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Big claims, little evidence: Sweden's law against buying sex
Prostitute on Stockholm's Malmskillnadsgatan, December 1998

Big claims, little evidence: Sweden's law against buying sex

Published: 23 Jul 2010 13:36 GMT+02:00
Updated: 23 Jul 2010 13:36 GMT+02:00

A new review of Sweden's ban on buying sex has provided little hard evidence that the policy of prohibition has worked, writes Laura Agustín, but few politicians have dared to point out its obvious failings.

Every Swede knows that the famed law against buying sex – sexköpslagen – is a hot potato. Few politicians have commented one way or another on the evaluation of the law announced on 2 July, and only one government official claimed it proves the law is a success. Given that the report has been strongly criticised as empty of evidence and methodology but full of ideology in its very remit, debate has been curiously muted, even for the time of year.

At another period in history the sex-purchase law might have been considered a minor piece of legislation on a lesser social problem. Few people die, are maimed for life or lose their homes and jobs because of prostitution here; other threats to national security and happiness might seem more pressing.

But one feminist faction promotes the ideology that prostitutes are always, by definition, victims of violence against women. As victims, they can’t be criminals, so their side of the money-sex exchange is not penalised, whereas those who buy are perpetrators of a serious crime. This ideology, a minority view in other countries, predominates among Swedish State Feminists who claim that the existence of commercial sex is a key impediment to achieving gender equality. Such a dogma is odd, given the very small number of people engaged in selling sex in a welfare state that does not exclude them from its services and benefits. It is not illegal to sell sex in Sweden, just to buy it.

The evaluation leaned heavily on small-scale data about street prostitution, because that was the easiest to find. No one doubts that most street sex workers went somewhere else after the law came into effect, and no one knows where they went. But evaluators bolstered their case by claiming that street prostitution had increased in Denmark, where there is no such law, using information from a Copenhagen NGO whose inflated data was exposed in parliament last year. Street prostitution is known, in any case, to constitute a tiny, diminishing part of the whole of commercial sex.

The report confesses that ‘prostitution on the Internet’ was difficult to research but exhibits a poor understanding of the multiplicity of businesses, jobs and networks that characterise the sex industry. Asking police officials and social workers what they think is going on is no substitute for true research, and no academic studies pretend to know the extent of prostitution here. A government report from 2007 admitted it was difficult to find out much of anything about prostitution in Sweden.

The evaluation gives no account of how the research was actually carried out – its methodology - but is full of background material on Swedish history and why prostitution is bad. Only 14 sex workers were actually canvassed for their opinion of the law, seven of whom had already stopped selling sex. It is a rather pathetic display.

Several media commentators took the occasion to attack the law itself, since, despite regular government affirmations that the majority of Swedes support the law, opposition is fierce. In the blogosphere and other online forums, liberals, libertarians and non-conforming members of the main parties relentlessly resist a reductionist view of sexuality in which vulnerable women are forever threatened by predatory men.

But most politicians undoubtedly feel little good will come from complaining about legislation now symbolic of Mother Sweden. The Swedish Institute has turned the abolition of prostitution into part of the nation’s brand, what they call a ‘multi-faceted package to make Sweden attractive to the outside world.’ The SI, claiming to represent the most ‘socially liberal’ country on the planet, celebrates gender equality and gay love along with Ingmar Bergman, high technology and pine forests.

Sweden indisputably ranks high on several measures of gender equality, such as numbers of women who work outside the home, their salaries and length of parental leave. But other policies considered as part of gender equality are much harder to measure: cultural change, how people feel about sexual difference and, not least, the effect of a ban on buying sex. So it is hardly surprising that the government’s evaluation presents no evidence that relations between men and women have improved in Sweden because of the law. The evaluation’s main recommendation is to stiffen the punishment meted out to men who buy sex.

There was something new in Justice Minister Ask’s positioning of the law to the international media, however - a claim that it has been proved to combat organized crime, particularly the kind called sex trafficking. Citing no evidence, the report maintains there is less trafficking in Sweden because it is now ‘less attractive’ to traffickers.

Such naïve statements argue that without a demand for commercial sex there will be no supply, ignoring the complicated ways sex-money markets work in cultures with different concepts of family and love, reducing a wide range of sexual activities to an abstract notion of violence and brushing aside the many people who confirm that they prefer selling sex to their other livelihood options.

As for combating trafficking, there is no proof. Statistics continue to be a source of conflict in international debates, because different countries, institutions and researchers do not agree on what actually constitutes trafficking. It does not help that fundamentalist feminism refuses to accept the distinction between human trafficking and human smuggling linked to informal labour migration, as enshrined in the UN Convention on Organised Crime.

The Swedish government has proved nothing with this evaluation, and most Swedish politicians are keeping quiet, because they obviously know it.

