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Some thoughts on Department of Justice report on Sweden visit

I’ve been looking over the report published this week by the Irish Department of Justice, on the visit of its officials to Sweden last year to examine the sex purchase ban.

I was expecting the worst because, as Stephanie and I noted in this post, that visit involved meeting with a sum total of zero sex workers or representative organisations or allies. Every single person or group they met, at least in an official capacity, was in favour of the law.

Does the report reflect that omission? Well, yes and no. Sex workers’ views of the law are absent from the report, and consequently so is any mention of the law’s significant negative consequences. But that (rather large) complaint aside, it’s generally a measured, considered document with a healthy little dose of scepticism. This is mainly in terms of whether the law could be applied within the Irish legal and constitutional systems, but it also raises a few questions about the merits of the law itself.

The Irish Times has excerpted a lot of the Department’s key concerns here and I won’t repeat them. I did, however, want to single out a few of the report’s passages for attention:

Attempt is considered difficult to prove with the result that, in cases of street prostitution, the police deliberately wait until the sexual act has begun, and the offence has thus been committed in full, before intervening. (page 6)

This strikes me as a strange way to deal with an offence that is supposed to be as inherently damaging as the Swedes and their supporters portray commercial sex as. It’s not unusual, of course, for police to delay intervening in crimes-in-progress for just long enough to ensure the offender has done enough to make himself liable, but it’s hard to imagine that if they believed a man was about to assault a woman they would stand back and let it happen just to get their arrest in. If they did – and especially if they made a practice of doing so – I imagine there would be outrage from feminist groups. And in the ideology of those who support the Swedish law, a man who pays a woman for sex is assaulting her, so where is the outrage? Are advocates of the law simply not aware of this practice, or are they aware but accept the explanation for it, and if the latter then how do they square it with their view about the intrinsically harmful nature of paid sex?

It’s interesting also that the report specifies street prostitution. In the article I linked to yesterday, a man who bought sex indoors was arrested after leaving the brothel; the police listened through the letterbox to get the “proof” they needed for the arrest. This aural voyeurism has been reported before, in this case, which describes the police who listened in as being “treated to a symphony of grunts and moans”. So, no interruption at all there; they let the poor prostituted woman endure her paid rape (as the Melissa Farleys of this world describe it) for god only knows how long. Again, where is the outrage?

it might also be argued that policing operations to target the purchase of sex – which would be a minor offence – would divert law enforcement from operations targeting serious and organised crime, including human trafficking. (pages 9-10)

This is really a serious question. While there are shootings and burglaries and tiger kidnappings going on – and while our police are under a recruitment embargo and subject to the same swingeing cuts affecting all our public services – do we really want them spending their time hanging around outside people’s houses listening to them fuck?

While it was never an intended consequence of their legislation, Sweden’s 1999 ban on the purchase of sexual services was followed by complaints from Norway and its Baltic neighbours about displacement.

Ironically, this has also worked the other way around: in their most recent report on Trafficking in Human Beings for Sexual and Other Purposes, the Swedish police note “mainly in Gothenburg…a marked increase in the numbers of Nigerian women who are being exploited in prostitution, which is considered to be the effect of Norway’s new Purchase of Sexual Services Act which came into force”.

Think about that for a minute: Sweden’s sex purchase ban displaced sex workers to Norway, and then Norway adopted the ban and displaced them right back to Sweden. It is worth asking why, if Sweden is really so inhospitable to the sex industry, they weren’t displaced to a country where buying sex is legal – such as Denmark, which is only a few hours from Gothenburg on the ferry.

the Attorney General might be asked if the Law Reform Commission could be requested to examine the legal and constitutional implications of a ban on the purchase of sex. This could be done in the wider context of a review of our legislation on prostitution and include an international comparative analysis of different legal regimes to combat the phenomenon, not just in the Nordic region.

A visit to New Zealand, perhaps?


The report has two Appendices. The first, “Main Findings of Swedish Evaluation of the 1999 Ban on the Purchase of Sexual Services”, is drawn from the English-language summary of the 2010 Swedish government report. It’s a shame that the Irish officials didn’t read the entire Swedish report, because the English-language summary leaves some of the more revealing material out, such as the fact that the Swedish evaluators consider increased stigmatisation of sex workers to be a “positive effect” of the law.

Appendix 2 is a selection of criticisms of the Swedish government evaluation. These are said to be drawn from “the print media” but there is no further identification of the sources; I recognise some of the quotes from Laura Agustin’s critiques. Again, this is a shame, because the ordinary reader won’t be able to gauge the credibility of those doing the criticising. It would have been useful to point out, for example, that Sweden’s Discrimination Ombudsman, National Board of Health and Welfare, and Federation for LGBT Rights were among those who deemed the evaluation to be biased and methodologically unsound.

But the significance of the Irish report lies not in its power to persuade readers – after all, it wasn’t written for public consumption, at least as far as we know. What’s important is what it says about where the Justice Department’s head is on the issue. And it strikes me that the sheer number of the criticisms it includes – where it could have simply noted that such criticisms exist – suggests that the Department officials were trying to make a point. As I said, a healthy scepticism.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that sense will ultimately prevail. The government is, after all, run by politicians, and politicians are being subjected to an inordinate amount of pressure on this issue. (If the Attorney General decides the law would be unconstitutional in Ireland, how long do you suppose it will take before we start hearing calls for a referendum?) But suddenly the Irish debate doesn’t seem as completely one-sided as it has been up to now. The Irish Times, which has gained a reputation in recent years for refusing to publish the letters of sex worker allies, even ran an editorial opinion piece today opposing the law. That would have been unthinkable not so long ago.

No wonder so many of the law’s Seanad supporters opposed allowing time for a public debate on the issue. When you have a public debate – a real debate, that is – you have to let other voices in.

About Wendy Lyon

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

3 responses »

  1. I’m afraid that’s not an editorial.

    • Sorry, “opinion piece” is what I should have said. I’ll fix that. Thanks 🙂

      • I enjoy reading your blog, Wendy. I like the Dodgy Stats updates for instance.

        I was just reading Susan McKay’s piece from two years ago (

        and it seems to me to be a minefield of dodgy stats

        Particularly when she rattles off the following two paragraphs.


        “Surveys carried out in the UK, which is culturally similar to Ireland, find that three out of 4 prostitutes become involved when they are under the age of 18. Seven out of ten of them will have spent time in care as children. Some 85% of them experienced physical abuse in childhood and almost half experienced sexual abuse. Three quarters indentified poverty as the reason they got involved.

        The vast majority – nine out of ten – of women working as prostitutes want to stop. And it is no wonder. Their mortality rate is 12 times higher than the national average. More than half of them have been raped and/or sexually assaulted and at least three quarters have been beaten up by pimps or punters.”

        I note that you have already successfully addressed the dodgy stat about 68% of prostitutes having symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder. Susan McKay churns out that one too later in the same piece.

        I’d be grateful to you if you could clarify the origin of the other stats Susan McKay uses above and give me your opinion as to their veracity. The reason I ask you is because you have a great deal of knowledge on this subject.

        All the Best,

        Paul Carr


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