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The Swedish sex law that shook the world

Christine Demsteader · 16 Nov 2012, 10:29

Published: 16 Nov 2012 10:29 GMT+01:00

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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.

Story continues below…

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.”

Christine Demsteader (christine.demsteader@thelocal.com)

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Your comments about this article

12:08 November 16, 2012 by RobinHood
This would be the same Sweden in which 20 000 male prostitutes under 25 sold sex in 2012, and 186 children were trafficked for sexual purposes between 2009 and 2011. Those figures are just from this weeks The Local. They exclude male prostitutes over 25, and all female prostitutes of any age.

If that's a "success", I would hate to see what would be defined as a failure.
12:25 November 16, 2012 by Abe L
Isn't it nice to make something illegal and the problem moves abroad so you can claim your approach was successful and can sleep well at night?

The only solution to prostitution is to legalise it regulate it properly. And Sweden excels at regulation, so that shouldn't be a problem at all. If it's something that people want, then it's something they'll go out of their way for to get, even if it means driving over the border and getting it in a neighbouring country.

Legal prostitution leads to additional jobs, tax income, general business and lower rape figures. It only has POSITIVE aspects and the current Swedish law is a complete joke.
12:46 November 16, 2012 by smilingjack
once again - look at amsterdam. go for a walk around and pick up on the vibe. its such a relaxed place and that vibe given off by the residents flows to the tourists and visitors. legalised cannabis and prostitution.
13:15 November 16, 2012 by Kevin Harris
The comparison figures given to justify Sweden's law are exclusively for street prostitution. What happens when the huge numbers of prostitutes who ply their trade online in Sweden are included.

Driving prostitutes off the streets does not reduce the total amount of prostitutes. It only makes it seem that way. Sweden's apparent reduction is cosmetic and the law has failed to achieve the intended results.
13:15 November 16, 2012 by Boar
Wow Charming tourism. Want to attract tourists but they should stay here without having sex with anybody. Great adventure. One can remember whole life. There is no free lunch in this world.
15:14 November 16, 2012 by entry
15:45 November 16, 2012 by scubadoc
1999 I made all my purchases in the stores. Today I buy everything on internet. Sex can still be purchased and only a fool thinks otherwise. Politicians trying to prove their point fit this description
18:46 November 16, 2012 by philster61
Perhaps they should show the ten fold increase in rape. This criminalization of the sex trade not only is an invasion of personal privacy but also is an example of how Swedish authorities have no desire to respect individual rights....

Where are these 500 examples? Produce them and lets hear their evidence. As I will guarantee there would be thousands in the UK who are working of their own free will...no coercion and earning a lot of money....

What about disabled people? Do they not have any rights to sex? Lets face it in Sweden it you don't look even half Nordic you will not be a babe magnet.... Women here are not the sexually liberated babes you used to read about,Now they are uber feminist man haters who in spite of being the most privileged women on the planet still cry foul and hard done by.....

If a disabled man wished to have sex then he would automatically a criminal. This is the extant of the Swedish mindset towards it... It is NOT a model. It is an example of how far a socialist government is prepared to go to have total authority.
03:33 November 17, 2012 by DavidtheNorseman
"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."

Good laws get copied. The French are hardly prudes...
20:12 November 18, 2012 by peastuto
Only the trade of prostitution (the agencement) is a crime. Whatever exceeds this, is the interference of the State in the lives of individuals. In relation to sex, the needs of men and women are different. It's another bizarre Swedish law.
00:00 November 26, 2012 by Flygger
Anyone willing to pay for sex is sad.

Prostitutes are almost at the bottom rung of the ladder of humanity and do not deserve any human rights.

Before anyone decries me spend a couple of seconds in the real life to think of all the honest women who do not prostitute their bodies.

They may be poor but they are not vile creatures. Money ??

They can't live without resorting to this ?? How then do all the other women do this ?

Take them off the street and if they are being forced into prostitution.. Tell the authorities who are forcing them.

Any guy who uses there services is a criminal, able bodied or otherwise.

Birch the lot of them. Birch some morality into their worthless hinds.

Nuff said.
23:05 November 30, 2012 by mcarroll1
Why criminalise prostitution. I dont subscribe to it but it is wrong to criminalise the men only. If you want to go down the criminal road it should be equally a crime for the women and the men. Keeping it off the street is not a measure of success. I saw prostitutes everywhere in Stockholm from Ostermalm to Sodermalm and everywhere else. The bars and hotels are full of it not to mention online numbers to call. Spend the money on going after the traffickers and pimps who profit from the misery of these poor women and men who are trafficked and have no choice. The remainder choose to do it for a variety of other reasons but it is a choice at least.Just like the users it is not my choice but like the women who choose this life the men should perhaps have the right to choose to use the services provided also. The law in Sweden indicates the complete imbalance regarding women and men. What group is fighting for the rights of the 25000 to 50000 young men involved in prostitution. But I forgot they are men and are getting their just deserts for being men - right girls?
08:50 December 1, 2012 by hoboturkey
But I would ask why the hell do you want to pay for something you can get for free?"

Would someone tell me what is meant by that foolishness.
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