In ‘Sex in the New Europe’, anthropologist Don Kulick notes Sweden’s vision of itself as the role model for all of Europe when it comes to social policies. He writes (internal citations omitted):
By identifying particular issues as morally clear-cut ones, and by ‘taking a stand’ on those issues, Sweden can portray itself as a kind of moral beacon that others will want to follow…That Sweden could use its position in the EU to influence the policies of less enlightened member countries was a frequently marshaled argument during the referendum campaign for why Sweden should join the EU. Indeed, while the political right maintained that Swedes should vote to join the EU because membership would ‘Europeanize Sweden’ after too many years of Social Democratic rule, the Social Democratic counterappeal was the messianic vision to ‘Swedenize Europe’. Although sober voices warned that ‘[w]e should not fool ourselves into thinking that we will be so strong in the EU as to change 300 million other people’, the hope that other member states will follow Sweden’s lead on issues it holds important continues to circulate in the country: ‘Sweden has to be a role model’ (föregångsland ) as one article put it.
While I agree with some of the policies Sweden has tried to export, and disagree with others, I have no problem on principle with the attempt to influence other states. If you really think you’re doing the right thing, of course you should encourage others to follow your lead. But any marketing venture ought to abide by certain codes of conduct, a primary one being truth in advertising. And it’s pretty clear, from reading some Swedish materials that are not part of the propaganda effort for their ban on buying sex, that “truth” is a disposable commodity in this campaign.
This has been brought home again by interviews given in Ireland this week by visiting Swedish police authorities. Jonas Trolle, head of the crime surveillance unit in the Stockholm Police Department, was quoted in the Irish Times as stating that
If we talk of specific figures, the number of girls in street prostitution on a night in Stockholm would be five to 10. If we talk about indoor prostitution – found on the internet, about 80 to 100.
Trolle’s assertion that the police know approximately how many “girls” (ugh!) are involved in indoor prostitution – which he quite mistakenly assumes is only found on the internet – runs entirely counter to what the Swedish government told UNAIDS in its 2010 submission:
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.
The Times also reports Trolle as making the extraordinary claim that “Trafficking of women and girls into Sweden has been almost eliminated” (note that this is not a direct quote). Yet in September of last year, a Swedish police report stated:
it is difficult to estimate how many people may have been trafficked into Sweden in 2009. The number of trafficking victims found in Sweden depends largely on the resources that the police put in to detect this type of crime. These activities vary from one police authority to another and from one year to another. Nor is it possible to identify, or even to locate, all the girls and women mentioned in tapped telephone calls or observed during police investigations.
Referring to Stockholm alone, the same report says:
The information received during 2009 relates mainly to girls and women from Estonia, Russia, Nigeria, Albania, Hungary, Thailand and Romania…The foreign women who are for sale on the Internet in Sweden are mainly available for sale in apartments and at hotels in Stockholm. By preference, the women are sent to Sweden by ferry from the Baltic States and Finland, but buses are also used as a means of transport. Some women are sent to Sweden by air….As regards the transportation of Nigerian women, they are commonly first exploited in prostitution in Italy or Spain and are then transported further by air to countries such as Sweden. An increased proportion of exploited foreign women have been noted, principally from Albania, Hungary, Romania and Thailand. Occasionally, women from Africa are also being discovered.
Trolle goes on to tell the Times (and this is a direct quote), “Today it is impossible to run a brothel in Sweden”. This is a statement with a built-in escape clause, since the meaning of “brothel” itself can vary widely – for example, in Canada any place regularly used for commercial sex is an illegal “bawdy house”, while under English common law at least two sex workers must use the premises. (Swedish law, of course, doesn’t need to define it, since commercial sex is illegal wherever it occurs.) But the report refers to women
exploited for sexual purposes by people paying for sex in places such as apartments, hotel rooms or Thai massage parlours.
Now whatever about the apartments and hotel rooms, would any abolitionist stand over a claim that a massage parlour being used for paid sex is not a brothel?
Trolle’s colleague Patric Cederlof, Sweden’s National Coordinator against Prostitution and Human Trafficking, repeated to RTÉ News at One the denial that sex work had simply gone underground, again completely contradicting what the Swedish government admitted to UNAIDS last year. His defence of this position was that “if the customers could find these persons, we could find them”. By that logic there must be no illegal drugs trade, no child pornography, no film piracy… after all, given the obscene amounts of money being spent to combat these industries, obviously the police must be capable of keeping up with the consumers, right?
All governments, of course, have a tendency to spin the facts to make their initiatives look successful. But Sweden has more riding on this one than most. As Kulick writes in another fascinating piece, ‘Four Hundred Thousand Swedish Perverts’, the sex-purchase ban is the ‘jewel in the crown of Swedish sex law’, the culmination of that country’s attempt to establish an ‘official sexuality’ from which all deviance is pathologised; this perfect Swedish sexuality can then join the list of the country’s shining examples for the rest of the world to emulate. In a sense, the curious thing isn’t that their officials are misleading other countries about what the law has actually achieved – it’s that they ever admit the truth at all. But clearly they aren’t expecting things like the annual police reports and UNAIDS submissions to be picked up in other jurisdictions – and with the deplorable willingness of foreign media to simply report their propaganda without examining it, it seems their calculations are correct.