meant to make the viewer feel on guard, like something is not quite right and potentially dangerous. I did this specifically to exemplify the systemic violence SKAT perpetuates against sex workers by requiring them to pay high tax while simultaneously stigmatising them in a variety of ways and collaborating with other agencies to eliminate sex work. I also chose the act for its seemingly out of place crudeness to highlight what I feel is the sinister reality of SKAT’s attitude to sex workers: although the agency overall attempts to communicate a professional and unbiased attitude towards sex workers by requiring them to pay tax like any other citizen, the reality is that SKAT is directly complicit in perpetuating the idea that sex workers are dirty, ‘prostitutes’ and not worthy of recognition as women who work.

In addition, the positioning of the man from behind the sex worker asserts his dominance over her as a metaphor for the dominance SKAT exudes over sex workers through their policies. And although I’ve ‘filled up’ the ad by adding another person into the limited amount of space, I chose to keep the original framing to emphasise a feeling of claustrophobia and discomfort. Looking at the ad, one gets the sense that the sex worker depicted has nowhere to go to escape this man’s embrace and dominance; again, this is a metaphor for the restrictive dynamics inherent between SKAT and sex workers—they must pay tax and will be penalised if they don’t, but aren’t afforded nearly the same freedoms as other workers registered with SKAT under the same category.

To summarise all of these metaphors into a clear statement, I preceded the SKAT logo with copy so that the core of the ad now reads, “Or, how to get screwed by SKAT.” On the one hand, the statement abrasively calls out to what’s being depicted (a sexual interaction between a SKAT officer and a sex worker.) But on the other, it emphasises the problematic power dynamics between SKAT and sex workers which lead sex workers to suffer because of taxation policies. Finally, the crassness exuded by the term ‘screwed’ is an active disruption of SKAT’s clean and professional image, aiming to highlight the murky and condemnatory underbelly that shapes their policies towards sex workers. It also functions as a rejection of the complexity of their policies; as previously noted, these complexities contribute to systemic confusion for sex workers, ultimately making it difficult for them to follow the legal rules around their work or participate in the Danish system.