RSS Feed

Sweden’s sex trade laws: not the answer

(Article by Stephanie Lord and Wendy Lyon)

There has been much debate recently around the introduction of the Swedish model of legislation to criminalise the purchase of sex. Championed by a group of well-meaning NGOs, and some with questionable origins, considerable column inches have been devoted to discussion of the benefits of criminalising the purchasers of sex workers’ services. For those who believe in women’s equality and oppose trafficking, it appears to be a safe enough endeavour to support. We are told by the “Turn Off the Red Light” campaign that all prostitution, regardless of consent, is a form of violence against women; that if demand for paid sex is eradicated, prostitution will end; that this is the best thing for women; that it has decreased prostitution in Sweden; that it reduces the numbers of women and girls trafficked and so on. It is unsurprising that people support this. Everybody is against trafficking, right?

But does it actually work? In short – no. In this debate, where you stand on the morality of a person commodifying their sexual services is irrelevant. If the goal of the Swedish legislative model is to eradicate prostitution and end the exploitation of women – it doesn’t work. To date, no evidence has been produced that the Swedish model has reduced the amount of prostitution. Not a single independent review has found this to be the case. Yes, the Swedish are correct when they say that street prostitution has decreased – but street prostitution in Sweden, as in every other country, is only a tiny percentage of total prostitution. As the Swedish Government’s 2010 Submission to UNAIDS stated, “Estimates of the number of people involved in commercial sex in Sweden vary widely and are very hard to estimate since it is mostly hidden and initiated primarily through the Internet or telephone. Although street prostitution does occur it is assumed to be only a fraction of total prostitution.”[1]

This is really not surprising, as criminalisation has never been successful in deterring prostitution in any country. Further to this, it hasn’t reduced trafficking to Sweden either. Consistent Swedish annual police reports confirm that sex trafficking is there and is even increasing. The law is seen as hindering traffickers from establishing operations in Sweden – but they are still easily able to operate from outside Sweden’s borders, which the police say makes it more difficult to apprehend traffickers.[2] It has also been reported[3] that clients are now less likely to report suspected trafficking cases since it may result in them being charged.

Proponents of the law believe that this model will work because many of them have looked to the Swedish government’s own evaluation of the law[4] – a bizarre approach, considering that most would never take it for granted that an Irish government evaluation of one of its own initiatives painted an accurate picture of reality. The Swedish government’s evaluation of the law has been widely criticised by many commentators – including Sweden’s Discrimination Ombudsman,[5] the Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights,[6] and the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare[7] – for its bias, lack of research, unsupported conclusions, unclear methodology and exclusion of sex workers’ own voices. The evaluation said that police had no evidence of increases in off-street prostitution. However, it acknowledged that police do not normally investigate off-street prostitution unless it is linked to trafficking – so how do they know the extent of it?

We do know that in 2010 the number of prostitution reports increased five-fold over the previous year, but Swedish police say this was not due to an increase in prostitution but merely to greater resources being applied to tackle the issue.[8] This is absolute proof that there is a significant amount of sex work going on below the police radar.

More importantly, Swedish sex workers have reported significant adverse consequences as a result of the law – including that it has deterred some of the “ordinary” clients who only want regular sex, but has not deterred the dangerous ones.[9] In short, criminalising the purchase of sex in Sweden has meant for Swedish sex workers that the odds of any particular client turning out to be dangerous are much higher. According to the sex workers – as opposed to their self-appointed spokespersons – since the clients are more nervous about being caught, the decision about whether to accept them has to be made much more quickly and without adequate time to assess whether they are dangerous.[10] For them, the loss of “ordinary” clients now means they have to accept clients they would not otherwise accept, including those who demand sex without a condom.[11] By making direct contact between buyer and seller more difficult, the law is also said to have increased the power of intermediaries (or in common language, pimps).[12]

It has been widely recognised in the HIV/AIDS sector that sex workers who are not able to control their working conditions, most importantly condom negotiation, are at a higher risk of infection.  This is the reason why virtually the entire global health sector supports the decriminalisation of sex work and granting sex workers occupational health and safety rights. The World Health Organization,[13] UNAIDS,[14] the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights,[15] the UN Secretary General,[16] the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health[17] – all of these have called for the removal of laws criminalising commercial sex between consenting adults, primarily because criminalisation is a recognised risk factor for HIV/AIDS.

