• Sweden edition
 

Swedish prostitution: gone or just hidden?

Published: 10 Jan 2008 20:04 GMT+01:00
Updated: 10 Jan 2008 20:04 GMT+01:00

Commuters heading into Hötorget metro station on Stockholm's Malmskillnadsgatan could easily fail to notice that they are walking through the middle of the city's main red light district. The sex shops and strip clubs are notable by their absence, the small number of mainly middle-aged women hanging out on the anonymous urban street do not draw attention to themselves and there are rarely more than a few cars at the kerbside.

Until 1999 it was legal both to buy and sell sex in Sweden, although brothels were banned, as were profiting from the sexual labour of others and advertising sexual services.

These restrictions remain in place today, but they were joined in 1999 by a new law which criminalized men who pay for sex. Casting prostitutes as the victims of the sex trade, the idea of the law is that it shifts the blame onto men who pay for sex. This is now being held up in Britain and elsewhere as a good example of how to reduce prostitution.

Supporters of the law, which leads to about 50 convictions per year, say it is all about handling supply and demand.

Off the street, onto the net?

"If you don't have customers who want to buy other human beings' bodies you won't have the supply. This is one way, at least, to control demand," says Jenny Sonesson, secretary of the Liberal Party's women's movement.

The law is widely credited with a fall in the number of street prostitutes. Official estimates put the number in Stockholm at 200 in 2006, compared with 300 before the ban. The number was even lower immediately after the ban, but has since crept back up. In Malmö there are estimated to be 67 street sex workers, compared to 200 before.

Opponents, including many prostitutes themselves, say the fall is not what it seems - they say the trade has merely gone underground and online, putting sex workers in greater danger.

There is little doubt that many prostitutes in Sweden, as elsewhere, have simply migrated onto the internet. A 2005 study put the number of prostitutes advertising online as 327 in Stockholm and 65 in the Malmö area.

Isabella Lund, 46, a spokeswoman for the Sex-workers and Allies Network in Sweden (SANS), began working as an escort four years ago after quitting her job as a nurse. She believes there is more prostitution now than in 1999.

Lund - not her real name - says the law, combined with the stigma attached to prostitution, makes it impossible to put accurate figures on the number of people in the sex trade:

"Sex workers try to avoid discovery because they are oppressed here. And since it's very easy to have steady clients, prostitutes have no real need to advertise their services," she says.

Feminist author Petra Östergren is also sceptical to claims of a fall in prostitution:

"We have no data that indicates that prostitution overall has decreased, even if some data showed an initial fall in street prostitution". She is backed up by a new report from the National Board of Health and Welfare, which admits that it can't say whether the law has reduced the number of prostitutes:

"It is impossible to show any simple causal links between...legislation and changes in prostitution," the report states.

'Men are ashamed of buying sex'

In theory, the Swedish law protects women and punishes men. But for Lund, punishing clients is tantamount to punishing prostitutes themselves and serves to push women further underground. Prostitutes are hardly likely to cooperate with authorities when to do so could result in their clients' being arrested, she says.

"Our business demands that we stay away from the police because our clients have been criminalized," Lund argues.

Östergren thinks that prohibition has also harmed services such as distribution of condoms to prostitutes.

"It is similar to the way we deal with the drug issue - we don't have needle exchanges. We don't mind sacrificing some prostitutes or drug users if it helps us create the perfect society," she says.

But supporters remain convinced that the law, while imperfect, has been worthwhile. Sonesson says that the main effect has been to reinforce social stigmas about buying sex, making men think twice before visiting prostitutes.

"Swedish men are now ashamed about buying sex - it's just not socially accepted," she says, arguing that decriminalizing the purchase of sex would simply further stimulate demand. She cites experiences from Germany and Australia, where the illegal trade has flourished in the shadow of licensed prostitution:

"Of course the prostitutes in the legal brothels might be better off, but you will have more illegal prostitution and more victims of trafficking."

