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Radio-debating the Swedish sex purchase ban

Yesterday I took part in a radio discussion with a representative of the Turn Off The Red Light campaign, which seeks the introduction of the Swedish sex trade law in Ireland. We only had seven minutes between us, and unfortunately the time did not end up being divided evenly: we each got to make a brief introductory statement, but in the second round, I was left with only a very short time to respond to quite a lengthy (and obviously well-rehearsed) defence of the Swedish law. And I was asked by the hosts to spend that short time answering a different question entirely, so I didn’t get a chance to respond at all to the points raised in that defence.

On the chance that anyone who listened to the “debate” is reading this blog wondering how I would have responded, I will briefly summarise the points that were made and what I would have said to them if I had had the opportunity. I’m keeping my answers short as if I was actually saying them on the air, but I’m happy to expand on the points if anyone wants me to (though I won’t have the opportunity until after Christmas).

I know the Swedish law is working because I travelled to Sweden last year and saw it for myself.

The speaker is referring to a trip in which anti-sex work advocates were accompanied by Department of Justice officials. I did a Freedom of Information request on that trip and learned that they did not meet with a single sex worker or representative organisation, and only met with supporters of the law. How can you measure whether a law is working if you don’t talk to anyone affected by it?

The law has been very successful at reducing prostitution and trafficking…

Great claims have been made about the Swedish law but there is little evidence to back them up. The Swedish government admitted in its report to UNAIDS last year that they have no idea how much prostitution there is in the country because it is such a hidden phenomenon. Swedish police reports indicate that the trafficking problem has grown significantly over the period since the law was brought in.

… compared to neighbouring countries where the amount is exploding.

Sweden was estimated to have less prostitution than neighbouring countries before the law was ever introduced. It is not surprising that commercial sex would be more visible now in those countries, where it has not been criminalised, than in Sweden where it has. However, the statistics that are being used for those countries are unreliable. In Denmark they derive from a figure that actually represents an estimate of female tourists. In Finland a figure that was specifically stated to be voluntary migrant sex workers has been misreported as “trafficking victims”.

The Swedish people support the law.

The same poll that showed Swedish people are largely in favour of the law also showed that only around 20% think it is actually working. Furthermore, about half of them think that sex workers should also be criminalised under the law.

Young people’s attitudes are changing.

A study carried out by the Swedish youth board only a couple years ago showed that young people have become more, not less, accepting of commercial sex.

We need this law in Ireland where migrants make up more than 90% of the sex industry.

That figure is derived from an audit of the women posting on one particular day on an escort ads website. It doesn’t take into account other sectors of the sex industry, sex workers not advertising on that day or on that site, the possibility of duplicate ads or the possibility of faked “foreign” nationalities. Many of those “migrants” are from Britain or other Global North countries where their nationality does not carry any implication of trafficking – and even those from less well-off countries cannot be assumed to have been trafficked.

[The final point was stated to be in response to my opening comment that there had been no consultation with the people who earn their living by selling sex:]

We have a coalition of one million people.

That is an extraordinary number for an island of only six million; I would be interested to see the evidence for it. But getting other people to support your cause is no substitute for consulting with those whose lives will be affected by the policies you advocate.


It’s fair to say that even if our time had actually been split evenly, I would have needed more time to respond to her points than she needed to make them. But that’s because the issue is more complicated than the simple soundbites that anti-sex work advocates put forward. The fact that they can boil things down to unsupportable claims and dodgy statistics probably goes some way toward explaining why their position is more widely reflected than mine, so in that respect it’s certainly an effective media strategy. It isn’t one I’d be proud of, though, as someone who prefers to deal in facts.

My thanks to DIT Radio for having me on, anyway.

About Wendy Lyon

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

4 responses »

  1. Thanks Wendy. Thanks also for the post you wrote on another blog on the ‘muff march’, BTW. Seven minutes is a ridiculous length of time in which to be expected to properly debate sex work and appropriate responses to it. There is little time to do other than assert that laws attacking the sex industry are ineffective, expensive and, above all, dangerous to the very persons they purport to protect. Thanks, nonetheless, for taking on the challenge.

    In the event of you getting more time sometime, you may find these useful:
    A link here to a paper you may already have – Petra Ostergren and Susanne Dodillet’s paper on evaluating the Swedish Sex Purchase Law:

    Click to access 54259.pdf

    Also, my own take on Sweden’s official evaluation. Rather tongue-in-cheek but nevertheless accurate (I think):

  2. I am guessing the 1 million remark comes from the support they (TORL) have gotten from the Unions which may make up 1 million of the population. However I would say for very few of union members would care greatly about the issue. I would also wonder how many of thenm have paid for sex

    What radio station was it on

  3. Michael Wheatley

    Trying to respond with reason or truth may not be the best strategy. Perhaps saying simply

    “Her arguments are very convincing because she says anything she wants without any respect for truth or reason. Her comments are largely false or missleading and it will not be possible to deal with so mich missinformation in such a short time.”

    Here in Canada we have a government back bencher pussing the Swedish Solution. Thanks for the info on your situation.

  4. So as I understand it, in your opening statement, you said that sex workers had not been consulted regarding the possible introduction of a Sweden style sex trade law and, in response, the TORL representative said that 90% of the sex workers in the country are migrants. What is the TORL rep trying to say? Migrants don’t have the same rights as Irish sex workers? They don’t have a voice unlike Irish sex workers? What an appalling argument to make! Where’s the land of a thousand welcomes?


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