It is a mistake to assume that criminalising only the clients removes this risk factor. In Sweden’s UNAIDS Submission, only 18.5% of sex workers reported using a condom with their most recent client.[18] The health and safety complaints raised by Swedish sex workers since implementation of the law are virtually identical to those raised by sex workers in jurisdictions where sex-sellers can also be prosecuted.

The Swedish evaluation acknowledged that sex workers feel stigmatised, hunted and stripped of capacity under the new law – but said this was a good thing since the aim of the law is to combat prostitution. [19] To sell this to the Irish public as something that will stop exploitation of women is a lie. It is, in fact, comparable to saying that drug addicts should have to use dirty needles because it might stop them injecting! Although, while we’re on the subject, this is similar to the approach Sweden takes to drug addiction – it has largely rejected harm reduction[20] in favour of penalisation and abstinence-based treatment – which doesn’t work.

Sex workers have been consistently denied a voice in the Swedish debate. So far, they have also been denied a voice in the Irish debate. Last year, the Irish Department of Justice went to Sweden to learn about its policies and did not meet with a single sex worker or representative organisation.[21] It is a major violation of their human rights to adopt a law that affects their lives without giving them a primary role in shaping the debate.

It is important to understand that the alternative to the Swedish or Irish models is not “legalisation” as found in places like the Netherlands, Nevada, and parts of Australia. Those schemes are aimed at controlling the public order aspects of prostitution, rather than safeguarding sex workers’ rights. A truly rights-based approach would look more like the model in New Zealand, in which most sex work is not “legalised” but decriminalised. New Zealand sex workers made a significant contribution to the scheme’s design, and while the law that was ultimately passed is not perfect, it does give sex workers more rights than any other jurisdiction in the world – including an absolute right to refuse a client or service, protection under occupational health and safety legislation, and the important safety mechanism of being allowed to work together, in pairs or small groups.[22] It is hardly surprising that New Zealand sex workers overwhelmingly respond positively to questions about their rights under the law.[23] The same cannot be said about the Swedish law. Not even the Swedish government makes such a claim.

Everybody wants to see an end to forced prostitution and trafficking. Sex workers themselves are very well placed to assist in this campaign, and their contribution should be welcomed and encouraged. The Swedish law does the opposite: it encourages them to avoid police and social services rather than engage with them. Coercion and abuse can never be addressed by making an industry more hidden and denying labour rights to the people working in it. Just as they would in any other sector, it is the exploiters who benefit when we decide that the sex trade is “different” and so basic standards of labour law should not apply.


[1] Government of Sweden, ‘UNGASS Country Progress Report 2010’ p.63

[2] National Criminal Police of Sweden, ‘Trafficking of Human Beings for Sexual and Other Purposes: Situation Report 9’ (2006) p.18

[3] Ministry of Justice and the Police of Norway, ‘Purchasing Sexual Services in Sweden and the Netherlands: Legal Regulation and Experiences’ (2004) p.19

[6] Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights, ‘Prohibition of the Purchases of Sexual Services: An Evaluation 1999-2008

[8] The Local, ‘Big Increase in Prostitution Reports’ (2010)

[9] Ministry of Justice and the Police of Norway (n3), p.13

[10] Johannes Eriksson (Rose Alliance), ‘What’s Wrong with the Swedish Model’ (2006) p.4

[11] Ibid.

[12] National Board of Health and Welfare of Sweden, ‘Prostitution in Sweden 2007’ pp.47-48

[18] Government of Sweden (n1) p.25

[21] Freedom of Information request obtained from Department of Justice (2011).