'We need a law with teeth'

A phrase often used in the Swedish debate, particularly on the left, defines prostitution as an example of "men's violence against women". All prostitutes, whether apparently willing or not, are victims, this argument runs. Sonesson, like other liberals, rejects the notion that men can collectively be held accountable for the sex trade. She also admits that women such as Isabella Lund exist, but says that they only represent a tiny fraction of prostitutes.

"I don't question the choice of women such as Isabella Lund, but they have to see the connection between their lives and forced prostitution - not just trafficked women, but also other women who are forced into it for financial reasons."

"Some of the customers who go to Isabella learn that it is OK to buy sex. Maybe next time they will go to a trafficked woman."

For Sonesson the main problem with the law is the low conviction rate, with fewer than 500 men found guilty since 1999. Another issue is the fact that no men have so far been jailed. The Liberals, Christian Democrats and Centre Party, all members of the governing coalition, want more severe punishments, particularly for men who buy sex from trafficked women.

"What we need is a law with teeth," Sonesson says.

Gothenburg prosecutor Thomas Ahlstrand also favours a tougher approach. Although he says that the law has been "a useful instrument in opening up investigations into trafficking" he favours sentences of up to two years for men who have sex with trafficked women.

If police estimates are correct, then Sweden has indeed been comparatively successful in tackling trafficking. Current research indicates that the number of trafficked women in Sweden is about 1,000, compared to 15,000 in Finland, although the hidden nature of trafficking means that it is impossible to give an accurate figure.

Indeed, the Finnish figure is based on a police report which said that 15,000 foreign prostitutes 'visit Finland' every year, including from neighbouring Baltic republics Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Quite how many are trafficked against their will is hard to quantify.

Petra Östergren rejects the argument that a ban on buying sex helps prevent trafficking. "You would never argue that the best way to tackle trafficking into domestic work would be to ban domestic work," she points out.

For Östergren, prostitution laws will only work if the sex workers themselves are consulted:

"If we're worried about the harm caused by prostitution, then policy-makers have to work together with sex workers - we need to listen to the people involved."

James Savage & Paul O'Mahony

Paul Rapacioli (paul.rapacioli@thelocal.com)

Don't miss...X
Left Right
Today's headlines
Swedish Tetra Pak factory to shut down
Photo: TT

Swedish Tetra Pak factory to shut down

A Tetra Pak factory in southern Sweden is set to shut down due to a decrease in demand, meaning 250 Swedes risk losing their jobs. READ  

The Local List
Ten false friends in the Swedish language
Photo: The Uppsala Koala

Ten false friends in the Swedish language

Never, ever take the Swedish language at face value. This is a language where "puss" means "kiss" and "kiss" means "pee". And that's just the beginning... READ  

Sami museum hit in suspected tear gas attack
Permanent exhibition on the life of Sami nomads. Photo: Bengt Oberger/Wikipedia

Sami museum hit in suspected tear gas attack

The Sami museum in northern Sweden had to be evacuated after two attackers sprayed an unknown substance which left several people violently ill. READ  

Roma advocate scoops Wallenberg prize
Emir Selimi: The winner of the 2014 Raoul Wallenberg Prize. Photo: Charles L. Sjölander

Roma advocate scoops Wallenberg prize

A Roma man has been hailed as "inspirational" after scooping this year's Raoul Wallenberg Prize for setting up an organization to help stamp out racism against the community. READ  

Government keen on Nato forces in Sweden

Government keen on Nato forces in Sweden

Nato will soon be able to deploy forces to Sweden, with the government likely to sign an agreement with the military alliance this week, but an expert told The Local that full membership remains unlikely. READ  

Beggar hit in exhaust fume 'attack'
Exhaust fumes. Photo:Shutterstock.

Beggar hit in exhaust fume 'attack'

A beggar in southern Sweden was forced to flee in terror after she was enveloped with thick black smoke, part of an apparent attack that was captured on video and spread via social media. READ  

Elections 2014
Sweden opens the gates for election voting
Don't forget to vote. Photo:Shutterstock.