Laura Agustín blogs on The Local about Sweden's prostitution laws

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Paul Rapacioli (paul.rapacioli@thelocal.com)

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Your comments about this article

18:09 July 23, 2010 by The Baldchemist
Jeez, what are the politicians gonna do while in the big smoke?
10:59 July 24, 2010 by Kevin Harris
And so, we seem to be stuck with a failed law, supported by a small group of vocal feminists, while a bunch of scared PC politicians stick their head in the sand.

Meanwhile trafficking goes on in Sweden, and there is no meaningful attempt to stop it, by legislation or policework, for fear of exposing the deficiencies with sexköpslagen.

Anyone else who supports or tolerates the current legislation, should be ashamed of themselves. Young girls are going through hell and you are letting it happen. Wake up and speak up you cowards.
11:26 July 24, 2010 by Vidyadhara
^ this guy: lol
14:04 July 24, 2010 by RobinHood
It's a shame politicians and other people won't discuss this issue in a grown up way. Trafficking is nothing short of slavery, and considering what the victims are made to do, probably worse.
10:41 July 25, 2010 by countrysidedrive
As a man I love women. But to have sex with someone who has sex with everything I find extremely gross. Men who pay for it are gross and need to have their behavior changed. Women who let every gross guy give it to them are also gross and need to have their behavior changed. Both are at fault. But pimps should be given a very harsh punishment.
14:46 July 26, 2010 by AussieAndy
First I would like to congratulate you Laura on a well written article. You have touched on many aspects on keeping prostitution illegal.

Coming from a country that has legalised prostitution I really find it hard to believe why there is such is a fuss about making it legal. Well framed laws and policing help keep out the illegal activities and proved a safer working environment for the workers & clients. Of course each country & society need to find the model that best suits them.

Unfortunately the debate of legalising prostitution gets hijacked by everyone and leaves those working in the area worse of. In reality prostitution will always exist, legal or illegal. The illegal model always makes it worse for everyone and society.
18:57 July 26, 2010 by eZee.se
Never bought sex, dont intend to either but... my views:

Make it legal for both men and women,

punish the pimps (make it illegal) as they are the ones who actually make the "workers" lives miserable and exploit the workers the most.

And finally:

.

.

.

Shove a grapefruit in the mouths of those stupid vocal feminists or give them a couple of bananas and tell them to STFU.
00:01 July 30, 2010 by Coalbanks
Sex for Sale or Rent! Less Ideology, More Biology! But let's hang the pimps who force women/boys into the business & the drug dealers who are also at the root of this & other societal ills.
02:35 July 30, 2010 by anacmduarte
Addressing at this paragraph of the news: "Few people die, are maimed for life or lose their homes and jobs because of prostitution here; other threats to national security and happiness might seem more pressing". Do you really believe these are the only problems with having prostitution legalized (or even accepted in a country? What about diseases like AIDS and so on? If you are a wife, a mother and your husband doesn´t have a sense of responsibility, do you find it fair to end up with AIDS just because he likes to "attend" prostitutes? And even worse...that it is completely legal?Where do you stand?And where does your family stand?Just think about that in a socially responsible perspective.
19:20 July 31, 2010 by Jimk
No worry Swedes have the still the largest famous reputation of sex consumption with young Thai girl prostitutes...

Can hardly miss them at the airport! Good wordwide advertisement on Swedish policy!
23:30 July 31, 2010 by Taxalien
...but slavery is not banned in Sweden...

If you need an argument for keeping the ban read

http://politisktinkorrekt.info/wp-content/plugins/download-monitor/download.php?id=76

Of course the ban doesn't work....prostitution is rampant in Sweden. The only reason they have this law is because without it, it would be so obvious to everyone.

Everyone in Sweden is a kept taxation slave and some are getting desperate to earn money anyway they can. That is why it is now so common.
00:46 August 1, 2010 by commenting
Commercial sex has been there, is there, and will be there for two reasons: Sex and Money, these are needs, even if only gross takes it. with modern society, efficiency addes to it, wandering the arguments
04:22 August 2, 2010 by hogwort
Pimps wouldn't have a market for prostitution if men didn't have a NEED for sex in the first place. It's this need the culprit of these prostitution issues and of something tremendously worse: rape.

Any questions?
21:00 August 3, 2010 by Nomadhund
Since some people here have found the root problem is "NEED". What shall the feminists do next? ;-)

Every "NEEDY" is a potential criminal.

Remove the "NEED"? :-O D:
20:38 August 6, 2010 by popeye1250
Another stupid "law" that can't be enforced and that noone "obeys" anyway!

Legalize it!

That way you could have "state sanctioned" houses with staff and inspectors and do away with the pimps and traffickers that cause all the problems!

And, ...TAX it! Look at the tens or hundreds of millions that could be made to make life better for everyone! They could start retiremen/investmentt accounts for all the employees, prostitutes, staff, inspectors.

You're talking about a tremendous amount of money!

*How much money is the state making from prostitution now?* Nothing!

If it's managed the right way it can be good for all. No matter what it will go on anyway, why not make it a *positive* thing for all of society?

Tak
06:16 August 7, 2010 by scorpion69
I am an Australian male. I have been to sex workers and I am not ashamed. However I do not pick up sex workers on the street nor nowadays at a brothel. I now only go to sex workers who operate from their home or at a motel with another lady. I think prostitution should be regulated and licensed. Sweden's law will drive the profession underground. The situation of client and sex worker is not always simply one of male exploitation of females. There are a number of not insignificant variables including female clients of female sex worker. In Sydney there are number of lesbian brothels and escort agencies. There are also a large number of female sex workers who will only have sex with women or if she is engaged in a threesome with a male and female client.. In addition there are also examples of say a middle aged women who might want to treat herself to a young man for a sensuous massage followed by sex. Also consider the scenario of a wife wanting to give her husband a treat by inviting another woman into their relationship for a threesome as an one off or regular occurrence. Certainly assist those women who want to get out of prostitution, ensure there are tough penalties fo sex slavery etc.
13:49 August 7, 2010 by MorbidMiss
Legalize it, allow for "guilds/unions", make clients register for a "license" to use the services. To get a license one must be regularly tested at an on-site doctor, be of appropriate age and pay a fee such as for driving license.

Then make pimping illegal.
11:06 August 9, 2010 by scorpion69
I also think it is a good idea to require a client to be licensed. Regulation and licensing of prostitution should include both clients and sex workers being required to undergo appropiate health checks e.g. client cannot engage the services of a prostitute unless he has within the last month got a medical check up and has no serious record including violence and the prostitute has to undergo a check up [which include every 6 months a psychological assessment] every 2 months. Such medical check ups will include tests for drugs. Sex workers must not operate their businesses in residential areas, be at least 300 metres away from a church or school. Clients must show suitable ID such as a drivers licence before they engage a sex worker and the sex worker . Such measues will also help the tax department to ensure that sex workers make full disclosure of their incomes.
15:35 August 16, 2010 by unhappy camper of the saints
This reminds me of the de-criminalization of marijuana in some parts of the USA, i.e. under 28 grams - no penalty, over 28 grams maybe a penalty, over a kilo maybe prison. Those are rough numbers. The point is this if one "knowing" party to a transaction is innocent then the other , buyer or seller should be as well regardless of gender or size of contraband. I also wonder how feminists explain male whores.
05:51 August 19, 2010 by scorpion69
Yes. But how do you categorise sex. Is body to body massage sex. Some feminists might think it innocuous for 2 women to engage in such practice and one pays for it but not when a man and a woman is involved where the man is the client
23:37 February 11, 2011 by observer3
I agree with the article.lot of heat and no light in the arguments for criminalisation

In Australia prostitution is legal.Brothels must only be in council approved zones.Local residents can object but not veto.

I remind people of the effect of criminalising alcohol in the Usa and even Australia in the 1920's. All it produced was empowerment of criminals-making them wealthy and powerful/violent and corrupting some police.Now alcohol is regulated taxed hours of sales controlled ,licences required and selling alcohol to drunk people or underage is illegal.Public education then helps people to seek help for alcohol addiction.Due to deaths there are severe penalties for drink driving.

It is now the turn of other drugs to be criminalised.And we see the same problems

The sex industry relies on the fact that men have a natural desire for sex beyond what they have in formal relationships (including being single ,incapacitated or otherwise unattractive to women).Many customers are simply ordinary married men.

Under the old laws in Australia when sex was criminalised

police used to raid brothels, fine women and brothel owners

or even become brothel protectors for a price.

The rights of such women were few and were an underclass subject to violence and mistreatment by the pimps and any maladjusted man.

Now these women have the same rights as any citizen ,use safe sex practices ,often finance their education by this means and are not doing it for some drug addiction or to pay back onerous loans (unlike other countries such as Thailand).

The embarrassing issue polarises religious groups.Often legislation is face saving by politicians.End result the "laws" are honoured in the breach but look good politically.What a waste of time ,police work and courts.

Sex trafficking will always occur -it just goes underground

the illegality tends simply to force up the price.Legal and Police action here would do the most good.These women are subjugated promised high incomes only to find they are deceived in their new country and because of the illegality have no legal recourse even if they did know their rights.
23:16 October 13, 2011 by Douglas Fox
Just a couple of things:

The odd hatred of pimps? What is meant by a pimp?

The term seems to cover a wide spectrum and really has nothing to do with what sex workers refer to as managers or those they employ to represent them just as many self employed people employ a third party to do work they do not want to/ are unable to do.

This systematic hatred of men as clients is also weird. Denying women the right to consent while demonising men as abusers is a weird notion of gender equality. It is a notion that somehow ignores women who buy sex and men who sell sex to both women and men.

I think the Swedish law has little to to do with equality or protecting women but rather conforming ignorance and prejudice within the justice system.
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