About Wendy Lyon

Fighting a lonely battle for evidence-based policy and the proper use of apostrophes.

16 responses »

  1. Well researched. Good work!

    Reply
  2. Excellent article. Well written.

    Reply
  3. Peoople are realy up at arms about other people doing certain things. Why are they interested in who does sex, and who gets what? If you pay for something with smiles (lies) is it more acceptable? If I were to give a fat guy a greasy cheeseburger, when he offers me 10 times the amount, is that prostitution? Life is short. Oughtn’t we better served concentrating on things that really matter?

    Reply
  4. Thanks for the links to the documentation!

    Reply
  5. peter schevtschenko

    swedens final solution to prostitution failed because they did’nt consult the most important people in the prostitution debate,those who choose sex work
    if the moral supremacists spent as much time and effort in fighting poverty as they do in preaching morality,there probably would’nt be any prostitution

    Reply
    • The people who design the Swedish laws don’t actually care abut what the sex workers think. In their black-and-white worldview, a prostitute is a victim, even if she doesn’t share that opinion. She’s too stupid to be aware of her own situation and has been brainwashed by the patriarchy…therefore she needs to be brainwashed (irony) into thinking that she is a victim and her opinion doesn’t matter at all.

      The worse bit is that many other states are buying into the illusion of the successful “Swedish model” and you can expect more to follow it. This is a well planned campaign to impose the values and beliefs of Sweden upon the rest of the world, and part of the campaign involves shaming countries (like Denmark and Germany) which have tried to legalize prostitution.

      Reply
  6. Pingback: Alice Schwarzers Anti-Prostitutions-Kreuzzug: Moralin, das Frauen schadet | gabrielewolff

  7. Pingback: על לגליזציה של זנות | Atheisms

  8. Sex trafficking is illegal and the pentities are very severe. It is very difficult to force someone to be a prostitute, they would have to have 24 hour guards posted and be watched 365 days a year, 24 hours per day. Have the threat of violence if they refused, and have no one notice and complain to the authorities or police. They would need to hide from the general public yet still manage to see customers from the general public and not have the customers turn the traffickers in to the police. They would need to provide them with medical care, food, shelter, and have all their basic needs met. They would need to have the sex slaves put on a fake front that they enjoyed what they were doing, act flirtatious and do their job well. They would have to deal with the authorities looking for the missing women, and hide any money they may make, since it comes from illegal activity. They must do all of this while constantly trying to prevent the sex slaves from escaping and reporting them to the police. They would need to prevent the general public from reporting them into the police. This is extremely difficult to do, which makes this activity rare. These criminals would be breaking dozens of major laws not just one. Kidnapping itself is a serious crime. There are many laws against sex trafficking, sex slavery, kidnapping, sex abuse, rape, sexual harassment etc. If someone is behind it, they will be breaking many serious laws, be in big trouble, and will go to jail for many long years. And do you actually think that there is a long line of people who want to have a career as a sex slave kidnapping pimp?

    Sex Trafficking/Slavery is used by many groups as a attempt to outlaw all prostitution around the world by saying that all women are victims even if they do it willing. This hurts any real victims because it labels all sex workers as victims.

    This is done by the media, aid groups, NGO’s, feminists, politicians, and religious organizations that receive funds from the government. There are very strong groups who promote that all adult women who have sex are victims even if they are willing, enjoy it and go out of there way to get it. These groups try to get the public to believe that no adult women in their right mind would ever go into the sex business unless she was forced to do so, weather she knew it or not. They say that 100% of all sex workers are trafficking victims.

    They do this in order to label all men as sex offenders and wipe out all consensual prostitution. Which is what their real goal is. There is almost no one who challenges or questions them about their false beliefs. Therefore, the only voices you hear are of these extreme groups. These groups want to label all men as terrible sex offenders for seeing a willing adult woman. No one stands up to say this is foolish, the passive public says nothing.

    These groups even say that all men who marry foreign women are terrible sex predators who take advantage of these “helpless foreign women wives”.