Sweden opens the gates for election voting

If you're busy on September the 14th, or simply can't wait to have your voice heard, Wednesday morning marked the opening of the polling booths for early-bird voters. READ  

Whooping cough alert after two infants die

Whooping cough alert after two infants die

The Swedish Public Health Agency has urged parents to be aware of the dangers of the infectious whooping cough disease after two babies have recently died from the illness. READ  

Chuck Berry wins 2014 Polar music prize
Chuck Berry performing in Oslo in 2007. Hakon Mosvold Larsen /Scanpix Norway

Chuck Berry wins 2014 Polar music prize

The Polar music prizes were handed out in Stockholm on Tuesday night, with Chuck Berry and theatre director Peter Sellars sharing one million kronor ($153,000) in prizes. READ  

Swedish store scraps high heels for toddlers
The shoes pictured are indeed the shoes in question. Photo: Joakim Loamotte/TT

Swedish store scraps high heels for toddlers

UPDATED: A social media storm has seen a supermarket chain recalling its heeled children's shoes. The man behind the storm says other countries could learn from how seriously Sweden takes equality. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Society
Meet the man who made a Swedish store recall its high heels for kids
Business & Money
'How I came to run my own business in Sweden'
Politics
Expert explains why Sweden's election oozes uncertainty
National
City plays Schindler's List theme at Nazi rally
Society
For Stockholm Fashion Week, here's the A-Z of Swedish fashion
Blog updates

25 August

Hit och dit, här och där (The Swedish Teacher) »

" Hej igen! A common challenge for Swedish language students are the location adverbs hit/här, dit/där, hem/hemma etc. Some of the location adverbs come in two versions. We should use one type of location adverb when we use a verb describes where we are, and we should use the other type of location adverb when we the verb..." READ »

 

25 August

The Dollar Store (Blogweiser) »

"A dollar store in Sweden. Blog post: http://t.co/tNuuvcP1q0 #USD #greenbacks #sweden #sverige pic.twitter.com/RHFAYf7U1k — Joel Sherwood (@joeldsherwood) August 23, 2014 There’s a chain here in Sweden called The DollarStore. This name always stood out to me in a country where they don’t use dollars. I went there for the first time this weekend. They actually accepted greenbacks..." READ »

 
 
 
National
'Amnesiac' man avoids deportation for ten years
Gallery
Princess Estelle through the years
Business & Money
Swedish city all set for six-hour workday trial
Business & Money
Five golden rules for the Swedish job hunt
Sponsored Article
Graduates: Insure your income in Sweden with AEA
Gallery
People-watching August 22-24
National
Armed royal guards caught (very) drunk on the job
National
Sweden orders textbook on Roma discrimination
Gallery
Violent anti-Nazi demonstrations in Malmö
Society
A closer look at Sweden's five official minority languages
Gallery
See the destruction from the southern Sweden floods
Politics
'Sweden Democrats hold the key to elections'
Society
Swedes celebrate first day of smelly fish season
Politics
Sweden elections: How do they work?
Finest.se
Gallery
People-watching August 20th
Society
Did you know the Bronx in NYC was named after a Swede?
Society
Swedes slam Danes for 'racist' art
National
Majority of Swedes favour more or just as many refugees
Sponsored Article
Find out what gives this Swedish school executive appeal
Society
This gold coin may be the key to solving a Swedish massacre
Skatteverket
Sponsored Article
Introducing... ID cards and permits in Stockholm
Sponsored Article
Introducing...Your finances in Stockholm
Sponsored Article
Introducing...Housing in Stockholm
Latest news from The Local in Austria

More news from Austria at thelocal.at

Latest news from The Local in Switzerland

More news from Switzerland at thelocal.ch

Latest news from The Local in Germany

More news from Germany at thelocal.de

Latest news from The Local in Denmark

More news from Denmark at thelocal.dk

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in France

More news from France at thelocal.fr

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

724
jobs available
Swedish Down Town Consulting & Productions
Swedish Down Town Consulting & Productions is an innovative business company which provides valuable assistance with the Swedish Authorities, Swedish language practice and general communications. Call 073-100 47 81 or visit:
www.swedishdowntown.com
PSD Media
PSD Media is marketing company that offers innovative solutions for online retailers. We provide modern solutions that help increase traffic and raise conversion. Visit our site at:
http://psdmedia.se