The Swedish Approach to Prostitution, Part I

For the past eleven years, Sweden has taken a unique approach to prostitution.  In 1999, the Swedish government passed a law making it a crime to pay for sex.  The selling of sex remains legal but people who pay for sex are charged with a crime.

The Swedish perception of prostitution as an aspect of male violence against women and children led to this unique approach to the issue.  The Swedish government “officially acknowledged [prostitution] as a form of exploitation of women and children and…a significant social problem,” saying that gender equality would remain “unattainable as long as men buy, sell and exploit women and children by prostituting them.”  By making it illegal to pay for sex, Sweden targeted the demand side of the commercial sex industry.

How is it working in Sweden?

Initially, there were very few arrests because police officers were reluctant to arrest people. Once the officers received in-depth training, however, things quickly changed.   A study conducted in 2004, just five years after the legislation came into force, found that Swedish brothels and massage parlors had disappeared, and street prostitution had been reduced by two thirds.   An article published in Sweden’s The Local newspaper in 2008 noted that Stockholm no longer has a red light district, and law enforcement officials now express strong support for the law because it has allowed them to tackle organized crime, which is often associated with prostitution.

Some supporters don’t feel the law goes far enough.  The law allows for men to be fined and serve up to six months in jail but as of 2008, no man had gone to jail and only 500 men (50 per year) had been convicted and fined.  Several legislators want tougher penalties and are calling for “more teeth” in the law.  This is concerning for anti-trafficking advocates who see victims of sex trafficking mixed with the victims of prostitution in practice.  Men who buy sex from a trafficking victim should be subject to much steeper penalties and the victim rescued and provided restorative services.

Some opponents criticize the law for failing to take into account sex workers’ opinions on this issue.  Some sex workers’ organizations believe women have a right to choose prostitution as a life and work choice, and they resent the government’s interference in this business of prostitution.  Other opponents say that Sweden’s law hasn’t really reduced demand but has simply pushed prostitution underground – onto the Internet and into women’s homes­- making it more dangerous for prostitutes.

Regardless of the debate, a recent study showed that support remains high among the Swedish people, with 80% continuing to support the legislation.  Other countries, including Finland, Norway, Scotland and Britain have been influenced by Sweden’s approach, considering or passing legislation that makes it illegal to pay for sex.

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