    These groups believe that two adults having consensual sex in private should be outlawed. Since they believe that it is impossible for a man to have sex with a woman without abusing the woman in the process.

    There is a lot of controversy over the topics of sex trafficking, sex slavery, human trafficking and forced prostitution. Regarding what the definition is, the research methods used to find statistics, what the definition of a victim is, the number of child and adult victims involved, forced vs. unforced sex, how the actual prostitutes themselves feel about it, and legal vs. illegal prostitution.

    There is a growing number of well respected researchers, journalists, scientists, professors, that have concluded in their research that the sex trafficking, sex slavery concept is based on emotion, morals, and monetary funding rather than facts, evidence and proof. They state that very few kidnapped, forced against their will, physically abused, raped sex slave prostitutes for profit have been found throughout the world. Their research concludes that women who enter into this type of work do so of their own free will. They also state that there are many anti-prostitution groups who simply do not like the idea of consensual adult prostitution and have distorted the facts in order to push their agenda and receive funding and money into their organizations in the form of donations, grants and to change the laws about prostitution. They state that these anti-prostitution groups use made up child sex trafficking statistics which they have no proof or evidence of in order to gain public acceptance for their cause. Which they then pass on to the media as press releases.

    There is a lot of controversy over the numbers of adult woman who are forced sex slaves. The real factual answer is that no one knows. There is hard evidence that the sex slavery/sex trafficking issue continues to report false information and is greatly exaggerated by politicians, the media, and aid groups, feminist and religious organizations that receive funds from the government, The estimate of adult women who become new sex slaves ranges anywhere from 40 million a year to 5,000 per year all of which appear to be much too high. They have no evidence to back up these numbers, and no one questions them about it. Their sources have no sources, and are made up numbers. In fact if some of these numbers are to believed which have either not changed or have been increased each year for the past twenty years, all woman on earth would currently be sex slaves. Yet, very few real forced against their will sex slaves have been found.

    Here are some good websites about sex trafficking:

    http://bebopper76.wordpress.com

    http://sextraffickingtruths.blogspot.com/

    http://www.villagevoice.com/sex-trafficking/

    http://www.melonfarmers.co.uk/thread…cking_hype.htm

    Reply
    • A wide-ranging investigation in the UK found a grand total of… 12 ‘sex slaves’, while outlandish claims estimated the number to be in thousands.

      And I don’t even mention the double standards of those who only focus on human trafficking for sexual purposes, thereby ignoring people trafficked into other forms of labour. Disgusting, from moralists who pretend to care.

      Reply
  9. This is very enlightening. Sweden, when it designed its laws, did not listen to the sex workers. It does not care about them, because it considers that they are all victims who cannot make choices and are exploited without being aware of it. Even if it means the women whom they claim to protect are left without the means to earn a living, they do not care. They would rather see those women on the dole rather than working as long as it suits their puritan models.

    If it worked, that would be fine. But the biggest success of Sweden’s policies, even according to research published by the Swedes themselves, has been the reduction of street prostitution, which is only a minority of prostitution. It has not stopped migrant women coming to Sweden to perform sex work. It has not eliminated demand for sex from Swedish males. And for the women who continue to work on the street, it has made them more likely to deal with dangerous clients in conditions of low security.

    If only the Swedes could keep their bad laws to themselves, that would be fine. The population of Sweden largely supports those laws and if they are happy with the results, that’s their problem. But they are also campaigning for other countries to do the same, tampering with evidence and making their policy look more successful than it has really been in the process. The result is that other countries like Denmark and Netherlands, who currently legalise and regulate sex work, are considering following suit. All on the basis of fuzzy and manipulated evidence.

    Thanks to Sweden’s propaganda Europe will turn into a puritan heartland soon. It may indeed reduce the number of women in street prostitution, but for other women working in the profession, it will be Hell.

    Reply
  10. Pingback: NWC2013: write-up & some opinions

  11. Pingback: Strike Updates: Decriminalize Prostitution | General Strike USA

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,832 other followers

%d bloggers like this: