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The Swedish sex law that shook the world

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The Swedish sex law that shook the world
Photo: Joshua Rindner (File)
10:29 CET+01:00
Sweden had long pimped the notion of criminalizing buyers of sexual services prior to 1999 legislation which was first laughed off, but has since become a hot political export, The Local's Christine Demsteader discovers.

Backbench giggles and front row guffaws echoed around the European Parliament when Marianne Eriksson first proposed the concept of criminalizing those who pay for sex.

The then MEP, representing Sweden's Left Party, brought the matter to the attention of her peers in the mid-1990s.

“There wasn't usually so much to smile about in plenary,” she tells The Local.

“People thought it was hilarious and afterwards journalists asked me how it felt to be ridiculed. But, as the expression goes, I would have the last laugh.”

Prohibition for buyers had been on the political agenda in Sweden for some time, as far back as the 1970s.

It was seen as a culture shock to commentators who referred to the country's swinging 60s reputation when the term “Swedish Sin” became synonymous with free love and sexual liberty.

“All through history prostitution has been solely about women, but we turned it on its head," Eriksson adds.

“Responsibility remains with those who demand because they are the ones that really have a free choice. To buy or not to buy - that is the question. But I would ask why the hell do you want to pay for something you can get for free?”

Sweden's feminist movement agreed and backed the introduction of the law in terms of tackling violence against women. In 1999, the Purchasing of Sexual Services Act came into effect.

“We shocked the world by adopting this law,” Eriksson says.

An initial sum of 8 million kronor ($1.2 million) was injected into enforcement that, according to a government-commissioned report published in 2010, has resulted in reducing the number of streetwalkers in the bigger cities by half.

The 2010 report, “The Ban against the Purchase of Sexual Services: An evaluation 1999-2008” draws on a comparison of the three capitals in Denmark, Norway and Sweden, all of which had a similar scale of street prostitution prior to 1999.

By 2008, nearly a decade after Sweden criminalized the buying of sex, the number of street prostitutes in both Norway and Denmark was estimated to be three times higher than in Sweden.

”In light of the great economic and social similarities that exist among these three countries, it is reasonable to assume that the reduction in street prostitution in Sweden is a direct result of criminalization,” the report states.

The report continues to note that when Norway followed Sweden in becoming the second country to prohibit the purchase of sexual services in 2009, street prostitution reduced dramatically.

Iceland followed suit the same year.

While the law has won praise in Sweden and sparked interest from other countries, it's efficacy remains in up for debate.

In conjunction with the publication of the 2010 report, Swedish public radio reported that out of the 650 people who had so far been convicted under the Sexual Purchase Act, none had been sent to prison.

Meanwhile some critics have argued that Sweden's anti-prostitution law has simply pushed the worst of the problem off the streets and online.

However, Kajsa Wahlberg, the Swedish Police's National Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings, disagrees.

“You can't drive prostitution underground because the whole idea with selling women for sexual services is for the buyers to find them,” she explains.

"If the buyers can find the women and prostitution, the police can too. It's a matter of priorities if the police want to or not."

In addition, the relevance of the law in connection with street prostitution has taken something of a turn since 1999, as European borders have been broken down and legislation is now largely used to tackle human trafficking for sexual exploitation - a much more complex, organized and international operation.

“Pimps think of Sweden as a bad market for trafficking activities,” says Wahlberg.

“We speak to women who say traffickers complain about the market - buyers are very afraid of being caught and want things to run very smoothly.

“We cannot reduce demand totally but we fare better than other Nordic countries when it comes to statistics.”

While assessing the law's success from a statistical standpoint may be difficult within the clandestine depths of the sex industry, what is crystal clear is that this single Swedish law has captured attention from all corners of the globe.

“I could not foresee the interest in this legislation,” Walhberg adds.

"Journalists, parliamentarians and law enforcement agencies still contact the Swedish police still on a weekly basis."

Financial resources have also been ploughed into arranging seminars abroad in conjunction with Swedish embassies.

Still, so far only two countries have followed Sweden's lead in the 13 years since the controversial law was introduced, which Wahlberg admits is “disappointing.”

“There are discussions in many countries right now and I will continue to fight for this because it's the only way to go,” she adds.

This year has seen a surge in renewed interest from a number of European countries.

In Northern Ireland, member of the Legislative Assembly Lord Morrow from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) included the suggestion in a private member's bill on human trafficking.

Impressed with what he saw after a visit to Sweden he commented in a statement:

”The police have intercepted calls between traffickers saying, ‘Don't bother sending women to Sweden. There's no point.'”

A proposal has been backed by a majority in the French Parliament after politicians compared the Swedish model with attempts to regulate the sex industry in the Netherlands.

Meanwhile, Finland's Justice Minister Anna-Maja Henriksson is currently pushing for an anti-prostitution law similar to Sweden's.

Both Finland and UK law currently prohibit buying sex from victims of pimping or human trafficking.

“We fought tooth and nail and said there's no way to prove a woman has been coerced,” said Anne Dannerolle, co-founder and chair of trustees of the Lighthouse Project, which has been working with prostitutes in Hull, northern England for the past 16 years.

During that time, and as part of her involvement within the UK-wide charity Beyond The Streets, Dannerolle has met around 500 women and has campaigned in favour of the Swedish law.

“Not a single one of those women wanted to be there,” she adds.

“They're all trapped through violence, coercion, exploitation. What is inspiring with the Swedish legislation is that it actually decriminalizes the women.”

According to Dannerolle, part of the UK's reluctance involves a pro-prostitution lobby of feminists that hold conflicting views from their Swedish peers.

“Here, the feminist view is that women have a right to choose, but the reality is that women aren't choosing prostitution, they are being forced into it," she argues.

"In Sweden, instead of labelling these women are criminals – they are understood as victims and for a long time Sweden was the only place in the world prepared to do this.”

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